Fr. Dan Berrigan, S.J., turns 92 today.
Poet, priest, prophet, scripture commentator, Fr. Dan has been a sign of contradiction in the US church and a thorn in the side of the US empire. Jailed for his involvement in anti-war activities, including the burning of draft files in 1968 and the denting of a bomber with hammers, he is first of all a priest who has sought to live the Gospel without counting the cost.
“”If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood,” he said.
I’ve heard Fr. Dan several times. In the late seventies I went to a retreat he was leading at Kirkridge, Pennsylvania. I had him sign my copy of his book on the Psalms, where he addressed me as “the happy philosopher.”
Where other protestors of war and violence come across as self-righteous, Fr. Dan seems different – open, tranquil, listening. Perhaps it’s because he’s a poet.
There is a meditation he wrote on the poor that recalls the importance not only of sharing our bread with the poor but getting to know the poor, seeing their faces, experiencing with them their joys and sorrows
Sometime in your life,
hope that you might see one starved man,
the look on his face when the bread finally arrives.
Hope that you might have baked it
or bought it or even kneaded it yourself.
For that look on his face,
for your meeting his eyes across a piece of bread,
you might be willing to lose a lot,
or suffer a lot,
or die a little.
One of the difficulties living here is encountering beggars and others asking for money. I usually look them in the eye, shake my head “no,” and in a semi-apologetic way often say “sorry; that’s not my custom.” It’s hard, even when it’s someone who is always seated at the same place begging. But I try to acknowledge the humanity of the person I encounter.
A mentor of mine, Mitch Snyder, was a member of the Community for Creative Nonviolence in Washington, DC. Not only was Mitch a peace activist but he was a strident advocate for the poor and those experiencing homelessness. Mitch’s actions and the actions of those he inspired profoundly changed the federal government’s response to homelessness and the low income housing crisis from the mid eighties through the early nineties.
Often when introducing himself at a gathering or conference, Mitch would describe an encounter he had with Dan Berrigan while in jail and his subsequent conversion from a stock broker to a an activist. More than once, I can recall Mitch imploring his audience that when they met a homeless person on the street to not turn their heads or look down but instead to look the person in the eye and say “hi” whereby acknowledging they are a fellow human being and that they matter.