Author Jim Forest, chronicler of giants like Day and Berrigan, reinforced many
Jim ForestRobert Ellsberg
In 1966, Jim Forest, then 24 years old, received what he would later call the most important letter of his life. It was from the great Trappist monk Thomas Merton, whom he had befriended a few years earlier when he was editor of The Catholic Worker. At this time, Forest had pondered a possible monastic vocation, but Merton—who was then “coming out” as a prophetic voice for peace and nonviolence—informed him that his true calling was in the peace movement.
Jim had heeded this advice, co-founding the Catholic Peace Fellowship, trying to stir up opposition to the war in Vietnam. But now, as the war continued to escalate, he felt more and more desperate. Who listened to the voice of the peacemakers? What difference did their efforts make?
In a lengthy response, Merton wrote, “Don’t rely on hope for results. When you do the kind of work you have undertaken, essentially apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be seemingly worthless. and even get no results.” Merton advised Jim to invest in slogans or build an identity in his witness as a way to shield himself from nothingness.
“Real hope,” Merton wrote, “is not in something we think we can do, but in God making it good in ways we cannot see.”
Jim took those words to heart. They engaged him in a life of extraordinary dedication to the gospel call of peacemaking—which, as he came to understand, was more than just “anti-war.” “In the end,” Merton had noted, “it’s the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”
In many ways, Jim’s life has been shaped by his personal relationships with many great peacemakers of our time, including Merton, Dorothy Day, Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan. Ultimately, he took their gifts and lessons and paid for them: not just in the biographies he would write about each of them, but in his role as a friend, mentor, and spiritual companion to many. others, including me.
Jim died on January 13 at the age of 80 at his adopted home in Alkmaar, the Netherlands. Since then, I have reflected on the deep and mysterious ways in which our journeys were intertwined. A sign of this came in 1976, when, as a young editor of The Catholic Worker, I published an edited version of Merton’s letter to Jim as “Letter to a Young Militant”. In this form and with this title, it achieved worldwide fame – in fact, surprisingly, the most frequently reprinted text of anything Merton ever wrote. (You can easily find it online.)
But our first meeting was actually in 1972, when I was 16 and attended an anti-war rally with my father in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I remember how touched I was by the care and encouragement Jim gave me as a youngster, at the start of my own journey. When I reminded him of this recently, he said, “How nice to know that you’ve been the kind of person you’d like to be!”
But that kind of caring was a hallmark of Jim’s approach to life. While peacemaking, ideally, is about making friends with enemies, for Jim it also meant making friends with strangers. Very often, I have seen him display this same receptive openness to the people he met during his conferences or who were lining up afterwards for an autograph.
He took seriously those who wrote to him with personal or spiritual questions. Often he counseled them with words that echoed Merton. Responding to someone who wrote, “I find myself losing faith in believers,” he wrote, “Fortunately, we don’t have to have faith in believers, only in Jesus.
Our deep friendship really began in 1974 when I traveled to Paris to seek out Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk and Zen master, who lived there in exile. As my interest was largely inspired by reading Jim’s articles in Fellowship, it was an unexpected bonus that my visit there overlapped with Jim. During a parallel pilgrimage to Chartres Cathedral, we began a conversation that would last half a century.
A year later, inspired in part by Jim, I took time off from college to join Day at the Catholic Worker. Not knowing exactly how this was done, I relied on Jim to make a call and see if there was an empty bed at St. Joseph House. (Providently there were.) And so I literally left Jim’s house to begin a five-year stint at what Jim liked to call “Dorothy Day University.”
When Jim moved to Holland to serve as General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, our friendship continued through his prolific letter writing skills. But we met each time he returned to the United States. On one such occasion, we shared an experience that proved surprisingly fateful for Jim’s later life. It happened when we went to the cinema and chose “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears”, an Oscar for best foreign film of the year.
For audiences accustomed to seeing the Russian people entirely through the lens of the Cold War, the film offered a basic human story of three young Russian women, tracing over the decades their friendship, their hopes, their joys, their sorrows and their search for love. Although Jim spent decades promoting peace and reconciliation between opposing Cold War sides, he realized how little he knew about the Russian people today.
Inspired by this film, he undertook several journeys, during which he was particularly moved by the resilient faith he witnessed. The end result was his decision, along with his wife, Nancy, to embrace the Russian Orthodox faith.
Jim Forest, left, and Robert Ellsberg (Courtesy Robert Ellsberg)
Jim has always been a prolific writer. (Dozens of his essays on the spirituality of peacemaking can be found on his website: jimandnancyforest.com.) But with my arrival in 1987 as editor at Orbis Books, Jim embarked on a incredibly fruitful new phase of his writing. life.
Over the years, we have worked together on more than ten books, including a series of illustrated biographies: Living Wisely: A Life of Thomas Merton, All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day and At Play in the Lion’s Den: Biography and Memoirs of Daniel Berrigan. He completed this series in his senior year with Eyes of Compassion: Learning from Thich Nhat Hanh. (By a curious coincidence, Nhat Hanh’s death at age 95 would follow only a few days after Jim’s.)
Based on this series alone, Jim would have made an incomparable contribution to future generations. But along the way, he shared his own wisdom as a spiritual teacher in books such as pray with icons, The scale of the Beatitudes and love our enemies. In The road to Emmaushe wrote about living in the spirit of pilgrimage, “a way of life that opens up an unexpected encounter with Jesus in our daily life”.
He developed this theme in his own memoirs, Write straight with curved lines, which traced a history of “conversion in progress”. This story was not just about the tortuous line between his childhood Communist home and his life as a Christian peacemaker, a chronicle marked by his encounters with notable figures, his time in prison for burning draft files with the Milwaukee 14, and his own “pilgrimage with disease.” (After years of dialysis, he was saved by Nancy’s kidney donation.)
With honesty and compassion, he also recounted experiences of doubt, uncertainty and failure, especially in certain relationships, before reuniting with his soul mate, Nancy, his wife of 40 years.
My role as Jim’s editor has incorporated so many threads of our shared history. But there was so much more: our work together to promote the legacy of Dorothy Day; his countless visits to my home, where he met my children and befriended them; his encouragement to my own life as a writer on the saints. And then: the constant prayers and messages as he accompanied me through the moments of greatest joy as well as through long dark nights. Indeed, as he proved, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.
Fortunately, as Jim said, we don’t have to trust “people of faith”. But Jim’s faithfulness, his humanity, his capacity for wonder and joy, his laughter and his tears, his knowing when to speak and when to be silent, strengthened the faith of many.
At times Jim seemed to doubt the importance of his own testimony, wondering if his own life was a pale imitation of the characters he so admired. One evening he told me that he sometimes thought of all his great mentors, wishing he could match Merton’s capacity for contemplation, or Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness, or Day’s spirit of hospitality, or Berrigan’s courageous testimony. I said, “If only they could see how much you’ve returned their love!”
There is no place in a lifetime for many friendships that last 50 years. We are blessed to even have one. But I carry from Jim not only his love, but seeds that have been planted in him by so many other teachers and mentors along the way. I can only try to be as faithful as Jim in caring for these seeds and passing them on.
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