Daniel Berrigan, poet, peacemaker, dies at 94

This story appears in the Remembering Daniel Berrigan feature series. View the full series.

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Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan, poet and peacemaker who was one of the most influential voices in shaping Catholic thinking about war and peace during the past century, died today. He was 94. 

His death was reported by a number of sources, including Jesuit Fr. James Martin, an editor of America Magazine.

Berrigan gained national attention for his work against the Vietnam War, including his participation in a striking act of civil disobedience with his brother, Philip, also a priest at the time, and seven others who became known as the Catonsville Nine. In 1968, the group burned draft records in the parking lot of a Maryland selective service office from which they had taken files.

It was one of the most spectacular and high-profile actions of a lifetime of civil disobedience and protest against militarism, nuclear weaponry and U.S. war-making.

He was a prolific writer who achieved a remarkable lyricism and poetic force when writing about subjects that normally were explored in academic and military circles. He also plumbed the scriptures and the spiritual depths of the Christian tradition in conducting retreats that challenged the status quo and often upended participants’ presumptions about life in America.

Editor's note: A lot of the tensions of Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan's life and ministry were captured in an extensive profile -- dated Jan. 26, 1996, and included in its entirety below -- by NCR writer Tom Roberts. In the interview, done after Roberts spent a weekend with Berrigan during a retreat he gave in Rhode Island, Berrigan frankly described how, for years leading to the end of the most public part of his ministry, his prayer life had become "blank." He spoke in disarmingly honest terms of core beliefs and what God had "given" him "to go with."

Berrigan, soon 75, still has an edgy God

If there is an "at least," a bare minimum, to Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan's career, it is this: He has stayed with it.

That may seem the stingiest of backhand compliments for most careers, but then normal measures almost never apply to Berrigan, the firebrand poet/antiwar activist now approaching 75, who gave U.S. Catholics the disturbing image of a priest in prison shackles.

In the past, the mere mention of his name was likely as not to provoke devilish questions about the demands on believers, the nature of citizenship, the limits of civil authority. It was also likely to set off the winless debate: Is he a 20th century prophet or a self-absorbed scold?

What Berrigan achieved, said David O'Brien, a historian at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., was to highlight "the problem of integrity that arises for the church -- it's kind of a Christian perennial -- whenever it finds itself at home in any culture."

"There was a kind of way in which the church in the United States -- as a minority church and very anxious to secure a place for itself in the culture -- engaged in a patriotism that expressed both its anxiety about its minority status and gratitude for the opportunities, for the successes that the great Catholic middle class achieved," said O'Brien.

It was in that post-World War II mix of making it in the culture and reveling in success that Berrigan arrived, O'Brien said, challenging Catholics in their "uncritical association with the warmaking state (and their) uncritical acceptance of Cold War deterrence, which meant accepting the use of weapons that would have annihilated the human family."

Some who were with him in his anti-Vietnam War activities 30 years ago have stayed for the long haul. Others, however, have gone off in the intervening decades to conservative think tanks and more congenial views of the republic and its defense efforts. Berrigan remained, insistently, at the ragged edges.

From there the impish Jesuit -- he has the laughing eyes of a mischievous kid and thinning gray hair in perpetually tousled bangs -- has relentlessly lobbed poems, prayers, retreats, protests, civil disobedience and his own blood at the presumptions of those who run the world and the church.

Still going

He continues today, though with less drama and at a slower pace, as he nears 75. He regularly heads to a New York area airport or Grand Central Station on his way to give retreats, teach classes, conduct poetry readings or encourage groups working with AIDS patients, something he had done regularly for nine years in New York.

As he nears that life marker -- he was born May 9, 1921 -- the interviews have increased and at least two books are said to be in the works, one a collection of essays about him, edited by a Jesuit protégé in civil disobedience, John Dear. And he continues to write. He has published more than 30 books -- poetry, prose and one play.

In an interview last year in his Manhattan apartment, amid artifacts and photographs that trace his life, Berrigan, who had just led a weekend retreat in Rhode Island, spoke of old friends and mentors, of prayer and of some of the forces that shape his life.

For many, over the years, Berrigan has been a perennial nuisance, a dull chronic pain in the conscience of ecclesial and civil institutions. But even his critics -- ranging from some of his Jesuit brothers to high-profile conservative Catholics like Fr. J. Richard Neuhaus -- allow for a bit of grudging admiration. They may see him as an arrogant gush of poetic sensibilities unaccountable to the hard realities and compromises required of day-to-day politics and church life. But, after all, he has stayed with it.

In 1965, Neuhaus, while still a liberal Lutheran minister, cofounded Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam with the late Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Berrigan.

"He is a most remarkable person," Neuhaus said of Berrigan in a telephone interview, "a most devout person and a devoted priest. He is exemplary in different ways while also very much a restless spirit, which I suppose comes with being a poet, among other things."

Restless and, to some, abrasive. The retreat last March in Rhode Island was an agonizing time for a widow whose daughter was piloting an American A-10 "tank killer" warplane, stationed in Kuwait on the border with Iraq.

From Friday night until Sunday noon, she listened to Berrigan, as he has thousands of times before, denounce U.S. militarism and other aspects of the broader American culture.

By Saturday night, the message she heard was: "He's saying my daughter is not worth anything."

It might be little consolation to know she was but one in an endless string of believing, hardworking Catholics who have been yanked unawares off their moorings by Berrigan's notion of faith and citizenship. He can be relentless, even in the post-Cold War world, with his depiction of an edgy God who is always a bit at odds with the prevailing culture and the powers that be.

The woman had something of a turnaround that weekend. By the close of the retreat on Sunday, her bitter appraisal had changed, but her feelings, if anything, were even more in conflict.

She had not spoken to Berrigan or allowed her feelings to surface except to a few close friends because she did not want to unsettle the mood of the weekend for others. "He didn't force me to come here. I came on my own," she said. "I feel I am in the presence of a very holy man. But I don't know what I'll do with it all."

And what would Berrigan have said, had the issue come up in the retreat?

"Well, let me step back a bit," he said. "She spent the whole weekend listening to me, and I would return the favor. If she wanted to talk to me one to one, that would be just marvelous, and I would do a hell of a lot of listening before I said anything.

"Now, if she wanted to narrow it down or say something very angry or provocative about `You're really saying my daughter is useless,' then I would talk about that. And I would first of all say I never said that, and I never would. But there's a question here that goes beyond your daughter and involves, I would like to say, the death of Iraqi children at the hands of our Air Force and that has to be looked at by everyone who would call herself or himself a Catholic. And then kind of what do you want to say to that?

"She takes the view that, of course, we're there in that sanctuary doing that stuff because people like her daughter have protected us from all the turmoil that other places and other cultures have had to deal with. And so she thinks in some sense, I guess, that (her daughter) is doing a noble thing. Well, I wouldn't try to get at all of that directly or in a belligerent way. I might say something like, `Maybe if the Catholic church had been clear on this issue, your daughter would never be exposed to this kind of danger to herself nor would she be in this whole mess.' I'd like to just talk about the way in which we have not helped young people clarify their own consciences in these matters. ... It's very painful. ... I would also like to thank her personally for coming at all."

The bishop's distress

Berrigan's sting is not dulled by ecclesiastical manners. Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary of Detroit, once felt his single-minded fervor in the early 1970s when the Jesuit's antiwar activism was at full tilt. Gumbleton, far more daring than other American bishops at the time, already had joined in several antiwar protests and had spoken out against U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

All of that wasn't good enough for Berrigan, who sent a letter that Gumbleton recalls as "very harsh" toward him. In effect, the letter said Gumbleton was being cowardly because if he really believed what he was saying he "would do more, including civil disobedience."

"It made me somewhat angry and upset. I thought I was being judged unfairly," he said, by someone he had yet to meet. "But I came back to it later and reread it and began to appreciate it. And I believed what he was saying was true," Gumbleton recalled last month, just days after joining a Washington protest of proposed government cuts in social services.

That is, perhaps, the kind of long-range effect Berrigan can have on people. The church's trenches -- the groups in the forefront of the battles against poverty, the Catholic Worker Houses, the social justice groups of every stripe -- are served by many who got their start reading a Berrigan book or hearing a Berrigan lecture or attending a Berrigan retreat.

"I've always felt grateful that he had found the time to write," said Gumbleton, "even though he was being very critical."

Had Berrigan gone along with a promising career as an academic and poet -- in 1957, his first volume of poetry, Time Without Number, won the Lamont Poetry Award -- life might have been very different.

As an older Jewish man, a neighbor in his Upper West Side apartment building in Manhattan, put it after reading Berrigan's autobiography: "How come you're not something big in that order of yours?"

Being big, at least in that way, wasn't important. Ordained in 1952, he would become fascinated in the next 16 years with the Worker Priests of France, incur the wrath of the late New York Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman, provoke a run-in with superiors over his wish to join the civil rights marches in the South, find himself exiled to Latin America and eventually get arrested and jailed for destroying draft files at the Selective Service Center in Catonsville, Md.

For that he was sentenced to three years in prison. He went underground for about five months before being captured by the FBI and ending up in prison in Danbury, Conn., from August 1970 to February 1972, when he was paroled.

Not exactly the wisest career choices, even for the independent and innovative Jesuit order.

How come, indeed?

The young Jesuit had taken significant strides along more conventional lines. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1939 as an earlier war was erupting in Europe. He is fond of recalling that, unlike the literature from some other orders, the Jesuit pitch was plain and to the point, an austerity that caught his fancy, a kind of precursor of the austerity he would preach and live most of his life.

He studied and worked in Europe, especially France, and wrote considerably, producing essays, books and volumes of poetry.

Another side

All along, though, there was another stream at work filling up another side, nurturing the seeds of experience and activism. It bubbled out of a childhood that exposed him to both high literature (the gift of his mother) and the Catholic Worker paper and the language of union-organizing (influences he credits to his father).

Those two forces would play out later in life in a deep spiritual grounding in the Jesuit tradition and a sense that the church was being called to make bold pronouncements in the public square. And those forces would continue to grow, creating enormous pressure behind the status quo dam of church and state.

By the mid-1960s, the winds of renewal unleashed by the Second Vatican Council and the storms of social turmoil erupting in the United States over civil rights and Vietnam elevated the pressure to the breaking point. In a flood of public protests, civil disobedience and arrests, Berrigan became forever a symbol of a new kind of American Catholic activism. At a time when U.S. Catholics had become regular figures in corporate boardrooms and had reached the highest political echelons, this renegade Jesuit offered the outrageous image of a priest being brought before the courts and, ultimately, to federal prison, loudly denouncing the policies of his country.

Many hailed him as a saving prophet; many others disgustedly pronounced him a hideous scandal. Some opinions have changed over time. Two middle-aged men from New Jersey attending the Rhode Island retreat last year admitted that what once sounded crazy now sounded correct. And at one point in the weekend a Vietnam veteran rose to tell Berrigan that he was "so right" about what he had been saying and doing decades earlier.

Today, the times are quieter for Berrigan, though he still joins an occasional picket line and, as the people at the retreat would attest, he can still provoke discussion on the stirring issues of the day. He admits he no longer could tolerate a long prison stay, though his brother Philip (more than two years his junior) and others in what has become known as the Plowshares movement, continue to subject themselves to arrests at nuclear-weapons sites and government installations.

Prison is out of the question. "I'd get ill," he said. That's what happened in 1981, after the first Plowshares action at a General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pa.

"The order had to bail me out," he said. "I took a chance. I was taught a great, harsh lesson. After a couple of weeks in this horrible jail, I just began to fail and I got infected with, I don't know, pneumonia or something and I was just totally exhausted and wasted."

The Jesuits, aware of his deteriorating condition, got him released. These rescue efforts, he said, took up "a lot of space and a lot of money and a lot of attention that belongs elsewhere."

The case was resolved in 1991: The defendants were sentenced to time served.

But isn't all of the courtroom-as-social-theater passe‚ anyway? Isn't it time to look for a new way of making a point?

A better way

"Well, we hear that all the time about this repetition, let's say, of the Plowshares actions all over the place -- and I don't know," he said.

"It takes different forms every time something is done along these lines. All right, it is kind of theatrical and public and confrontational and so on and so forth -- people come forward with a lot of objections. And the objections took another form against Catonsville -- there's always a very vocal number, and maybe a majority of people -- that have a certain language about this that is concealing other feelings, I think. They're very mixed, very, very mixed.

"The only answer I can muster is, 'You know, if you have a better way, I wish you'd tell us and I wish you'd help us find that better way.' But, of course, no one does. So there we are, generally speaking. But I think behind a lot of it is the fear of that thing. It inspires a lot of dread of consequences and shakes people where they would like not to be shaken."

The issue of peace in a nuclear world, he said, "is as crucial today as ever, as they know very well if they read their own papers in Rhode Island where they're building Trident subs and launching them one after the other with no enemy in sight. It's just a kind of a monster that cannot be tamed or caged, this whole arms race. And Clinton is just as caught up in it as Reagan and Bush were -- and Carter."

Merton and Day

It is not, however, only those who disagree with his basic theological/political thought who have been put off or shaken by his tactics. Along the way, and early in his career, he shook two of the people whom he deeply admires and who had a profound influence on him -- Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Merton died in 1968, Day in 1980.

Berrigan knew of Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, through the Catholic Worker papers that were a constant presence in the home of his childhood. He finally met her, he recalled, when he taught, before ordination, at St. Peter's College in Jersey City, N.J., in 1943-46.

At the time, he would take students into New York "to get to know certain aspects of the city that they wouldn't be meeting in their own back yard," among them the Catholic Worker House.

It was "in a kind of iconic sense" that he was initially struck by Day. "Here was this older, much older woman, more in the generation of my mother, and doing work that I found absolutely astonishing. At that point I didn't know much about her personal background, I don't think there was much in print at that time. But I just knew that she was just dazzling and she was very, very persuasive through her style, not through her words, through where she was and who she was and the work she was doing, things like that."

He left the New York area for a number of years, a period during which he was ordained and studied in France, but their friendship resumed in the 1950s when he returned to teach in Brooklyn.

Periodically they had long conversations and she came to upstate New York in the late 1950s to inaugurate an International House that Berrigan started at Lemoyne College in Syracuse.

He became editor of Jesuit Missions magazine in the mid-1960s. "I was down there a lot because I was on their Friday night programs and (Day) would always be there. And then when any of my relatives came to town, she would put on a little kind of queenly act in the back yard if the weather was nice. And they would fix up a tea and some special this-and-that, and we would sit around and gab for hours."

They were also invited to be on panels together around the city to discuss Pope John XXIII's encyclicals, Pacem in Terris and Mater et Magistra.

And so it went, until his arrest for burning draft records at Catonsville, the arrest he still calls "the big one."

"That was a really tough point of crisis for her, that Catonsville thing. That was not in the spirit of the Worker in many ways. She was very devoted and she wrote about it very positively, but she also made it clear that it was not the way the Worker proceeded. And that was very interesting, too, you know."

Berrigan said they each avoided any face-to-face talk about the action and subsequent prison term. But Day's ambivalence toward the episode, if there was any, might have come out in a little gesture shortly after Berrigan was released from prison.

"My first Mass after coming out of prison was down there. And I presented her with a cross -- it was a lot like this one (on his wall: made out of two screws by an inmate in a prison factory). And I presented that to her and then I gave her whatever it was, 40 or 50 bucks, that they had given me for rehabilitation when I left prison.

"I told her where this came from, and I presented it to her.

"She said to someone, `Go up to my bedroom and get the holy water.' So someone brought down this little vial of holy water and she dunked the money in it, and she held it up and said, `Now we can use this!' "

The 1960s were a decade of rumbling forces, breathlessly competing and spinning out on their own. Institutions from the Catholic church to the U.S. government were under siege. Creative, self-indulgent, liberating, anarchistic, empowering, destructive: The period was all of these and more.

It was a tough time to be a priest or nun, when the Catholic culture as it was then known, was beginning to unravel. Many left their orders. It was even tougher for the reform-minded who decided to stay.

Of course, Berrigan the poet/priest, sharp, humorous, enigmatic, stayed. But not without the help of friends, and one of the most influential was the monk, Thomas Merton. True to the topsy-turvy nature of the times, Merton was a cloistered Trappist who had lots to say.

In 1959 or '60 Berrigan first made contact with Merton, who lived at Gethsemane Abbey near Louisville, Ky.

Merton had written an article on the atomic bomb for The Catholic Worker and Berrigan wrote to tell him the piece "had really shaken me in my depths."

"He wrote right back and said, `Well why don't you come on down? Let's talk.' "

So began a long association, largely through letters.  Berrigan went down to the abbey every year until Merton died. The Trappists paid his airfare "on the stipulation I give a talk to the community. That was the excuse, so I could spend some time with him."

Throughout the 1960s, Merton reminded Berrigan of the spiritual roots to social activism, and Berrigan kept Merton tuned in to the details of life in the trenches of social conflict.

Berrigan was removed from the New York archdiocese in 1965 by his superiors on orders from Cardinal Spellman for his antiwar activities. He wrote to Merton of his distress over the decision: "It sent me spinning. I wrote him and said that I didn't know how long I could hang around that order. And he wrote back a wonderful letter that helped me so much, saying, `You know, cool it; we have a long struggle ahead.' So, we were helping one another in those various crises."

Some of Berrigan's sharpest critics and fondest supporters are fellow Jesuits. The order has become his family, and perhaps that can explain both the depths of love and the degree of criticism he can express toward the society.

"I think I've really come to a kind of, I don't know what to call it -- out of the arm of the seers ... into some kind of a harbor with this business of the Jesuits," he said. "I've talked a lot with friends in the order and especially with John Dear. You know, one could waste a lot of time and a lot of good feeling in saying, `Why the hell aren't Jesuits moving in this or that direction? And why is the order so comatose?' And so on.

"So then I finally said to John Dear, 'This must be a kind of vocation within a vocation. I've got to really purify myself of this business of being harsh, even in my own mind because I'm generally not harsh in language with others, but it can really grind away within.' "

On Merton's side of things, there was great frustration over his superiors' refusals at times to allow him to write.

"He was very discouraged and down in the mouth," recalled Berrigan. There were times when the monk was thinking of leaving. "He went through a terrible time when they were forbidding him to write, so I had to invoke some of the same language with him."

And more than once, Berrigan had to rush a letter to Merton to ease the Trappist's alarm over the tactics and activities of the peace movement. "Here's what would happen. This was a pattern that went on. There would be some kind of a shocking event in the peace movement, and he would be out of any kind of understanding of, you know, the circumstances or the preparation or anything that led to that."

So when Merton read accounts of things like the 1968 arrests at Catonsville or the self-immolation of Roger Laporte in 1965, they often caught him by surprise. Laporte, a young Catholic antiwar protester and an admirer of Berrigan, set himself on fire in front of the United Nations. He died a few hours later.

Spellman immediately condemned the act as suicide and declared the presence of the United States in Vietnam morally justified. Berrigan was ordered by his superiors not to make public statements about the death. However, he gave the homily at Laporte's funeral, an act that he did not consider a public statement but that angered Spellman and caused Berrigan's expulsion from New York. He was banished in a sense -- to Latin America within two weeks.

Merton, meanwhile, thought Berrigan and others had sanctioned an act of violence and asked that his name be removed from those supporting the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Merton would eventually reverse that position, trusting those who were on the scene.

In his 1975 book, The Raft Is Not the Shore, Berrigan explained his view of the Laporte matter: "We had never known an occasion where a person freely offered his life, except on the field of battle or to save another person. But the deliberate self-giving, a choice which didn't depend upon some immediate crisis but upon thoughtful revaluation of life -- this was very new to us and was, indeed, an unprecedented gift."

There was also a crisis for Merton around Catonsville.

"I hadn't been able to get down there and talk about it with him, and he remained almost to the end quite ambiguous about it. He was always weighing the pros and cons of it all. But his final letter, which was to John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me, I only came on it years and years later, and he just said in effect, 'They were right' -- like he wrote from Bangkok or somewhere -- 'they were right and I have to wonder how long I can keep the law with this war.' So that was very consoling."

Some people teeter on the edge of things, working hard to keep their balance. Berrigan, however, has become so ensconced on the edge of things one assumes that's the place where he is least likely to stumble.

He is wont to find a new, if alarming, certainty, as in the Laporte affair or in his condemnation of nuclear brinkmanship, where others find only complexity.

He has acted so decisively in such dramatic and jeopardizing fashion that it is a bit disarming to hear him speak of uncertainty.

But in those early years, when the "actions" were happening at every turn and his brother Philip was proposing the stunning break-in at the Catonsville Selective Service Center, Berrigan spent considerable time weighing his next move. He said he was "sweating out" Catonsville and "whether I would go with that or not, and telling Phil to give me maybe three days alone, and trying to find out where this came together. Because I knew my whole life would be turned out of its pocket and my future in the order would be jeopardized and everything was going to be placed in very serious question. It was a very tough time. So I was trying to evaluate all that and come to a decision that will be free and my own and yet that will be godly or approved. Not by the church or the order, because that never happened and I knew it wouldn't happen, but by God, because I really made an appeal to God at that time. I had to, and pray over all this. That's the best I can do with that. And then after three days I said, 'You know, I'm in.'"

Other certainties were whittled away by life's experiences.  It was clear at the start that Berrigan joined the enthusiasm over the writing of French Jesuit paleontologist and evolutionist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Berrigan operated, in part, from a kind of Teilhardian optimism that would have found jarring a line he spoke at the Rhode Island retreat: "Hope is out of time; it is never in the here and now."

He went on to explain his conviction that one can never really count on any good thing in the here and now for very long. Some authority, some system, some matter is going to come along and mess it up.

"Well, I think I was enchanted as anyone with Teilhard ... as a young priest and even before ordination we were studying Teilhard in notes, French notes; it wasn't even allowed," he said. "And then when the books came out, in Canada, I got the first French editions and that was a real high. Then Vietnam came along, and it just no longer signified at all."

Being active in the civil rights struggle and opposing Vietnam, said Berrigan, meant "you were tasting life instead of theory about life. And (Teilhard's thought) wasn't meeting it." The French Jesuit's acceptance of, even praise of, the explosion of the atomic bomb, his incorporation of war into the ultimate achievement of goodness was, in Berrigan's words, now "all bullshit."

What else about his worldview has changed since the 1960s?  "See, I'm the one being modified, so it's very hard to tell what's taking place. ... Everything one continues with is difficult. I would begin with that.

"I also love to cook good meals and go to a film, but, you know, I'm talking about ongoing work, and it's against the grain, it's against the current, it's against the politics, it's against the current church: It's pulling a piano across a plowed field. And I sometimes have that image about things, not just about myself but my friends and Philip and everybody with whom I've worked and associated. So, I mean, you get modified by life. It's very simple. The retreats, though very demanding, are a great relief, a great help to know that other people are having similar goings on."

Prayer goes blank

The retreats and the work with AIDS patients also seem to provide evidence that something tangible and good can result even though a pursuit long central to his life -- prayer -- has become not only uncertain, but blank.

The matter of prayer came up when he was reminded of a line spoken at a retreat long ago -- "We live at the intersections of mysterious freedoms, God's and our own" -- and was asked to elaborate:

"Well, I'm no longer very certain I know anything about that. It was a certain time, I guess. See, I think most of one's perceptions these days are drawn from prayer that's a blank."

From prayer that is a blank?

"Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, like, when we meet here for scripture among the Jesuits and all that, as we're doing every week, I hear a lot of people talking, very interesting language about prayer and the Bible and all that, and I just sit there in kind of a stupor because I can appreciate what they're talking about, but I don't know what they're talking about in my own life. You see what I mean?"

Was there a point in your life when you would have known what they were talking about?

"I think so; yeah, I think so."

So, any manner of certainty about these things ...

"It's not a matter of certainty, it's a matter of images and of -- I won't say loquacity -- but it's a matter of being able to be eloquent about this stuff. And I can't. I don't know what's going on."

But you just spent a weekend talking about this stuff.

"I know, but see that's another matter entirely. Here we supposedly are talking about our own prayer life. And what we're getting from the Lenten scriptures, and so on and so forth. And people are, you know, Jesuits are very good at spitting all this stuff out, and I don't know."

And you're one of them.

"Yea, I'm one of them but ..."

Pardon my confusion here ...

"Well, I've got you perplexed, too, because that's what I am."

Perplexed about how to reflect on scripture?

"Right. I don't mean just reflect on it as, let's say, a scholar or a guy who knows the latest theory ... but someone who's talking about what kind of prayer is going on with him."

You don't know what kind of prayer is going on with you?

"I know only too well: It's zero," Berrigan said, chuckling.

I feel I'm being let in here on something kind of frightening.

"Oh no, it's not, it’s just nothing. It's just a half-hour of nothing. And, you know, I'm not, that's not to offer anything to the others so I just keep quiet, or I talk like them. That's not about myself."

Is it a period then -- I don't know what language to use -- of dry prayer for Dan Berrigan? Is there a sense of presence is there a sense of anything? Do you pray?

"Every day, yeah."

And nothing happens?

"Nothing happens. I think out of nothing, something comes. Because I can still give these weekends and I can still do a lot of other things. I can still be with the dying. Can still get arrested."

Is it a sense of being drained? Empty?

"Yeah, well, sort of; yeah, blank. Blank, yeah."

How long have you been blank?

"Well, I think, you know, it probably started in prison. I don't know. That was a long time ago. It just got blanker."

There are a lot of people out there, I would think, who would say if anyone knows what's going in the realm of prayer, it's Dan Berrigan. That shouldn't surprise you.

"Well, I can talk about it or write about it. Of some manner of experience. Something, you know, something good comes of it, I guess. I mean, I could be living differently."

Does the blankness of prayer inform faith at all. Your own personal faith?

"What does that mean?"

I guess if the prayer is blank, does it affect your faith at all?

"I don't know. I don't know. How could I know?"

Perhaps another way of saying that is what do you believe?

"What do I believe? Whew! How long can we talk about that? Well, I don't know what you're going to do with all this. I mean, this guy was coming, was writing a book or something, and he's asking about various articles of the faith and I'm saying to him, you're really off base. And he just ends up laughing because I don't know what to do with those questions. I just say, `Look, look, whatever it is, whatever it is, I believe it. Whatever is presented, I believe it. Whatever is presented by God, I'll go with it. I'll go with what you go with. But don't bring up real presence and all that. I'll go with what you go with -- it's fine with me. And just leave it at that. I don't know anything about anything like that.' "

But there were some very powerful moments this past weekend and you sounded very convinced -- in the conversation about Jesus the suffering servant. Do you know that?

"Do I know that? What do you mean?"

Well, are you convinced of Jesus, suffering servant? Is that one of the things God's given you to go with?

"Yeah, I guess so. Yeah. I mean, that certainly offers some sense to life. I mean, whatever it is that keeps one on track at least in kind of a way that is not insane or obsessed and so on and so forth, that would be an image of the reality of Christ that would be very helpful. Because it makes no sense. Not because it makes sense. I don't think you can do anything with any of this anyway."

At one point, in another talk years ago, you said no one can begin to move or act unless summoned by God. Does that mean anything in your context today?

"Well, I hope that was in context. I suppose I was speaking about the quality of grace -- that God precedes anything that we can initiate, that God initiates any kind of fruitful activity. I believe that."

[Tom Roberts is NCR editor-at-large. His e-mail address is troberts@ncronline.org.]

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