Jim Forest, a longtime Catholic peace activist, is the author of many books, including Praying with Icons and biographies of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and Dan Berrigan.
At age 27, he got himself arrested as part of the Milwaukee Fourteen, when in September of 1968 a group of peace activists raided a consortium of nine draft boards all located in one downtown office building. Among the activists were five Catholic priests, one of them a Benedictine monk. Included in the mix was also a minister from the Church of Scientology.
“My knees shook every inch of the way,” Forest confesses in his recently released Orbis Books memoir, Writing Straight with Crooked Lines. “The nine doors were opened, the many burlap sacks we had brought with us were filled to bursting with 1-A files---10,000 of them, it was estimated during the trial---and dragged out to the park across the street. Napalm, made ourselves according to a recipe found in the US Army Special Forces Handbook, was poured on the files and a match struck.” Once the fire was raging, the group prayed the “Our Father” and sang “We Shall Overcome.”
In his memoir, Forest admits having second thoughts about his involvement in the Milwaukee Fourteen. A single father of a young son at the time, Forest writes, “…It troubles me that I put work for social change ahead of my responsibilities for him [Ben], much as my father had done to me during my own childhood.”
Forest finds it ironic that the judge who arraigned the group after their arrest was named Christ Seraphim. Six months later, the jury—eight of whom were Catholic-- found the group guilty. Forest writes that he “then spent the better part of a year under lock and key,” where he led a mostly monastic life despite his wide band of supporters which included New Yorker staff writer Francine du Plessix Gary, who sent him books and an Olivetti portable typewriter.
The names of Forest’s associates and the people he interacted with during his long career as an editor and peace activist would fill a substantially thick Who’s Who volume.
The book includes fascinating stories about Dan and Phil Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Goodman, Henri Nouwen, Ed Sanders, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A.J. Muste, Thich Nhat Hanh, Gary Synder, Pete Seeger, and many others.
Jim Forest was born in a Latter-Day Saints hospital in Salt Lake City in 1941 to American Communist parents. ”Mother was, I gradually realized, a Methodist atheist and Dad was a Catholic atheist,” Forest writes, adding, “As a child I once asked Mother, ‘Is there a God?’ She paused and then replied, ‘I don’t think so.’ What struck me more than her words was the sorrow in her voice.”
The family moved to Chicago and after that Denver where they would picnic in the Rocky Mountains. A younger brother, Dick, “grew from a bothersome infant into a cheerful companion,” although life was really terrible at home. In June 1944, Forest’s Dad, up to his neck in an extramarital affair, filed for a divorce. Forest recalls the excoriating scene of his father leaving the house, suitcase in hand: “I can still feel the tears on my face and hear myself pleading: Dad, please take me with you.”
Dad’s exodus was the catalyst for Mrs. Forest’s rebirth, as she went on to receive her master’s degree in social work from the University of Denver, afterwards taking her small family to New York where they rented an apartment in Red Bank, New Jersey.
A little boy with a wide Cheshire cat grin, Forest was already doing little acts of civil disobedience. In the school cafeteria one day, he decided that the green peas on his plate “tasted rotten” so he refused to eat them despite threats from the kitchen manager. “I sat alone at the table in silence the rest of the day, ignoring a series of demands from several people, including the school principal,” Forest writes. In the end, the adult pea-advocates gave up; they were no match for Forest’s obstinacy.
Driven by a wanderlust from an early age, Forest convinced his Mother he was mature enough to travel alone at 12 from New Jersey to visit Dad in Saint Louis. One year later, at 13, he took a transcontinental Greyhound bus trip to Los Angeles where his father was then living. The 3,500-mile bus trip included traveling through a tornado in the Texas panhandle and a near death experience in Arizona’s Grand Canyon when he opted to hike into the canyon while waiting for a connecting bus.
In Los Angeles, he lived with his father and attended a local high school. A LIFE Magazine article on The Beat generation caused him to travel to Santa Monica to visit the Beat Café featured in the piece. But instead of finding Allen Ginsberg reading his poem Howl and interesting people in black turtlenecks, he found the same mundane conversations he’d heard in roadside diners. “No poetry was being read, nor was anyone discussing existentialism,” he writes.
At age seventeen, in 1959, after returning to Red Bank, he dropped out of school and joined the Navy.
It was in the Navy that his religious sensibility began to take shape. The catalyst was Audrey Hepburn in “The Nun’s Story,” a movie Forest saw one Saturday night at the base. While expressing embarrassment at having a mystical experience while watching a movie, he concludes: “The old question ‘Is there a God?’ evaporated. I would never again begin a prayer, ‘Oh God, if there is a God...’”
The next day he attended Mass at the base chapel. He was now thinking of becoming a monk so on the advice of a friend he took a Greyhound bus to Holy Cross monastery, an Episcopal congregation of monks near West Point on the Hudson. On the way to the retreat he bought a copy of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain in a roadside drugstore.
On his second visit to Holy Cross in 1960, one of the monks asked to see him in the community room. “Once the door was shut,” Forest recalls, “he embraced and kissed me with sexual passion, his stubbly unshaven face pressed against mine. I struggled free of his grasp, exited the room, and soon afterward left the monastery in a state of great confusion.”
But Forest was more troubled by the wide disparity of belief among Episcopalians—some high, some low—and soon opted to receive instructions in the Catholic faith. A priest assigned him the German catechism, Life in Christ at about the same time that he became aware of The Catholic Worker newspaper. Forest liked the emphasis the Catholic Worker (CW) movement placed on the poor, The Beatitudes and on the Corporeal Works of Mercy. He liked it so much that he was then inspired to hitchhike to Manhattan to the Catholic Worker headquarters in the Lower East Side.
Dorothy Day assisted him in obtaining conscientious objector (CO) status when she introduced him to a Catholic priest who had been a CO himself. With the support of his Navy commander, John Marabito, Forest attained the reclassification, enabling him to leave the Navy with dignity and work full time for the CW cause, and later for the Catholic Peace Fellowship.
One evening Dorothy Day insisted that he accompany her to an ecumenical meeting of Christians who were interested in Orthodox Christianity. Among those present was the poet W.H. Auden and Orthodox theologian Alexandar Schmemann. “Day had a longing for the healing of the centuries-old schism dividing Eastern and Western Christianity,” Forest writes. Later, he would accompany Day when she frequently attended Orthodox Vespers at the Russian Orthodox cathedral on East 97th Street in Manhattan.
For several years, Forest lived in a special, albeit ramshackle, apartment owned by the Catholic Worker, sharing living space with one or two roommates, accompanying Day on her trips downtown while periodically having arguments with her. After Dorothy assigned him the task of answering letters from Thomas Merton, Forest soon began writing his own letters to Merton.
“From that point on, Merton and I began a frequent correspondence that lasted until his death in 1968, averaging a letter per month from Merton,” Forest writes.
When Merton suggested that Forest come visit him at the monastery, he and a CW friend hitchhiked to Kentucky.
“As we stood on the roadside with our frozen thumbs in the air, armies of dashboard statues of Jesus of the Sacred Heart, his plastic arms spread wide, blurred by us,” Forest says.
After arriving at the monastery and being given their respective room, Forest heard laughter coming from his traveling companion’s room. The laughter, it turns out, was coming from “a black and white robed monk lying on the floor, knees in the air, face bright red, hands clutching his belly.” Forest adds that the monk on the floor was “more like Robin Hood’s well-fed Friar Tuck than the fast-chastened Trappist monk I had imagined….”
A romantic involvement with a fellow CW worker named Jean resulted in a surprise pregnancy. Forest, naively assuming he could shack up with Jean in the CW apartment, was told by Day to get married or find living accommodations elsewhere. Forest complied but the marriage was not a happy one.
His romantic relationship with Jean ended, as did his relationship with another woman. Thomas Merton, on the receiving end of Forest’s troubled letters, advised him not to burn out and to be careful:
“The trouble with movements is that they sweep you off your feet and carry you away with the tide of activism and then you become another kind of mass man…”
The early days of the Catholic Worker movement in New York attracted a number of famous faces like Allen Ginsberg (who read sections of his poem Kaddish before the staff.) Forest also had “peace work dealings” with social critic and author Paul Goodman and writes how Goodman once chased him around a sofa, so taken was the author of “Growing Up Absurd” to taste the young man’s charms.
With his current and long standing (permanent) wife, Nancy, Forest makes his home in the Netherlands.
In the late 1980s Forest and Nancy entered the Orthodox Church but Forest doesn’t regard the switch as a ”conversion” but simply “a change of address in the same neighborhood I had been living in since I was eighteen.” In explaining his switch to Orthodoxy to the Dutch Catholic priest and author, Henri Nouwen, Forest wrote:
“The impressive thing is that Orthodoxy makes no attempt at producing an updated ‘relevant’ liturgy. Far from keeping with the times, the Orthodox liturgy has hardly changed from ancient times. The Orthodox seem to realize that liturgy itself is the touchstone of relevance.”
“You expressed the hope that we would be bridge builders. I share that hope. I have brought with me everything that was dear to me in Catholicism.”