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PROFILE Fr. Daniel Berrigan , S.J.

Printed in
Here and Abroad, New York Province of the Society of Jesus, May 2004

He has lived in the same Jesuit community apartment complex high above Manhattan for almost thirty years. Fr. Dan 's living room is bordered with plants, its walls hung with placid works of art rather than with photographs of people. A picture of his late brother, Phil , leans on the back of a ribbed chair off to the side. When asked about the highs and lows of his life, his head turns reverently to the chair to describe the lowest of lows, the loss of his brother to a sudden sickness a few years back... and maybe to the poor medical attention Phil got during eleven years spent in various prisons. The highs seem al­most obvious to him: the 98th Street Jesuit community he lives in. his family of course and, well... writing. His peace activism didn't even make the list, except that much of his activism beyond the confrontations, symbolic protests, arrests and imprisonments came in the form of writing and lecturing. To the tune of more than 50 books of prose and poetry. It's hard to imagine a more monastic existence than the one demanded by such an output, which only makes his public role that much more amazing.

Yet, Fr. Dan 's public role was one he'd rather have skipped. He prefers a life of gratitude to one of grievances: he never refers to enemies as though they were 'his'; he is grateful for the least courtesy; he'd like the world to be a place like the Jesuit community he lives in where there is affection, listening, room to share one's personal trau­ mas, cherishing; the only complaint his Fordham students have (he's Poet-in-Residence at the Lincoln Center cam­pus) is that his soft voice is difficult to pick up; he does quiet work with AIDS victims and writes about the diffi­culty of handling terminal illness; his view of relaxing is to take a walk or cook something or go to the library once a week or read poetry or simply talking with people.

So how did he get where he got? Dan 's father was of Irish stock "no horse thieves, poachers, informers in our blood," Dan crows in one poem. His mother, of German descent, would feed any hobo who came up the road during the Great Depression, despite her own large, hard- pressed brood. They met in Minnesota , where Dan was born, and moved to Syracuse where he grew up with his five brothers. So vivid were memories of Dad-o from that period that Dan and his surviving siblings keep rehashing them every reunion since awe, anger, challenge, puzzle.

Dan entered the Jesuits in 1939, joining the long black line in relative anonymity as it marched through studies to ordination. In his day, the greats like Fitzmyer, Glanzman and McKenzie had not yet revolutionized seminary stud- ies in scripture, but Dan 's tertian Instructor in France, Pere Francois Charmot, turned him on mightily to inspired writ­ ers like St. John and St. Paul and to scripture itself as a way into God. Commenting on Dan's later ability to har­ ness biblical figures like Job, Ezechiel, Isaiah and others to his testy interpretations of current events, one highly discriminating Jesuit scripture expert recently said, "He does his homework on biblical authors, and the applica­ tions he draws for our times are solidly based on the texts."

But if Charmot taught him scripture, it was brother Phil who got him to take a hard look at the world. Phil mustered out of the 101st Airborne as a battle-seasoned veteran. He went to Holy Cross, where he had a conversion about his military past. That conversion would soon rub off on Dan .

Dan's first book, in 1957, was unremarkable save for a chapter on the priority of the person a person who would morph, in years to come, into a poor, usually non-white, economically ripped-off, neglected if not viciously suppressed person. That consciousness was no doubt accelerated by his participation in the civil rights movement in the early fifties (he and Phil marched in Selma ).

In 1960, he began a friendship with Thomas Merton , who himself at the time was just beginning to get permis­ sion from his Abbot to turn his contemplative eye on the public issues of the day. A sabbatical in 1964 also gave Dan a chance to travel to Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria and meet with groups in more immediate range of Cold War weaponry than he was! Then, as the rest of the story unfolded, things really heated up. both in Vietnam and America the trip to Hanoi, exile from the archdiocese of New York, the Catonsville Nine, life on the run, prison, Plowshares Eight, co-founding the Catholic Peace Fellow­ ship, pariah status in some people's eyes, inspiration in oth­ ers'. It wasn't always easy. In his play. The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, one of the accused describes how diffi­cult that first act of civil disobedience was not that he didn't know how to do it but seeing himself doing it, as though a new person had to emerge to carry it off.

Anyway, it was ever thus. Prophets have a way of tak­ ing God at His word. If God says He will topple the mighty from their thrones and exalt the humble, prophets figure, hell, why can't we? There is a starkness to the way they see their choices: either act for the poor or do nothing; call power to account when power is a mask for self-aggran­ dizement or be silent; reject violence or block its path with one's own body; see all these as connected or stay naive.

It almost sounds arrogant but only to those just as arrogant about their own certitudes. Dan may be more of a believer in the diversity of God's gifts than many of his detractors. At least people then can talk from a common, respectful premise. Besides, all of Dan 's mentors, like Merton or Dorothy Day , stressed the importance of spiri­ tual discipline making sure your motives never descended to revenge or ego, or smacked of disdain for others, or were simply masking your own despair.

Dan once shared a picture of his own prayer. Not much consolation there, not many images or words, but a kind of 'mindfulness' of God, a presence. Implied is a God who has work for us to do that we, too, be mindful of the poor, mindful of how power quickly segues into violence, mindful of the terrible waste violence devolves into. And we must be present to do this. Dan 's whole life seems to have been to make people mindful. As a poet, he can capture in powerful images those stark choices that are ours to make like "two weathers contending in one sky." Mary herself, in one poem, needs to be reminded of these terms: "Poems, like life, come to a dark mood." In one place the poet even reminds himself.

Color it not kind with skies of love and amber. Make it plain with death and bitter as remember.

Through all of this, Dan was fully conscious of being a Jesuit. He was aware it gave him an edge, but an edge that came from the Society's spiritual tradition, especially in the Exercises, and from the responses and respect he got from so many of his brethren. He knew he could be a burden at the institutional level, but that was inevitable. The great moment of course was Pedro Arrupe 's visit to him in Danbury prison. "He knew what nuclear destruc­tion was like ... from Nagasaki ." When asked what vocation he could see himself in if he weren't a Jesuit, Dan pauses, shifts in his chair like the question was unintelligible, then responds simply, "I never thought of an alter­ native." And when asked what award he was proudest of in his life, it was more of the same: the Campion Medal in 1998 because it was Jesuit from America 's Catholic Book Club. "How did they do that?" he ponders. Dan Berrigan left a lot of people pondering in his day. so maybe now it's his turn.

Staff

 


Once more into the paddy wagon, at age 82. This was an anti -war protest at the USS Intrepid last Good Friday, the teminus of a Stations of the Cross trek..


Thomas Merton at Gethsemane with a young Dan Berrigan (center) and brother Phil (right).