Breathe Deep the Absurdities of the Day – by Brayton Shanley

Often, when I looked into Dan Berrigan’s deep-souled eyes, I could sense the pain of the world. The phrase that captures this is Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “When I am weak, I am strong.” In the early 1990’s, Suzanne and I met with a group of peacemakers including Dan, Phil and Liz. A week before the retreat on responses to the war in Bosnia, Dan pulled out. He had advanced rheuma­toid arthritis with disc degeneration, and often could not move. The fire of Dan’s purpose was often weakened in this motionless agony. At that time I, too, was experiencing severe back pain. Any conversation I had with Dan, he always opened with: “How is your back?” He sympathized, commiserated and gave me the name of his chiropractor. Dan’s being consistently mirrored the state of the world and the state of the body. The Book of Lamentations, one of his bibli­cal favorites, goes to the heart: “At this I weep. My eyes rain with tears.” Once Suzanne and I were under Dan’s care, it was ongoing. “Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Take time away. Take time off. Be good to yourself.” He admonished all who would listen: “Remember, resistance is the long haul.” For Dan, it was always best not to burn too hot or too compulsively. He never failed to ask about our daughter, Teresa, throughout her two grueling open-heart surgeries, offering masses and praying more of his compas­sionate lamentations. Worried about Agape finances he wrote: “How are you managing?” Here’s a few bucks and sorry it’s not more.” He raised money tirelessly for Plowshares, Catholic Workers, Agape and God knows what else, quietly making, “my begging calls” as he called them. Here was a man not all too concerned with his public legacy. Much of what people close to Dan expe­rienced was his pastoral side out of pub­lic view. When Suzanne fell ill some 15 years ago, Dan was right on it. She was suffering from severe fatigue that we eventually discovered was a B 12 deficiency. Like Phil, all of Dan’s communica­tions were hand-written, short, poetic missives. He responded to Suzanne’s health crisis: “I think it is time for a stay at Block Island.” For decades, Dan has offered this breathtaking sea-view sanctuary for the weary, people with terminal diseases, Aids, the poor and those in urgent need of a healing respite. His cottage is locat­ed on the historic homestead of William Stringfellow, who harbored Dan while he went underground. The FBI finally found Dan on Block Island in 1970, four months after his Catonsville conviction and sentencing. Words fail to adequately describe the lyrical beauty of “Eschaton”—this sparse artist’s hut with an ascetic driftwood feel, void of usual cushiony comforts that looked out on a stunning view of the Atlantic. The salt air, the wood, the birds, the seagulls, the occasional silent, distant trawler that moved mesmerizing­ly along the horizon all created a dream­like trip to the west coast of Ireland. It was easy to see why people could heal at Eschaton or prepare to die . The walls of Dan’s apartment in New York and his Block Island cottage, were history courses chronicling fam­ dozens of awards and plaques–scath­ingly condemnatory and hilarious, span­ning some sixty years. His bathroom at Eschaton had to be Dan’s best satire– caricatures of his actions and courtroom scenes, press reactions and over-reactions plus framed correspondence with “histor­ic people.” You did your “business” there while taking in 20th Century political art and then you might stay on to browse for another good while or so. Of course, Daniel Berrigan could not resist painting with his calligraphic hand a poem in watercolor on the south-fac­ing wall, dedicated to this sanctuary: “At land’s end, where this house dares stand, and the sea turns in sleep ponder­ous menacing and our spirit fails and runs, landward, seaward, askelter. We pray you protect from the law’s clawed outreach, from the second death, from envy’s tooth, from doom’s dread knoll, all who dwell here.” In remembrance of Dan, his family wrote that he had an “uncanny knack for being at the right place at the right time.” An illustration of this came in the form of the most unusual “religious experience” I ever had, which took place in 1991 in Colrain MA. Dan had been invited to celebrate Eucharist at the home of Randy Kehler and Betsy Corner. A community of primarily radical humanist leftists, often atheist or suspicious of “Catholic” nonviolent tax resisters, had just taken back their home from the IRS which had evicted them for failure to pay their fed­eral war taxes. A hundred people were packed into the house. Dan read from Isaiah, and then spoke: “Here we are bearing witness to the prophet Isaiah in a place of criminal trespass for the cause of nonviolent resistance to war. When it comes to understanding this prophet, context is everything.” The unity of the commitment of tax resisters, the risk of arrest, embraced in a bold creative ritual, allowed us to hear Isaiah at a new level as together we sought to proclaim a mod­ern-day prophecy: “No, we will not pay tax money to kill people.” Dan’s “attorney” Bill Quigley once asked him in an interview: “You are a hero to so many. Who were your heroes?” Dan shot back, “I don’t believe in heroes Bill, I believe in community. It is there that you find love, challenge and the courage to live in a way our present state of the world demands.” Daniel energized and animated his community with beautifully hand script­ed letters, writing to us full of news and, of course, loving support: “Your lives are a voice of celebration and modest san­ity. As for me, I breathe deep and take the absurdities of the day, and blessings passed on to you and the good work.” A twentieth-century prophet one min­ute, and in the next he became the com­munity Padre, tending faithfully to those living the demands of jail and voluntary poverty in community, often with family and children. He humbly offered what he had the most of–himself. These last years we observed Dan’s aging and health by the increasing trem­ors in his once exquisite handwriting. I wrote him requesting he review a book I was readying for publication, to which he responded enthusiastically: “Please send it along.” True to form he always sup­ported Suzanne and my efforts at writing. Shortly after, he sent the manuscript back, regretting that “as I age–work, writing, arrests, would be taken out of my hands. I thought to keep a measure of control, vainly, it turned out. There arrived strong evidence of work weak­nesses and a strange sense of being in ‘Another’s hands.’” As for my man­uscript: “My powers were weakened, incoherent at times. You will understand and I am but wordless with gratitude.” This was our last official card from Dan. We saw him a few precious times more at Murray-Weigel infirmary at Fordham University as his life started to fade. We heard of Dan’s death while a group of students from Iona College spent a weekend here on a Rural Immersion. Mutual friend Dean Hammer called to tell of Dan’s passing. From that precise moment, the full impact of Dan Berrigan’s life exploded into public view. The next morning, Dan’s picture was on the front page of the Sunday New York Times with a full page obituary on page 23. A week later, another Times article, also on the front page, called Dan “one of the best known Roman Catholic priests of the 20th Century.” People all over the country were weighing in on the meaning of this “best known” priest and prophet. Old friends and people from the sixties era especially, rallied to and commented on this “moral true north,” his spiritu­al integrity, his dogged fidelity over 50 public years to uncompromising peace, seven of those years in jail. Was he the “best known” or was he in fact, except for a generation of people over 60, not “known enough?” Of the hundreds of college students who come to Agape, including this recent Iona group, perhaps one in a hundred have heard of the Berrigans. The response of the media and of the thousands who showed up at Dan’s wake and funeral Mass suggest that the impres­sion of Dan’s life and witness spoke to something symbolic. We see this in a Talmudic story inspired by Isaiah 53, the Song of the Suffering Servant. According to this tradition, the world rests on thirty-six Just Men/Women, or Lamed- Vav, those indistinguishable from simple mor­tals, but if even one of them dies, the sufferings of humankind suffocates with a single cry. Through the pain of non­violent sacrifice, these thirty-six hold the entire, fragile, endangered, murderous world mysteriously together. The sheer volume and intensity of response to Dan Berrigan’s passing sug­gests that we have lost one considered of the most precious. “Watch now as God will therefore give him his portion among the elect.” (Is 53:12)