Pentecost and Berrigan, a double portion of God's Spirit

Pentecost artwork by Eileen Cantlin Verbus.
Pentecost artwork by Eileen Cantlin Verbus.

by Christine Schenk

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

Pentecost is far and away my favorite feast in the liturgical year.

My first real sense of God's Spirit came as a young child. On summer mornings, before anyone else awakened, I would steal outside to gaze in fascination as freshening breezes blew through the tall oak, elm and catalpa trees that lined our slumbering street.

I sensed a secret presence there for which I had no name. Something sacred, beautiful, and gloriously alive was at work in our world.

While I have occasionally wondered if this experience was a throwback to my archetypal German reverence for the sacredness of trees (!), I now intuit that something greater is afoot.

Something ineffable, gentle and completely beyond our control saturates all of creation -- me, you, and all that is.

I would eventually name this awakening awareness as the Holy Spirit -- helped along perhaps by my confirmation in second grade and reprised much later by "God's Grandeur," Gerard Manley Hopkins' luminous poem:

... Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

I also loved thunderstorms, especially those suspense-filled moments before the storm breaks, with gusty, wind-turned-upside-down leaves and treetops gyrating madly before the first thunderclap ever sounds.

For me, the Holy Spirit manifests the refreshing unpredictability of a God who often relishes a walk on the wild side.

I was reminded of this while watching the livestream of Daniel Berrigan's funeral, so kindly provided by the staff at America magazine.

In the 1960s and '70s, if anyone manifested the fierce unpredictability of the Spirit of God, it was Daniel Berrigan, his brother Phillip, and lesser-known but similarly wild spirits of the peace movement known as the East Coast Conspiracy to Save Lives.

This burgeoning initiative would first create and then model Catholic nonviolent resistance to war and injustice for generations to come. J. Edgar Hoover's gone-rogue FBI quickly sought to discredit the group by falsely painting them as violent terrorists, just as it had viciously harassed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

But Hoover would soon be exposed for his corrupt suppression of legitimate dissent. William Davidon, a physics professor at Haverford College, credits Dan Berrigan for giving him courage to conduct a 1971 break-in at a local FBI office to garner evidence of the agency's unwarranted investigations. This would eventually lead to congressional hearings and permanent congressional oversight. Recently there have even been calls to rename the now-infamous J. Edgar Hoover building on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Berrigan's good friend Fr. Steve Kelly drew laughter and applause at Dan's funeral when, after welcoming family and friends, he also welcomed the FBI agents who were "assigned here today to validate that it is Daniel Berrigan's funeral Mass ... so they can complete and perhaps close their files."  

The rueful laugh of recognition bore its own witness that many in attendance had experienced phone tapping and surveillance themselves. At the time simply supporting the United Farm Workers Union, participating in peaceful civil rights or anti-war demonstrations, or working for the sanctuary movement was enough to earn an FBI file and phone tap. (It happened to me too when I worked with the farmworkers' union.)

Dan and his rapidly expanding cohort of Spirit-filled peaceniks, led the agency on a merry chase after being convicted of burning draft files from the Catonsville, Md., draft board.

Liz McAllister, Philip's widow and a dedicated peace activist in her own right, began Dan's eulogy by quoting his prophetic words (spoken in 1968) to those who sought to chastise them:

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. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise. … How many must die before our voices are heard, how many must be tortured, dislocated, starved, maddened … When, at what point, will you say 'no' to this war?

It occurs to me that Daniel Berrigan was well named. The biblical Daniel was imprisoned and thrown to the lions for obeying the Spirit and worshipping the one God rather than King Darius' idols. (Trust me, nukes and 'Nam had become political idols in the '60s and '70s.)

Like Berrigan -- and thanks to God's protection -- our biblical Daniel also escaped unscathed to become an even more powerful witness to God's justice, while his enemies were exposed and punished (Daniel 6:1-28).

And who can forget the prayers of the innocent Susanna, condemned to death after two dirty old men falsely accused her of adultery? But Scripture tells us:

The Lord heard her cry. Just as she was being led off to execution, God stirred up the holy spirit of a young lad named Daniel, and he shouted with a loud voice, 'I want no part in shedding this woman's blood!' (Daniel 13:44).

God stirred up the holy spirit of a young lad named Daniel.

Where is God stirring up the Holy Spirit in us today?

What are the blood-drenched issues of which we want no part?

Here is my list: rejection of refugees, religious bigotry, racism, gun violence, terrorism, nuclear arms, drone warfare, income inequality and misogyny -- whether in the church or in society.

At the root of many of these, lies the fact that too many of us worship what Pope Francis calls "unbridled capitalism" -- a false god that blinds us to the human faces that make prosperity possible.

So much pain and suffering can also blind us to the Spirit's blessedly unpredictable "bright wings" always brooding over our troubled world.

It takes the likes of a Dan Berrigan to awaken us, stir our consciences, and ignite that wildly purifying Spirit-fire that renews the human enterprise so beloved of God.

It takes courage, community, and the near companioning of the Spirit of God too.

Concluding her eulogy, Liz reminded us that as Elijah was being taken up into heaven, Elisha begged him for a "double portion of his spirit" (2 Kings 2:9).

"How different might our world be if we asked for a double portion of Dan's spirit, and better yet, acted on it?" she asked.

I can't imagine a better Pentecost prayer for this Sunday.

[A Sister of St. Joseph, Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years. She holds master's degrees in nursing and theology.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Christine Schenk's column, Simply Spirit, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters