Jim Forest in memoriam By Fr Andrew Louth

Jim Forest

In the Fathers of the Church, from the time of Origen, there is a notion of the ‘spiritual senses’: just as we perceive the physical world through our five physical senses—sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell—so there are, by analogy, five spiritual senses, through which we apprehend the spiritual world. Origen is the first Christian writer to explore this notion, taking his cue from a couple of scriptural verses: Proverbs 2: 5, ‘Then you will understand the fear of God and find discernment of God’, which Origen glosses as ‘find a divine sense’, and Hebrews 5: 14, which speaks of the ‘perfect who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern good and evil’. Discernment of God, ‘senses that discern good and evil’: these are capacities beyond the normal physical senses. It is from these fleeting references Origen develops the idea of spiritual senses—senses by which we discern something of the spiritual world, even God Himself, but acquire, too, a sensitivity to the distinction between good and evil, for without that awareness—what we call conscience—we have not begun to advance into the realm of the spiritual. Later Christian thinkers develop Origen’s insights in a variety of ways. Sometimes the spiritual senses are set against the physical senses and the idea advanced that the spiritual senses only become active to the extent that the earthly senses decline, a decline that can be advanced by ascetic practice. Others seem to see the spiritual senses as a refinement, or transfiguration, of the physical senses—not opposed, not separate—but the acquiring of a sensitivity to God’s creation that reaches beyond the superficial appearance and discerns something deeper. Sometimes, again, we find an exploration of different ways of sensing something: is this spiritual sense something like seeing? is perhaps more like touching, feeling, even tasting?—Gregory of Nyssa talks of entering darkness where we can’t see, but where we can have a kind of feeling of a presence. Another early Christian thinker, Diadochos of Photiki, talks of aisthesis noera, perhaps in English the ‘feeling of the nous, or intellect’—an idea that a millennium later Gregory Palamas picked up and made central to his understanding of how we apprehend the spiritual world and God.

Nancy and Jim Forest

This must seem a strange exordium to a tribute to Jim’s memory—and perhaps tells you more about the difference between Jim and me—but let me explain. I knew about Jim long before I got to know him:  in two contexts, first, his prison sentence for his opposition to the Vietnam War, and secondly, his friendship with remarkable people like Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen. Here was a man, I thought, with a clear sense of good and evil, and a conviction that this discernment required action: valiant action in opposing evil, but matched by an attraction to people, in whom he discerned goodness. When I got to know Jim—which would have been in 2010, at the beginning of a four-year period during which I was regularly in Amsterdam in connexion with the Amsterdam Centre for Orthodox Theology, then being launched by Michael Bakker, one of the clergy of the Orthodox Church of St Nicholas of Myra, the church that Jim attended—I found that that perception of Jim as profoundly conscious of good and evil, drawn to the good, especially to people who radiated goodness, and courageous in his opposition to evil, was tangible or incarnate in the man I got to know. And not just the man, but the couple—Jim and Nancy—who became friends, and whose hospitality I have come to treasure. A man, then, with a sharply honed spiritual sense, but a spiritual sense that informed his perception of the world in which we live, a sense ‘spiritual’ because it transfigured his vision of the world and his feeling for it. In preparation for writing this short piece of appreciation, I read—more carefully this time—his autobiographical ‘memoir’, that Nancy had given me, Writing Straight with Crooked Lines, and found that the perception of Jim that I have tried to articulate from my acquaintance with the man matched up with what he revealed of himself in his memoir.

In that memoir, Jim had several aims. First, to do what he had already done in several of his books, to give some account of people that were important to him, people who revealed to him something of goodness: his mother, perhaps somewhat more dimly his father, then with a steadier beam one he calls his ‘second mother’, Dorothy Day, and his ‘second father’, Thomas Merton, and then the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh—all three the subject of books that Jim wrote. But, secondly, throughout the book there are glimpses of his spiritual journey: a journey that reveals what is more like a growing awareness, the refining of a spiritual sense, a sense that took the form of awareness of a presence. He speaks of ‘sensing a Presence that might be what the elusive word “God” was all about’, and a few lines further on ‘I was aware that the ebony blackness beyond the furthest stars had no ending and that there might be a “place” so remote from the cosmos that the entire cosmos disappeared.  Compared with what I was gazing at, I was infinitely less than a mote of dust, and yet the microfilament of subdust that was me had eyes and a mind—a soul?—capable of awe and astonishment’ (Writing Straight, 41). Similarly, Jim’s response to the beauty of the natural world: ‘Indeed the contemplation of beauty is a wordless revelation of the fingerprints of God’ (p. 54). And, in very similar terms, speaking of a walk at night, ‘and under a clear moonless sky, thick with stars, experienced—how to put it into words?—the presence, the reality, the all-connectingness of God, a God who somehow was aware of me despite my near-nothingness’ (p. 73). It is, it seems to me, the same sense of presence—something felt—that breathes through his descriptions of the figures whom he encountered, or sought out, who meant so much to him—and in ways that led him into a life of activity, a life that sought to change the world in which he lived, or to hold out the possibility, the hope, that the rays of goodness can be felt in a world that has become seemingly opaque to its origins in the goodness of the creator.

  I mentioned earlier different understandings of the spiritual sense—either opposed to the physical senses and emerging as they declined, or transfiguring the capacities of the physical senses. It is overwhelming the latter understanding that I found—or better, find—in Jim. His commitment to peace—both opposition to war and violence, as well as radiating a sense of reconciling and fulfilling peace—was radical and uncompromising; it was serious, but not in the slightest humourless. Some years ago Jim and Nancy came to stay for a few days in my home in the North-East of England. Almost immediately Jim slipped on the steep stairs, which put paid to the visits I had planned to the splendours—both natural and of human crafting—in that part of the world, but left time for much discussion—serious discussion—and much laughter. One meal ended hilariously as we recalled the world of the sixties—its sense of unease and the threat of nuclear destruction. For some reason the name of Tom Lehrer came up—the Harvard mathematician, who reached a wide audience with songs, which I, at least, had only encountered on records (for those who don’t know these songs, it is perhaps necessary to say that they picked up the anxieties of the sixties—political, sexual, intellectual—but with a humour that too often seemed rather sick. We found ourselves singing along to ditties such as:

We will all go together when we go,

Infused in an incandescent glow,

When the world becomes uranious,

We shall all go simultaneous…

All of us members of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship—recalling a sense of foreboding from in my case teens, in Jim’s his early twenties, that hung over us, but which we could recall with some humour, even hilarity. Jim was not solemn, but it was with a real seriousness that he sought to engage with a world, at all kinds of levels, beset by violence and destructiveness.

Another thing that struck me about his book were a number a sayings that had stuck with Jim: one, certainly a Russian proverb, ‘Eat bread and salt and speak the truth’, and another, maybe a proverb, maybe coined by one of his early mentors in the peace movement, A. J. Muste, ‘There is no way to peace. Peace is the way’.

This is, I am conscious, a very inadequate memorial of Jim. We were very different, but it was a great privilege for me to get to know him, even a little, and to collaborate with him, especially through responding to his requests/suggestions/demands that bore some kind of fruit in the pages of In Communion.

Fr Andrew Louth is an Orthodox theologian and scholar. He is Professor Emeritus of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at Durham University UK and an honorary fellow of the St Irenaeus Institute for Orthodox Theology at Radboud University Nijmegen; he has been part of the OPF’s Advisory Board for many years.