In the last days of his life, with less than a month to go, Fr James wrote to a fellow priest, who had been one of his D.Phil graduates at St Benet's Hall, a letter which characterised his whole life-cheerfulness in adversity, trust in his brethren, profound faith in his Saviour. He wrote this:
Alas, since we last met my health has gone seriously downhill. As you know, I have been fighting cancer since January, and neither surgery nor radio therapy have succeeded in halting it. At one moment the doctors planned major surgery: but now they have decided that the operation would be so big and the chances of success so small that it is best to do nothing, and to leave the outcome to the good Lord. So I have retired from St Benet's and am safely and happily resettled at Ampleforth to await what God has in store for me. It is impossible, of course, to tell how much longer I have to live, save to guess that it is best measured in months, rather than weeks or years. But I am very happy about it, and in no great pain or discomfort; and it is very good to be 'back to base' and in the midst of the family who are being very kind and supporting. I've had a very happy life and feel astonished and humbled at the thought of how good God has been to me.
To another such friend he wrote that he was in perfect peace of mind and quite unperturbed. He died well warned, and surrounded by his brethren, who had kept a round the clock vigil at his bedside during the last three days. The monastery bell tolled at ten o'clock on the morning of 18th October.
Louis Forbes was the third of brothers and last to die. One was killed in submarines with a DSO in the War; and the other had been a naval officer. They were all descendants of Captain James Forbes, RN, and his son Captain Charles Hay Forbes, CBE, RN. In the background was a Forbes baronetcy and a connection with Chinese merchant trade, both distinguishable in the face of the monk. His was a proud family with its many 'difficulties' that continued to be visited on the man and the monk down his two-thirds of a century of life; and only those who knew in any detail of the troubles brought to his door as to a patriarch, in the midst of his priestly solicitudes and his pastoral leadership, can ever know what a rock he was to family and friends alike. Suffice it to say that in 1919, when he was a child of six, his father died of the effects of Dardanelles shellshock.
Let us move from lesser things first, then to greater. Dick Cave (later Sir Richard, KCVO, CB, DL), a fond friend from the day they met at Ampleforth College in 1924, wrote after Fr James' death:
He did have a delight, somewhat beyond the bounds of duty, in the mystique of the aristocracy; and it became both a hall-mark of his style of response to life and a cause for amusement among his brethren. It was in character that his Daily Telegraph was provided for him by Lord Kemsley free of charge. There was the time when he called for the prayers of the community (on the Prior's board, reserved for catastrophe) for Lady Z who had just had all her jewels stolen. There was the postcard to the Prior asking permission to go and spend the night with Lady Y; and so forth. But then, as Newman might have said, the aristocracy have souls too and there is a dearth of priests who can minister to them as equals: he was an invaluable counsellor and encourager, and - as his photo albums proclaim - was endlessly in demand for their marriages, christenings and holy celebrations. In return, they asked him to their country homes, their schloss or chateau or ranch or yacht or cruise; and always while among them he remembered his priesthood and their needs. His closest friends down the years were the brothers Miles and Michael Fitzalan Howard, who had both been with him at Ampleforth and the former at Oxford: it was his great pleasure that Miles became Major General the Duke of Norfolk, CB, CBE, MC; while Michael became Major General Lord Michael, KCVO, CB, CBE, MC, Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps. He became chaplain to their family, and that ultimately brought him to an audience with Pope Paul VI among a Fitzalan Howard gathering.
If Louis had the background, he had also the style, and the mixture was good. Dick Cave writes:
Ampleforth - as the Benedictines do - did not change the man, but rather graced him: at an early age he became the College guestmaster and secretary to that flamboyant Headmaster, Fr Paul Nevill. One of the earliest photos in his albums is of the pair of them dispensing champagne after some local triumph, full of certainty and confidence, radiant in their belief in Church and School. His task brought him a mass of both convenient and real friends around the neighbourhood and down the arteries of English Catholicism; and later, when he transposed his gifts as a host to Oxford, dining youngest tutors and academic peers alike (Lords Franks, Blake, Trend, Goodman et alios), he won innumerable friends for the Benedictines there too, some invaluable ones who were promptly put to serve his undergraduates.
His holiday travels, too, were a tour de force: he stretched the monastic penny to the pinnacles of Europe. The late 1950s, when he was engaged on the appeal for the new Abbey church - and so was in touch with many friends of Ampleforth that became his friends, these were for Fr James the high point of adventure. In 1955 he went with Michael Crichton-Stuart to Vienna, Innsbruck, Heidelberg and some country seats. The next year he spent the New Year in America. In 1958, with Ken Bromage (his Appeal secretary), he made a massive tour of Germany and Austria, Prague, Berlin and Brussels, that took him over 2,500 miles by car before he lost his car for trains in Berlin! 1959 was another Germany/Austria holiday, settling to a series of stays with the old aristocracy, descendants of the Emperor Franz Josef, and the like. He was provided with fishing and deer shooting as well as culture trips and feasts. 1960 took him to Lourdes, Madrid, Santiago, Estoril. 1961 took him in April to Vienna and Salzburg; and in August to Estoril again, and finally in 1962 friends in Kenya, led by Brigadier Miles Fitzalan Howard, arranged for him his only foray into Africa. These were holidays punctuated by cars provided to meet every contingency except the long haul from England, undertaken in wagons-lits comfort. The last years saw a new form of travel, which gave Fr James and the passengers and crews of Mediterranean cruise ships much mutual pleasure, his Eastertide chaplaincy-cruises in TSCS Uganda and TSCS Navarino. It all added up to an astonishing amount of visitation, to most of the great palaces of the civilised world, and their attendant churches or museums. Still, in all this there is the repeated entry in diaries that Mass was said at 7.30 or 8 am daily and Office was fitted in between events: the priest remained vigilant, mindful of his calling.
So it was that Fr James developed a fine connoisseur taste and understanding for the beautiful in design and decoration. His ear was not attuned to music, but his eye was ordered to the ornamental. His bookshelf, weighed with the books of his friends such as Mark Girouard, Mark Bence-Jones, David Watkin and the like (all connoisseurs of a kind), was full of studies of art and architecture, furniture and objects of vertu, and above all of ceramics. He had what became one of the finest private collections of china (books, exhibit-pieces, photo-slides) of any lecturer in England. These he came to use for courses he undertook at the Ashmolean Museum during Oxford termtime; and eventually for a visiting professor tour of North Carolina universities in the autumn of 1976.
It is of a pattern that Fr James should have been one of those monks called to priestly work among the British Association of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta; and so he became a Chaplain of Magistral Obedience, wore insignia on due occasions and provided retreats and spiritual advice to the knights, so many of whom themselves came from Ampleforth or the other Benedictine schools. His Knights of Malta connection gave him much pleasure, from 1953 when he was invited to his chaplaincy: in 1978 his assiduity brought him promotion to Conventual Chaplain.
Those were the external manifestations of a strangely simple man, one who inspired little envy and great friendship - indeed the widest if not the deepest of love. At the time of his death, one of the dons of Oxford surmised that he might well be better known and loved than any other man in the University at the time. He had a real gift for warm affection towards all manner of men (and women; but more men, for pre-Conciliar monastic training left him always with a reservation about friendships with women beyond a point). He had a delight in friendly encounter that never dimmed in the face of more pressing work. He remembered people and their problems, and especially the ramifications of their families or ties. He had an appetite for hospitality never blunted by other urgencies, so that he would gladly drop everything, except his monastic prayer, to make the traveller welcome or the encounter an occasion. In this, he had an eagerness in later years normally expected only of youth. So it was that he made the perfect College guestmaster from the early age of 32, running the guest-rooms impeccably for two Headmasters (Fr Paul Nevill and Fr William Price, both his fellow historians incidentally, in their teaching); and later the perfect Master-cum-guestmaster at St Benet's Hall, Oxford until his death. He spent the whole of his responsible adult life in solicitude for guest/traveller/visitor, making of it a mark of his monastic Christianity. 'Goes the Christ in the stranger's guise: often, often, often.'
Perhaps his life-dates should here now be traced. Cyril Louis Forbes was born at Berwick on Tweed in 1913, being educated at Ampleforth until, in 1931 - after a tour to Rome with Dom Martin Rochford - he entered the novitiate that September, to the persistent anguish of his widowed mother. He went smoothly through vows and diaconate to the priesthood in July 1940. He had by then read History (Honours Second) at Oxford from St Benet's Hall, then under the monastic rigours of Dom Justin McCann's Mastership. He taught well, in double harness much of the time with Tom Charles-Edwards; and together they began achieving a stream of Oxbridge awards. But other duties later sapped his earlier close attention to teaching, notably his appointment as Steward (1947-50) and to run the church Appeal (1957-61). The new Gilbert Scott church, long planned and half begun, was completed and consecrated in 1961, in large measure due to Fr James' organisational efforts and the vision of his Appeal approach. In 1964 he became Master of the Hall until his death fifteen years later.
Of these years Dr Barry White, Principal of Regent's Park, said at Fr James' memorial service in the University church of St Mary the Virgin:
His energy in the care and leadership of St Benet's Hall was immense. He was everything there. If you went to a senior tutors' meeting there was the Senior Tutor of St Benet's Hall - James Forbes. If you went to a meeting for the deans you could rely on meeting the Dean of St Benet's - James Forbes. When the domestic and estates bursars met together there you would find the Bursar of St Benet's - James Forbes. And when, once a term, the masters of the five Permanent Private Halls were accustomed to meet, their gatherings rotating from Hall to Hall, there would be the Master of St Benet's - James Forbes... He took untiring care of his men. He was concerned for their academic work, their sporting successes, their careers after going down from the university; and beneath and beyond all else he was deeply concerned for the quality of their spiritual commitment.
The preacher went on to single out highlights of Fr James' Oxford years, as when he stood in the University pulpit in place of the Cardinal at short notice, when he rose to his best sermon. But it was his leading the daily round of prayer and sacrament in his own chapel amid falls in vocations and the changing pattern of monastic behaviour, that properly caught the attention of all: through difficult years, he held the spiritual life of the Hall together.
So it was till his own spirit was sapped by cancer in 1979: he took a long time to surrender. When he did, he returned to his own Community to give them a moving example of how a monk should die. May he now rest in peace.
James came to Ampleforth from Ladycross, a south-coast preparatory school. His father, already dead, had been a captain in the Navy. His mother was left with three sons and little but her pension; but she had the skill of making sixpence do when most people would need a shilling. She was not a Catholic. The two elder boys went into the Navy. James went to Ampleforth.
Ampleforth was still a small school, with four houses in the Upper School. James was placed in St Oswald's and there, vital for him, Father Stephen Marwood was the housemaster.
Father Stephen was still in his 30s. He was a Lancashireman, and he is remembered for his outstanding dramatic and histrionic gifts as well as his fine tenor voice. He also was a saintly man whom the Abbot, Abbot Oswald Smith, chose to be his confessor almost as soon as he was a priest; and Abbot Smith (so said Abbot Marmion of Maredsous) was the holiest man he'd ever met. Two years after the death of Abbot Oswald, Father Stephen became the first housemaster of St Oswald's.
James was a sensitive diffident fatherless boy, and the warm strength and good humour of Father Stephen was what he needed. (When Father Stephen died soon after the war, and still in his 50s, a well-known Ampleforth character said after the funeral, 'Ampleforth has died today' - obviously an exaggeration, but worth thinking about.)
After a quite unremarkable career in the school, James went into the monastery. Ampleforth saw itself as secure and united - 'monolithic' someone from another monastery called it -, corporately accepting without questions the version of monastic life that Abbot Smith had cautiously developed. It was a growing house, and it aimed to have a school that would bear comparison with any school in England. There were few doubts about the implications, and perhaps none about the timing, of such a purpose. Sociology did not impinge, while theology, of course in no way to be neglected, had still to be fitted in to a pretty full time-table. The monks, safe in their obedience, protected from traumas that could become almost indigenous in different circumstances, presented a unanimity of purpose that became one of James' firmest convictions. Even in the 1970s, after Vatican II and the attempt to face today and not the day before yesterday, James still declared his immense thankfulness for belonging to a familia which, after several days of discussion about its monastic life, 'emerged, au fond, in complete unanimity.' What a weight that qualification must carry, but not for him!
Nevertheless, he developed an aestheticism that was untypical of his contemporaries. He was interested in pedigrees; his father was a collateral of a Scottish baronetcy, so he had the satisfaction of being in the appropriate books of reference. He delighted in beautiful things. When he was school guest-master he collected dilapidated bits of furniture from the most unlikely places, getting them put in order and visible use. He transformed the guestroom set-up - Georgian silver, 18th century and Thompson furniture, pictures and decorative porcelain. The headmaster, Paul Nevill, who can still be met in the Big Passage by anyone who has eyes to see with, encouraged him.
When the new church was to be finished, James was the mainspring in collecting the money, but when he also gathered the crucifixes, statues, candlesticks and ecclesiastical bric-a-brac, some of the brethren looked on resignedly. After his appointment as Master of St Benet's at Oxford he enthusiastically set about 'civilising' there; again pictures, silver, and the paraphernalia of the gracious life. When authority suggested that the previous austerity of St Benet's was more monastic, with uncomprehending promptness and distress James took down the Forbes pictures, replacing them with architectural drawings of Ampleforth, and he removed his brother's celadon dish from off the side-board.
James remained absolutely a monk of the monastery he joined in 1931, a place of traditional Second-Spring Catholicism, with a strong dose of Ribble valley piety. Some called this spirituality ingenuous, but he saw no reason to criticise it. The 450 pages of Consider Your Call, A Theology of Monastic Life Today must surely have seemed to him the fruit of a strangely complicating, perhaps irrelevant, exercise, as they would have appeared to his novice master nearly fifty years before.
James was a man of clear goodness, whose faith and obedience were simple matters, for God had spoken in the voices of Pope and Abbot. I remember him saying to a rather bemused guest-room audience what a wonderful thing it is to be a monk because it solves all difficulties - just listen to the Abbot, and there God's will is to be found. Au fond, and without any qualification, that was James. On one level he must have suffered greatly in his life, but he was certainly happy.
DOM LOUIS JAMES FORBES 18 October 1979 1913 9 Feb Born Berwick on Tweed Educ Ampleforth College 1931 21 Sep Habit at Ampleforth 1932 21 Sep Simple Vows 1934-37 Studied history at St Benet's Oxford 1935 21 Sep Solemn Vows 1938 17 Jul Subdeacon 1939 23 Jul Deacon 1940 21 Jul Priest 1937- Taught history School Guestmaster for 19 years 1947-50 Steward 1957-61 Director of the Appeal for the new church 1964-79 Master of St Benet's Hall Oxford - retired because of ill health Lectures in Fine Art - Ashmolean 1976 Aug Visiting Professor - University of North Carolina USA 1953-79 Knight of Malta 1978 Conventual Chaplain to Knights 1979 18 Oct Died at Ampleforth after courageous fight against cancer