The National Catholic Review

The Jesuit John Dear once asked God for a sign. Not only did he ask for a sign, he gave God a timetable: right now. Heaven apparently was shaken. The sign was granted immediately. On the spot. Dear was 21 at the time and only weeks away from entering the Society of Jesus.

Dear felt the best way to prepare for his entry into the novitiate in Wernersville, Pa., would be to make a retreat in the Holy Land. What he hadn’t foreseen was that his plan for five weeks of quiet prayer in the Holy Land coincided with Israel’s decision to invade Lebanon. The war that was suddenly to erupt around him upon his arrival was to shape forever his true calling in life: peacemaking, with a passionate dedication to practicing and promoting nonviolence.

He found his favorite place for prayer at the Chapel of the Eight Beatitudes, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. There he spent hours reading and meditating on the Scriptures, with special attention to the Sermon on the Mount. His last visit to the chapel turned out to be decisive. He sat there alone reading the words written on the windows: the Beatitudes, one on each of the eight windows. Suddenly the words jumped out at him, penetrated him as never before: I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. God makes God’s sun rise on the bad and the good. Be compassionate as your heavenly God is compassionate.

Then Dear walked out of the chapel onto the balcony, looked up at the sky and said aloud: Are you trying to tell me something, God? Do you want even me to become a peacemaker, to hunger and thirst for justice, to love my enemies? Still looking skyward, he promised God he would live by the Beatitudes and pursue a life of peaceif you give me a sign!

No sooner were the words out of his mouth when, with sonic boom, two Israeli jets swooped down from the sky and headed straight toward him. They were dropping bombs along the Israel-Lebanon border. Dear accepted this as the sign he requested, resolving at that moment to dedicate the rest of his life to promoting peace and justice.

The rest of the book records how John Dear kept his promiseand the price he has paid. His interest in nonviolence led him to probe deeply the life and writings of great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., whom he quotes throughout the book, as well as the writings of Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Dorothy Day, the witness of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and the work of Mother Teresa. It was these persons in particular who taught him the importance of prayer, rigorous self-discipline, love of enemy and forgiveness, while resisting evil and practicing civil disobedience.

Dear also stresses how important it is for peacemakers to be signs of peace themselves, and to maintain disciplines without which an authentic witness to peace is hardly possible. These are the disciplines of solitude, silence, listening, letting go, intimate prayer and mindfulness. Of the first, he writes:

Solitude plucks us out of the world’s frenzy and centers us in nonviolence. Solitude silences the loud voices within us to allow the still, small voice of God to speak. Solitude gives God the time and space to disarm our inner wars.

While he prayed and fasted regularly, Dear also took seriously the example of leaders like Gandhi and Dr. King to practice civil disobedience as a means of protesting the continuing buildup of nuclear weapons in the United States in preparation for war. His forays with his friends onto restricted areas of military bases make interesting reading indeed. It was his trespass on Dec. 7, 1993, with three friends onto the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, N.C., that quickly landed him in jail to serve a term of eight and a half months of imprisonment.

This episode provides an interesting and revealing glimpse into the way freedom of speech works in federal court. Dear recounts:

At this first trial we were issued an in limine motion by the judge and the federal prosecutor working together, stating that we were not allowed to discuss any of the following items: the U.S. military; nuclear weapons; international law; the Nuremberg Principles; the Necessity Defense; the U.S. government; the crimes committed by the military at the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and other U.S. military bases; war crimes committed by the military bases; war crimes committed by the U.S. government; U.S. government foreign or domestic policies; the Bible, theology, philosophy, divine law, or natural law; and God. Other than that, you can say whatever you like! we were told.

When Dear and his companions stood up to protest, they were immediately found in contempt of court. As a result, the judge ordered them returned to jail.

A passage in the Second Book of Maccabees (7:3-10) relates how dissenters were treated by the highest government authoritiesthey had their tongues cut out. It seems the greatest threat to sovereign authorities on earth is for subjects to name a higher authority above the earth. Any such claim is labeled subversive. The etymology of the word means literally to turn from beneath, which is to say overturn or overthrow. After reading the account of the federal government’s treatment of John Dear and his friends in court, something impish in me wants to say: Do something subversive: read Dear’s book, Living Peace. Better yet, send a copy to your representative in Congress.

Robert Durback, a freelance writer in Fairview Park, Ohio, is editor of Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader and a contributor to The Lay Contemplative: Testimonies, Perspectives, Resources.