I was 20 in 1962 when Thomas Merton brought his visitor, Daniel Berrigan, over to the Loretto motherhouse to speak to the novices. I don't remember what he said to the hundred or so gathered in our auditorium one morning, but six of us were selected to have a poetry seminar with Fr. Berrigan in the front parlor the next hour.
Berrigan was 40, lean, dark and very handsome to me, who hadn't seen any men under 60 but my father and the motherhouse farmhands for a couple of years. But more important than his looks, he was on fire with zeal for the poor. He didn't talk about poetry at all. He talked about his life on the edge of Harlem and how he and a couple of his brothers drove a truck through the neighborhood every week picking up garbage because city services were nonexistent.
I formed that phrase, on fire with zeal for the poor, while I sat there looking and listening. I had never imagined, much less met the like. That morning Berrigan opened a path for me. Religious could live with the poor, stand in solidarity, act on behalf of justice.
I don't remember any more about that meeting than what I just told you, except that, as a good novice, I felt guilty that we had not talked at all about poetry, even as I was inspired myself to burn with zeal for the poor. And it was a dozen years before I picketed and got arrested on behalf of farmworkers and then moved into a Catholic Worker house. But it was Dan Berrigan who first showed me the way.