By Jim Forest
News of Dan Berrigan’s death reached me a few hours after he had breathed his last. Age 94, he had patiently awaited the event for several years while living at the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York.
It happened to be the 30th of April, the Feast of St Catherine of Siena. Not a bad day to be Dan’s last. Like Catherine, he had been a warrior against war. “We do not see how much harm there is to souls and dishonor to God in war,” Catherine declared. On occasions beyond counting, Dan had said much the same both in word and deed. Most famously, in 1968, protesting the Vietnam War, he had been one of nine people (another was his brother Phil) who burned draft records taken from a conscription office in Catonsville, Maryland, an action that put him in prison for two years. Dan said in a statement at the time, “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.” The same year Dan traveled to North Vietnam to bring home three U.S. prisoners of war.
After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the Berrigan brothers turned their gaze toward nuclear weapons. In 1980 the two of them plus six friends entered a General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania and hammered on nuclear weapon nosecones. Their “plowshare” action drew inspiration from the biblical prophet Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not raise sword against nation, neither shall they train for war anymore.”
During the trial in 1981 Dan summed up the meaning of the group’s symbolic gesture: “The only message I have to the world is: We are not allowed to kill innocent people. We are not allowed to be complicit in murder. We are not allowed to be silent while preparations for mass murder proceed in our name… It’s terrible for me to live in a time where I have nothing to say to human beings except, ‘Stop killing’. There are other beautiful things that I would love to be saying to people. There are other projects I could be very helpful at. And I can’t do them. I cannot. Because everything is endangered… Our plight is very primitive from a Christian point of view. We are back where we started. Thou shalt not kill. We are not allowed to kill.” After the trial and the appeals that followed, the eight were paroled in consideration of time already served in prison.
Dan was born May 9, 1921, in Virginia, Minnesota, and grew up in Syracuse, New York. Drawn to the Society of Jesus, he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1946 from St. Andrew-on-Hudson, a Jesuit seminary, and a master’s from Woodstock College in 1952, the year of his ordination. He was the author of more than fifty books, fifteen of them poetry. In 1957, Time Without Number won the prestigious Lamont Poetry Prize, awarded by the Academy of American Poets. In addition he had served as chaplain in Manhattan at Saint Rose’s Home and later with cancer and AIDS patients at St. Vincent’s Hospital, experiences described in two of his books, We Die Before We Live and Sorrow Built a Bridge. In Steadfastness of the Saints, he wrote about his travels in Nicaragua and El Salvador where he witnessed the U.S.-assisted wars.
Perhaps Dan’s most notable quality was his immense compassion, which shaped his life one way or another on a daily basis, even late in life when it was a challenge just getting out of bed. I recall Dan once using the phrase “outraged love.” Many people are driven by rage, which rarely does them or anyone much good and often makes things worse. But outraged love is mainly about love. Dan loved his church, his Jesuit community, he even loved America — but there is much in all three zones that is outrageous, and Dan was never able to be silent or passive about our betrayals. This could have made him a ranter but the artist side of Dan always found ways to channel his outrage into one or another form of creativity, whether via poetry or a wide variety of acts of witness. He was also a profoundly pastoral person, the sort of person who visits the sick in the middle of the night and holds the hands of the dying. He was one of the most consistent voices of his generation for nonviolent approaches to change and conflict resolution — in that dimension of his life a spiritual child of Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day. His commitment to life excluded no one, from a child in the womb to a condemned murderer on death row.
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When a friend dies, memories come to life. I recall an encounter back in the early seventies that my friend Mel Hollander had with Dan. We were all living in Manhattan in those days. One of Dan’s activities was teaching a course at Union Theological Seminary on pastoral care of the dying. Mel, who was expecting to die soon from cancer, decided to take the class.
In his first encounter with Mel, Dan immediately noticed Mel’s unhealthy skin color and sunken eyes. Clearly something was seriously amiss. Not bothering with the polite nothings that people so often exchange, Dan’s first words to Mel were, “What’s the matter?” Deciding to respond with the same directness, Mel said, “I’m dying of cancer.” To which Dan replied, without hesitation or embarrassment, and just as briefly, “That must be very exciting.”
Mel later told me how Dan’s few words instantly cleared the dark sky he had been living under since he been told he had not more than six months to live. What had until then been a joyless journey on a short road to the cemetery suddenly was transformed into the most adventurous pilgrimage of his life.
As it happened, against all medical expectations, Mel’s cancer went into prolonged remission. Mel lived on for some years. He did in fact die young, not of cancer but of smoke inhalation caused by a fire.
In the early seventies the Jesuits had just rented and furnished several floors of an apartment building on West 98th Street. Dan, one of the residents, was showing me around. On one side of a spacious recreation area full of couches and arm chairs a bar had been set up that had been poshly decorated in a style reminiscent of a captain’s stateroom aboard an eighteenth century galleon — brass compasses, fishing nets, old maps, etcetera.
“If this is the holy poverty,” said Dan, “bring on the holy chastity.”
— Jim Forest
4 May 2016 / for The Tablet (London)
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Jim Forest worked closely with Dan Berrigan for more than fifty years. In 1964, they were co-founders of the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Forest is the author of biographies of Thomas Merton (Living With Wisdom) and of Dorothy Day (All Is Grace). His latest book is Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment.
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