These Intersections: On Writing Celebrant’s Flame: Daniel Berrigan in Memory and Reflection

By Bill Wylie-Kellermann

Society had developed and perfected a whole lexicon as ways of stigmatizing the wrong that threatened its wrongs. You know the phrases: to the poor – wrong side of the tracks; to a child in school – wrong question, wrong answer; to the people’s spectrum – wrong color; to the women – wrong sex; to the gays – wrong ecstasy.

  • Daniel Berrigan March 15, 1974, “All Honor to the Wrong People.”

In 1974 the War Resisters League Peace Award was given to Daniel Berrigan. The honor was conscious counternarrative, an audacious act of love and respect. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was the formal presenter, reading, “To Daniel Berrigan, for his irritating vocation as a prophet in our times, angering us in our complacency, embracing us in our humanity. Leaping beyond his own limits, he has led us beyond ours.”

The year prior Berrigan had been invited to address the Association of Arab-American University Graduates in D.C. But then the October/Yom Kippur War broke. He kept the date, speaking as the bombs fell. Confessing his own inexpertise, and excoriating all sides of the war for violence (including our own U.S, and Christian “sides”), he nonetheless came down firm in outraged love for Israel’s betrayal of what he read as its own history and tradition – one akin to his own. He did not mince words. A firestorm broke. He was accused of being wrong in every way or other. Invitations were withdrawn, awards cancelled. Hence, WRL’s honor and his own words to embrace being wrong.

For a variety reasons, and with a short introduction, I included the entire speech in Celebrant’s Flame. I do consider it prophetic. And he paid up personally for the utterance. I included it for two reasons. One, because some time after, he asked a group of us, seminarians then his students, why we hadn’t issued a public statement supporting him. Honestly, it never even occurred to us that we had the agency to weigh in publicly on such a stage.  His wounded lament was, in effect, another lesson. Your voice matters. Speak up. Never too late to learn.

A lesser reason is simply the quote above, which it prompted, about the ways and identities of being wrong in this culture. He was naming, in simple and straightforward fashion, a short list of what today would be called intersections of oppression. (Not to mention implicit forms of resistance).

I ended up organizing the reflections of Celebrant around aspects of his identity and vocation. So, prisoner, poet, prophet, priest, and so on – all the facets which were and always will be, of Daniel Berrigan. Some of these bear no ordinary stigma of oppression, though it may be said he suffered for each. And while they may be distinct in discipline or relationship, they all overlap with a certain simultaneity. Hence, John Bach writes about Berrigan as teacher, but the whole episode is set in prison. The section on Dan as prisoner is built around a long poem of his. The chapter on Dan as poet is ultimately about prophetic action. Since his nonviolent action was liturgical, it gets fullest treatment in the chapter on priesthood. Being pastorally present to the dying in hospice is a form of urban contemplation. In such ways and more, these intersections flow in and out of one another in being truly himself.

I’m mindful that many people could have written a similar book, perhaps better, though it would hardly have been this one. It’s fairly personal. Even where I’ve pulled together material new to myself, it’s threaded and vetted by my own memories, history, and love for him. I’m not trying to be objective, at least not trying too hard. Dan changed my life and I hope it shows and shows through. More than once I’ve fallen into a hole: who-the-hell-am-I-to-write-this?  It’s his voice that calls me out. Sometimes literally, in the lines of old letters.

Incidentally, I should say that John Dear is to blame for this book. (And I don’t mean just his exuberant enthusiasm for it more than once). He called last fall to ask that I write something short on Dan. Just to get my juices flowing I pulled up and printed out a number of things previously written. Laid out before me on the desk, I suddenly asked, Hmm, are these the bones of a book? The editors at Cascade quickly answered yes, and here we are.

A number of its essays, I’m happy to report, are brand new. Others are old and spruced up a bit, even one almost fifty years old (I had to transcribe it from a carbon copy, if you know what that is). Consequently, there’s necessarily a little repetition you may have to bear with. A friend reading portions referred to the occasional duplications as echoes or refrains. Please take them so.

There are a few other voices. Kathy Kelly, Eric Martin, John Bach, Jim Reale. I started out by making space for a letter about Dan, and it happily proliferated to four. A sweet device.

Dan’s own voice is prominent in the book. Three sections are entirely in his own words: a wedding homily, a long poem, and the controversial speech. Plus, snips of letters, poems, and autobiographical musings. They are, of course, the best written of the book.

I have, quite conscientiously, not asked, “What would Berrigan do?” in the face of our current deepening nuclear crisis, or the slower incineration of the planet, or the violent re-emergence of long-standing white supremacy, or the hundreds of thousands of COVID deaths and its structured impact on low-income people. To do so would render him a moral cipher, reduce him to some set of principles, even let us off the hook of “What am I to do?” In answering the latter, we can surely be formed and transformed by immersion in his witness. We can learn to live in a sacramental or resurrectional nonviolent ethic.

I knew him but partially, as all things this side of the veil. I pray Celebrant’s Flame will be a contribution to the fullness of his blessed memory. Above all, I write for this stunning new movement generation to take him in. Take him up. To that end, I’m so grateful that his niece, Frida Berrigan, first generation, offered a foreword. And that Kateri Boucher, a young Millennial Catholic Worker who was my quiet collaborator, has taken up the torch in an afterword. Bless their souls and the light they shed.

Bill Wylie-Kellermann, writer, teacher, pastor, nonviolent community activist, adapted this from the Preface to Celebrant’s Flame: Daniel Berrigan in Memory and Reflection (Cascade, May 2021)

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