Remembering A Man Who Made His Life ‘An Island Of Peace’

Jim Forest, who died January 13 was a champion of compassion and prophetic voice in the search for peace.

During the Trump years, I had the chance to interview the great peace activist and spirituality author Jim Forest. I asked Jim how he thought people should counteract the growing vitriol and nationalism in the U.S. I expected this veteran of countless anti-war and civil rights demonstrations would say something like, “March! Take to the streets and protest!” His answer was quite the opposite.

“It’s a time for pray-ins,” Jim said. “It’s not a time to get out in the streets and create a climate of greater rage.” Instead, try to make of your life “an island of peace.”

He added, “Learn to walk more slowly, to breathe more mindfully, to take unwelcome tasks like washing the dishes and waiting in line in the supermarket and make them into sacramental events. Pray instead of grumbling.”

I should not have been surprised. It was a fitting response from someone who had spent a lifetime advocating for peace in the midst of war, for non-violent solutions to any kind of conflict.

When Jim died last week in the Netherlands, his adopted home, our world lost one of its foremost champions of compassion. Jim showed us how to be contemplatives in action, how to remain a beacon of hope in an often hellish world.

It is hard to highlight just a few events from Jim’s extraordinary life. As a young man, he helped edit the Catholic Worker newspaper where his mentor was none other than Dorothy Day. She treated him like a son. Thomas Merton was another of his spiritual guides. He was a close friend of peace and justice activist Father Daniel Berrigan. He traveled extensively with the Buddhist monk and mystic Thich Nhat Hanh.

As a young man, Jim Forest helped edit the Catholic Worker newspaper where his mentor was Dorothy Day, who treated him like a son.

Jim co-founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship at a time when many Catholic bishops openly supported the conflict in Vietnam. With Fellowship co-founder Tom Cornell, he created a 32-page booklet to help young men eligible for the draft seek conscientious objector status. At the time, “the possibility of being a conscientious objector was a well-kept secret,” Jim later recalled. “One never heard of conscientious objection from the pulpit or in the classrooms of Catholic schools.”

I met Jim for the first time several years ago when I was reporting on faith and values for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly on PBS-TV. I was asked to introduce him at an event sponsored by the International Thomas Merton Society at the Chicago Cenacle Retreat Center. I later had the opportunity to interview Jim for both print and radio.

Jim Forest’s autobiography, completed two years ago.

Most people treat journalists as either nuisances or threats. Jim treated me as a friend. I was deeply honored when he asked me to write an endorsement for his 2020 memoir, “Writing Straight with Crooked Lines,” in which he chronicles his extraordinary spiritual journey.

One of Jim’s most enduring legacies centers on a letter he received after writing as a despondent 24-year-old in 1966 to Thomas Merton. Jim felt that his efforts to promote peace were doing little to stop the escalating Vietnam War. Merton wrote back with this famous advice, which has been cited on book marks and posters and translated into many languages:

“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect … Concentrate … on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself … ”

Merton then added, “In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”

Forest wrote on the life of his mentor, Thomas Merton.

Many times I’ve recalled Merton’s advice to Jim when I was questioning the meaning and effectiveness of my own work. “Concentrate on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.”

Though his health was failing, Jim gave two online talks last year that I attended. One was in June for the International Thomas Merton Society in which he talked about the Christian call to be warriors for peace in “an Army that sheds no blood.”

He also prepared an online talk in February 2021 for the annual Peace & Justice Gathering of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Camden, NJ. Jim was hospitalized a few days before he was to give his talk. Still, he attended from his hospital bed, though his wife Nancy had to read his prepared comments.

In the talk, Jim enumerated the many moral and physical challenges facing our world — racial tensions, climate change, pandemic, political division. Then true to form, he quickly added, “But what I want to say is about hope.”

He talked about learning from Dorothy Day about “the duty of hope.” Recalling what Thomas Merton had taught him, he said hope isn’t ultimately “in something we think we can do, but in God who is weaving gold out of the straw of our imperfect efforts.”

Jim said he had cultivated over the years “a cathedral builder’s mentality.” Those who worked on building the great cathedrals of Europe knew it would take decades — in some cases, centuries — before the work was complete. Still they kept on building, knowing their work was for future generations.

Jim ended his talk noting, “Every time our heart beats, every time we notice beauty, every time we respond with love rather than fear, the moment becomes a Paschal moment.”

He recently shared on Facebook one of his favorite passages from “Les Miserables” in which Victor Hugo ruminates on prayer:

“Let us take nothing from the human mind; to suppress is bad. We must reform and transform. Certain faculties in man are directed towards the Unknown: thought, revery, prayer. The Unknown is an ocean.”

Like his mentors — Merton, Day and Berrigan — Jim is now part of that vast Unknown we will all one day experience. His spirit remains behind to guide us. As a new year unfolds, can we strive to adopt a “cathedral builder’s mentality?” Can we be faithful to our “duty of hope?” Can we strive to make of our lives, as Jim did, “an island of peace?”

Thomas Merton’s “Letter to a Young Activist’ written to Jim Forest in 1966 is one of the most quoted letters of the 20th century.

Jim Forest’s June 2021 Talk for the Tuesdays With Merton Lecture Series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0tNsRtr-uGo

Jim Forest’s February 2021 talk for Sacred Heart Catholic Church Peace & Justice Gathering: https://jimandnancyforest.com/2021/02/the-duty-of-hope/

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Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.

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Judith Valente

Judith Valente

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.

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