On Being with Krista Tippett

Martin Sheen

Spirituality of Imagination

Last Updated

June 22, 2017

Original Air Date

December 16, 2015

The renowned actor as you’ve never heard him before. He has appeared in over 100 films, including Apocalypse Now. He’s best known on television as President Bartlet in The West Wing. But Martin Sheen, born and still legally named Ramón Estévez, has had another lesser-known life as a spiritual seeker and activist. He returned to a deep and joyful Catholic faith after a crisis at the height of his fame in mid-life. He’s been arrested over 60 times in vigils and protests. “Piety is something you do alone,” he says. “True freedom, spirituality, can only be achieved in community.”

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Image of Martin Sheen

Martin Sheen is an actor and a Catholic activist. He has appeared in over 100 films including BadlandsApocalypse Now, and The Way, as well as on television in The West Wing and most recently in the Netflix series Grace and Frankie. Along with his son Emilio, he co-wrote the memoir Along the Way: The Journey of a Father and Son.


Martin Sheen: The greatest mysteries are the simplest ones. Those are the ones that we confront every day. I had a conversation once with a priest — I was traveling and went to confession in this very remote place. And suddenly he said, “Well, we don’t know what God is, do we?” [laughs]

Krista Tippett, host: [laughs] Right.

Mr. Sheen: What it says is, we — every time we try to identify God, we are sure to identify what he is certainly — what she is certainly not. And the genius of God, to dwell where we would least likely look — within the depths of our own being, our own shallowness, our own darkness, our own humanity.

Ms. Tippett: Martin Sheen has appeared in over 100 films, including Apocalypse Now. He’s best known on television as President Bartlet in seven seasons of The West Wing. But he has another, lesser-known life as an activist. He’s been arrested over 60 times in vigils and protests about race, war, and nuclear weapons. He is driven by a deep and joyful faith, which has been at the center of his identity since he had a crisis and reawakening at the height of his fame in mid-life. And my 2015 conversation with Martin Sheen is full of wisdom and delight.

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

Ms. Tippett: Martin Sheen was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio to an Irish mother and a Spanish father. His mother died when he was 11, and his father raised him and nine siblings on his own.

Ms. Tippett: I’d love, before we start, for you to say your legal name, the name you were born with. I want to hear you say it.

Mr. Sheen: Oh, yes. Me llamo Ramón Estévez, a.k.a. Martin Sheen.

Ms. Tippett: OK. All right. Wonderful. So one thing that’s interesting to me is, it seems to me that especially when you were playing President Bartlet on The West Wing — journalists have written a lot, across the years, about your progressive politics. And Catholics, here and there, have paid attention to your religious foundations, which, in fact, underpin your progressive politics. I experience you to be a very integrated person — have an integrated experience and conscience. And so I feel like there are these two people who the public knows, there’s Martin Sheen and Ramón Estévez, and I want to talk to both of you, or all of you, as it were. [laughs]

Mr. Sheen: [laughs] OK.

Ms. Tippett: And I feel like that’s who you live as, but I’m not — I don’t feel like this person gets drawn out all the time. So here we are, all three of us.

Mr. Sheen: OK. Good deal. Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. Yeah, yeah, because I do feel, sometimes, I live in a split personality.

Ms. Tippett: Well, OK, we’ll see what we can — we’ll unite that. So there’s this question I always ask when I start an interview, and I’m interested to know how you would start to describe the religious and spiritual background of your childhood. How would you describe that now?

Mr. Sheen: Well, it was the foundation, really, of the rest of my life. I was raised in a large, very poor family of immigrants. I was the first generation, Spanish-Irish. And so that really set the focus for the rest of my life. We had a phrase when I was young, in our community, that one serves oneself best by serving others first. And that stood me in pretty good stead the rest of my life, because it was always a question of community, where if you were doing well — and I mean “well” by you were living an honest life — you were a part of community. And when you were not, you had drifted from that community. So I drifted kind of in and out. But as a boy, the staples of my life were my family, my church, and school. And they were all integrated. They — you couldn’t separate one from the other. My teachers were as much my family as my blood relatives.

Ms. Tippett: When I look at the trajectory of your life and the story of your — I’d say the development of your social and your spiritual conscience across adulthood, it’s very much a kind of classic story of — there was hardship, but how hardship often leads to what are gifts, and that it’s not so much what you are given but how you take it in and work with it. You’ve said somewhere that caddying was where your social conscience began to be formed. Can you say some more about that?

Mr. Sheen: [laughs] Very clear.

Ms. Tippett: And I guess that was a job you had to take, because you all had to work to keep the family going.

Mr. Sheen: Yeah, we did. I started caddying — I hate to admit this, because I’m going to reveal my age, but I started caddying in 1949, at a private country club. And yeah, those were very formative years. I spent my whole boyhood — well, at least every summer, early spring to late fall — at the golf course, caddying for a lot of very over-privileged people, [laughs] mostly the men. But I’m very grateful to them, because in large measure they taught me what not to be.

And it just became a matter of course that they — you were a servant. And they rarely saw you, saw you as a person, and so they would tell stories in front of you and talk about each other, and you were kind of a fly on the tree on the golf course, as it were, or a bumble bee. But you got a sense of these people. A few exceptions, but most of them were over-privileged and unaware, and so they were not our inspiration.

Ms. Tippett: And then it’s so interesting to me that you say you had a movie habit early on, and the expectation in your life was that you would do some kind of manual labor, but you couldn’t do that because you had had this forceps injury at birth.

Mr. Sheen: Yeah, I had an injury.

Ms. Tippett: I mean I wonder if that movie career would even have been a path you’d walked into.

Mr. Sheen: Yeah, it’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way, because I never really had a consciousness about what I wanted to do. And yet, I knew — and I think all children know, at a very, very young age, something about themselves, deeply personal, that is almost impossible to communicate with any understanding to anyone else. But I had this, as well, and I started going to movies — I guess I was around five or six. And gradually it dawned on me that I was like one of those people I was looking at on the screen. And it was a revelation, and it was — a great sense of peace overcame me as a child, because I knew that it was possible — that I could do that. In fact, it was more than that I could do that. It was that I was that already.

Ms. Tippett: An actor.

Mr. Sheen: I just sort of embraced that. Yeah, I knew it. And it was like, “Oh, that’s what I am. Oh, fine.” I was worried about this business deep inside of me that I could not communicate. “Oh, that’s what it is. Fine. All right, well…” And I just sort of waited until I was old enough to pursue it. And I did.

Ms. Tippett: And then, I think, you — like a lot of people, you weren’t — you became less religious, or less overtly religious, as you left home and ventured out in your career. Is that right? I mean it just wasn’t — it stopped being —

Mr. Sheen: Yeah, very much so.

Ms. Tippett: I mean this is what your passion was.

Mr. Sheen: Yeah, for sure.

Ms. Tippett: It was interesting to me that you discovered the Catholic Worker in New York, but I sense it was not so much as a devout Catholic but as a starving actor.

Mr. Sheen: [laughs] No. Exactly, yeah. I was working at the American Express Company as a stock boy down on lower Broadway in Manhattan, and I got fired just a few weeks before Christmas. And then, a week or so later, I got hired at The Living Theatre by Julian Beck and Judith Malina, who were two of my first teachers, really. They were extremely involved in social justice work and in political radicalism. They were the first ban-the-bombers and Women Strike for Peace. And gosh, they were just a great source of inspiration to me.

And I started at the theater as a curtain puller and a general understudy, and they didn’t have a lot of money. In fact, I was paid five dollars a week. This was in 1959. But I was worth every penny. [laughs] At any rate, they said, “Look, we know you can’t live on this, but we have a friend who has a soup kitchen nearby. And you go down there, and you don’t have to pay anything, and you just wait on line, and they’ll feed you five nights a week.” And it was the Catholic Worker.

Ms. Tippett: And was that friend of theirs Dorothy Day, or was it someone else?

Mr. Sheen: Yes, the friend was Dorothy Day. She had done some prison time with Judith Malina. They were very close friends. In fact, each one of them wrote about the other in their autobiographies. They did 30 days together for protesting nuclearism, and that was the national religion at the time.

Ms. Tippett: It’s so interesting.

Mr. Sheen: But yeah, and so I started going there. For months and months I went there. I had no idea — I could’ve met Dorothy Day, but I couldn’t tell you, because I wasn’t there for any other reason but to satisfy my hunger. [laughs]

[music: “Library of Dreams” by Auditory Canvas]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today with Martin Sheen. His breakthrough role came in Terrence Malick’s Badlands. Then, while filming his starring role in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now in the Philippines in 1977, he experienced a health breakdown and an existential crisis. This continued as he traveled to India to work on the film Gandhi.

[music: “Library of Dreams” by Auditory Canvas]

Ms. Tippett: It’s interesting to me how your film projects and your acting projects, they also — I don’t know if it’s that they converge with where you are personally, or maybe it’s this thing of not choosing your life but living it. It seems like you are working with whatever your life experience is, and for you, that life experience included these film projects and these dramatic roles, which took you kind of out of yourself, or to a larger place.

Mr. Sheen: Yeah, I’ve often said that if I knew, going in, what awaited me on Apocalypse, I would have passed. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: Really?

Mr. Sheen: But since I went through that experience, I wouldn’t change it for the world, because it brought me to myself in ways that maybe nothing else could have at the time. I survived a physical illness, but I didn’t know if I could’ve survived a spiritual crisis. And that made it real clear how much was at stake. So between Apocalypse and Gandhi, there were about four years. And they were years of reflection and alcohol abuse and insecurity and anger and resentment and a near breakup with my family.

But I was searching for that elusive thing that all of us search for. Most of the time, we’re not even conscious of it. But we’re searching for ourselves in an authentic way. We want to recognize the person we see in the mirror and embrace that person with all the brokenness and lackluster, all the things that only we are aware of in the depths of our being.

And that’s what I was offered an opportunity to deal with when I finally arrived in India, in 1981, to do this part in Gandhi. I was only there about five or six weeks. And my son Emilio accompanied me. And that was the turning point, because I saw a poverty very up-close and personal that I could not have imagined, and it really went to the center of my being and took me out of myself. And that’s what changed my life.

Ms. Tippett: Right. So there’d been that inward journey and that inward reckoning. And then this also took you back out again, and those things came together, it seems.

Mr. Sheen: Yeah, I came home from India really shaken. And I remember bringing some books on Indian philosophy and Hinduism and nonviolence, and all of the energy that was mine to absorb during that period. And as soon as I got home, I had to go straightaway to Paris. And while I was in Paris, during that very, very sensitive period, I ran into an old and very dear friend who became my mentor, really, and that was Terrence Malick, who was living in Paris, very underground. He was on the same kind of journey, I guess, I was. But he saw in me this struggle, and he, I guess, for lack of a better term, became for me a spiritual advisor.

Ms. Tippett: And he gave you The Brothers Karamazov?

Mr. Sheen: Yes, he would give me material along the way, say, “Well, Martin, I think you’re ready for this.” And he’d give me material, we’d talk about that, and then he’d give me another book. And the final step, I guess, in my journey was The Brothers Karamazov. And that did it. It got me in ways that I could not have imagined. I stayed up nights. It took me a week to read it. It was over 1,000 pages. [laughs]

And then I finished it on — I mean I remember very specifically — May Day in Europe is a big celebration; it’s like our Labor Day, and I had off from work that day. I’d finished it the night before, and I knew that I had to respond to this need within me that was now at a very critical crossroads. And that is: All right, where do you go from here?

And I walked — I was living in the Left Bank at that time, and I walked over to this little Catholic church. It’s the only English-speaking church in all of France, I discovered later, and it was the church where Oscar Wilde converted. And I learned that later. [laughs] I said, “Well, I think I came to the right place.” And I came back to Catholicism. And it was the single most joyful moment of my life, because I knew that I had come home to myself. In deeply personal ways, this satisfaction has lasted all these years. I’m still on the honeymoon. [laughs] Go figure.

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] It’s beautiful. I wonder…

Mr. Sheen: But see, I didn’t come back — I was afraid to come back to the piety of my youth. I wanted the sacraments. I wanted the community. But I didn’t want to feel like I was under a microscope and that God was watching me and looking for me to make a mistake “and now I gotcha!” you know? It had to be an active spirituality.

Ms. Tippett: I want to keep going on that; I just want to ask you a couple questions before we do that. One is, I just — so just imagine, people who are listening to this may not have ever read The Brothers Karamazov or may have read it 20 or 30 years ago in college. I mean it’s a great novel —

Mr. Sheen: Oh, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you want your life changed. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: Say a little — I mean it’s a great novel that weaves into the great debates of his age about God and free will and morality. But could you just say a little bit about what was it in that book that galvanized you?

Mr. Sheen: It’s about the reality of commitment. It’s about knowing that you are living an honest life and knowing when you are not, basically. And it’s about family. It’s done within family and community. And it’s not something that you can easily shake. It’s not a work that you can put down and pick up something else and not reflect. You’ll find yourself going back to it again and again and again.

It was Dorothy Day’s favorite book, as well.

Ms. Tippett: I didn’t know that.

Mr. Sheen: And she read it — she would reread it and talk about it and write about it, yeah. Dostoyevsky had a grip on the reality of life as it is. And he was a habitual gambler; he was not a celebrated man, in many respects. But he longed to live an honest and free life, because that’s really where we find the presence of God or the One, the Other, whatever we express as a higher power — that we are part of a community. And that work, Dostoyevsky’s work, specifically in that book, is about being a part of community and not being able to let it go without a severe penalty.

Ms. Tippett: And I think that points at something, a dynamic that I sense, which is — on the one hand, you’re talking about this call to activism, which you followed after that. But also there’s the inner work, and those two things go together. And “love” is a word you use when you talk about that conversion, that experience you had.

Mr. Sheen: Yeah, the love that I longed for and, I think, all of us really long for, is knowing that we are loved — a knowingness about our being that unites us to all of humanity, to all of the universe; that despite ourselves, we are loved. And when you realize that, and you embrace that, you begin to look at everyone else, and you can see very clearly who in your vision knows they’re loved, and who does not. And that makes all the difference. And I began to give thanks and praise for that love.

You know how so often people say they go on this journey — and I said it too, that I’m looking for God. But God has already found us, really. We have to look in the spot where we’re least likely to look. And that is within ourselves. And when we find that love, that presence, deep within our own personal being — and it’s not something that you can earn or something that you can work towards, it’s just a realization of being human, of being alive, of being conscious. And that love is overwhelming. And that is the basic foundation of joy. And we become enviable joyful.

And then we see it in others, and we seek to ignite that love in others. You can’t do it, you can’t force someone to realize they’re loved, but you can show them. And most of the effort we make is just by living our lives, by being compassionate and loving and respectful and being a vassal of service for others. That’s what feeds that love. It’s like giving back.

But just that embrace, I sometimes — it is so overwhelming, at times, this reality of loving because one is loved — that it just brings you up short. You just sit and stare, sometimes, into a vacuum and say, “Where did this come from? And why is it so clear, and why is it so simple and so powerful?” And one of the great mysteries that I experience at mass is the reception at communion. How do we embrace that? How can we possibly consciously understand what that is? And I don’t have a clue. I just stand on line and say, “I’m Ramón, called Martin, your friend. You’re welcome here. And I’m with them.” [laughs] Whoever the crowd is I’m getting on line with, you just look at the people who are on that line, that community.

That is the greatest and simplest expression of overtly trying to explain this mystery I’m talking about, because it is a mystery. It is probably the most profound mystery in all of the universe, this love. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed just watching people on line to embrace that sacrament. It is the most profound thing. I never, ever can get over it. It’s just something you have to surrender to. And just saying, “Yeah, I’m with them,” that’s the community of saints.

Ms. Tippett: And that’s the basis of — and that embeddedness in that sense of love and that sense of belonging, that sense of community is then the foundation from which you got very engaged in the world in a different way. And also, I’m so interested in —

Mr. Sheen: Yeah, it’s experiencing true personal joy.

Ms. Tippett: OK. And working on hard things, right? I mean also experiencing joy and fighting against injustice.

Mr. Sheen: Absolutely, yeah, that’s it. I couldn’t do it if I — all the demonstrations I’ve ever been on have been nurtured and inspired and performed in this arena of joy. And so when I would go to a demonstration, no matter what the issue or the cause, it would always be prayerful and joyful. I would never take it personal with the guards or the police or whoever I was being arrested by. In fact, I remember my first arrest with Dan Berrigan in New York — we were protesting nuclearism.

Ms. Tippett: And he was a Jesuit priest and became well known as a Vietnam war protester in particular.

Mr. Sheen: Yes. He went to prison. He burned draft files at Catonsville, Maryland and went to federal prison with his brother, Philip, for several years for opposing the war in Vietnam. He was the greatest source of inspiration for me when I came back.

He was underground after he was found guilty, and he stayed underground for months, and every now and then he would surface to a peace group or a community. And once he was asked, by someone in one of these groups, “Oh, yeah, Father Berrigan, it’s all well and good for you to protest the war in Vietnam and to choose to go to prison. You don’t have any children. What’s going to happen to us? What’s going to happen to our children if we go to prison?” And Daniel Berrigan responded, “What’s going to happen to them if you do not?”

That’s the kind of inspiration that I had to embrace. Yeah, Dan Berrigan changed my life. I’ve often said that Mother Teresa drove me back to Catholicism, but Daniel Berrigan keeps me there. [laughs]

[music: “Loophole (Figure 2)” by Ryan Teague]

Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with Martin Sheen through our website, onbeing.org. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[music: “Loophole (Figure 2)” by Ryan Teague]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m with the actor Martin Sheen. Born Ramón Estévez to Irish-Spanish immigrants, his deep Catholic spirituality and his social justice passion have been at the center of his life, both on-screen and off. While taking part in actions, ranging from the Farm Worker movement of César Chávez to protests against nuclear weapons and war, Martin Sheen has been arrested over 60 times.

Ms. Tippett: I did not know this about you until I kind of got into this preparation for this conversation. You got arrested a lot, protesting the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. I mean at one point, you said, you got arrested every Wednesday morning. Was that in L.A., or where was that?

Mr. Sheen: Yeah, we had the Wednesday Morning Coalition at the Federal Building. We would meet at La Placita every Wednesday morning with this coalition that included priests and rabbis and people from all over the community. It was — all these guys led these things. And we would block the courthouse entrance, protesting the war in El Salvador, and we’d be arrested.

And I had a backup — I had like 13 arrests at one time, before I got a court date. And it’s federal, because it’s a federal building, so you come before a federal judge. And she said — well, because I’m always arrested under my real name, Ramón; I have no ID as Martin — so she said, “Ramón, it doesn’t seem — if I put you in jail, it isn’t going to make any difference. You’re going to continue. You’re hell-bent on this protest, aren’t you?” I said, “I’m afraid so, your honor.” She said, “Well, will you do community service?” “I will,” I said. And she sent me to the Bread & Roses homeless café in Venice. And I was there for ten years. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: And that was Sister Rose Harrington, right?

Mr. Sheen: Sister Rose founded it.

Ms. Tippett: Another one of your saint comrades.

Mr. Sheen: One of my — God rest her, yeah, another one of my heroes. She founded this unique homeless kitchen where they served at tables with flowers. And you had to have a reservation, because that told us how many to expect, but it also was a great source of dignity for our guests. She said, “We call everyone Mr. and Miss or Mrs., and they are our guests. And they’re the only reason we’re here. And we treat them with respect and dignity.” And I did, and that was the longest job I’ve ever had in my life. Yeah, ten years. In fact, I only had to leave to go and do — I had to leave to go and do The West Wing.

Ms. Tippett: So — obviously, no one with your kind of criminal record could ever have been elected president. [laughs]

Mr. Sheen: [laughs] No, thank God.

Ms. Tippett: But I did love it that in those years — what did you say — did you have a business card? Or you presented yourself sometimes — what, it was “the acting president of The West Wing.”

Mr. Sheen: “The acting president of the United States,” yes, yes. A friend of mine, Matt Clark, came up with that, and I kind of — I liked that a lot.

Ms. Tippett: So that was from 1999 to 2006, seven seasons.

Mr. Sheen: Yes, it was, yeah. It was one of the best of times. It really was, yeah. It was a great experience, both professionally and personally and spiritually. And I only asked two things of the production when I got the part: Could the president be Catholic, and could he have a Notre Dame degree? [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: Really?

Mr. Sheen: And they gave me both, yeah. I wanted him to be Catholic so that I could personally relate to every issue in a moral frame of reference. And I wanted Bartlet to do that, even with the death penalty and with issues of war and peace, all of it. I wanted him to be known to be a practicing Catholic, and he dealt with things in a moral frame of reference. I was inspired by that with Jimmy Carter.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, OK. That’s interesting.

Mr. Sheen: In fact, he was one of the inspirations for the character of Bartlet. It was Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and John Kennedy.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. Sheen: Not bad. Not bad source of inspiration.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and that you insisted on being Catholic. That’s interesting. I mean I went back and watched the pilot, and I think it’s 18 minutes in, the White House Chief of Staff — you have not appeared yet.

Mr. Sheen: No, I don’t appear until the last scene. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: But the White House Chief of Staff, he says, “This president is a deeply religious man.”

Mr. Sheen: Oh, I don’t remember that line, but yeah.

Ms. Tippett: So I mean there it was. Your wish was represented from that very beginning. But a deeply religious, deeply Catholic, and also deeply politically progressive man, which — it’s certainly a huge tradition and lineage in Catholicism, right, as we’ve been discussing, but it’s not necessarily the kind of Catholic that’s made the news in politics in the last couple of decades, which is interesting.

Mr. Sheen: Yeah, it’s true. I would say I was less religious and more, at least in a personal effort, towards spirituality. It’s hard to be defined by a religion and to shake that kind of mantle, whatever the religion is. I think that what is more unifying — because unfortunately, religions so divide us these days, more and more. But spirituality unites us, because it’s about our humanity. And that’s where I think we really have to come together.

We’re in Advent now, and one of my favorite Advent quotes is from Thomas Merton. I have it pinned up on my wall at home. It was a Christmas card from Daniel Berrigan, and it had this quote. May I give it to you?

Ms. Tippett: Yes, please.

Mr. Sheen: This is Advent. Here’s what we’re dealing with. This is Thomas Merton on a Christmas card: “Into this world, this demented inn, where there was absolutely no room for him at all, Christ comes uninvited.” [laughs] That’s Christmas.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Sheen: You talk about religion or spirituality or keeping Christ in Christmas? [laughs] Who wants to deal with that? I love that phrase. That quote is my favorite Merton quote.

Ms. Tippett: I like that.

Mr. Sheen: “Into this demented inn.” [laughs] But Christ comes, God comes to us uninvited. We’re not out there looking, waiting for him. We think we are.

I have another phrase I use so often when I’m faced with having to do something that I know I have to do, and yet I want to put it off, procrastinate a bit. It’s: “We must accept the cup as offered, not altered.” And so we always want — “Could you pour some out, please? It’s so full.” Or “Could you put a little sugar in there, please?” Or “Maybe not today; can I take some tomorrow?” No, no, afraid not. We have to accept it as it’s offered. And so that’s what I think the full embracing of spirituality is really about. It’s about a consciousness that is not always expressed in religion, but it is in our humanity.

One thing that I wondered if — I just want to ask you a question, if I may. How — may I?

Ms. Tippett: Yes, absolutely.

Mr. Sheen: One of the things I wanted to talk to you a little bit about, if you don’t mind, is this business of prayer. Do you ask people, in your interviews, if they pray or how they pray or what they pray, or what does prayer mean to them? Have you ever gone into that area?

Ms. Tippett: It certainly comes up, but it’s not a question I would just ask somebody out of the blue, because it’s the most intimate question, right?

Mr. Sheen: Yes, it is. Yeah. This is the most curious element of the spiritual life. I’m always curious about how people pray and what images they use to go to that place where they can pray. And what does prayer mean to them? What do they expect?

Ms. Tippett: Is it something across your life that has — do you feel that prayer has changed a lot?

Mr. Sheen: Yeah, one of the most curious questions in the New Testament is the friends of Jesus saying, “Teach us how to pray.” And he gives them the Our Father. That’s the only prayer that really comes to us from the master. And how interesting that those men at that time, or at least the people in his community, asked him how to pray. That they were devout Jews, and they had a very structured form of prayer and worship and sacrifice, and that they asked him, “Teach us how to pray,” is a very curious question to me, that they wanted to go deeper. They wanted to go more personal, I guess. Most of us, you know, will pray when something — we’re in the form of a crisis or we want something or we feel we need something.

I saw an interesting thing the other day in the paper. Somebody — one of the candidates was asked where God was when 9/11 happened. And he said, “Well, there’s good and there’s evil in the world, and we have to be aware of that.” Well, my response to that would have been that God was in the towers. God was present to each individual going through that horrible — facing their own death, individually and with a community. That God is present in our deepest hungers, in our worst times as well as our best, but we often are forced to pray in ways that we can never articulate, in bad times. How often the expression is “Oh, my God,” when we see something good or evil. The expression is the same. “Oh, my God,” you know? So I’m just curious about that.

Ms. Tippett: So can I ask how you — how prayer works for you, and has that changed across your lifetime? Is it different now than it was 20 years ago?

Mr. Sheen: Oh, yeah, it changes almost daily. I feel it’s the one time where I am commanded to use my imagination, because that, I think, is where it starts, isn’t it, is with the imagination. So what do you imagine? What are you seeing? What are you feeling? What are you driving towards? Where are you during that period of prayer? That’s the thing that fascinates me. For me, the central energy of it, I guess, is at communion, at the Eucharist. And for the most part, I’m just so stunned and so joy-filled that for the most part I just say, “Thank you. Thank you for your presence. Thank you, thank you.”

[music: “Sand” by Michael Brook]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today with actor Martin Sheen. In the summer of 2003, he traced part of the legendary pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago, and later starred in a film about it, The Way, which was written and directed by his son, Emilio, and co-produced by Janet, his wife of over 50 years.

[music: “Sand” by Michael Brook]

Ms. Tippett: So let’s talk about The Way and the pilgrimage, because you’ve also said — one of the ways you describe who is Martin Sheen, who is Ramón Estévez — you are a pilgrim. Now, the road to Santiago de Compostela is this famous pilgrimage and 1,000 — no, what is it — 800 kilometers.

Mr. Sheen: It’s 800 kilometers. It’s 500 miles, yeah, and it’s 1,000 years old, and blah, blah, blah. My father was a Gallego. He was born not too far, about 70 kilometers from Santiago. He was from Vigo.

Ms. Tippett: But it is interesting that it was also a pilgrimage into your family roots, I mean back into both of your names, Martin and Ramón.

Mr. Sheen: Yes, it was. Yeah. No one had ever been given permission to film inside the cathedral in Santiago.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, I didn’t know that.

Mr. Sheen: Only newsreel footage and documentaries. They never allowed a production company in there to actually film a drama. But we prevailed upon them and said we were very respectful and we were Spanish and we were Catholic and we wanted to celebrate this. And so they let us in. They lit the cathedral for us and let us film the mass and the Botafumeiro, the huge incense burner that flies across, from ceiling to ceiling.

But pilgrimage, although it’s a physical endeavor, for the most part it’s an interior pilgrimage. It’s an interior journey. And all the pilgrims who’ve ever done it have come to that realization. You’re walking, physically — that’s something you’re doing outside, but there’s something else going on inside. And it’s the journey to your true self, I think we begin to realize, because we’re quiet and focused in a way that we normally are not. So you get six, eight, ten weeks on pilgrimage to learn about yourself and to celebrate your life.

Ms. Tippett: Well, this is so wonderful. I just want to ask you a couple more questions.

Mr. Sheen: Sure.

Ms. Tippett: I actually want to go back a little bit to The West Wing. You said that it was such an incredible experience personally, professionally, and spiritually. How would you talk about, for you, how that was spiritually significant, playing that role and being part of that series?

Mr. Sheen: Well, what we do for a living — that is, artists — is, we live on the energy of our imagination. Our imagination projects us to fulfill our work. And it is the one sure measure of authenticity, is to use your imagination to explore realities. And so working as an actor on The West Wing, reflecting the most powerful office in the world, it seemed to me the most important thing was to project the humanity of that office and that whoever occupied it had a responsibility to be more human than anyone else around him, and to trust the instinct of your humanness, to embrace all of the brokenness and the insecurities and the fear and anxiety and to trust in something higher, that as long as you were doing your best to be honest and forthright that you would come out on even ground. And I trusted that, as an actor.

And I discovered very early on that if I used different language than what had been written by Aaron Sorkin, I felt it was more realistic — “Well, I’m more Martin. Martin would say this.” And he goes, “Yeah, well, OK.” And it took me a while to embrace that. And when I finally did and got out of his way with the language, I realized that it was not Martin, it was Bartlet.

There was a scene one time, he actually — I thought it was a mistake, but in the script he had me literally banging my head on the desk in the Oval Office. And I said, “I can’t do this, Aaron. I’m sure you made a mistake.” He said, “No, if you do it, you’ll see.” And just like all imaginative artists, I was ruled by him, and I did it, and it was the only thing that I could do in the scene that reflected how the president felt at that moment.

Ms. Tippett: I actually wondered how you felt about lighting up a cigarette in a church.

Mr. Sheen: [laughs] Oh, my, my. That was not easy, because…

Ms. Tippett: No?

Mr. Sheen: That’s the National Cathedral. And when we filmed that in the National Cathedral, I was very reluctant to do that. But it was only when I did it that I understood how important it was. Here was a man who was facing despair, who was in a dialogue with the Almighty. That takes a pretty good imagination, and a big ego, to pull that off. And I remember the curators of the church were very upset about what I did. And between takes I was talking to them, and they said “We think it’s disgraceful, and it ought not be done.” And I said, “Yeah, I appreciate that, and I’m sorry you are subject to this.” And then I looked up, and exactly above my head was a stained glass image, in the window, of Job. And I said, “What a coincidence, look at that guy up there. That’s what I am down here, today.” It’s Job crying out to God, “How could you do this to me? On the other hand…” [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Sheen: It was so biblical. It was so ingrained in the Jewish community to have an open dialogue with God. That was a form of prayer.

Ms. Tippett: Where is your passion, your curiosity directed right now? Where are you feeling called to this spiritual discipline of human presence in what’s happening in the world now?

Mr. Sheen: Well, it’s so clear in the horrible situations in the Mid-East and so many countries, particularly Syria. We’ve watched this horror unravel. There is no Syria. It has become a living here that people are trying to get out of. It’s just this descent into this level of inhumanity, of this level of insanity. It’s clear to the whole world. We just watch in horror. And more violence creates more violence, and we seem thrown back into despair. Each time we move forward, we face despair.

And yet, looking at the lives coming out of that horror, these extraordinary people who risked their lives getting out and then risked their lives trying to cross Europe, trying to get to a safe haven — and to be subject to so much what I call, basically, vulgarity…

Ms. Tippett: That’s a good word.

Mr. Sheen: That they’re being stopped from coming in here or going where they can be safe. I would think that the answer to the horrors that we witnessed recently in Paris would be to open our arms even wider and embrace even more and say, “This is our answer to this insanity.” So that’s the one overriding issue that I’m immensely concerned about and that I am troubled by.

Ms. Tippett: You said somewhere, or wrote, I think, “I don’t know what salvation means in a personal sense. For me, a better word is freedom” — which I think for you is connected with this idea that you keep bringing home about your core of gratitude and community and love and these things as the basis for your action. I mean, you’re not talking about freedom as autonomy or isolation or mere independence — I mean, it might have a quality of independence. You’re talking about freedom as connected to community in some way, I think. That’s what I hear coming through.

Mr. Sheen: Yes, exactly. So often people get stuck — and I did, myself — on the spiritual journey, if you will, with piety. And that is a terrible stumbling block. I have nothing against piety, but I think that piety is the road. It is not the destination. If being pious leads you to a form of personal reflection and acceptance of a higher power, then it has its purpose. But it has to be discarded, in the larger picture, in favor of the community. Because piety is something that you do, or you tend to do, alone. And true freedom, spirituality, can only be achieved in community, even if the community is only imagined. I mean someone living in a cell by themselves, alone, in repression, in the darkest of times: still, they are in community.

That’s the wonderful thing, that image that Catholicism uses and refers to as the communion of saints, that even after we are gone, we are still a part of something that’s very much alive and we respond to. And our church is — thank heaven for this extraordinary man, Francis, who is teaching us that our church has to be less a museum for saints than it should be a hospital for sinners.

Ms. Tippett: OK. [laughs]

Mr. Sheen: But that’s — I love the community of saints — and sinners. [laughs] You can’t really separate them. You can’t identify one without the other, which is wonderful, because that’s community. But I feel a part of a community even when I’m distanced from it.

The greatest mysteries are the simplest ones. Those are the ones that we confront every day. I had a conversation once with a priest. I was traveling and went to confession in this very remote place. And this guy was wonderful, and we were having a theological conversation in the confessional. And suddenly, he said, “Well, we don’t know what God is, do we?” [laughs] And he said it as if — “Well, you know, maybe I ran into someone who did. I’m not going to foreclose that possibility.”

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right. And?

Mr. Sheen: What it says is, every time we try to identify God, we are sure to identify what he is certainly — what she is certainly not. So we don’t know what God is. And the genius of God, to dwell where we would least likely look, within the depths of our own being, our own shallowness, our own darkness, our own humanity — that’s the genius of God.

Ms. Tippett: Well, Martin Sheen, Ramón Estévez, thank you so much for this beautiful conversation. It’s been wonderful to meet you.

Mr. Sheen: Thank you very much. Now you know what a windbag I am. [laughs]

[music: “A Walk” by Tycho]

Ms. Tippett: Ramón Estévez, also known as Martin Sheen, has appeared in over 100 films, including Badlands, Apocalypse Now, and The Way, as well as on television in The West Wing and, most recently, in the Netflix series Grace and Frankie.

[music: “A Walk” by Tycho]

Staff: On Being is: Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Mann, Selena Carlson, Carolyn Friedhoff, and Katherine Kwong.

[music: “Su Melodia” by Federico Aubele]

Ms. Tippett: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoe Keating. And the last voice you hear, singing our final credits in each show, is hip-hop artist Lizzo. On Being was created at American Public Media.

Our funding partners include:

The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.

Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.

The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.

The Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.

And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation, dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.

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