I got to know Dom Gregory van der Kleij in the early seventies, when we trained together as group analysts. He was a man of few words but when he did speak, in his thick Dutch accent, he was always worth listening to. We became good friends and I went on to run a psychotherapy practice with him in a house adjacent to his monastery in North London. I have fond memories of him in his white monk’s cassock, incongruously puffing away at his pipe or sipping a brandy, looking at me intensely through horn-rimmed spectacles as we tried, between us, to put the world to rights – he, a Benedictine monk and I, a self-declared secular Jew.
He told me that when he was fourteen years old he had watched the Nazi occupiers of his native country herding Jews into Amsterdam’s central square on their way to the death camps, a scene which stayed with him throughout his life. And he recalled another moment of the occupation, the promulgation of laws which forbade Jews to make use of public swimming pools. “If only we had stood up against those laws and also refused to swim in those pools”, he mused, “we might have stopped them”. Later, he went into hiding to avoid being dragooned into slave labour.
It was through Gregory that I became aware of the nuances of the Catholic religion. Until I met him, I had tarred all Catholics with the same brush. In my simplistic reading of history they were the arch persecutors of the Jews, possibly even the ‘fons et origo’ of the scapegoating which reached its culmination in the Holocaust. Gregory showed me by example that this perception of his co-religionists was an anachronistic caricature. I discovered that there were different shades of Catholic theology, ranging from those espousing the superstitions and primitive doctrines of medieval times to the more enlightened attempts to break out of a discriminatory mentality.
Gregory and I would never agree on the fundamental question of belief in God but nor did we allow that difference to sully our congenial friendship. We shared a humanitarian view of life and I was struck by his compassionate acceptance of all human beings, irrespective of their religious or political beliefs. He passionately opposed violence of any kind and frequently talked about the need for warring factions to seek common ground before addressing their differences. His faith in a higher order seemed to rescue him from the Slough of Despond whenever we reflected on the world’s trouble spots, but this was a consolation which I could never share with him.
Gregory devoted much energy to the fostering of bonds between Jew and Christian. One of the offshoots of our psychotherapy practice was a support group for clergy of different faiths who were interested in pastoral care. We assembled a group comprising two Reform rabbis, two Baptist ministers, a Catholic priest, a Church of England minister and his wife and a couple of teachers from a nearby Anglican seminary. (For whatever reason, we failed to engage the interest of a local Orthodox rabbi whom we approached).
The group flourished in a lively fashion for many years. The participants got to know one another well and learnt much about one another’s religious customs and rituals, as well trading advice on how to manage congregants with challenging emotional issues and sharing concerns about congregational politics.
My friendship with Gregory never shook my Jewish identity or my atheistic convictions. Instead, it left me with a deepened respect for those of different faiths who draw comfort and inspiration from their beliefs.