Two lost voices
Chris McDonnell 28 January 28 2022
Jim Forest November 1941 – January 2022
Thich Nhat Hanh October 1926 – January 2022
Within a few days of each other two resonant voices have been lost, the Christian writer Jim Forest and the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
I first met Jim through a second-hand bookshop in Brighton.
Running back to the car late on a Saturday afternoon in a bitter cold January dusk, I came to the bookshop. Opening the door, I called out to the owner “Have you any books about the American monk, Thomas Merton?” His hand went to the bottom of a stack of books on a nearby table and pulled out a book. “Will this do?”
For £2 he sold me Jim’s book ‘A pictorial biography of Thomas Merton’. When I got back to the car, I found it had been signed by Jim Forest. Later, I e-mailed Jim via his US publisher and he responded. Little did I know then that we were starting a corresponding friendship that would span nearly 30 years.
Jim had a widespread audience through his many books and lecture tours. Following his reception into the Catholic Church in 1960, he worked with the Catholic Worker Movement in New York City alongside the redoubtable Dorothy Day, editing the movement’s news sheet The Catholic Worker. He would later write an acclaimed biography of Dorothy Day, ‘All is grace’. With the growing impact of the war in Vietnam, he became active in the US Peace movement. Late in the 60s he would serve 13 months in jail for burning draft records in Milwaukee. Four years ago he published a memoir of another peace activist, the Jesuit, Daniel Berrigan – ‘At Play in the Lion’s Den’. Jim’s writing was invigorated and informed by his own participation in the events of his time and by the people he knew. Another correspondent of his was Thomas Merton. One day whilst he was working with Dorothy Day, she received a letter from Merton which she passed on to Jim for reply. In Merton’s Collected Correspondence there are included a number of letters with Jim. I have often wished that we could read Jim’s side of the story. He would later write on Merton’s attitude to the Peace Movement in his book ‘The Root of War is fear’.
A while back Jim collected his own thoughts of his life, ‘Writing straight with crooked lines’, written for his grandchildren so that they might know something of their grandfather. It is a marvellous record of a turbulent period of time.
Being within the Orthodox community in Alkmaar, Jim was very attached to icons. When we met at a conference in Oxford in the late 90s, I gave Jim an icon I had made. Before thanking me he reverentially kissed the image. He gathered his reflections on the place of icons in his Christian life in his book ‘Praying with Icons’.
His final publication, ‘Eyes of Compassion: Living with Thich Nhat Hanh’, an illustrated memoir of the Buddhist monk, came out only a few months ago. That Thay -teacher- should pass on his journey just a few days after Jim is the closing of yet another door. Jim has left us all a written record that will stand the test of time and an example of faith for all to see.
Thich Nhat Hanh died a few days after Jim, in the Buddhist temple in the city of Hue in central Vietnam, the same temple where he had become a monk so many years ago. He had no idea then where his life path would lead him, for he was to become an internationally known figure for peace and reconciliation. That was recognised in the widespread press coverage of his death. Fluent in seven languages, he lectured at Princeton and Columbia universities in the early 60s, developing his teaching of ‘mindfulness’. Back on March 6th of last year I wrote a piece for La Croix – ‘A bowl of rice’. In that article I recounted the story of Jim and Thay washing up after supper. It bears repeating:
“ After supper one night, Thay held an empty rice bowl and said, “Jim, think of all the threads that are passing through this bowl. Think of the people who made it. Think of those who taught them their craft. Think of the people who played a part in learning to make a bowl that could last through many meals. Think of the people who dug the clay. Think of the fire that making this dish required. Think of the wood cutters. Think of all the meals that have been served in it. Think of the people who made the meals and of those who taught them their skills. Think of the farmers who grew the food we eat from this bowl. Think of all the light that has brightened this bowl. Think of the water that has washed this bowl, water that has fallen as rain and disappeared into rivers and oceans and risen into the air as clouds and then fallen again as rain. In such thinking you are only beginning to see this bowl. The whole universe is present in this bowl.”
Thay returned to Vietnam after his long exile in the West. During his many years of teaching and writing, he had offered us a glimpse of Buddhist teaching and had been a constant voice for peace in the country of his birth. He was nominated for the Nobel peace prize by Martin Luther King but because King made public his nomination, it was not considered. What a pity that an opportunity to recognize him was lost. In November of 2014 he suffered a severe stroke which robbed him of speech, but his gentle presence remained within his community. He advocated ‘walking meditation’ urging people to ‘walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet’
During Lockdown I wrote these few lines after reading Jim’s book on Thay.
Cup open hands and catch the clear spring water,
cold and sparkling, as it spills over worn rocks.
Gently press your damp hands together
in greeting another with a peaceful gesture.
Speak in gratitude for who you are, remembering
who you might become, sometime distant.
Take time to act in mindful measure, not rushing
in a careless manner, anxious always to be done.
Breathe the soft fragrance from a vase of flowers
whose long green stalks silently drink cool water.
Listen to the solitary bird sing from the ridge tiles
high in wind-swept isolation before taking to wing.
Watch the quiet, four-footed walk of the house cat,
moving with purpose, unhurriedly passing through
the kitchen to settle on a rug by the warming stove.
Laugh softly, and in each moment, rest in peace
Lives lived in the company of these two men have been touched by the experience and we should be grateful for it. May they both rest in the peace of the Lord as we continue on our journey in faith.