A friend who thinks of the Roman Catholic Church as the oldest form of Protestantism recently asked, “Why should an Orthodox Christian be interested in Dan Berrigan?” He was slightly scandalized that I, a member of the Orthodox Church since 1988, had written a biography of this often-jailed Jesuit priest, At Play in the Lions’ Den.
The core of my answer is that every Christian, no matter what church or communion or sect he belongs to, should interest us to the extent that he or she has lived a Christ-shaped, Christ-revealing life. While no community of Christians has been more attentive to preserving the theology and liturgy of the first millennium as the Orthodox Church, we don’t have a monopoly on sanctity. Christ did not say it was by our excellent theology that his followers would be known, but by their fruits. All sanctity deserves our interest—our divisions should not blind us to holiness on the other side of our ecclesiastical borders. As I recall, it was Metropolitan Platon of Kiev who, in the 19th century, remarked: “The walls we build on earth do not reach to heaven.”
“And just what is it,” my friend asked, “that was so Christ-revealing about Berrigan’s life?”
When he died last year, age 94, obituaries focused on the anti-war aspects of Berrigan’s life: he was eighteen months in prison for burning draft records in a protest against conscription of the young into the Vietnam War; then there was a later event in which he was one of eight people who hammered on the nose cone of a nuclear-armed missile. No one has kept count of his numerous brief stays in jail for other acts of war protest. He was handcuffed more than a hundred times.
He wrote in 1968 of his most famous act of war resistance as one of the Catonsville Nine:
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. For we are sick at heart. Our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children and for thinking of that other Child of whom the poet Luke speaks. The infant was taken up in the arms of an old man whose tongue grew resonant and vatic at the touch of that beauty.
He spoke with the voice of a poet. These remarkable sentences were reprinted in the longer obituaries. But much was left out.
Berrigan committed acts of civil disobedience not only protesting the mass killing of war but the mass killing of the unborn caused by abortion. Addressing those engaged in peace advocacy, he asked hard questions:
Is our morality in any sense superior to that of those ancient peoples who commonly exposed the newborn to death, as unwelcome aspirants to the sweet air of life? Can we help everyone walk into the full spectrum and rainbow of life, from womb to old age, so that no one is expendable? Especially in the religious pacifist community, we who believe no political idolatry can excuse the taking of life, can we help remind and symbolize the splendid range of nonviolence, from before birth to the aged? What is a human vocation anyway? Was not our first political act just getting born?
Dan noted how words, phrases, and slogans have been enlisted to dehumanize the human being in the womb. “It’s an unborn child only if it’s wanted—if unwanted it’s demoted to embryo or fetus.”
Also given little attention were the thousands of hours he had spent with the sick, especially those dying of cancer and AIDS. For years he was a part-time orderly at St. Rose’s Home, a Dominican hospice in Manhattan. The gentle care the nuns provided was done gratis. “In payment for such care, such friendship, no money crossed the palm,” he wrote. “No guest paid, no one could pay. It was a rule of the order, strictly adhered to. It struck me: here we had a stunning instance of the ethical cemented into natural law. The rule was all but metaphysical: no money.”
Dan Berrigan was an early responder to the AIDS crisis. For twelve years beginning in 1984 he walked the wards of St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York talking with AIDS patients and getting to know them, available to all but keeping an eye out especially for those who had no family or friends coming to visit. He also visited patients not yet hospitalized. Via a parent or sister or nun or friend, a spouse or former spouse, names and addresses of the afflicted had a way of making their way to Dan. One visit tended to lead to another until death intervened. A typical first sentence: “I heard from so-and-so that you were ill and thought I would drop by and see how it’s going.” He described himself as “a listener of last resort.”
For most of his adult life he was a teacher of theology and Scripture, though rarely staying at a particular school for more than a year, as he had a tendency to annoy the administration by noticing how badly paid were those doing menial jobs and to side with them in their appeals for better pay and working conditions. He also called for the demilitarization of schools where he was teaching. Many American Jesuit universities have tight connections with the Pentagon.
One of the constants in his life was poetry. In 1957, when he was 35, his first book, Time without Number, won the Lamont Poetry Award. He was a prolific author, averaging a book each year of his adult life.
His often-staged play, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, was partly inspired by the Greek classic, Antigone, the first drama centering on conscientious objection and civil disobedience. It was also produced as a film by Gregory Peck.
Dan was both an actor and advisor in the movie The Mission, which won the 1986 Cannes Film Festival Best Film Award and was nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture. His book on the making of The Mission has been described by Martin Sheen as “one of the best books on filmmaking” he had ever read.
Perhaps his 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 great challenge just getting out of bed. I recall him 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 flawed church, his flawed Jesuit community, even his flawed homeland—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 the protection of human life, a commitment excluding no one, from a child in the womb to a condemned murderer on death row.
He was supportive of me when I was received into the Orthodox Church at a parish of the Moscow Patriarchate in Amsterdam. Not every Catholic priest I was close to at the time viewed this as a positive event. Dan teased me: “This kind of thing can happen when you love your enemies.” He was referring to my frequent trips to Soviet Russia in the 1980s and the two books that came out of those journeys.
I first met Dan in 1961 and worked closely with him for more than half a century. From time to time he heard my confession. The confession with him that I remember best happened in New York late in 1965. I was twenty-four, Dan forty-three. It was nearly midnight. Dan and I, pushed along by a cold, damp wind, were walking back toward his Jesuit residence on East 78th Street after a meeting with college students at a West Side hotel.
By the mid-1960s, confession was becoming an unfashionable sacrament. The Age of Aquarius was dawning. The argument ran: “God knows, why tell a priest?” Also, events in one’s private life that had once been seen as morally catastrophic were now seen in a less critical light. There were multiplying assurances that self-accusations were as immobilizing to our potential selves as bricks tied to helium-filled balloons. For many social activists, sin’s main surviving validity was chiefly in the public sphere: complicity in war crimes, greedy use of the planet’s resources—social sins, sins we commit en masse. But I was unable to shake off a painful awareness that I was also guilty of sins of the old-fashioned variety: my failures as a husband and parent.
Dan listened. Confession can be like giving birth. Births are always hard, my words were coming hard, but Dan was a patient and cheerful midwife. I finished. We walked along in the special silence of Manhattan on a wet night, not a word from either one of us until Dan announced, “Hey, Jimmy, look at this!” We stopped. I discovered that we were in a wealthy zone of the Upper East Side and that Dan was gazing into the window of a store that sold every sort of sleep gear: silk and velvet eye masks, pillows with radios inside, pillows that provide the sounds of rain and water, down-filled pajamas, Swiss-made ear plugs, cashmere slippers, fur-trimmed blankets, silk and satin sheets. Dan was delighted. He pointed from item to item. “Look at that, Jimmy! Mink ear muffs!” I had never been invited to window-shop in a confessional before. Dan said, “This is how the other half sleeps!”
It dawned on me that the sleep store window tour was Dan’s comment on the unexamined life, his way of laughing at the moral sleepwalk I had been owning up to. And it was a celebration. “Look, Jimmy!” Which is to say, “Jimmy, this is where you were but now you’re awake again.”
Walking away from the shop, Dan said to me words I had often heard in the tight enclosure of a confessional: “With the authority I have received from the Church, in the name of Jesus Christ, I absolve you from all your sins.”
Whether there will ever be icons of Dan Berrigan remains to be seen, but his life was certainly a day-to-day response to the Gospel.
“If you want to follow Jesus,” Dan would say, “you had better look good on wood.”
[Editors’ Note: The author’s At Play in the Lions’ Den: A Biography and Memoir of Daniel Berrigan was released last month and is available on Amazon.]
Jim Forest is the international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and the author or editor of many books. His earlier books include Praying With Icons, Ladder of the Beatitudes, The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, and Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness. His The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers won the International Thomas Merton Society‘s Louie Award. He serves as a reader at St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.
See also Deacon Stephen Hayes’ companion article here.