Holy Prophet Daniel Berrigan, SJ (9 May 1921 - 30 April 2016)
“This Child is set for the rise and fall of many ... a sign that is spoken against a Child born to make trouble and die for it ...we say killing is disorder life and gentleness and community and unselfishness is the only order we recognize... How many indeed must die before our voices are heard?”
Fr Daniel Berrigan, SJ
“There is no keener revelation into the soul of a society than the way it treats it’s children.”
I began writing this for Dan’s Anniversary of his death, April 30. I just couldn’t decide what to include, he did so much. So I’ve let it sit, unfinished. Then the most recent massacre of children in Uvalde, Texas, happened and I remembered Dan always talked and wrote about the looming wars on children. This affected him so deeply at times, he’d stay up in his apartment alone and grieved ... and wrote. He would not come down for dinner, and I’d often go up to make sure he was okay. Most of you remember his most famous statement about burning draft files in Catonsville, Maryland, 17 May 1968:
“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...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 Vatican at the touch of that beauty.
And the old man spoke; this Child is set for the rise and fall of many in Israel, a sign that is spoken against...”
And I have quoted most, but not all, of the rest on a scroll in this icon.
One of these days I would like to write more about a concept I discovered moving from Manhattan to Alburquerque in September 1990. It’s from the book “Iron John : A Book About Men” by the late poet Robert Bly. It is the concept of “male mothering.”
It’s similar to mentoring, but not at all similar to being a demanding coach , stage mother, or to “tough love.” It is however, similar to the unconditional love of a good mother, yet performed by an older man who takes you under his wing. Because of the scandals in the church, so much of that male to male attention is now scrutinized as nefarious and highly suspicious. Which is a tragedy for young men, not to inherit the wisdom of their elders.
In my 35 years in the Society of Jesus I had so many wonderful male mothers that I had to list all of them, that I could remember, in the catalog of my exhibit in Denver 2018. The catalog is called “Light In All Darkness“ and has pictures and brief writings on all the pieces from the exhibit (it’s still available to order if you’d like to see it).
Dan was part male mother and part searing prophet to me. I used to say the prophets have a “blow torch mouth.” When they turn the explosive fire on a huge religious institution or corrupt government, it’s necessary, fearless ,right, and we all applaud them. When they turn it on you personally, it can be devastating. So I definitely got both the mothering and the blow torch fire. I remember once during the AIDS Hospice years, (1983-1990) I went up to Dan to tell him my problems. One problem was that I’d been asked to write a diary of my work with people with HIV-AIDS, and because it was all so intimate, personal and confidential, I refused the offer. The publisher had even suggested he could get Dr Mathilde Krim, to write an introduction. I waited in silence for Dan to answer. I said, what do you think ? He said, “Well, pretty classy problems.” So we had a drink and I went down to my apartment, humbled, tail between my legs.
I first heard of Dan in the Jesuit Novitiate in Florissant, Missouri. Our novice master wanted us to experience every kind and stripe of Jesuit, from scholars, to missionaries, teachers, writers, musicians, visual artists, (literally at that time, 1968-70) a professional clown with a traveling circus (think “Godspell“) doctors, lawyers, scientists, historians, actors, directors ... and prophets. This was to tell us, you can’t possibly come up with a Jesuit who hasn’t already done what you may think is original and unique. Absolutely true.
The Novice Master would mimeograph articles by or about Dan and ask us to read them. We also had to do a monthly book report on a Jesuit holy man or canonized saint; at that time I was enthralled by the English Jesuit Martyrs and by Teilhard de Chardin... especially “The Divine Milieu.” I think back on reading that book at 19 and how it still is my spirituality, especially now, his comments about aging, which are right smack in front of me. Teilhard called aging, “the divinisation of passivities.” Or as one of my favorite male mothers, the Jesuit Fr John J. Walsh quipped, “Everytime you look in the mirror, something else has dropped.”
I began, after Novitiate, in philosophy studies to read everything Dan would write, including his early award winning poetry. But it was the book “No Bars To Manhood” that shook me to my core. I must say honestly, that I had been prepared to read Dan by reading my now dear friend, Jim Douglass’ book “The Non-Violent Cross” In 1969. That book confirmed everything I intuitively knew in my heart. Both these men are truly prophets and I “bow to their podvigs” (Russian Orthodox term for bearing heavy crosses - Catholic term is usually “victim soul”) in trembling and awe. Because of Dan’s utter genius with words he put into action, (I cannot emphasize this enough) and enormously poetic, inventive vocabulary God had/has designated him a prophet. In my experience all the Biblical, and many of the later prophets have this gift of precise language that goes right into your soul. Like Mahatma Gandhi, the whole Berrigan Family, St Oscar Romero, Delores Huerta, Caesar Chavez, Sr Dorothy Stang, Dianna Ortiz, Jim Douglass, Thomas Merton, Robert Ellsberg, Dorothy Day, Christopher Pramuk, William Stringfellow, Malcom X and Dr Martin Luther King, Fr Malcom Boyd, Fr John McNeill, Fr Bob Nugent, Sr Jeanine Gramick, SL, Fr Jim Martin, SJ, (to name a few) these prophets, as the cliche’ says, “trouble the comfortable, and comfort the troubled.” I was so in awe of Dan that I thought if I ever met him I’d be seared by his fire and would be withered. But God had a different plan.
One day in Manhattan, in the AIDS pandemic years I was taking the uptown #1 train from 72nd street. The subway doors opened and there he was sitting right in front of me. Hanging on the subway pole I stammered out that I was a Jesuit and had read everything he’d ever written and was utterly grateful. He invited me to have a picnic on Staten Island and so we met, later, took the ferry over, and I told him everything. He then asked to be introduced to Sister Patrice Murphy and became one of the AIDS Hospice team. Thus began a friendship (I have a box of letters I may be able to publish someday) which was both rocky and sublime. Through Dan I met some of the greatest writers and peace workers of our time, including his extended family. I designed a poster for Dan and 3 of his book covers. When I became an apprentice iconographer, he gave me a book of icons which belonged to William Stringfellow, and encouraged me by telling me his friend Thomas Merton had loved icons, he also said hauntingly, that it took him ten years to get over Merton’s death. I never wanted “to be Dan”, but I needed to experience how he could take such continual blows and still keep going. Dan was, as Adrienne von Speyr says in her book “The Mission of the Prophets, so much“ here” - so focused on human suffering that he (they) could not be comforted; prophets are inconsolable. I’d say it’s very similar to the Bodhisattva vow.
Now a word on the icon and why the Child? The flame over his head ?
Dan’s writings are filled with references to “the war on children.” He mentions children so often and so much, that I had to place him with the Christ Child; with a prophet’s fierce, ignited flame over his head. He always wore a medallion of a Fish (Jesus) and that’s in the icon too. The Christ Child is actually Dan’s grandnephew, Seamus, his niece Frida Berrigan’s boy. And in the photo I used for this icon, Frida is actually holding her son’s back while Dan pulls him into his heart. But I couldn’t put in Frida’s hand so it looks a bit awkward! But I watched him around his nieces and nephews, and it was sheer delight.
O there is so much more to say on Daniel Berrigan, but St John reminds us at the end of his Gospel, 21:25
“But there are many other things that Jesus did; if every one was written down, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
Fr William Hart McNichols 💮 Ascension Sunday 2022
... just an aside, the Ascension was Teilhard ‘s favorite feast