Francis Stratmann: ‘The souls of the well-intentioned’

I had a wonderful Skype interview with Jim Forest this morning. It’s great to be able to see one another’s faces, laughter, tears, and even a pesky sleek feline who likes to sit on Jim’s lap.

In the course of our conversation he mentioned a German Catholic priest who was head of the German Catholic Peace Union in the 1930s and wrote a significant book, War and Christianity Today. His name was Francis Stratmann, OP.

In learning more about Stratmann, I came across an excerpt from a letter he wrote on April 10, 1933, to Cardinal Faulhaber. This was less than a month after the German Catholic bishops had accepted the legitimacy of the National Socialist government and rescinded their mandate that Catholics could not support National Socialism.

“The souls of the well-intentioned are deflated by the National Socialist seizure of power, and I speak nothing but the truth when I say that the bishops’ authority is weakened among countless Catholics and non-Catholics because of their quasi-approbation of the National Socialist movement.”–Francis Stratmann, OP, to Cardinal Faulhaber in Munich (April 10, 1933) [from Catholic Theologians in Nazi Germany, by Robert Krieg]

Stratmann’s German Catholic Peace Union was banned in July 1931 when their offices were raided by 26 men and Stratmann and others had to flee the country. Gordon Zahn’s German Catholics and Hitler’s War tells this story well.

I was struck to my heart’s core at reading this. Our souls are indeed “deflated” by the current “seizure of power.”–Rose Berger

Wendy Clarissa Geiger: Merton & Gandhi – Two Ways of Being Born Again

Friend Wendy Clarissa Geiger in Jacksonville, Fl.
Friend Wendy Clarissa Geiger in Jacksonville, Fl.

I’m honored to be on the receiving end of epistles from Quaker Friend Wendy Clarissa Geiger, peacemaker, poet, planter, and purveyor of historical memory, who roots herself on her family farm near Jacksonville, Florida. Here is her note from yesterday:

… Friday, January 30th, 2015, is the anniversary of M.K. Gandhi’s assassination at the age of 78 in New Delhi, India, in 1948. “He became much more than there was time for him to be” is a line Vincent Harding was very fond of quoting regarding Martin Luther King Jr. Although it is from a Robert Hayden poem about Malcolm X, the line could, also, describe Thomas Merton whose 100th birthday is [January 31]. M.K. Gandhi wrote: “God is Truth.”

For some reason, this 100th birthday of Thomas Merton is celebrated with great silent exuberance within me. I delight in its significance for being rather insignificant in the scheme of things as angels pause, trees bow. And, I bow and pause at the enormousness of one life lived so completely written out on paper that I giggle at the truth of Jim Forest’s words about Merton that appeared in a “Fellowship” magazine quoted in PEACE IS THE WAY, edited by Walter Wink: “Merton was a writer. He could not scratch his nose without writing about it.”

And, so, today’s offering about Truth and Beauty brings a chuckle. “The Philosophers” was written by Thomas Merton in 1940-42 and is published on page 145 of IN THE DARK BEFORE DAWN – NEW SELECTED POEMS OF THOMAS MERTON, with preface by Kathleen Norris and edited by Lynn R. Szabo.

“The Philosophers”
by Thomas Merton

As I lay sleeping in the park,
Buried in the earth,
Waiting for the Easter rains
To drench me in their mirth
And crown my seedtime with some sap and growth,

Into the tunnels of my ears
Two anaesthetic voices came.
Two mandrakes were discussing life
And Truth and Beauty in the other room.

“Body is truth, truth body. Fat is all
We grow on earth, or all we breed to grow.”
Said one mandrake to the other.
Then I heard his brother:
“Beauty is troops, troops beauty. Dead is all
We grow on earth, or all we breed to grow.”

As I lay dreaming in the earth,
Enfolded in my future leaves,
My rest was broken by these mandrakes
Bitterly arguing in their frozen graves.

Teresa of Avila: ‘Prayer is Dynamic’

Sculpture of Teresa in Avila, Spain (photo by Jim Forest)

October 15 is the feastday of Teresa of Avila, mystic, philosopher, author, reformer, and saint.

In 1970, Pope Paul VI awarded Teresa and Catherine of Siena the distinction Doctors of the Church, making them the first women to be so named.

“Prayer is not just spending time with God … If it ends there, it is fruitless. No, prayer is dynamic. Authentic prayer changes us–unmasks us.”Teresa of Avila

Benedictine Joan Chittister offers a wonderful reflection on prayer for this feastday:

To wait for God does not mean that there is nothing else for me to do in the spiritual life than pray. Prayer is not a cocoon. We do not simply go into prayer and hope to come out on the other end of the exercise fully grown in the Spirit, perfectly new, totally finished. All dross removed. All rust scoured. The soul burnished. The heart refurbished. The soul bright and radiant. The mind clear and certain.

Not at all. There is too much of us in us to ever disappear. Nor is it meant to. No, the function of prayer is not to obliviate the self. It is to become to the utmost what we are meant to be no matter what situation we are in. Prayer is the process that leads us to become what Jesus models for us to be.

To pray does not mean that we will cease to be ourselves. It simply means that we will come to know clearly what it will take to become more of the Jesus figure we are all meant to be.

We watch Jesus confront the leaders of the day. He calls the priests and Pharisees to cleanse the temple and lift from the backs of the people the laws of the synagogue that burden them. He calls the leaders of the state to stop living off the backs of the poor. And he calls us to do the same.

Being immersed in prayer, really immersed in prayer, sears our souls. It forces us to see how far from our own ideals we stand. It challenges the images of goodness and piety and integrity we project. It confronts us with what it really means to live a good life. It requires courage of us rather than simply piety.

It is in following Jesus down from the mountaintop, along the roads of the world, through the public parts of the city, into the ghettoes of the poor and the halls of government and the chanceries of the churches, saying with John the Baptist, “Repent and sin no more” that prayer gets its hallmark of undisputed credibility.–Joan Chittister, OSB

Excerpted from The Breath of the Soul by Joan Chittister

Whose ‘Filthy, Rotten System’?

Feb. 18, 1970, edition of National Catholic Reporter (NCR photo/Toni-Ann Ortiz)
Brian Terrell has a great column in the National Catholic Reporter (April 16, 2012) tracing the origin of one of Dorothy Day’s most famous phrases: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” And he found a surprise! The Occupy Movement has taken up Dorothy’s phrase as one of their slogans to indict an unjust economic system. But for people of faith, we need to dig a little deeper into Dorothy’s original intent. Here’s an excerpt from Brian’s piece:

My efforts to find the origins of this quote were inconclusive. The archivist for the Catholic Worker papers at Marquette University, Phil Runkel, could find no reference to the quote earlier than the poster itself, which was published by WIN magazine in 1973.

One of Dorothy’s biographers, Jim Forest, did a search of the word rotten and found this in a column by Dorothy from 1956: “We need to change the system. We need to overthrow, not the government, as the authorities are always accusing the Communists of conspiring to teach to do, but this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.”

Tom Cornell, former managing editor of The Catholic Worker, offered a promising lead: “My clear recollection is that [Day] said these words in an interview in the offices of theNational Catholic Reporter in Kansas City, that she did not expect to be quoted, and that when she saw the words in print she was offended to be quoted using language which she considered vulgar and crude.”

By this time, though, I was tired of the whole matter and gave it up.

The ringing denunciation of the filthy, rotten system as the source of our problems could not be quieted, though, whatever its origins. In the intervening years, as if doubts cast on its authenticity breathed new life into it, scholars and Workers alike used the quote more than ever, attributing Dorothy’s authority to it without question. In the last few months, moreover, the analysis that “our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system” has found resonance in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Encouraged by images of hand-lettered placards attributing this scathing critique of the system to Dorothy Day popping up at Occupy encampments, I decided to renew my search of its genesis and forwarded Tom’s recollection to a friend on the staff of NCR, Joshua McElwee.

Joshua found the interview Tom remembered in NCR’s Feb. 18, 1970, issue, in which the editors interviewed Dorothy and writer Gary MacEoin and presented their conversation as a Lenten reflection under the headline “Money and the middle-class Christian.”

The editors put a large box in the body of this article with a subhead proclaiming in large, bold type: “Dorothy Day: Our problems stem from the acceptance of this lousy, rotten system.”

Here, I am convinced, is the “smoking gun”! …

Read Brian’s whole article.

Teresa of Avila: Is Prayer Just ‘Spending Time with God’?

Sculpture of Teresa in Avila, Spain.

I was drinking my coffee this morning at the local coffee shop while reading the daily lectionary. Along with Matthew 13–where the disciples beg Jesus to let them peek at the answers at the back of the book (“Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”)–there was this confounding quote from Teresa of Avila. Five hundred years later and she’s still able to make me set down my coffee in surprise!

“Prayer is not just spending time with God. It is partly that–but if it ends there, it is fruitless. No, prayer is dynamic. Authentic prayer changes us–unmasks us–strips us–indicates where growth is needed. Authentic prayer never leads to complacency, but needles us–makes us uneasy at times. It leads us to true self-knowledge, to true humility.”–Teresa of Avila

For a delightful short video series on the life of Teresa of Avila, check out Sister Donna on YouTube.

Merton versus The Bomb

thom41Catholic monk, mystic, writer, and justice advocate was very concerned about the rise of atomic weapons. In 1962 he wrote a book called Peace in the Post-Christian Era addressing the immorality of nuclear weapons. He was forbidden from publishing it by his order’s abbot. It wasn’t published until 2004 and has a wonderful foreword by Jim Forest.

Below is an excerpt from Merton to French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain on the topic.

[To Jacques Maritain, Feb, 1963] I do not want to bother you with a multitude of things of mine, but I am putting into the mail a mimeographed copy of my “unpublishable” book on “Peace in the Post Christian Era.” Unpublishable because forbidden by our upright and upstanding Abbot General who does not want to leave Christian civilization without the bomb to crown its history of honor. He says that my defense of peace “fausserait le message de la vie contemplative” [would falsify the message of the contemplative life]. The fact that a monk should be concerned about this issue is thought-by “good monks”-to be scandalous. A hateful distraction, withdrawing one’s mind from Baby Jesus in the Crib. Strange to say, no one seems concerned at the fact that the crib is directly under the bomb.–Thomas Merton

From The Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers, edited by Christine M. Bochen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993, p. 36)

Letters and Writings from Prison

jagerstatterorbisFranz Jagerstatter: Letters and Writings from Prison, edited and translated by Austrian theologian Erna Putz, has just been released by Orbis Books. This collection of writings by the Catholic Nazi resister Jagerstatter represents the first time his writings have been translated into English.

Jagerstatter was executed in 1943 for refusing to serve in the Nazi army. Before taking this stand he had consulted both his pastor and his local bishop, who instructed him to do his duty and to obey the law–an instruction that violated his conscience.

For many years Jagerstatter’s solitary witness was honored by the Catholic peace movement – his story saved from oblivion by Gordon Zahn who wrote about it in In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jagerstatter.

Now, with his beatification in 2007  (read my column On Becoming a Christian about Jagerstatter’s beatification), his example has been embraced by the universal church. He stands as one of the great martyrs of our time.

An introduction by Jim Forest, founder of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, sets these writings in the context of Franz’s life and times, and draws out their meaning for today. Here’s an excerpt from Jim’s introduction:

Franz Jägerstätter was one of the least likely persons to question the justifications for war being announced daily by those in charge or to say to no to the demands of his government. What did he know? And, for that matter, who would care about his perceptions? He was only a farmer. He had never been to a university or theological school. His formal education had occurred entirely in a one-room schoolhouse. Though active in his parish, which he served as sexton, he was not a person whose name would ring a bell for his bishop. No priest or bishop or theologian, no matter how critical of Nazi doctrine, was announcing it was a sin to obey the commands of the Hitler regime when it came to war. So far as he knew none of his fellow Catholics in Austria, even those who openly disagreed with Nazi ideology, had failed to report for military duty when the notice came.

How could so unimportant a person dare to have such important convictions? How could a humble Catholic farmer imagine he had a clearer conscience than those who led the Church in his homeland? And, in any event, didn’t his responsibility to his wife and children have priority over his views about war and government?

Read Jim’s full introduction here.