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The On Being Project

The Saint I Never Met: Daniel Berrigan

I never met Daniel Berrigan. In fact, I had never heard of him until he died. And yet I wept when I read about his life.

Even for those of us who think that we know about religion, in reality, each of us only knows a small corner of a vast, unseen ocean of light.

Fr. Berrigan’s passing has had me thinking about why we mourn people who we have never met in life at a personal level. It is true for celebrities — think of the outpouring of grief we just witnessed for Prince. But it is also true for religious exemplars. This is part of what I am pondering about the depth of emotions so many have had about Daniel Berrigan. What are we mourning? Who are we mourning?

Daniel Berrigan passed away at the age of 94. So many of my friends who are committed to peace and justice were weeping, sharing stories and anecdotes, and memorial articles. The grief was particularly intense among many Catholic friends who are devoted to social justice, peace, and resistance. I’ve been reading these articles, too, and in awe of wave after wave of wisdom and compassion that poured through Berrigan.

This humble and beautiful Jesuit priest was among the religious voices who brought a moral voice to opposition to the Vietnam War, to aspects of the corruption and hierarchy of the Church itself, and dedicated himself to the care for poor and the needy, for orphans and widows, for bombed civilians in Vietnam, for the people of Palestine, for AIDS patients, and more.

In a world that is broken, or seems to be broken, I found in Berrigan a person committed to doing good, being good, standing up for the good. His commitment to the good was both luminous and somehow sustainable over decades. He talked about making his heart’s commitment last over decades:

One cannot level one’s moral lance at every evil in the universe.
There are just too many of them.
But you can do something,
and the difference between doing something
and doing nothing
is everything.

How lovely is this commitment to doing something. How wise to recognize that goodness is not an instantaneous redemption, but a whole series of little droplets that link up together to eventually form a river, an ocean.

There is actually something beautifully countercultural about realizing that, no, the revolution will not be quick. It may not even happen in our lifetime. We struggle and tilt the arc of the moral universe towards the good so that our as-yet-unborn grandchildren have the chance to live lives where their dignity is not up for debate. But we ourselves may not, and probably will not, live to see the day. In an age of instant gratification and me/now, to do something for the long term, even beyond one’s own lifetime, is even more remarkable.

Daniel Berrigan used to talk about being in it for the “long haul,” working as a long-distance runner for love and justice. As so many of the most beautifully rooted and grounded people do, he also adapted the tradition he claimed for today’s world. He wrote a book in 1981 called Ten Commandments for the Long Haul. Here are his Ten Commandments, modified for today:

  1. Call on Jesus when all else fails. Call on Him when all else succeeds (except that never happens).
  2. Don’t be afraid to be afraid or appalled to be appalled. How do you think the trees feel these days, or the whales, or, for that matter, most humans?
  3. Keep your soul to yourself. Soul is a possession worth paying for, they’re growing rarer. Learn from monks, they have secrets worth knowing.
  4. About practically everything in the world, there’s nothing you can do. This is Socratic wisdom. However, about of few things you can do something. Do it, with a good heart.
  5. On a long drive, there’s bound to be a dull stretch or two. Don’t go anywhere with someone who expects you to be interesting all the time. And don’t be hard on your fellow travelers. Try to smile after a coffee stop.
  6. Practically no one has the stomach to love you, if you don’t love yourself. They just endure. So do you.
  7. About healing: The gospels tell us that this was Jesus’ specialty and he was heard to say: “Take up your couch and walk!”
  8. When traveling on an airplane, watch the movie, but don’t use the earphones. Then you’ll be able to see what’s going on, but not understand what’s happening, and so you’ll feel right at home, little different then you do on the ground.
  9. Know that sometimes the only writing material you have is your own blood.
  10. Start with the impossible. Proceed calmly towards the improbable. No worry, there are at least five exits.

I learned about the pacifist who went underground, hiding from the FBI. When he was finally apprehended, he responded by saying:

“We have chosen to be branded peace criminals by war criminals.”

Fr. Daniel Berrigan would spend 27 months in prison, in the Danbury Federal Penitentiary.

I read about him traveling with Howard Zinn to Vietnam, and then ministering to AIDS patients. Berrigan spoke passionately about the suffering of Palestinians, denouncing the militarism of the Israeli state. How lovely are these souls whose compassion takes them to the marginalized and persecuted, the poor and the needy. He loves the Church enough to critique it, loves America enough to burn draft cards, loves religious communities enough to call them to abandon militarism and embrace the prophetic love for the poor and marginalized.

How lovely is the soul whose love overflows all boundaries.

His family released a statement upon his passing. In part, it read:

[H]e understood solidarity — the power of showing up for people and struggles and communities. We reflect back on his long life and we are in awe of the depth and breadth of his commitment to peace and justice — from the Palestinians’ struggle for land and recognition and justice; to the gay community’s fight for health care, equal rights and humanity; to the fractured and polluted earth that is crying out for nuclear disarmament; to a deep commitment to the imprisoned, the poor, the homeless, the ill and infirm.

The actor Martin Sheen said it was Berrigan, this Jesuit priest, who “kept him” in Catholicism. I look around, and I see so many people, so many institutions that drive and have driven so many people away from faith. I see the “spiritual but not religious” crowd searching for all that is sacred and holy and sensual and beautiful, but having been driven away — from institutions, from communities, from rituals, from traditions.

I wonder who today keeps people in traditions, in communities, in rituals, in institutions. I wonder about my own community. I ponder whose voice, whose breath, whose life, whose compassion, whose touch, and whose service keeps people in, keeps people nourished and sustained.

I miss you, Daniel Berrigan, never having met you.

Here, ultimately, is what I realize about why I, too, shed a tear at the passing of Father Daniel Berrigan. It is not so much that I wept for him. He was blessed in this world, and I suspect he is blessed now. He didn’t have to wait to meet God in the Hereafter. He was already in that presence here and now.

No, I weep for me. I weep for us. No, I weep for him because I yearn for the presence, the touch, the glance, the teaching of people like him, people who keep us in traditions. I worry that without them, we lose our connection to all that is lovely and beautiful. I weep for us, worrying that we have not yet become true human beings, human beings worthy of being mourned.

I am so reminded of the beautiful poem by Rumi of the sage who wandered around the street in the broad daylight holding a lit torch. People wondered at the sanity of this person, and asked him what he was doing. His response was that he was sick and tired of two-legged beasts and demons, and was searching for one real human being. The townsfolk answered, “Aaah, a human. There’s not one of those to be found.” The sage answered, “That one, that very one who is not to be found, that is what I am looking to find.”

May God make of us real human beings.
May we find these real human beings, like Daniel Berrigan,
May we become one of them.
May we live such beautiful lives
that when we live we bring smiles to those around us
and when we leave those who have never met us shed a tear.
May we live lives that are full, meaningful, raw, and real.
May God make of us real human beings.

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