Remembering his Uncle

jerryDaniel Berrigan Memorial
September 30, 2016
St. Thomas More Parish, Kalamazoo
Jerry Berrigan

It is wonderful to be with you all on this last evening of September.  I need to begin by expressing my gratitude, deep beyond words, for this circle and each individual within it and for many more who couldn’t be here tonight.  You are my community and my family, your lives and the friendships we share undergird everything we do at Peace House and not only make our work possible but make our lives rich beyond any measure.  Thank you, for everything. 

I have a special burden tonight in speaking in a Catholic church of a cradle Catholic who became a priest, whose great gift to the world was a direct product of his Catholicism, to a group of people including many who do not share that history or that language.  I am aware that our Church has not always been the most welcome or affirming place.  Let me make it clear that you are welcome here tonight.  Your presence is a gift to us.  Please be patient with me if I get all mystical-Catholic on you: I can’t talk about Dan or his gifts or his motivation or his politics without diving into that realm.  I hope you find what follows relatable and useful.

We are here to remember Daniel Berrigan.  My uncle was a formidable wordsmith.  He once observed that to re-member is to bring back together that which has been scattered.  When we re-member, the circle is restored, even in spite of the claim of death.  For him, it was especially significant that a final request of Jesus was for us to share table fellowship “in remembrance” of Him.

Remembering is countercultural work in these United States of Amnesia, where we can’t recall anything from the previous news cycle, much less whether there was any justification to go to war in Iraq.  It is also countercultural to affirm the power of community and to rally against the alienation which is engineered in our society.  We are made to feel as if we are alone and we are made to feel as if we had no power.  To remember a friend is to honor relationship as such and to offer gratitude for the gift of one person’s life.

The spirits of other departed ones whose lives have been celebrated in this room are swirling around here tonight, and I’ll name my friends Joe Gump, Fr. John Grathwohl, Larry Paulik and Tony Nelson.  This was their place.  We re-member them tonight as well.

When Uncle Dan was a boy in the 1930’s his five brothers were strapping and he was slight; in the infinite kindness of boys they gave him the nickname “Scrawn.” In adulthood he suffered chronic back pain which flared occasionally from uncomfortable to terrible, yet the way he moved- silent and fluid- he glid, even into old age.  When cheerful, he seasoned his glide with a bop.  When I was a kid, he was jaunty as he walked our Baltimore streets.  The old photographs don’t lie: he was a hip dude.

One set of streets he walked a lot in my hometown is that set which lies between our old house and the Rite-Aid, where I’d always set him up to buy me a matchbox car.  Early in the visit I’d hone in.  C’mon Uncle Dan, let’s go for a walk!  I know where we can go!  He fell for it every time.

He walked differently in his town of New York.  Fourth grade, Frida and I take off school and are shipped up to the city for a day.  On the Greyhound.  Nothing but a couple of kids, we are chaperoned through the alcoholic filth-slash-marble grandeur of Baltimore’s downtown bus depot.  He meets us at Port Authority, out to 42nd St.  Seizing each upper arm in an iron fist, he dives headlong into traffic, and I swear to God, we are going to die right now.  Yet the cars screech to a halt as we are borne along by the unstoppable force of a New Yorker crossing the street.  Behind a pillar of fire.

We get some crazy Italian lunch, see Barnum and Bailey at Madison Square, get off the subway at the twin towers, intending to go up, but it’s raining, there’s zero visibility at the top we’re told, and it’s not worth the price of admission.  So we gaze heavenward, trying in vain to identify the point where the towers disappear completely into cloud.

We got home safely, on the swaying bus, in the dark.  It was a Wednesday.

I want to reflect on Uncle Dan’s gifts to the world as Priest, Theologian, Teacher, and Friend.  The lines between categories are blurry almost to the point of being irrelevant because Uncle Dan was a great eraser of lines and a great jumper of fences both figurative and literal.  Indeed, he could be all of these things to all of us present on a single holiday evening, with cheese and olives and vodka on ice and knee-slapping laughter.

You want to hear a joke?

A Franciscan and a Jesuit are sitting together on a park bench- the Franciscan in a simple brown robe, the Jesuit looking very trim in a black suit and Roman collar.  A woman approaches with a question:

“Fathers, How many novenas do I have to say to get a Mercedes-Benz?”

The Franciscan asks, “What is a Mercedes-Benz?”

The Jesuit asks, “What is a novena?”

Uncle Dan was a priest.  He left home at the age of 13 to join the Jesuits, was ordained with his class, and is now buried in a Jesuit cemetery in Auriesville, NY.  He told someone once that in walking the streets of New York the faces of passersby were as the beads of the Rosary to him, a prayer for each one, a moment to ponder the mysteries each person bore, sorrowful and joyful and glorious mysteries.

All life is sacred, he believed, because life is created by God.  Humanity, this marvelous, fascinating tapestry of similarity and difference.  If life is threatened or taken by human design, if people are robbed of their dignity, this becomes a major problem for Uncle Dan.  His basic theology was that all Christians will try to protect the weak and work for justice and oppose war.

At a certain point his relationship with church hierarchy, certain brother clergy, and the fraction of the American laity which was smug, racist, and pro-war began to fray.  After the Catonsville action he speculated that many Christians were likely scandalized by his deed, and he admitted to being mostly scandalized by the Church as well.  For (then as now, he believed and I believe) the American Catholic Church was largely satisfied to pontificate and moralize, to marginalize women, to perpetuate racism by ignoring it, to amass riches, and to bless war.

His vision of the authentic church was that of small communities of believers working together to improve things for others.  Quite simply, he believed that we are the church.  We have the Word, we have the sacraments, we have each other.  It might not seem like much, indeed our efforts and our lives might be marginal, ineffective, and threatened, but Jesus and his band were these things as well.  By the same token, if the Bishops find themselves in the seat of comfort and authority, maybe there’s something intrinsically wrong with that.  Perhaps having power over others is somehow essentially anti-Christian.

He remained a priest.  I have felt the presence of God, on occasion.  He lived and breathed with God and reported back to the rest of us.  His words, and the congruence between his words and his deeds, rang true to many of us, and there was great beauty in what he said, and so we were brought along, headlong into traffic and other dangerous situations.

He believed it, he lived it, God was real to him, the stories in the Book were real to him.  The Bible was a work of drama to him in that it was a script for actors.  We are to practice incarnation, which means to make the word flesh.  We are to live it.  If we do, it is alive and real.  If we don’t, it dies among so many hollow words and empty rituals.

Love your enemies; give away your stuff; enter into relationship with the marginalized, the outcast, the prisoner and those under war.  When we were children, Dan worked for years as a hospice chaplain in a cancer hospital.  When AIDS came on the scene, so swift and deadly, he began walking with those who were terminally afflicted.  Here of course we’re talking mostly about young gay men, in many cases shunned by family, dying in the closet in which they had been made to live.  The relationships which grew during his years in this work were transformative for both Dan and his patients; equally important, these this work of ally-ship and solidarity stood in rebuke of an intolerant and self-righteous culture.  Some would say that he was out in front on the gay-rights issue.  He would say that people are essentially good, and that in the breaking of the bread, in the celebrating and grieving and living together, we are all ennobled.

The Beloved Community was real to Uncle Dan, and so America, steeped then as now in greed and fear and imperial designs, America the breaker of bodies, taker of land, guzzler of gas, was…an aberration.  More: our nation represents the last and greatest and worst of the imperial impulse.  The script was familiar to him, the conduct of kings, from Solomon and David to Caesar and the medieval Popes, Henry of England, George W. Bush.  Same story, from Babylon to Washington…but now we have nuclear weapons.

So much of Uncle Dan’s bible study hung around this problem of how to live the love of God in the context of organized rebellion against this love.  The cross was a very powerful symbol for Dan and for my father.  The cross is foreshadowed, discussed throughout the four Gospels, is denied by the cowering apostles and accepted by Christ.  “This is my body, broken for you” is about the only moral equivalent to the way of the world, which says, “This is your body, broken for me.”

Uncle Dan made people uncomfortable by asserting that we all must sacrifice and even suffer for peace.  If we believe in the sacredness of human life, he would say, then it is our duty to confront our national apparatus, which fires from drones into wedding parties in Yemen and fires bullets into innocent black bodies in Missouri.  Why do these things keep happening?  Perhaps we don’t care deeply enough to make them stop.  Check out this little bit of verse:

“We have assumed the name of peacemakers

But we have been unwilling to pay any significant price for peace.

We want peace with half a heart

And half a will

And half a life.

The war continues

Because the waging of war, by its nature, is total

But the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial.

So a whole will and a whole heart and a whole national life bent toward war prevail over the mere desire for peace.”

Fair enough, right?  This is a deep challenge to us all.  One challenge my father and uncle faced was to not be the “nonviolent generals for peace,” or something, to not be two superbad dudes on some super moral high ground.  They lived and operated in community, and for both of them, life with others was both a challenge and a profound gift.  Dan would say that friendships were stronger than battleships.

Something he tried to do among his friends was to initiate conversations which plumbed a little deeper into the meaning of our lives.  An example of a question he would pose during holiday gatherings is, “What about your work is a source of hope?”  The night of his funeral in New York a rather large group of us gathered for dinner and we went around the circle in response to this question.  In the end, we were strengthened by the stories of others and returned to our homes more deeply prepared to continue our work.

As I look around the room, I think of all of you and all of your lives and all you do.  We keep each other going, supporting each other in a variety of endeavors which affirm human worth, defend basic rights, and create beauty.  I am so fortunate to have you as friends.


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