On April 30, 2016, Catholic peacemaker and activist Daniel Berrigan entered life eternal. He was a teacher and friend to many in the Sojourners community. Read more reflections on Dan's life and legacy in the August 2016 issue.
I ONCE HAD a conversation with Dan about his death. We were talking late into the night at the Block Island hermitage that his friends William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne had built for him while he was two years in Danbury federal prison, a consequence of the 1968 Catonsville draft board action. He had by then foresworn scotch, on doctor’s orders, so I was being introduced to Manhattans dry, which were somehow allowed. The place suited the topic. On the wall above us was an exorcism poem that he’d hand-lettered in a style familiar to Catholic Worker and resistance houses across the country.
I’m certain it was I who broached the topic. When we met in the early ’70s, it was in the wake of notorious assassinations: Medgar Evers and Viola Liuzzo, the Panthers, Malcolm, King, the Kennedys. There was a certain youthful grandiosity in imagining that he or others who were such troublesome peacemakers would be similarly targeted. I braced my heart. I told him so. (Then he turns around and lives, thanks be, to 94!)
On April 30, 2016, Catholic peacemaker and activist Daniel Berrigan entered life eternal. He was a teacher and friend to many in the Sojourners community. The following article is adapted from the homily Steve Kelly gave at Dan's May 6 funeral Mass in New York City. Read more reflections on Dan's life and legacy in the August 2016 issue.
IN THE STORY OF LAZARUS, told in John’s gospel, seemingly Jesus arrives too late. Humanity, doomed like Lazarus, is sealed under two tons of stone. Is this then an inspired picture of how God sees us? Humanity sealed up in death? Death taunting Jesus until Jesus has a visceral reaction? The hand of death moves the chess piece toward checkmate.
The complexity of the lie goes: “Once you are dead, once afraid, how will God guide you?” If afraid, how can one obey the guidance, dependence on the one who sent him?
“Greater love has no one than to lay down one’s life for a friend.” So God does know what it’s like to encounter death’s whiplash version. Always, everywhere, each time, each encounter, risks are included.
Jesus went the distance in this anguishing scene. To see him at work is to see life itself overcoming death, because he, as a human being, cooperated, obeyed the guidance of the one who sent him. He loved, he lays down his life.
Now there is a different moral power in town. God is going to crack death’s veneer, a chink in the armor. Through Jesus’ obedience, the crumbling begins, and the hidden, insipid hold of death is broken.
WHEN I WAS BORN—the first child of Dan Berrigan’s brother Phil and Elizabeth McAlister—my uncle sent my parents a sheaf of poetry. On it, he wrote a note: “Dears, I send these with trepidation. They are uneven; but then so is life, no? Love, Daniel.”
My parents put the dozen or so poems in a book and gave them to me on my eighth birthday with their own note: “We don’t expect you to understand all of them yet but you can now begin to read and grow with them.” Yet. Right. I am now 34 years older than I was when I first opened the little red bound book of handwritten poems, and I don’t understand them any better.
But now that my dearest Unka has passed from this world, I hold on tight to this collection and try really hard to understand. It is going to be tough. The poems are full of words the dictionary either fails to define or further confuses—supramundane, Blake’s child, Dante’s paradise (what are boys from middle school doing in Unka’s poetry?), “the bodhisattva is neither stuporous nor sleek / he is crucified.”
Fragments of these poems cycle through my head all the time, a sort of back rhythm to daily life, especially when that daily life was graced with Unka.
Uncle Dan and I would walk—down New York City’s Broadway and through Riverside Park. He breathed in such love for the natural world, even amid the Upper West Side’s hustles and bumps. He saw everything, and found the beauty that was there. The only people that made him mad were delivery men riding bikes on the sidewalks—he had been knocked down once by them and he worried about the elderly—and people who lost themselves in their phones.
WHEN WE LOSE a Christian peacemaker such as Daniel Berrigan, as we did in April, it gets very personal for many of us. Berrigan shaped and motivated a Catholic peace movement that became a fundamental and foundational influence on Sojourners and on me personally.
During my early years at Michigan State University, friends were drafted, others feared they would be next, and the Vietnam War consumed the attention of an entire generation. Then I learned about Daniel and Philip Berrigan and the small group of Christian protesters they were inciting. They were the only Christians I had heard about who were against the war in Vietnam.
Here were some Christians who were saying and doing what I thought the gospel said—and what nobody in my white evangelical world was saying or doing. The witness of the Berrigans helped keep my hope for faith from dying altogether. African-American Christians fighting for justice and that “Berrigan handful” of Christians fighting for peace paved the way for my return to faith.
Daniel and Philip Berrigan rose to national prominence after they and seven others burned 378 draft files with homemade napalm taken from a draft-board office in Catonsville, Md., on May 17, 1968. The result was jail sentences for the group and, eventually, Daniel’s play “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.”
For some months now, I have been ruminating on the writer John Podhoretz’s eulogy in Commentary magazine for his sister Rachel Abrams upon her death, from stomach cancer, at age 62. Commentary effectively being the Podhoretz family house organ, and the Podhoretzes effectively being the mythological family of the origin of neoconservatism, the essay would be of interest to anyone interested in cultural and religious sociology — or at least to me.
I, too, come from a family that has also tended to think of itself in somewhat mythological, contrarian terms — This is what Langstons are like — so a meditation from the heart of another large, bustling family is an immediate and natural draw for me.
But lay that all aside. The eulogy wins, and haunts, because it is the passionate remembrance of a sister by her brother. Despite their being part of a prominent East Coast family, its focus is relentlessly on the small acts of family and home that transfigure quotidian existence. Podhoretz dwells lovingly on Rachel as a housewife, a lifetime foul-mouth, an exuberant and dedicated mother, an artist, and finally a writer who let loose with political commentary in her late fifties as online blogs began gathering steam.
“I loved you, Rachel,” he concludes poignantly, in words I could read over and over. “I liked you. And oh, oh, oh, how I admired you.”
So much of that poignancy is derived from direct address to his sister, who is no longer there to receive it. Having just hit 45, Dante comes to mind: midway-through-the-journey-of-our-life-I found myself within a dark wood for the right way had been lost. Who can know how our days are numbered? The lesson for me is that I should tell of how I love my brother John, even as he lives.
In a poignant first-person essay in today's LA Times, actor and director Ron Howard, who as a child played Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, tenderly remebers his mentor and friend Andy Griffith, who died Tuesday at the age of 86.
He was known for ending shows by looking at the audience and saying "I appreciate it, and good night." Perhaps the greatest enduring lesson I learned from eight seasons playing Andy's son Opie on the show was that he truly understood the meaning of those words, and he meant them, and there was value in that.
Respect. At every turn he demonstrated his honest respect for people and he never seemed to expect theirs in return, but wanted to earn it....