The National Catholic Review
Emilie Griffin
For many readers, Jim Forest is inextricably connected to The Catholic Worker movement, which he joined in 1961 when he was a part-time student at Hunter College and after his discharge from the U.S. Navy as a conscientious objector. In his earlier books he has written well about Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and other memorable figures he knew. He is not only a memoirist, but also a biographer, historian and fine spiritual writer.

In The Road to Emmaus Forest views the spiritual life from a special angle: that of pilgrimage. This is a worthwhile exploration. Beginning with simple parallels to other life-metaphors—the journey, the path, the road—Forest plumbs new depths in the understanding of pilgrimage. He draws very pointedly on haunting literature, like Bilbo Baggins’s song in Lord of the Rings: “The road goes ever on and on/ Down from the door where it began....”

Forest begins with a limited notion that comes easily to American school children: pilgrims are “a community of storm-defying, black-clad English Puritans who crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower.” But by eighth grade, Forest’s definition expands. Soon he leads us to the established Catholic devotional practice exemplified by Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims. Pilgrimage is a religious journey with the shrine or relics of a saint or martyr as its destination. But the author quickly moves beyond definitions. His book is itself a pilgrimage, and a very modern one at that. However much the author draws on ancient Catholic devotions and sacred spaces, still his principal focus is on the inward journey—informed by his own. The result is touching.

One chapter is entitled “Thin Places.” Without saying in so many words that God is more intensely present in given locations, still Forest honors the sacred places of a long Judeo-Christian history: Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Law; the holy island of Iona in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides; and the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, which occupies the presumed locations where Jesus was crucified, buried and rose. One striking feature of this chapter is Forest’s willingness to describe certain awkward or embarrassing features of these shrines. Of the Golgotha chapel he writes: “Cluttered as it is with pre-Reformation religious imagery, this chapel can be a disorienting place for Protestant visitors. They may also be disconcerted to witness the physical veneration exhibited by pilgrims belonging to the older churches. Yet once inside the chapel, the most undemonstrative visitor tends to be moved by this climate of quiet....”

Soon Forest moves into a spirituality of darkness. In a chapter called “Dark Places, Dark Paths” he quotes the words of John of the Cross: “If you wish to be sure of the road you are traveling, close your eyes and walk in the dark.” His theology is sound, for he connects anxiety and desolation to a spirituality of the cross. But Forest also describes pilgrimages to modern history’s dark places, where a memory of anguish is stirred: the Dutch synagogue of Alkmaar; the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, where Otto Frank’s family hid out from the Nazis; the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968; the Memphis Auction Stone near the Mississippi River, where slaves were once bought and sold; and the Burkle Estate, a stop on the Underground Railroad in Memphis, where slaves were smuggled through to freedom.

One crucial stop on the journey takes us into Forest’s own time of trial. In a chapter called “Illness as Pilgrimage,” the author describes how when he was diagnosed for kidney disease, he resisted the onset of the illness and the possibility of dialysis. Now he has been in dialysis since January 2006, and his description of this aspect of “pilgrimage” is a telling spiritual reflection. There are times when Forest resisted making any religious interpretation, seeing his illness as merely “rotten luck.” But later he reports a change of heart. “What I had desperately hoped to avoid is now normal. I now spend nearly twelve hours a week—fifty hours a month, six hundred a year—at the dialysis clinic. Dialysis is part of the core structure of each week.”

Forest reports that he has had to rethink how to use his drastically reduced work time. Who among us cannot on some level identify with such loss, such diminishment? But Forest has come to see a spiritual meaning in it all: “It finally dawned on me that the hospital I dreaded visiting is actually holy ground. My main pilgrimage these days is the unprayed-for blessing of regularly going to a place where everyone is sick, caring for the sick, or visiting the sick.” Through reflection, Forest has connected the dependence of the sick person with being poor in spirit. The sick person is “by definition on the ladder of the Beatitudes. Each of us may still have quite a lot of climbing to do, but, thanks to illness, at least we’ve made a start. We are on the first rung.” At the end of a session of dialysis, Forest sometimes says to the nurse, “Thanks for saving my life.” The spiritual fruit of his ordeal is gratitude.

I found myself remembering—all at once—what Cornelia Connelly sometimes said to her sisters: “How often do you thank God for being delicate?” “Delicate” was Connelly’s Victorian euphemism for being inclined to sickness. In reading Forest’s fine book I came to understand how much the Catholic tradition—and the experience of the saints—can tell us about living through adversity with a deeply thankful heart.

Emilie Griffin of Alexandria, Va., writes and speaks often about the spiritual life. Her latest book is Simple Ways to Pray: Spiritual Life in the Catholic Tradition (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).