Martin Sheen "My Journey to Peace" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. Each week, we endeavor to bring you a new interview with someone who’s been deeply influenced by the writings of Henri Nouwen, and someone with a living faith that guides their life and work. We invite you to share the daily meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them, we can continue to introduce new audiences to the writings and the teachings of Henri Nouwen. And we can remind each listener that they are a beloved child of God.
Now, let me take a moment to introduce today’s guest. I am absolutely thrilled to welcome to Henri Nouwen, Now and Then, Martin Sheen. Most of you are familiar with Martin for his many years of work on stage, on screen and on television, for which he’s won much deserved acclaim and many awards and nominations. But what you may not know about my guest, is that he has a long commitment to peace and is a vocal advocate for equity and justice. As an activist, he’s been arrested over 60 times for nonviolent acts of civil disobedience. What’s most interesting to the listeners of this podcast, I’m sure, is that Martin is a man of strong Christian faith – a faith that fuels and guides his life.
Martin, welcome to our Henri Nouwen podcast. It’s a delight to have you join us.
Martin Sheen: Hi! How are you?
Karen Pascal: I’m so delighted to have this opportunity to talk with you. I’m very grateful that you said yes. How kind of you.
Martin Sheen: Well, how could I not with your lovely invitation? So, you know, I reread the book, and just finished it last night, as a matter of fact. It’s quite extraordinary. I’d forgotten the depth of his involvement in that painting, and how it responded to the reality of his life.
Karen Pascal: We’re talking about The Return of the Prodigal Son, and I’m delighted that it had such an impact on you. But you know, what I think was amazing about it was Henri really portrayed all three characters so wonderfully, didn’t he? Where do you see yourself in all of this?
Martin Sheen: Well, you know, I’ve always seen myself as the prodigal. That’s really the easiest one to identify with, you know, my reckless youth. And I came to understand the brother, although I was never quite able to accept him like Henri; he couldn’t see himself as the brother. And when he finally came around to it, he realized that the triangle led to the father and that we are all called to be father or mother, father, and mother are one, really. And so, you know, now at my age, yeah, clearly, I see the father and grandfather and great-grandfather.
Karen Pascal: Well, you know, what is so wonderful about it is that for Henri it brought healing to him, because he’d had a difficult relationship, I think, with his own father. And in beginning to understand that he was called to be the father and was called to welcome home, he could also love and forgive his own father, I think, in that process.
Martin Sheen: Yes. In fact, you know, I think that was why he dedicated the book to him.
Karen Pascal: Yes. Yeah, exactly. It’s interesting. He waited for a few years to give it to him. He gave it to him on his birthday, but it’s wonderful, isn’t it? There’s something in it for all of us. And it is a classic. It is one of my very favorites. Now, I understand that you were raised Catholic, but you left the church and you turned around and how did that happen in your life?
Martin Sheen: Oh, well, I became an actor. That’s the whole story. You know that old joke about the devil comes to this actor and he says, “I’ll make you the richest and the most famous actor in the world, for as long as you like.”
And the actor says, “Well, I’m delighted. What do I have to do?”
And the devil says, “Just give me your soul.”
And the actor says, “What’s the catch?”
Karen Pascal: So, acting caught you?
Martin Sheen: Heck, yeah. So, you know, I was raised Catholic, of course. And I went off to New York. I was very young. I was just thinking the other day, if I had it to do again, I would’ve waited longer, because I left when I was 18. Instead of going to school, to college, I went to New York and tried my best to start a career.
And I got lucky. It took a while, but I think that I left a lot of unfinished work in my family at home. You know, I came from a very large family. There were nine boys, one girl; both of my parents were immigrants. My father was from Spain, my mother from Ireland. And they had 12 pregnancies. Ten survived – nine boys, one girl. I was the seventh son.
And so, I was used to a big family and not getting much attention and trying desperately to get it. And so that, in large part, that was why I think I was so determined to be an actor, because then the attention couldn’t be denied to you if you were successful.
So, yeah, I fell away from the church, because I felt closer to my ego, you know, and it took me quite a while. Although I was married in the church and the children were all baptized, I never fully practiced until after a serious illness and a trip to India in 1981. And I saw a different world altogether. I saw poverty there that I’d never imagined before. And I saw and felt a responsibility to respond to it. And I was very inspired by Mother Teresa and her work among the poor.
And so, when I came back, I was determined to try and find a place in the new church. Remember, when I left the church, it was like at the height of Vatican II. And there were a lot of wonderful changes that went on in my absence. And I only really became aware of them, you know, in the early Eighties.
And so, I was in France and I was doing a film, and I had to be alone, because my family couldn’t join me. And I ran into an old friend, Terrence Malick, who was living in Paris at the time. And I had worked with Terry on Badlands, which was a very important film for me and my career. And we forged a very good relationship. I hadn’t seen him in quite a while.
And although he is Anglican, he was raised Anglican, he had a very strong moral fiber. And he began to see that I was looking for a raft, you know, to get back to the shore. And so, he became basically a spiritual advisor. I spent all my free time with him and I learned my way around Paris.
And I landed at St. Joseph’s Church on the avenue Hoche, where there were a congregation of Redemptorists who ran this parish there. Most of the congregation were American, Filipino, English-speaking people. And I started going there, and I finally went to confession there and it had been many years. So, it was my homecoming. I identify 100% with the prodigal, the coming home. And what a welcome. I remember, funnily, after this long confession, the priest asked a few questions. Then he said, “All right, I’m going to give you a penance now. You’ll say one Our Father.”
And I paused and I said, “Excuse me, did you say one Our Father?”
“Yes,” he said. “You haven’t been gone so long you’ve forgotten the Our Father?”
So, I really related to the prodigal, as I think most of us can easily do, particularly when we do so many rash things and live according to our passions and our egos, when we’re young and we’re going in all different directions and such, and eventually we run into a wall, you know. And we say, “Wait a minute, this is not who I am. I’m not leading an honest life.”
And if the Catholic church teaches anything, it is, I believe, to encourage us to live an honest life, to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth all the time. That’s pretty hard to do, but that’s what the gospels encourage us to do. And so, I embrace that. And through the mercy of God, I continue to hold that as an inspiration, really, to live an honest life.
I don’t always succeed. But often, I’m the only one who knows it. And like Henri Nouwen, you know, I had a lot of success and yet I was not happy. I was not satisfied. I was jealous. Why did he get that? Why did she get that? Why aren’t I being recognized? All of the emotions that he touches on in the book are remarkable.
And, you know, I think one of the reasons that it’s so powerful is because you have to pause every now and then, and realize that the speaker, the author, is a very, very revered Jesuit priest, you know, who has served in Central America and is known all over the world for his writings and his lectures and his teachings. And he is basically confronting the same problems that all of us are confronting, no matter what age in life we find ourselves.
So, I found that really encouraging. I keep having to remember that this is a Jesuit, a very successful and popular, powerful, spiritual advisor and writer. And he’s seeing himself in the oldest son, the unrepenting son, the jealous son. He sees himself very clearly in that guy. And he embraces it. And then, of course, he goes on and realizes that, yeah, we’re all called to be the father; to be unconditionally loving and forgiving and compassionate. Compassion, I think, is the key word for the entire book. Wouldn’t you agree?
Karen Pascal: Oh, I think so. And you know, one of the things I love, I remember interviewing Henri about this, and I loved how he spread his arms wide, as if he was the father himself, and he said, “I’m so glad you’re back. I’m so glad you’re back.”
And the bottom line that I had never really noticed before, was the father doesn’t say, “What did you do? What were you up to?” You know, you don’t come, you actually don’t come confessing. You meet a welcome, you meet: “I’m so glad you’re home.”
And that is the compassion. That is the love of God that just envelops us. And it’s worth reading again. I know I’ve gone back to that book many times and I just go, “This is a treasure.” And it’s a treasure because Henri dares to be so honest with who he is and what he feels, and that’s where you go, “Oh, that’s just like me.” I feel like that, you know?
Martin Sheen: Yeah, yeah. It makes it possible for us to see ourselves and to accept with grace, you know, and say, yeah, that’s the only way we’re going to become ourselves, is surrendering to what he made very clear to all of us is who we really are, where we come from and what we’re destined for. And in fact, did you just say that you knew him?
Karen Pascal: I got to interview him. Yes. I was actually, I got to know Henri through his books, and I was doing a series of television programs where I would ask people, if they inspired me, who was inspiring them. And I kept hearing this name, Henri Nouwen, but I didn’t know him. I hadn’t read any of his books. And so, it started with a book, and then I simply fell in love with his writing. I was so taken and wanted to interview him. So, that came about very slowly, but eventually I got to interview Henri. He wasn’t particularly enchanted with television or with any kind of programming like that, but it was a wonderful experience. And I wanted to have him for a day. He said, “I’ll give you,” I think he said, “I’ll give you three hours.”
So, by that point, he was on a pedestal for me. And I simply said to my cameraman – and I had two of them – “The only time you’re getting a break is if you have to go to the washroom, there’s no smoke breaks. The cameras never stop rolling, as far as I’m concerned.”
And we had this wonderful material and we built a couple of little programs out of it. And it was just an excellent experience. And then within the year, Henri died, and I realized I had some of the very best material on Henri Nouwen. And so, we went on to build a documentary on him, a biography. And that’s where I got to know Henri – through his friends, through those that knew him and through his family and his colleagues and his students, and basically pulled together that sense of who he was. And that’s how I met your good friend, John Dear. He was one of his students. Henri reached out to him when he was in prison. And I know that John has been quite an influence in your life. I know John is the person who’s brought us together. Tell me a little bit about John Dear, from your perspective.
Martin Sheen: Well, John Dear leads me to Dan Berrigan. You know Dan?
Karen Pascal: Oh, yes. Of course. Dan and Phillip.
Martin Sheen: Yeah. Dan and Phillip and the peace movement in the East Coast, because John was in the Baltimore province, you know, and he came under Dan’s influence and they had a very similar, as you know, kind of personality, which was 100% dedicated. But equally, it was a commitment for the long haul. It wasn’t just this issue or that demonstration. It was the long haul. It was about living a just life and a purpose for life and committed to more than the piety or the prayerful, which both are very powerful. But it is the action where you put the prayer into your feet and you show up and speak the truth to power and take whatever they hand out, you know?
And you do it with a sense of joy. That’s what always inspired me about Dan. I was at many demonstrations with him. I was arrested with him several times and he was filled with humor and joy. He told jokes and sang songs and even danced on occasion, but it was such a relief to do all that you could possibly do, whatever the issue was. You did it non-violently and you accepted the results, whatever they were, whether you had to go to jail or just overnight or whatever it was you suffered the indignity of being arrested for, but for a noble cause, a just cause. And that evokes such joy and freedom.
And John is filled with that. And he’s just a powerful inspiration; most of his adult life has been in the service of peace and social justice. As you know, he spent long periods in jail and once in a federal penitentiary.
So, he’s a committed man and he’s a source of inspiration. It’s no wonder that he was inspired by Henri Nouwen, and that he would come under such influence. They’re very similar in nature. You know, they’re very practical and very honest and very, very down-to-earth, you know? Filled with humor. I mean, I never saw Henri Nouwen, a photograph of him, in a Roman collar. And I rarely saw John or Dan ever, except occasionally at a demonstration, they would ask him to wear the collar so that it reminded the church where we were supposed to be. You know? So, that was always a good thing, but otherwise I rarely saw him with a Roman collar.
Karen Pascal: It’s Interesting with Henri, he doesn’t even . . . on his books, there’s nothing, there’s no place where he’s called Father Henri Nouwen. And yet he had a deep commitment to his vow as a priest, but he didn’t want anything to separate what he had to offer. Didn’t want anything to get in the way of it. So that the communication would really… the walls were down, the arms were open wide to say, “welcome home.” And the walls were down with Father John Dear, you know. He’s been talking about nonviolence all his life. And he talks about the nonviolent Jesus.
Martin Sheen: The first time I ever heard that was at his first mass in Washington, DC. I’d just come back from overseas, and I had a layover in Washington DC, and it was the morning of his first mass as an ordained priest there at St. Aloysius in the basement. And I attended that mass. And he started with, “May the grace and peace of God, our Father, the love of the Holy Spirit and the love of the nonviolent Jesus.”
And I thought, “Oh my goodness,” and the congregation burst into applause. I’d never heard Jesus called “the nonviolent Jesus.” And it just made such a powerful impression on me. It said, of course he was nonviolent and it cost him his life, you know? And that’s what we are called to do, is to risk our lives for justice. And yeah, John was there. And what an inspiration, you know? I wonder if you would agree that Henri Nouwen has a place that is very similar, I think at least here in the West, with his spirituality, that Thomas Merton holds?
Karen Pascal: Yes, I think so. He was a great admirer of Merton and he even taught courses on Merton when he was at Yale and at Harvard. So, I think those two are some of the profound influences that endure for us. And they cause us to think deeply. With John, he came back when Henri died, he finished the book, The Road to Peace. He went into the archives and found Henri’s writings on peace. Because Henri, when he came to America, he was Dutch by birth. And he came to America to study at the Menninger Clinic, and then he went on to teach at Notre Dame and then to Yale. But he was so taken by Dr. Martin Luther King, he was so taken by what was happening in America. And in fact, he was part of marching to Selma. And I know you did the movie Selma, and I just wondered about your thoughts about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – his influence, and how we can continue to learn from him, and how it comes together with our spirituality.
Martin Sheen: Yeah. You know, I was in New York when Reverend King was really at the apex of his influence and his work for the civil rights movement, and against the war in Vietnam. I was in New York when he was killed. And I had an occasion… I was doing a Broadway show in 1965 when Selma exploded. And I helped organize all the Broadway theaters to do a benefit for Selma, called Broadway Answers Selma. And we did that and we played one night only. All the stars on Broadway participated, and to our surprise, Reverend King showed up. No one knew he was there. And he stood up in a box above the stage, and took a bow and tried to sit down, and the audience would not let him sit down.
He got back up and he waved and he smiled and waved. He sat back down and they said, no, they wouldn’t. . . So, he got back up and begged them, you know, with his hands. He gestured for them to sit down, and he smiled. And finally, they did, and the show went on. And then we had a break and at the start of the second act, I was backstage just helping folks maneuver in the dark. And I remember Maurice Chevalier was doing a show on Broadway, a one-man show, and he was going to perform as well. And so, he came backstage while I was there and I got him a chair, so he could wait to his turn to go on stage. And Sammy Davis was on stage singing. And the light from the front of the stage was seeping through the backstage.
And I felt a figure to my left, about maybe 20 feet away. And I looked over and the light was on Reverend King. And I was astonished at how small he was. I thought, oh my God, I thought he was eight feet tall. Didn’t you? I mean, “My God, it’s Martin Luther King.”
And there he was; he just looking out on the stage at Sammy and I knew what was going on. I realized that he was leaving and he didn’t want to make a fuss, but he just wanted to say goodbye to Sammy Davis. And that’s exactly what was going on. And as he stood there in the light and waited, I thought I really have to get the blessing. I’ve got to. And then my inner devil said, “No, leave the man alone. He’s bothered all the time. . .”
And then the angel said, “No, man, get the blessing. When are you going to see this guy again?”
“No, no, no. Don’t bother him, for heaven’s sake.”
It went on and on a full three or four minutes. And then, here comes Sammy off stage. He went right over to him and they hugged, and he escorted him to the backstage door and I never saw him again. So, I’ve always, always regretted I didn’t get the blessing. But I had the blessing, you know? A large part of me wanted to introduce myself so that I could brag about it. And that was part of the reason that I didn’t want to do it. You know, I knew him in the spirit. I knew who he was. I knew what he stood for. And he was a powerful inspiration to all of us. And we were devastated with his death. And you know, the country has never fully recovered.
And eight weeks later, Bobby Kennedy was murdered.
And the two of them were the example of the very best part of us in the Sixties. When they mention the Sixties, those were the two figures that showed the most courage and the greatest humanity and compassion, the two of them, and they were anchored in justice and compassion and the effort to end the war. One of the greatest things that Ted said about Bobby at his funeral was, “He saw a war and tried to stop it.” And I thought, “My God, yes, that’s exactly what he did.”
And Reverend King, four years before Bobby, saw that war and tried to stop it and was targeted and was very clearly against the powers that be that he continue, because he had such a powerful influence.
Karen Pascal: You have been somebody who has been on that front line for peace and for justice. And I can really imagine right now, your heart is aching for what’s happening in Ukraine.
Martin Sheen: Oh my God, how can we tolerate this? You know, I’ve often thought, you know, I went to Auschwitz once and I was doing a film in Berlin and I had a friend there who said he was going to Auschwitz and would I go? “I will,” I said, and we went.
We took an overnight train from Berlin to well, Auschwitz is outside the city. It escapes me at the moment, but…
Karen Pascal: Outside of Krakow, maybe?
Martin Sheen: We were in Krakow. Yes. And we hired a cab and went to Auschwitz and we asked the guy to wait for us; we figured we wouldn’t be that long. And we arrived and toured, and then we went over to where the ovens were, where the crematoriums were, the horrible . . . The Germans had left them, imploded all of those gas chambers and they’re left as they were found by the Russians, you know? And boy, it shows you how far the Russians have gone, doesn’t it?
But at any rate, I wanted to know what it felt like, what it must have felt like to be a prisoner at Auschwitz. And I was touring decades after the fact – it’s not possible to know that, but I wanted to get a sense of what the place was like, who these people were, where they come from, what they stood for.
And when I left, my chief curiosity was, what it must have been like to be a guard there. Who were those people? How could they have endured that? You know? What did they carry with them out of that? So, you know, and I visited Maximilian Kolbe’s cell, where Pope John Paul II came and canonized him in that cell.
It’s quite extraordinary. To think that so many people in the German empire, in the Third Reich, claimed that they didn’t know what was going on. Well, of course they did. They were just terrified to expose it for fear of what would happen to them.
And now we know what’s going on in Ukraine. There’s no way that we can. . . and we know that Putin knows and Putin knows that we know. He’s watching everything that we’re watching and more, because he’s getting the footage from his soldiers of what’s going on there. And the horror stories that are coming out are just, I mean, it’s hard to imagine, but they seem to be motivated by the indoctrination of these soldiers about these people, these neighbors, are Nazis, and that’s what has motivated them.
Karen Pascal: It’s fueled by lies. It’s fueled by lies, and that’s terrifying to see. What is the end? There isn’t a vision for an end in it. You don’t go into something so horrific, and tear apart a country and destroy a people with no end in sight. I can’t believe that he’s actually going to win this. I think the one thing it’s done is . . .
Martin Sheen: There’s no winning. He’s already lost it, that he would conceive that this was necessary, that this was his projection of his ego. So, you know, you can’t . . . In order to kill, you have to be dead. He’s dead already. You look into his eyes. I mean, he looks horrible. He looks like something that you’d put in the garden under a fountain, you know. There’s no humanity left in him, nothing. And then you look at Zelensky, who weeps and rages and pleads for help and blesses his people and says, you know, he’s never once really condemned the Russians. He said that [they] don’t know what [they’re] doing. That’s a familiar phrase, isn’t it? “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting that, you know, you hear that phrase, ‘for such a time as this.’ Or you come into the kingdom and you think about Zelensky and the timing of, in a sense, wearing the cloak of leadership with clarity, with almost a sense we’ve lacked moral leadership for so long. I’m so grateful for Pope Francis as a moral leader, but on the whole, that’s been something that’s been missing. Tell me a little bit about, I know that you’re a great fan of Pope Francis. So, let’s talk a little bit about that. I think he’s been a man that’s captured your heart, too.
Martin Sheen: Boy, he set the stage from the get-go, didn’t he?
Karen Pascal: We’re grateful, we’re so grateful.
Martin Sheen: Oh my God, that he was elected to begin with. And that he’s been doing what he started out to do. He stayed the course, you know, and it is such an inspiration. The only really disappointing part of his papacy is that the American Catholic church has been very reticent and has been very, very slow to embrace him and his mission. And that’s because we’ve drifted so far politically that church and the state are hard to separate these days. I remember Dan Berrigan told me a story, or somebody told me a story about him once, that he was giving a homily in a church, in the pulpit. And there was an American flag on his left and the papal flag on his right. And Dan looked at them and he said, “Well, now I have some sense of how Jesus felt being crucified between two thieves.”
So, you know, I think that the American Catholic church has become so conservative, so far to the right. I mean, the main issue of the bishops is the abortion issue. I think they’re going to win it. I think this court is primed to overturn Roe v. Wade. Okay, that’s one thing, but if you’re not going to pick up the slack of who is going to be most affected by this ruling – it’s going to be the poor. It’s going to be primarily black and Hispanic and poor whites that are going to need help if they are going to be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy. And I say that with compassion and not with any form of judgment. I’m appalled by abortion; I do not support it. But I’m a man, and I’ll never have to face that horrible burden, whether to have a child or not when it’s not planned, or for whatever circumstance. We know that the majority are people who are suffering; the rich will have no problem getting abortions.
You know, they’re very used to having things their way and no one will be the wiser and that’s always as it’s been. But I think that what the church has got to wake up to is that there is a responsibility. You can’t just ignore Matthew – I think it’s Matthew 26 – you know, “When did we see you hungry, Lord?” and have a full Christian experience. I think that that’s where we are truly lacking in the American Catholic church. And it’s now the majority, you know. And so, I think we’re going to have to wake up to the fact that there’s a lot of very, very scary stuff coming down under the name of religion, piety, righteousness, on God’s side. And we’ve forgotten about the poor, and they’re going to be crushed again and again.
And I think that that’s what Francis is trying to wake us up to. His service is so complete. His heart is so open, so big, and it’s so broken, clearly. You know, he reminds me of what we are all called to be, that is, so transparent, so open that God has a way to get in. You know, it’s hard for us to find our way to God until we realize that God is trying to find a way to us, you know?
I love Merton’s Christmas thing. I got a Christmas card from Dan Berrigan once, and it was a quote from Thomas Merton. And it said: “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there was absolutely no room for him at all, Christ comes uninvited.” I mean, who goes out of their way, looking for Jesus, looking for trouble, you know? I mean, that’s what it amounts to.
Karen Pascal: That’s the most beautiful summary of a God that comes uninvited into our world. And I am just delighted to hear the energy and the excitement in you. You’re somebody who gets it and who understands it. Living your faith out is something that you live out in community and that you take out to the front lines. And honestly, it’s an inspiration. It’s just been a joy to talk with you today, an absolute joy for me. Thank you so much.
Martin Sheen: Well, I’m delighted, and I thank you so much. And I’m sorry I was so long responding to your beautiful letter – and I kept all the books!
Karen Pascal: Oh, good.
Martin Sheen: I think I even sent one out to someone else. So, thank you so much again. And you know, maybe we can do this again sometime. And it might be fun if you get John involved and maybe we could get a three-way conversation. And John Dear, his ears are burning. I’m sure.
Karen Pascal: I would love that. I would love that. Henri Nouwen would’ve loved to have known you in person. I’m sorry that you two didn’t cross paths, but you were kindred spirits for sure. And this has just been a delight. Thank you so much.
Martin Sheen: What a blessing! Thank you so much.
Karen Pascal: Blessings. Bye-bye.
Martin Sheen: Bye-bye, Karen.
Karen Pascal: Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. What an honor for me to spend time with Martin Sheen! His faith is so alive and so vibrant and challenging. For more resources related to today’s conversation, click on the links on the podcast page of our website. You’ll find links to anything mentioned today, as well as book suggestions.
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