Tuesday, April 20, 2010
"Living with Dan Berrigan"
Author: George Anderson, S.J. <Anderson@americamagazine.org>
Living in the same Jesuit community as Dan Berrigan--what a privilege
to share meals and conversation with this great man, an icon of the
anti-war movement who was willing to spend time behind bars to assert
his opposition to war-related violence, and in fact all forms of
violence, including abortion. His former community on West 98th Street
moved a year ago to
rented from the Franciscans next to St. Anthony of
myself moved to that location last summer as the new boy on the block.
The other seven have lived together for decades and so know one
another well. What struck me right away was the realization that here
indeed was a community that exemplified people who are of one heart
and mind, as Luke describes the early Christian community in Acts 4:32.
Dan will turn 89 on May 9th and is still going strong. He continues to
write, and excerpts from his books were recently gathered by his close
Jesuit friend, John Dear, and published by Orbis in its Modern
Spiritual Masters Series under the title Daniel Berrigan: Essential
Writings. Dan’s nonviolent protests continue. Once again this year, he
took part in Pax Christi’s annual Good Friday Way of the Cross, a
prayerful walk across
many a symbol of war. There, Dan and several other women and men
peacefully protested for peace, using pieces of paper cut in the form
of small coffins to represent civilians and service members killed in
the wars in
conduct,” they were taken to a local precinct for booking. But
thankfully, as Dan told us later in the day at home, the police
treated him and the others gently.
Reminders of Dan’s earlier years abound in our community’s home. A
black and white brush stroke picture by Thomas Merton hangs on one
landing. It serves as a reminder of the friendship that united them in
their opposition to the Vietnam War. Dan and his brother, the
Josephite priest Philip, founded an interfaith coalition against it.
(A photograph from that period in the early 1960s shows the two
brothers seated with Merton under the trees at the Trappist monastery
are now in the Bellarmine Merton Collection at
As part of his opposition to the Vietnam War, Dan traveled with his
friend the late Professor Howard Zinn to
assist in the 1968 release of three American pilots. The diary he kept
of this mission, together with 11 poems, became Night Flight to
As Night Flight makes clear, Dan is a poet of distinction. His first
book of poetry, Time without Number won the Lamont Poetry Prize in
1957. He is also a playwright, author of the “Trial of the
Nine,” based on the trial of the nine peace activists who removed 378
draft files from the Selective Service office in
burned them with homemade napalm in the parking lot outside. Dan and
Philip were among the nine.
Dan and Philip subsequently served three years in the federal prison
community, Dan told us the story of a doctor who, on a visit to a
local emergency room years later, inquired if he were “the” Father
Berrigan. On Dan’s assenting, the doctor said that his own draft files
may have been among those burned, because he had expected to be sent
Such stories are frequently told as we sit together in the evening.
Fellowship with this remarkable man is a reminder that prophets still
live among us. Recently, the first reading for Thursday, April 15 was
from Acts 5. Several of us were gathered in the room where we
celebrate our regular masses. Dan offered to do the first reading. It
was the passage that describes the post-resurrection disciples
preaching so boldly that the Sanhedrin summoned chastised them for
speaking of Jesus. Peter replied: “Better for us to obey God than
men.” Dan has lived out that statement throughout his long life.
George Anderson, S.J