Living with Dan Berrigan

Living in the same Jesuit community as Dan Berrigan--what a privilege to share meals and conversation with this great man, an icon of the anti-war movement who was willing to spend time behind bars to assert his opposition to war-related violence, and in fact all forms of violence, including abortion. His former community on West 98th Street moved a year ago to Thompson Street in lower Manhattan, in space rented from the Franciscans next to St. Anthony of Padua church. I myself moved to that location last summer as the new boy on the block. The other seven have lived together for decades and so know one another well. What struck me right away was the realization that here indeed was a community that exemplified people who are of one heart and mind, as Luke describes the early Christian community in Acts 4:32.

Dan will turn 89 on May 9th and is still going strong. He continues to write, and excerpts from his books were recently gathered by his close Jesuit friend, John Dear, and published by Orbis in its Modern Spiritual Masters Series under the title Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings. Dan’s nonviolent protests continue. Once again this year, he took part in Pax Christi’s annual Good Friday Way of the Cross, a prayerful walk across Manhattan from the UN to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. The Intrepid itself is a huge aircraft carrier, for many a symbol of war. There, Dan and several other women and men peacefully protested for peace, using pieces of paper cut in the form of small coffins to represent civilians and service members killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On being arrested for “disorderly conduct,” they were taken to a local precinct for booking. But thankfully, as Dan told us later in the day at home, the police treated him and the others gently.

Advertisement

Reminders of Dan’s earlier years abound in our community’s home. A black and white brush stroke picture by Thomas Merton hangs on one landing. It serves as a reminder of the friendship that united them in their opposition to the Vietnam War. Dan and his brother, the Josephite priest Philip, founded an interfaith coalition against it. (A photograph from that period in the early 1960s shows the two brothers seated with Merton under the trees at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky. Dan and Merton frequently corresponded and their letters are now in the Bellarmine Merton Collection at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky.)

As part of his opposition to the Vietnam War, Dan traveled with his friend the late Professor Howard Zinn to Hanoi in North Vietnam to assist in the 1968 release of three American pilots. The diary he kept of this mission, together with 11 poems, became Night Flight to Hanoi. As Night Flight makes clear, Dan is a poet of distinction. His first book of poetry, Time without Number won the Lamont Poetry Prize in 1957. He is also a playwright, author of the “Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” based on the trial of the nine peace activists who removed 378 draft files from the Selective Service office in Catonsville, Md., and burned them with homemade napalm in the parking lot outside. Dan and Philip were among the nine.

Dan and Philip subsequently served three years in the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut. Recently at dinner one evening in the community, Dan told us the story of a doctor who, on a visit to a local emergency room years later, inquired if he were “the” Father Berrigan. On Dan’s assenting, the doctor said that his own draft files may have been among those burned, because he had expected to be sent to Vietnam. Instead, he was able to go to medical school.

Such stories are frequently told as we sit together in the evening. Fellowship with this remarkable man is a reminder that prophets still live among us. Recently, the first reading for Thursday, April 15 was from Acts 5. Several of us were gathered in the room where we celebrate our regular masses. Dan offered to do the first reading. It was the passage that describes the post-resurrection disciples preaching so boldly that the Sanhedrin summoned chastised them for speaking of Jesus. Peter replied: “Better for us to obey God than men.” Dan has lived out that statement throughout his long life.

George Anderson, S.J.

 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 6 months ago
Dan Berrigan is, for me, emblem of what it means to be Catholic.  If Dan is still Catholic, then so am I.
 
I first discovered Dan during the late 60's, a post Vatican II icon, who was digging down beneath the vestments of Catholicism to discover deeper callings.  I loved the new, simpler, Masses.  I got a record of the "rock" Mass - "America is Hard to Find" that Berrigan had done in Ithaca in 1970.  I read one of his books and wrote to him about it.  He wrote back.  I followed his actions and his writings like a hawk. 
 
He was showing me how to be Catholic.
 
I read everything I could about his friendship with Merton.  Between the two of them, there was a way that I could find my way.
 
I went to a Pax Christi retreat that Berrigan gave in the early 90s.  In person, he was such a gentle soul.  One time I had to pick him up at the airport, and I had a chance to talk with him at length about his friendship with Merton.  He told me that for 10 years after Merton's death, he simply could not speak about Merton.  The friendship was that deep.  Then, after 10 years, suddenly he could talk.
 
I am so grateful to have known Dan in my own small way.  His is the Catholicism that will endure, I'm sure. 
 
I keep something of a running blog on my thoughts about dan here:
http://fatherlouie.blogspot.com/search/label/Dan%20Berrigan
Richard Smith
8 years 6 months ago
A few years ago I attended a lecture on Thomas Merton delivered by Fr. Berrigan at the Catholic Worker House in lower Manhattan.  It was dissapointing in that the whole lecture was about what a tremendous guy Berrigan is, Merton barely got a mention. He strikes me as a person completely taken with himself and his accomplishments so that no one else really, truly exists in his world.  This posting, favorable as it is intended, only strengthens that impression.
 
Michael McCormack
8 years 5 months ago
We wish to congratulate Fr. Dan on thhis occasion. As  a married Priest I found Fr Dan a wonderful retreat master at Wisdom House in Ct. and at Kirkbridge.  His indepth insiight into the Scriptures was enlightening as each year he based the weekend on one book. My wife and I are forever grateful
8 years 6 months ago
When I was wrestling with whether to file as a conscientious objector while serving in the Navy in 1974, after several visits to Nagasaki, I came across Dan's book, No Bars to Manhood.  One passage in particular made a deep impression on me:
"We have assumed the name of peacemakers, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price...
"But what of the price of peace? I think of the good, decent, peace-loving people I have known by the thousands, and I wonder. How many of them are so afflicted with the wasting disease of normalcy that, even as they declare for the peace, their hands reach out with an instinctive spasm in the direction of their loved ones, in the direction of their comforts, their home, their security, their income, their future, their plans - that twenty-year plan of family growth and unity, that fifty-year plan of decent life and honorable natural demise.
"'Of course, let us have the peace,” we cry, “but at the same time let us have normalcy, let us lose nothing, let our lives stand intact, let us know neither prison nor ill repute nor disruption of ties.” And because we must encompass this and protect that, and because at all costs - at all costs - our hopes must march on schedule,... because of this we cry peace, peace, and there is no peace. There is no peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war - at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake."
I turned in my request for a discharge on July 15, 1975 and was honorably discharged as a conscientious objector on February 11, 1976.  Thanks, Dan!
 
 
david power
8 years 6 months ago
This man scares me and inspires me.He has sacrificed so much for others
and his fight for life was and is coherent.He puts most of us Pro-Lifers to shame.Nothing comfortable about him and we need more giants like this.He represents one part of the church, which is not suited to everyone ,but which has great value for all those who struggle to live in the communion and follow Jesus . God bless him.
 
8 years 6 months ago
Maybe through people like Berrigan et al both progressives and tradititionals can unite under preferentional option for the poor and preferential options for peace.

Advertisement

The latest from america

The tête-à-tête between Paul Krugman and Nancy Pelosi in Manhattan was like a documentary about a once-popular rock band. (Rod Morata/Michael Priest Photography)
Speaking in a deep blue stronghold, the Democratic leader of the House calls for “civility” and cautiously hopes that she will again wield the speaker’s gavel in January.
Brandon SanchezOctober 16, 2018
The lecture provoked no hostile reaction from the students who heard it. But a media firestorm erupted.
John J. ConleyOctober 16, 2018
Though the current synod appears to lack the sort of drama and high-stakes debates of the previous two, the role of conscience appears to be a common thread.
Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 16, 2018
When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the Olympic podium, their act drew widespread criticism. Now Colin Kaepernick is the face of Nike.
Michael McKinleyOctober 16, 2018