So here he is, Dan Berrigan, SJ, priest of the Society of Jesus, now aged 92, still living in New York, and one of my all-time heroes. I met him in 2004 when Judith Hardcastle and I were in New York, preparing for a Thomas Merton pilgrimage there the following year. We were talking about whom we could get as a keynote speaker, and thought of Dan, who was a friend and correspondent of Merton. Realizing that he lived in New York, Judith, who is afraid of neither man nor beast, looked him up in the phone book, and phoned him as if he were an ordinary human being. He was happy to hear from her, and invited us over to his apartment in the Jesuit residence.
When we got there, he opened the door, wearing jeans and a blue and white sailing shirt. I had the response, standard for me in those days (this was ten years ago), of tears coming to my eyes at the beauty–I use this word deliberately–of this old man (I don’t think he noticed my tears). Like some others I had encountered (Trevor Huddleston, Marie-Bernard Nielly, Bill Shannon, Chadral Rinpoche) he was and is a beautiful old man, a shining figure. I think by this I mean someone who is an integral person, at one with himself inwardly and outwardly. You don’t have to be old to be this kind of person, but if this is the kind of person you have become or are becoming, it seems to intensify in the elder years.
He did come to our Merton event the following year, and spoke very eloquently and movingly about his relationship with Merton, which was not always entirely easy–they differed about the place of direct action in working for peace–and about what it meant for us to be peacemakers in our own time.
An opponent of the Vietnam war from its beginning, he traveled to Hanoi in January 1968 with Howard Zinn to receive from the North Vietnamese three American POWs, the first such to be released since the beginning of the American bombing of Vietnam. Later in the same year, with eight fellow activists, he destroyed 378 draft files belonging to the Catonsville, MD, draft board—his group became known as “the Catonsville Nine.” He was sentenced to three years in prison for this, but went into hiding for a time in order to draw attention to the group’s cause. Soon re-arrested, he went to jail until 1972.
Then in 1980, with his brother Philip, and six others (“the Plowshares Eight”), he was a participant in an action in which nuclear warhead nose-cones were damaged, and in which the Eight poured their own blood onto documents and files in the nuclear base in King of Prussia, PA. After ten years of appeals, he and the others were re-sentenced and then paroled. (I shudder to think what would be the punishment if he or anyone else performed such an action today, given the paranoia of the US administration, or, more accurately, of the national security state apparatus which is the effective government of the United States.) Since then, while continuing to protest the war-related actions of his government, he has lived in New York, devoting himself to his poetry, to teaching at Fordham University, and to bearing witness to the truth (cf. John 18:37, significantly, from Jesus’ word to Pilate at his trial).
I consider him a prophet (i.e., somebody who sees what he sees and then says what he sees), and worthy to stand in the lineage of the biblical prophets. There is already a prophet Daniel in the Bible, but we can certainly use another one! Ad multos annos, Dan Berrigan, servant of God, friend of Jesus, prophet of peace!