Jim Forest. Mount Athos. 2017.
(Photo: Vincent van Buuren)
How to start writing about a friend whose life was so full and rich that he himself could not cover it all in his own autobiography, Writing Straight with Crooked Lines? I will write more about some of my precious memories than about the biographical details which are widely known and available on the internet.
Jim and Nancy were received into the Orthodox Church in 1988. After my own conversion to Orthodoxy in 2004, they soon became my friends. I visited them many times in their home in Alkmaar in the Netherlands. Frequently they offered me to stay for the night although the train journey home was only 45 minutes. I always gladly accepted their offer, as spending time with them was so precious for me, especially in that period of my life as I was discovering Orthodoxy. Many times I went to see them on a Friday evening. They always watched a movie on DVD on Friday evening and they introduced me to many beautiful movies that meant a lot to them. Watching a movie with them always led to an interesting conversation afterwards. Any conversation with Jim and Nancy was interesting, as Jim was so often sharing experiences from his rich life. The people he knew—such as Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Daniel Berrigan, Thich Nat Hanh, Joan Baez, Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh and Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware)—enriched his life. He was often sharing about what knowing them meant to him. He did this also in the many books he wrote. I have most of them, some of them with a personal dedication to me by Jim.
To anyone who does not know about his life I recommend reading his memoir, Writing Straight with Crooked Lines. Not only does it give a fascinating insight in the rich life of one of the most important Christian peace activists of our time and of his spiritual journey, but it is also a beautiful historical account of the time in which he was living. One of his other books that is particularly significant to me is Praying with Icons, as I was involved in proofreading and correcting the Dutch translation of the revised and extended edition. It is at the same time a book about how icons are used in Orthodox prayers and an account of Jim and Nancy’s path to Orthodoxy.
As a peace activist, Jim worked for the Fellowship of Reconciliation in America. He was one of the Milwaukee Fourteen who spent thirteen months in prison for burning draft records. His work for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation brought him to the Netherlands. After being received into the Orthodox Church, he was co-founder and secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.
Jim loved literature and poetry, a passion he shared with Nancy, who is a translator. The house in Alkmaar is full of books. One day I was visiting Jim in Alkmaar on a beautiful warm day in spring and we went for a walk. We came past a memorial for people who had been killed in the second World War. I mentioned to Jim the poetry of Wilfred Owen, which means a lot to me and that I came to know originally through taking part as a singer in performances of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. Of course, Jim was also familiar with these poems. I know by heart most of the poems Britten used. I started quoting them, and soon both Jim and I were in tears. Some time later I bought the DVD of a performance to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first performance in Coventry Cathedral, recorded live in Coventry Cathedral. I was so impressed by the beautiful performance that I wanted to share it with Jim and Nancy, and I invited them over for dinner. We watched the DVD after dinner. At the end all three of us were in tears.
Jim was a member and reader of the Russian Orthodox Parish of St. Nicholas in Amsterdam. In our parish we alternate between Slavonic and Dutch and sometimes English. Jim was reading in English. After I became a reader I frequently stood together with Jim and a Slavonic reader for the thanksgiving prayers at the end of the Liturgy, changing languages after each prayer. Praying together with Jim is another treasured memory.
It is a privilege to have known him and to have been his friend. He leaves behind an enormous void that is filled by the many precious memories and his books. Eternal memory!
Editor’s note: Mr. van Buuren was the first to inform Orthodoxy in Dialogue of Jim Forest’s falling asleep in the Lord.
Vincent van Buuren is a musician and photographer. He is also a reader, singer, and conductor in the Russian Orthodox Parish in Amsterdam.