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.
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.