Ever since I was a child, I always used to hear stories about some “Jim Forest,” whom my mother respected a lot. I didn’t really know who he was or what he did, but by the way my mother referred to him, I knew he was somebody very special.
When I did finally meet him, as a teenager in Amsterdam, I was touched by the loveliness of his ways. He took a picture of me and my Orthodox friends and, somehow, a bond was formed. We spoke about his book on icons, which I had just read, and you could feel the respect he had for others. Though he was a great writer and I was just a young girl, he put himself below me and lifted me up with his love.
When I later came to Amsterdam as a young woman, he continued this way of humble love. He invited me over to his and Nancy’s house in Alkmaar and a friendship started. The age gap was not important. We could just talk about theology and books and poetry and rejoice in each other’s company.
What inspired me most about Jim was not his peace work or his remarkable charisma, but his marriage with Nancy. When you were at their house, you could just feel the warmth there was between them. One time, our parish went on a pilgrimage to Mount Athos. The men visited the monasteries and the women went to the Ormylia monastery nearby. There is one picture of Jim tenderly embracing Nancy when he came back from the Holy Mountain. “I could never be a monk,” he confided to me. And we both knew his remarkable love for Nancy had something to do with it.
One time, I was having dinner at Jim and Nancy’s when the Notre Dame was on fire. We put the television on and Jim and Nancy were devastated. As it was getting late, Jim invited to me stay the night – which I gratefully accepted. Later that night, as I was preparing to go to bed, Jim invited to me to join him and Nancy for prayer. We stood before their icon corner. I don’t remember what kind of prayers we said, except that Jim and Nancy had a paper with names printed on it. Bishop Kallistos, a dear friend of Jim’s, was on that list and many other people for whom they prayed every day.
Another ritual of Jim and Nancy’s that inspired me very much was their custom of reading poetry to each other at breakfast every morning. They read Dante’s entire Divina Commedia in this way. Their love for literature and good books was palpable in their house. One time when they came over to my humble student apartment in Amsterdam Science Park, we spent an entire evening talking about James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and other modernist fiction – excited like small children.
For many years, I didn’t really know exactly what Jim did professionally. I just knew him as a fond parishioner, a reader, and a friend. As such, I was very touched by his works of mercy. For some reason, Jim always gave me books. Or, when he did not have a book with him to give, he shared a piece of his tangerine. One part for me and another part of the tangerine for a little girl playing near us on the floor at coffee hour. He didn’t just preach about mercy, he lived it.
An underlying theme in all these stories was Jim’s love and his warmth. As Christ bowed down the heavens to become a human being, descending to the nethermost parts of the earth to lift Adam up, so did Jim put himself below anybody he met. Or at least that is how I experienced our encounters at the end of his life. God does not overpower us with his magnitude: he descends on the Cross and gives the bread that is his very life to all, even his enemies. Likewise, Jim did not overpower people with his talents: his charisma, his eloquence, his social wisdom. When you spoke to him, you just felt like the most important person in the world. Not because you were, but because Jim addressed you in your deepest self: the image of God that is within each and all of us. In that way, Jim taught me the Gospel in ways that I had never heard before: his very example.
Thirza Buijkx, Co-Editor InCommunion.