Looking Back In Gratitude: A conversation with Daniel Berrigan
What are you most grateful for as you look back over your long life?” I asked Daniel Berrigan, S.J., who is 88. We were sitting last December in his light-filled living room at the Jesuit residence in Manhattan where he has lived since 1975. He answered immediately: “My Jesuit vocation.” Any regrets? I asked. “I could have done sooner the things I did, like Catonsville,” he replied. That historic act of burning draft files took place in the parking lot of a U.S. Selective Service Office in Catonsville, outside Baltimore, Md., on May 17, 1968. It was one of the earliest and most dramatic of several demonstrations for peace in which Berrigan took part over the years. With him on that day were eight other people, including his brother, Philip, who was a veteran and a Josephite priest; they stood trial that October, the group known as the Catonsville Nine. While free on bail awaiting trial, the two Berrigans spoke at St. Ignatius Church near the Baltimore jail. I had entered the Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville, Pa., that year, and the novice master drove down with me to hear their powerful presentation.
In burning the draft files, the Catonsville Nine used napalm, the gelatinous flammable substance that was then burning the flesh of Vietnamese women, men and children during the Vietnam War. “It was Philip who came up with the idea,” Berrigan said. “In the military section of the Georgetown University library, a friend found a copy of the Green Beret manual with instructions for making napalm from soap chips and kerosene.” Before the stunned eyes of Selective Service employees, several of the group lifted the files from their drawer marked A1 and carried them out to the parking lot, because, said Berrigan, “we didn’t want to endanger anyone in the office.”
An Emerging Poet
Nothing in Dan Berrigan’s early life suggested the dramatic turn his life would take in later years. Thoughts of a religious vocation came early as he grew up in New York State. He mentioned his fascination with a four-volume set of his father’s books called Pioneer Priests of North America that included accounts of Jesuit missionaries like St. Isaac Jogues. As his senior year in high school approached, a close childhood friend, Jack St. George, who had already decided on religious life, asked him, “When are you going to make up your mind?” They made a bargain: each would write to four religious congregations for information. “Some replied with nice brochures that showed tennis courts and swimming pools,” Berrigan said, “but the Jesuits sent an unattractive leaflet, no pictures and no come-on language, just a brief description of the training, called ‘The Making of a Jesuit.’” Both applied to the Jesuits and entered the novitiate on the same day, Aug. 14, 1939. Jack went on to a career at Vatican Radio, and Dan eventually began teaching in Jesuit high schools.
Writing also became an important and continuing part of Berrigan’s work. His activity as a poet is less well known than his work as a peace activist, yet poetry has played a distinctive part in his life. His first poem appeared in America in the early 1940s, while Berrigan was a college student at St. Andrew-on-Hudson, the Jesuit seminary near Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “I was very proud of that,” he told me.
On my return to America House after the interview, I looked up the poem in the June 13, 1942, issue; it is called “Storm-Song,” an ode to the Virgin Mary. A decade or so later, an editor at Macmillan who had heard about Berrigan’s poetry asked him for a collection of his poems. He told Berrigan that he would give it to the “toughest reader” at Macmillan; and if the report was good, “we’ll publish it.” That reader turned out to be Marianne Moore, a highly regarded poet, who gave the manuscript a glowing report. It led to the publication in 1953 of Berrigan’s first book of poetry, Time Without Number, which won the Lamont Poetry Prize in 1957.
A photograph from that period shows Dan Berrigan as a young priest with members of the Catholic Poetry Society. It was taken at the Lotos Club in Manhattan, when Sister Mary Madaleva, a popular educator and poet at St. Mary’s College inIndiana, received an award from Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York. Since then, Berrigan observed, some form of writing has been part of his life. “It’s a daily exercise,” he said, often in diary form. For the last three decades, he has studied and written about the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament); Eerdmans has published several of the resulting works.
Berrigan wrote a more autobiographical book, Lights on in the House of the Dead (1974), while in federal prison in Danbury, Conn. for his part in the Catonsville Nine action. He smuggled his handwritten pages out of the prison sheet by sheet. By then, Berrigan was a figure well known to the press; consequently the prison officials were “very chary about anything I might be writing,” he explained. “I had to write very small and then wait for a visitor who could smuggle the pages out.” When visitors came, he was allowed to embrace them, which made it possible for him to press a few pages into their hands unobserved. They passed the pages on to Jesuit friends, who sent them to Doubleday, his publisher.
Berrigan had been writing even as F.B.I. agents pursued him, after he went underground in 1970 and before his eventual capture and subsequent incarceration at Danbury. “I knew I would be apprehended eventually, but I wanted to draw attention for as long as possible to the Vietnam War, and to Nixon’s ordering military action in Cambodia,” said Berrigan. For several months Robert Coles, a Harvard professor and personal friend, put Berrigan up in his home. Together they wrote The Dark Night of Resistance. Two F.B.I. agents attempting to disguise themselves as birders finally caught up with Berrigan, however, when he was staying in the home on Block Island, R.I., of the social activist and lay theologian William Stringfellow. “One day, Bill looked out the window and saw two men with binoculars acting as if they were bird watchers,” said Berrigan, “but since the weather was stormy, that seemed strange. ‘I think something’s up,’ Bill said, and sure enough they knocked on the door.” They took Berrigan back to Providence by ferry; the media, already alerted, were waiting at the pier. Berrigan showed me a poster in his apartment made from a photo taken at that moment. Smiling broadly, he was in handcuffs between two burly F.B.I. agents as they escorted him off the ferry. A reminder of Block Island lies on his living room floor: a dozen curiously shaped stones from the beach there.
Steps Toward Pacifism
Berrigan described his first meeting with Dorothy Day in the 1940s, while he was teaching at Jesuit schools in New York. “I’d bring students over to the Catholic Worker,” he said, especially for the Friday night “clarification of thought” meetings when various speakers gave talks. In the 1950s, after Berrigan’s ordination and while he was teaching at Brooklyn Preparatory School, Dorothy Day sent him a young man who sought instruction in the Catholic faith; he was a pacifist. “It was Dorothy who got me thinking about the issue of war,” Berrigan told me. “She made me thoughtful about things I hadn’t really considered,” including the way in which the United States had conducted the war in Europe. Then he read an article by the Jesuit moral theologian John Ford, in the quarterly periodical Theological Studies in 1944, about the morality of saturation bombing—the kind of bombing that had reduced the German city of Dresden to ashes. Reading that, Berrigan said, was the first time he had come across an examination of a World War II issue from a wider moral perspective.
Much later, while on sabbatical in Paris in 1963 from a teaching position at LeMoyne College, Berrigan noted the despair of French Jesuits over the situation in Indochina. The French forces had left after the 1954 Geneva Accords, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam had continued to increase. With his brother Philip, Dan co-founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship, which helped to organize demonstrations against the U.S. role in Vietnam.
Such activities “were not well received” by his Jesuit superiors, Berrigan said, so he was “eased out of the country.” Berrigan spent four months in Latin America, which turned out to be a good change. He sent back reports to the periodical Jesuit Missions about what he saw, including assessments of each country’s poverty. Meanwhile, a groundswell of protest at what was seen as Berrigan’s forced exile led his superiors to recall him.
“My future seemed dark and I didn’t know how it would all end,” said Berrigan, emphasizing that he was determined to go on speaking about peace and Christ. His determination led not only to nonviolent actions like the record burning at Catonsville, but to those at the town of King of Prussia in Pennsylvania, where he and other peace activists hammered on nuclear warhead nose cones at the General Electric nuclear missile facility, a symbolic action reminiscent of Isaiah’s phrase: “beating swords to plowshares.” That action led to further time behind bars for Berrigan.
In the 1960s, Dan Berrigan came to know Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky. On being asked how the initial meeting with Thomas Merton came about, Dan explained that it took place in the early 1960s. “I was teaching at LeMoyne College in New York State. Merton had written an article in The Catholic Worker newspaper about what he saw as the imminent likelihood of nuclear war. I was appalled by the article,” he said, “and I wrote to thank him for the piece but also to say it was hard to accept his version of what was taking place in regard to the nuclear threat. Merton wrote back and said, ‘Come down and we’ll talk about it.’”
“I did go down to the Trappist monastery in Kentucky, and was taken both by his temperament and by his spiritual view of the world. The chemistry was good and our frienship got underway. After that first visit, we had the idea of getting together with some friends there. He didn’t use the word resistance, which was not yet in the vocabulary of people who opposed the Vietnam War. He used a phrase like the roots of dissent. He invited 15 people from various denominations and backgrounds for a long weekend, which proved to be very fruitful. All the ones who attended ended up either in jail or dead.”
Merton, who was also writing about peace, persuaded James Fox, O.C.S.O., the abbot, to invite Berrigan to give an annual address to the community; Berrigan did so from 1960 until Merton’s death in 1968. Around that time, Berrigan worked at Cornell University with a team that directed the various chaplaincies. “We had a big anti-war following among the students,” he said. “It was a hard time, but a good time, and I loved it.”
After completing a two-year sentence at the Danbury federal prison in 1972, Berrigan celebrated his first Mass at the Catholic Worker house in Manhattan. “The government gave me $50 when I was released,” he said, and he presented the money to Dorothy Day for her ministry to poor people. She instructed one of the Workers, “Go to my room and get the bottle of holy water by the bed.” Then she dipped the bills in the holy water and “held them up dripping,” Berrigan recalled. “Now we can use this,” she said. Berrigan laughed as he recounted the story.
For part of Berrigan’s two years at Danbury, his brother, Phil, was also a prisoner there and became a valuable personal support. “I was not strong in handling prison” from a health perspective, Berrigan said. Once, during a dental procedure, he came close to death. “The technician inserted a needle into my gum, hit a vein, and I went out.” A staff member, alarmed, called for Phil Berrigan to be brought from the prison library right away. “Even though I was semi-conscious, I knew he was near me,” Dan told me. An ambulance rushed him to a local hospital. Afterward, Dan asked Philip what had gone through his mind then. “Philip, thinking I was dying, replied, ‘Now I have to go it alone.’” That turned out not to be the case.
Throughout most of his life as a Jesuit, Daniel Berrigan has consistently spoken out against violence in all its forms, including abortion. “I have always made it clear,” he said, “that I am against everything from war to abortion to euthanasia. I have avoided being a single-issue person.”
The community’s consistent support for his varied activities over three decades is something else for which Father Berrigan is especially grateful. With considerable understatement, he suggested that the inscription over his grave might read: “It was never dull. Alleluia.”
Another reason for an “Alleluia” is the scheduled fall publication of Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings, edited by John Dear, S.J.