Chris McDonnell CT May 29th 2020
Returning to the multi-story park where I had left my car, I passed by a second hand bookshop that was about to close. It was a cold January Saturday evening in the early 80s in Brighton. I open the door and called into the owner about to shut up shop “Got any books by the American monk, Thomas Merton?”
He reached to the bottom of a stack on his small counter, pulled one out and responded “Will this do?” It was a pictorial biography of Merton by Jim Forest. I paid the asking price of £2 and ran for the car before the parking ticket expired. Once there, I opened the book to discover that it was signed and dated by the author. After I had read it, I wrote to Jim via his American publishers, Orbis Books. – We have been in touch with each other ever since.
It was with a degree of anticipation that I recently opened his new book with its imaginative title “Writing straight with crooked lines”. It is a book that has lived up to its promise. It tells the story of his life and activity that, in time, parallels my own for we are the same age.
My book shelves are populated with books written by or about people and events he records from personal experience. It is a rich and complex story that he recounts so well.
His early involvement with the Catholic Worker movement in New York City introduced him to Dorothy Day. For a period of time he edited the movement’s newspaper. It was through his association with Day that he began a correspondence with Thomas Merton, publishing Merton’s seminal essay ‘The root of war is fear’ in the October 1961 edition. Later he became involved with the anti-war movement, helping found the Catholic Peace Fellowship protesting the US war in Vietnam. He was one of those arrested for burning draft records in Milwaukee in the Fall of ‘68. He was later to serve time (he refers to it as his ‘sabbatical’) for that act of conscience.
He was associated with Dan Berrigan SJ, who died four years ago, in promoting the cause of Peace. Forest’s biography of Berrigan, ‘At Play in the Lion’s Den’, offers a full and detailed account of Dan’s life-long dedication to the cause of non-violence.
It was through such activity that he came to know the Buddhist Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, a man truly significant in his own right as a renowned teacher of mindfulness.
Jim Forest’s memoir of his life tells the story of our time. It chronicles the politics and pressures of the Cold War years, the social challenges that it has been our lot to encounter and the degree of success or failure with which we have met them.
Living as we do in an age where our actions are so often governed by expediency, it is a delight to read that for some the easy route is not an option. Principles do matter, they have importance and years lived in a principled way deserve our respect.
At the same time as the political turmoil and social upheaval of the 60s was demanding our attention, the gathering of Bishops attending the Vatican Council was reinvigorating the Church.
It was a time of expectant hope, with a vibrancy in the air that promised so much. It was a time of renewal, with an urgent expectancy that real change was possible. It was the time when we received the encyclical letter of John XXIII published in April 1963. It emphasized human dignity and equality among all people. Pacem in Terris was addressed “to all people of goodwill”. It was a time of challenge, a decade that concluded with the first men landing on earth’s satellite, our moon.
Jim’s Christian journey has brought him to the Russian Orthodox tradition (he describes himself as ‘a Catholic on loan to the Orthodox Church’) where he remains in his home in Holland today. He and his wife, Nancy belong to a parish in Amsterdam. It has been a path of crooked lines indeed but throughout his abiding faith in the Christ has been his guiding inspiration.
Jim is a person who has lived a full and principled life, a writer, an activist who hasn’t shied away from the difficult options but faced them full-on and accepted the consequences. His life has had an honesty that is reflected in this memoir. It is a compelling read telling of personal cost, a journey in the company of others whose names are full of significance in our time.
It is worth concluding these few words with a cover comment by Rowan Williams:-
“Jim Forest’s record of an exceptional life of witness and discipleship is a unique record of both activism and deep spiritual discovery. It is a precious testament to a whole age of generous and risky Christian radicalism-and as such it is water in our contemporary wilderness.”
It is a book worth reading for Jim has a compelling narrative to relate.