Jim Forest. Voices for Peace Conference. April 2018. Toronto.
(Photo: Cassidy Hall)
I stood in the middle of St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam, anxiously looking around. I was late and was desperately trying to lay eyes on Jim Forest. We were to meet there. He had agreed to give me an hour of his time after church.
I knew of Jim from reading his correspondence with Thomas Merton, and I knew that Merton’s prophetic work, Faith and Violence, had been dedicated to Jim when it was published in 1968. I knew that Jim had, along with Protestant and Catholic activists, attended a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1964, organized by Thomas Merton. Most of those who attended went on to gain the distinction of being imprisoned for their peace advocacy and civil disobedience. But I had no idea that Jim Forest was still alive until I came across a post he submitted to the International Thomas Merton Society Facebook page.
Here was a direct link to Merton and a living example of Gospel peacemaking! I immediately contacted him. I had no idea what to expect, but knowing my wife Tania and I were headed for Amsterdam in a couple months, I asked if he would be willing to meet me and talk about Merton and peacemaking. He agreed, offering an hour of his time.
There was a lot of movement in St. Nicholas Church—people in and out, fathers carrying small children to kiss icons—so I felt free to wander around in the hopes of sighting Jim. When we finally crossed paths, he immediately took me to where he was sitting, introduced me to his wife, Nancy, and told me she would translate for me. Afterwards we toured the church and Jim introduced me to at least a half dozen friends.
The hour interview turned into three hours at a local pub. What started as an opportunity to learn of his friendship with Merton and his work in peace advocacy shifted into a free-wheeling discussion. The three of us spoke with candor of our spiritual journeys and our desire to heed Christ’s call to radical discipleship. We ended by exchanging pictures of our grandchildren.
My experience of Jim Forest was not unique. Meeting Jim Forest was to perceive him as a friend.
Jim stayed with us when he came to Toronto to speak at the inaugural Voices for Peace Conference. In addition to many meals together and the Conference, I was with him at interviews for Salt and Light TV and Encountering Silence, a lecture at St. John the Compassionate Mission, preaching at Church of the Redeemer, a trip to the Art Gallery of Ontario, a performance by Opera Atelier, and informal pub gatherings. Cassidy Hall came up from Los Angeles, and the four of us talked long into each night after supper. Every single day Jim caught up with Nancy on Face Time. Every morning he was up ahead of us, spending time in prayer.
In all of these situations Jim gave his complete attention to whoever was speaking with him. Each was locked into his compassionate gaze and treated as though they were the most important person in the world. It was the same for the Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches as for the barista who thrilled him by sculpting an elephant in the foam of his latte.
That concentrated attention and loving wonder filled Jim’s life. He would jokingly say he went to “Dorothy Day University,” but there was no one more curious or more well-read. His curiosity extended beyond literature and theology, into poetry, art, and music. He didn’t hoard what he learned. He put it into service for others. There was never a question asked that was taken lightly, the response thoughtfully drawn from his rich well of learning and experience. Jim’s attentiveness extended into the natural world. A leaf or a puddle seen on his morning prayer walk, or tomatoes sliced by Nancy while preparing supper, could become the subject of his photography. Something would catch his attention and he would wonder at its simplicity and beauty, and capture it on his phone or camera.
Jim’s spirituality crossed all boundaries. His books were endorsed by Evangelicals, Catholics, Anglicans, Protestants, and Buddhists. Most were short, written in a simple and direct style, integrating theological reflection with his own lived experience and his gift of being a natural storyteller. He never sought to convert; he sought to listen, to learn, to influence. His book on icons opened my heart to a new way of prayer; for my brother, it became the framework that grounded the aesthetic required for filming Handel’s Resurrection.
Everyone saw Jim Forest as their friend. Realizing this provokes me to ask why.
Jim Forest modelled a spirituality of friendship. It grew organically in his life from seeds planted by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker; it was fertilized by contemplative influences like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, and watered by Thich Nhat Hanh’s attentiveness to the importance of consciousness and the present moment. It was fed by the richness of Orthodox liturgy. But most significantly, it was nurtured by a deep understanding of the incarnation and long meditation on the Beatitudes, which he often silently recited on his morning walks.
Jim’s spiritualty of friendship was a spirituality of love. You catch a sense of this watching the opening section of Cassidy Hall’s Encountering Silence podcast interview (Part One and Part Two of podcast; Part One and Part Two of video). The first words out of Jim’s mouth are, “I’ve fallen in love with you, as a daughter…a spiritual daughter. I’ve enjoyed reading your book…and I’m looking forward to seeing the film.” He then invites her to his home in Alkmaar to meet Nancy. The interview took place in our home. I had introduced them only forty-eight hours earlier, but already there is an acknowledgement of a deep spiritual love and an invitation to share that love with Jim’s family (Part One video at 2:23-2:50).
The barista, Cassidy, and the Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches can be openly embraced because, in the mystery of that embrace, Jim had the expectation that he would meet the risen Christ. But it went both ways. Those of us who met Jim felt in his compassionate and attentive gaze that we had somehow encountered Christ. In Amsterdam I thought I was going to an interview, but came away feeling I had made friends. During the intensity of his week in Toronto I had the sense that, for the first time in my life, I was in the presence of holiness.
Thomas Merton caught something of this, writing that “sanctity is not a matter of being less human, but more human…The saint…sees in all things and in all men…the object of the divine compassion…He wants himself to be simply a window through which God’s mercy shines on the world” (Life and Holiness, pp. 21, 24).
Jim modelled a way of being in the world that transcended divisions: there was no such thing as friend or enemy, denominational or religious divisions. There is only our unity in Christ and the wonder of the divine presence in the world. It was not a way of being that drew attention to himself, but one that has inspired me to contemplative prayer, to attentiveness, and to wonder; not to look to Jim Forest, but to look to Christ. The gift of Jim’s friendship to so many is the gift of that sort of sanctity that draws our gaze toward Christ, and then, in mercy, toward the world.
November 2, 1941 ~ January 13, 2022
Paul Pynkoski is a retired civil servant, the facilitator for literature and film discussions at the Anglican Church of the Redeemer’s drop-in program in Toronto, and a founding member of Voices for Peace, an annual ecumenical conference on peacemaking. He has written for Orthodoxy in Dialogue, The Anglican, and The Merton Seasonal. He also serves as secretary of the International Thomas Merton Society.