At Play in the Lions’ Den: a biography and memoir of Daniel Berrigan

It is hard to deny that God prepares and then uses certain people for very special tasks. You will see that is eminently the case with Daniel Berrigan — but also for Jim Forest who seems to always know who is worth writing about — and how to do the writing. Read, and enter into a much larger world.
— Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation

Resurrection! Daniel Berrigan’s vim and vision and vitality crackle out of the pages of Jim Forest’s book. My uncle is alive in this book: in the stories and remembrances Forest collects, in the author’s sharing of his own long friendship with Dan and in his savvy situating of Dan’s life within the life of the Jesuit Order, the Catholic Church, and war and peace and countless movements for justice. Dan Berrigan, Presente!
— Frida Berrigan, author, “It Runs in the Family”

As Jim Forest’s biography demonstrates, Daniel Berrigan’s life was a full measure of grace which soared up and flowed out of all those times and places that witnessed his unyielding personal commitment in word and deed to peace and social justice, his deep compassion and disarming humor, and the consistently heroic levels of his nonviolent resistance that took our breath away and renewed the face of the earth.
— Martin Sheen

Who better than a literate peacemaker like Jim Forest to tell the story of dear Dan Berrigan and all his commitments to nonviolence? And tell it so well.
— Colman McCarthy, director, the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C. 

Thanks to Jim Forest’s faithful, joyful portrait of Dan Berrigan’s transforming life, here is Dan in our face and hearts all over again — challenging us, loving us, pushing us to give up war and every form of violence. Jim takes us on a walk with Dan and Jesus into that community of communities where everyone on earth is together, “laughing, drinking beer, and listening to rain battering the windows.” Thank you, Daniel. And thank you, Jim.
— Jim Douglass, author, “JFK and the Unspeakable”

At Play in the Lions’ Den takes us into the heart of this very human prophet on his journey where Jesus seems to tell him, as he told Peter, “You will stretch out your hands and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.” (John 21:18) And we know Dan Berrigan kept his joyful smile, even as he ended up in a difficult place, as prophets generally do. Jim Forest’s life has been deeply touched by Dan Berrigan and, after reading his memoir, you will know another dedicated and prophetic follower of Jesus.
— Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton

“If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood!” Daniel Berrigan coined that phrase. In this extraordinary biography and memoir, Jim Forest, who knew Berrigan intimately, shows us that Daniel Berrigan looked every bit the good prophet on wood. This is a first-rate story that needs to be read. Highly recommended.
— Ronald Rolheiser, OMI

What is amazing about the Berrigans and their ever expanding family is that God continues to anoint them with suffering prophetic witnesses, writers, healers and artists. This beautiful, arresting book about Daniel by Jim Forest is an introduction into the many lives of a brilliant, holy genius who used all of his gifts for God and in that very way each of us can follow his loving example.
— William Hart McNichols, painter and iconographer

There is no better general introduction to the life of Dan Berrigan, one of the greatest Christians of our age, of any age, than this deeply researched, highly personal, beautifully written biography by his friend Jim Forest. He has captured Dan the poet, the prophet and the priest. And what a poet! What a prophet! What a priest!
— James Martin, SJ, author of “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything”

Some critics have suggested that Berrigan threw away a prestigious career as a Catholic writer whose work was on a par with Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Merton to write against war. But in this insightful and inspiring biography, Forest suggests that Daniel Berrigan lived his poems, that his metaphors became stepping stones (and rocks) on the difficult path he chose.
— Diane Scharper, America magazine

I’m reading the new Dan Berrigan biography by Jim Forest and it’s wonderful, a model of what a biography ought to be. It brings back so many memories. Dan had a close relationship with my father. He often came to our home for Shabbat dinner, and we all loved his presence. What I really appreciate is the way Jim Forest brings Dan’s voice to the pages, quoting him often. This is one of the few biographies in which the subject is brought to life.
— Susannah Heschel, Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

If you read ony one new biography this year, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more rollicking read than this spirited and intimate look at the life and faith of Daniel Berrigan (1921-2016) and the colorful cast of friends and associates who shared both with him, or crossed his path. (Think Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Thich Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King, Ernesto Cardenal, and Martin Sheen, to list the best known). Celebrated as a rebel priest, poet, activist, and teacher, Berrigan was famous enough to make the cover of TIME. But he also belonged to a large and fascinating Irish Catholic family; and to a religious community that didn’t always appreciate him. And the strength of his personal beliefs was tested not only by his many well-publicized arrests for civil disobedience, but also by the zeitgeist. Fun-loving and generous he may have been; but he also took the confession – and forgiveness – of sins seriously; and he never wavered in his views that a vow made before God ought to be upheld; that violence can never be redemptive; and that every life is sacred. Packed with vivid anecdotes, rare photographs, and telling marginal quotes from Berrigan’s many books, Forest’s profile aptly illustrates why his fascinating subject chose the following epitaph for his gravestone – and not just in jest: “It was never dull. Alleluia!”
— Chris Zimmerman (Plough Quarterly)

At Play in the Lion’s Den is so readable, so strategic in its storytelling, so edifying, so wonderfully decorated with photographs. I am learning so much, history and context I wish I would have understood better as I attempted to learn from Dan over the years… I can’t imagine the labor that went into locating, compiling and ordering all of that material! Narratives of great lives are so daunting to try to capture, yet so important to a proper grasp of our common history. Jim Forest has done a masterful job. All of us who knew, loved and learned from Dan are deeply in Jim’s debt for serving so magnificently as a keeper of this story that has so shaped us, the church and the nation.
— Ched Myers, theologian, biblical scholar, author

In his compelling portrait of Daniel Berrigan, Jim Forest has given us a wonderful gift. He captures the amazing grace of Berrigan’s remarkable life as priest, poet, humanitarian, educator, anti-war activist and modern-day prophet. I could not put this book down. Forest spent time with Berrigan as a young man and kept in touch with him over the years after he moved to the Netherlands for work and where Dan visited him and his family. Theirs was a close bond. Consequently, his knowledge is firsthand. He succeeds in capturing the essence of Berrigan – his intellect, his humor, his compassion, his love for his community of Jesuits and his profound sense of humanity.
— Sabina Clarke, Irish Edition

* * *

From the book’s preface:

Daniel in the lions’ den was a popular scene in Romanesque stone carving, a visual anticipation of Christ’s death and resurrection. In one of the capitals in the basilica of the French town of Vézelay, Daniel is shown as if he were resting on a bed of leaves within an almond-shaped mandorla of divine protection. He is no more threatened by the lions on either side of him than I am threatened by Beckett, our household cat.

Dan Berrigan spent much of his life in various lions’ dens — at home as a child when his father was in a rage, in paddy wagons and prisons, in demonstrations which were targets of violent attack, in a city under bombardment, in urban areas police would describe as hazardous — yet remarkably he lived to be 94, dying peacefully in bed, though he bore many invisible scars and scratches.

Like the biblical Daniel, Dan Berrigan was a man of prayer, both private and public. I never knew anyone gladder to celebrate the Eucharist. But, unlike the biblical Daniel, Dan was also a man of play, at play as much in courtrooms and jails as in his apartment assembling a meal for whoever happened to be his guests that night.

I recall him saying, “The worst thing is an omnivorous solemnity.” Dan was rarely solemn. I remember one night he and two other friends helped me push my decrepit VW beetle down a rain-soaked East Harlem Street, trying to bring the engine to life, all of us laughing till our bellies ached while Dan told a joke about a near-sighted, sex-starved elephant who mistook a VW for a female elephant who wanted to mate.

For many years Dan lived with a Jesuit community in a building at 220 West 98th Street in Manhattan. Dan had apartment 11L. Once through the door, the many people who were welcomed there found themselves in what might be described as the set for a small Off Broadway play. Posters and banners, flags and photos were decoratively placed here and there, but what I found most striking was a canticle-like quotation from the great Irish abbess, St. Bridget of Kildare, that Dan had inscribed on one wall, the calligraphy done in black magic-marker, the text wrapping around his refrigerator:

I should like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I should like the angels of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal.
I should like excellent meats of belief and pure piety.
I should like flails of penance at my house.
I should like the men of heaven at my house;
I should like barrels of peace at their disposal;
I should like vessels of charity for distribution;
I should like for them cellars of mercy.
I should like cheerfulness to be in their drinking.
I should like Jesus to be there among them.
I should like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.
I should like the people of heaven, the poor, to be gathered around us from all parts.

Barrels of peace, cellars of mercy, meats of belief, flails of penance, the good company of the poor, an assembly brought together from far and near, all gathered with the King of Kings and the three Marys around a great lake of beer… One could shape one’s life around so magnetic a vision, so joyful a prophecy, so great an expectation — as compelling a glimpse of heaven as any I have heard. How suitable to discover these holy words in Dan Berrigan’s home, a grand central station of hospitality whose countless guests included many who were en route to prison or dying of AIDS.

Inventive man that he was, Dan helped, with his brother Phil, to develop more theatrical forms of protest, civil disobedience and resistance and then, as a writer, to transform prosaic events into poetry and theater, as he did in converting the courtroom drama of the trial of the Catonsville Nine into the often performed play of the same name.

And what could be more theatrical than slipping away, costumed as a giant apostle, from a crowd of F.B.I. agents poised to arrest and handcuff him, and thus beginning four months playing hide-and-seek as an underground priest?

Dan was a performer and artist but his art was rarely art for art’s sake. His was a life of lived-out translations of such biblical commandments as “thou shalt not kill” and “love one another.” How sadly rare it is to find a person — Dan was one of the exceptions — who regards such a straightforward mandate as obliging us to protect life rather than destroy it, even if that requires saying a costly “no.”

Perhaps Dan’s most notable quality was his immense compassion, which guided him one way or another on a daily basis, even late in life when it was a challenge just getting out of bed in the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University that had become his last home.

I recall Dan 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 imperfect church, his not always agreeable 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 became 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.

Dan remarked of Dorothy Day, “She lived as if the Gospel were true.” The same could be said of Dan. He once said, “If you want to follow Jesus, you had better look good on wood.” He didn’t mean a Christian had to be a martyr, in the sense of dying for one’s faith, but a martyr in the literal meaning of the Greek word martyros: a witness. Part of that witness, Dan insisted, is refusing to use death as a means of improving the world, still less creating the Kingdom of God.

For the Christian, peacemaking is any action that bears witness to the risen Christ. As Dan said in a talk given at the Abbey of Gethsemani, “To be witnesses of the resurrection is to be contemplative and public all at once.”

Dan had countless friends. I was fortunate to be one of them. May this book become an occasion for friendship with him for those new to his name as we gather around the great lake of beer at which the King of Kings presides and where lions and lambs lie side by side.

— Jim Forest