Daniel Berrigan's Passing and Witness

The life and witness, the poetry and teaching of the late Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan hold deep meaning for us all in these days of hunger for moral leadership and spiritual meaning.

Dan was about 19 years my senior. I met him through the media that told of his non-violent actions to awaken people about war and the Vietnam war in particular, and his willingness to go to prison for his beliefs and actions, as well as through his poetry and writings, and friends who were close to him. Also from descriptions of workshops, primarily focused on Scriptural readings and commentary, that he would conduct at retreat houses such as Kirkridge in Pennsylvania. And from his later work with AIDS patients and hospice. His life was a lasting witness to Gospel values.

I met him in person on just one occasion, when we were both conducting workshops at a Methodist clergy conference in Syracuse, New York, his hometown. Our classes were conducted separately but afterwards someone proposed that we appear on a stage together and take questions. We agreed and I remember shaking his hand, looking into his deep and serious eyes and our sitting down together. He said: "You go first." So I spoke for a bit and he followed and then came Q and A. One very large man stood up and actually spoke the words of the rapture religious philosophy: namely that nuclear war should come ASAP so that Jesus can return on a cloud real soon and save his special chosen ones. I had read about such people but had never met one in the flesh, much less one who spoke it openly to a large auditorium of people. My mouth dropped open, I am sure. But immediately Dan spoke up--like a snake he struck. He said: "That's a helluva way to talk about Scripture, isn't it?" To which the man replied: "You ought not to use bad language in dealing with the Bible." This from a man who had just spoken for nuclear war in Jesus' name. Dan was quick, he was direct, and he cut to the chase.

I recently encountered Dan again in writing my book on Thomas Merton called A Way to God: Thomas Merton's Creation Spirituality Journey, for Merton, a Catholic Trappist monk who was vehemently against the Vietnam War, was a mentor to Daniel and his brother Philip. The two Berrigans made frequent visits to Merton's monastery near Louisville, Kentucky, and Merton actually hired Dan to teach the novices under his care. Dan certainly drank deeply from the marriage of contemplation and action that had become a lifelong theme in Merton's theology and writings after he encountered Meister Eckhart through the coaching of Japanese Zen scholar Dr. Shunryu (Daisetz Teitaro) Suzuki in the late 1950s. Said Merton: "Eckhart is my lifeboat." Dorothy Day, who was co-founder of Catholic Worker House, was another important influence, and friend, to both Merton and Dan and his brother Philip.

What was Berrigan's life all about? I would put it this way: Berrigan was about interfering, which as Abraham Heschel taught, is the essence of the work of the prophet. All prophets interfere. Berrigan chose to interfere with war and war-making, and with the militaristic consciousness itself and the structure it births. Dan's mentor, Merton, wrote of a "technological barbarism" that dominated politics and war-making, and compared bombing peoples at a distance to the gas ovens of Nazi times when he wrote: "Do not think yourself better because you burn up friends and enemies with long-range missiles without ever seeing what you have done." One senses the same spirit of moral outrage in Berrigan's declaration after burning draft files from a local draft board: "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 parlour of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise."

How are we doing? Is our prophetic consciousness alive and well at this time in history when humans are spending $58,000 per second on war and armaments? Are we daring to go beyond the reptilian brain's goal of winning at whatever cost? Do we share in the alternative value system that Dan derived from the Gospels in which active peace-making is a choice and a life-style and a genuine possibility? And where courage is alive and well and eminently visible?

These are some questions raised by Berrigan's life and teachings and witness. May we all drink from his courageous cup.