Shortly after Jim passed away in January 2022, I began the task of designing his gravestone. We had not discussed this beforehand, so it was entirely up to me. The only thing we had decided on was that he and I would both be buried in the Orthodox section of the St. Barbara Cemetery in Amsterdam, a lovely place just a short bus ride from our church. It didn’t take long for me to arrive at a design: a simple Latin cross with the text “Blessed are the peacemakers” beneath it, then the name by which he was best known – Jim Forest – and the dates of his birth and repose in English.
After searching the internet I found a stonecutter in Amsterdam that produced work I considered suitable for such a stone: simple, dignified, beautiful. It was a family business that had been around for a long time and was well-known to the people at St. Barbara. I made an appointment, and our daughter Cait and I drove down to make the final decision.
We found ourselves in a very large studio full of examples of gravestones, all shapes and sizes, all colors. I decided on a granite stone in brick red and with a simple, unadorned shape. Just what Jim would want. Like many Dutch graves, this one would be outlined in its full length with long granite slabs and with something to fill the space in between. Pebbles, we decided. There were many kinds of pebbles to choose from, but what caught my eye were some pink, gray and white pebbles that immediately reminded me of the beaches of Iona. Perfect.
Jim and I had been to Iona many times over the years, a tiny island off the western coast of Scotland in the Inner Hebrides. Iona was where the Irish monk St. Columba founded an important monastic community in the sixth century, a great center of learning whose scriptorium produced the Book of Kells. We joined several pilgrimages that were organized by the Friends of Iona and led by Bishop Kallistos Ware, unforgettable experiences. We also went there on vacation with our daughter Anne. One of our lasting memories of those trips was scouring the pebble beaches on Iona’s western shore, looking for beautiful stones. We brought the pebbles home and put them in two wooden bowls in our living room, to remind us of those special days.
St. Columba, as Bishop Kallistos pointed out, was a saint of the “undivided church,” the church from before the schism of 1054, so he is venerated by the Orthodox as well as the Catholics. And Iona is known as the Holy Isle. But there’s something else about Iona that’s hard to put your finger on, and it has nothing to do with church history. Iona is also known as a “thin place,” a place where the division between the temporal and the eternal is almost non-existent. I wonder if St. Columba sensed that when he first stepped out of his round wicker coracle onto the beach with his eleven fellow monks, so many centuries ago? Was it Columba who made Iona holy, or was it something else? Another important memory of those pilgrimages is of a walk around Iona that Jim and I took with our Greek friend and fellow pilgrim Nikos Kosmidis, who is a church chanter. It was early morning, and when we got to the northern tip of the island, Nikos paused and, with great fervor, chanted morning prayer in Greek. His voice rang out across the beach and the water, to the hills on the island of Mull and beyond. A thin place indeed.
So when it came to designing Jim’s grave, we decided on the pebbles. The gravestone was made and put in place, and we are very happy with it. On November 2, 2022, Jim’s birthday, the whole family gathered at the grave to spend a few moments there. I brought a bag of our Iona pebbles with me and told the kids the story of Iona, the beaches, our pilgrimages, and what a “thin place” means. Then I gave them each a pebble and asked them to place theirs on the grave among all the others, to make Jim’s grave a real part of that Iona “thin place.” And so they did.
One thing that several people have asked me is why I chose a Latin cross instead of an Orthodox cross for the gravestone. It was quite intentional. Jim never lost his love of the Catholic church. It was his first experience of Christianity, his training ground. It was where he met Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker and learned about Christian hospitality, Thomas Merton, who became a dear friend and a real spiritual father to Jim, and Fr. Dan Berrigan, who taught him about the work and the risks of Christian peacemaking. After he became Orthodox, he often described himself as “Orthodox on loan from the Catholic church.” So the cross on his grave testifies to this broad understanding of his Christian roots and his faith.
Jim was not happy with borders. He often said (quoting St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, I believe) that the walls we build on earth do not reach to heaven. It was the basis of his vocation as a peacemaker, the basis of his faith. He understood and respected historical reality, but it was a source of real grief to him. In the eighties, at the height of the Cold War, he decided to do what he could to heal the rift between the Soviet Union and the West. It was just one man’s effort in the beginning, but he was determined. He made several trips to the USSR, met many remarkable people there and wrote two books describing what he encountered in the persecuted church and the wider religious community. Ultimately this led to our both becoming Orthodox in 1988 and to Jim reviving the Orthodox Peace Fellowship shortly thereafter. He also revived the OPF publication and decided to call it In Communion, a perfect description of God’s will for humanity, a world without borders.
It’s the world as the astronauts saw it. Jim’s last project, which he sadly never lived to continue, was the Earth Button project. When Jim was in prison in Wisconsin in the late sixties, doing a year-long stretch for anti-war activities, he received a mysterious package in the mail: a photo of the earth from space taken by one of the astronauts involved in the recent moon landing. The photo came in a NASA envelope, but Jim never found out which astronaut sent it. The fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing took place in 2019, and that event, which coincided with the growing concern about climate change and the endangered environment, gave birth to an idea. Jim decided to encourage people to make buttons of the earth photo, easily available from the internet, and to wear them as a simple statement: this is our home, a world without borders, and we are all members of one human family. We had 100 buttons made at our local print shop, and Jim gave away dozens. I still have a small bowl filled with the last of them.
Jim also never lived to see the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the development of the tragic war there and the river of refugees who have come west. Many people have asked me how I think Jim would respond. Can you claim to be a peacemaker opposed to war, and at the same time respond to the fervent Ukrainian appeals to help them resist the invaders? I can only guess how his thinking would evolve: we are all members of one earth family, and it is God’s will for us to live in unity. That does not mean re-drawing borders and killing each other to suit our own nationalistic purposes. To imagine how Jim might have responded, we need only look at his lifelong pursuit of communion and peace. And at this quote from Thomas Merton, which Jim was so fond of repeating: “The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”