Tag Archives: Dan Berrigan

Defaming the motherland

This man must die,
for he has spoken against the City…
Jeremiah 26: 11

 Today’s readings present us with the challenge the prophets give to all those in power.

Jeremiah has attacked the complacency and idolatry of the religious leaders, who trust in their power and fail to turn the hearts of the people to the Lord.

John the Baptist has attacked the power and lechery of Herod. The Gospels connect John’s death with his illicit union with his brother’s wife; Flavius Josephus suggested that Herod feared that John’s preaching would provoke a rebellion.

The prophets threaten the status quo; they threaten the idolatry of the powers that be. As Fr. Dan Berrigan, S.J., puts it, they “defame the motherland.”

But how often do we Christians put our trust in the nation state or in our status as “good Christians” or “good Americans”? These are all too easy temptations?

Where does our real allegiance lie?

In whom do we really trust?

And, are we really willing to challenge the Powers that be?



A prophet among us

Today is Jesuit Father Dan Berrigan’s 93rd birthday.

Fr. Dan is a poet, a protestor, a prophet, pacifist, a jail bird and fugitive from (in)justice.

I met him several times and found him a humble man, with strong opinions, but a willingness to listen.

DSC01859Once in the late 1970s I attended a retreat he led at Kirkridge. He autographed a copy of his book on the psalms, Uncommon Prayer, with the note “to the happy philosopher – from Dan”.

He was “exiled” in the 1960s by his Jesuit superiors at the request of a bishop and sent to Latin America – not the place to send a budding revolutionary.

He spent time in jail for demonstrations during the Viet Nam as well for his involvement with burning of draft records (the Catonsville 9) and the pounding on nuclear warhead nose cones (the Plowshares 8).

He has written radical “commentaries” on books of the bible which, though informed by scholarship, make the scriptures very relevant to the struggles of our times.

But I never noticed any self-righteousness in his speaking or in his books, even though they are very critical. His book on Lamentations, subtitled From New York to Kabul and Beyond, is devastating in its approach.

Maybe Fr. Dan is not self-righteous because he’s a poet. Or maybe it’s because he’s a prophet who tries to be faithful to God – and risks his life and his reputation in defense of life.

In a collection entitled Testimony: The Word Made Flesh, there’s an essay “The Strange Case of the Man Who Could Not Please Anyone.” It concludes with this paragraph:

The banning of bombs, and the cherishing of the unborn, as of all living beings — this is the urgent moral business of ourselves. All of us, woven into, weaving anew the wondrous web of life. Graced with the burden and glory of the human vocation. We are stewards of life, never hucksters of death.

May we, like Fr. Dan, be stewards and defenders of life – and not hucksters of death of any sort.

Contemplating our bloody history

For the next few weekdays the first reading in the Catholic lectionary will offer us stories about King Solomon, mostly from the First Book of Kings.

If today’s reading is indicatory, we will be reading a very sanitized version of his life.

In today’s reading 1 Kings 2:1-4, 10-12, David on his deathbed is giving Solomon advice to follow the ways of the Lord.

What we don’t hear are David’s request to settle accounts with his army commander Joab and with a reality of Saul who insulted him. David asks Solomon to get rid of them.

David and Solomon were deeply flawed persons, not the paragons of virtue and wisdom that we are often shown.

Murder and adultery, and even idolatry in Solomon’s case, are indicative of their reigns. It is thus not surprising that they have conflicts with their sons and there are conflicts between the sons about who shall be king.

How can we deal with this? It’s in the Bible, some might say.

I began this morning to read Daniel Berrigan’s The Kings and Their Gods: The Pathology of Power. This Jesuit poet and prophet (now 92 years old) has written many poetic commentaries on scripture which combine scholarship with a prophet’s insightful critique. He reads the scripture with an eye to conversion – even today.

And so he writes of these bloody accounts:

The books of Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Maccabees imply that we humans must move in great darkness before we are blessed and enter the light. This, it sold seem, is the law of the Fall… Let us ponder such forbears, and weep.

We must suffer the anti-human as well in ourselves….

Through these books, we must come to know the worst of our ancestry — as well as the worst that lurks in ourselves.

The stories of David and Solomon – and the other bloody tales – call us to look at the evil around us – the pathology of power – as well as the evil within. For “the books of the Kings stand like a record of our own benighted century, bloody as beef newly drawn and hung.

And so Dan Berrigan prays:

Grant us knowledge of our crimes. Help us take our true bearings in the world, to confess how rarely, in public life and private, in religion and statecraft,  in temple and marketplace and home —how rarely authority is joined with virtue. Grant us knowledge of our plight, that we may cry out for relief, and be drawn forth.

Reading the whole bloody story is necessary so that we may see the faithlessness in our lives as well as the bloody story of our times – the wars, the hunger, the injustice, the idolatry of power and money. May we, as Albert Camus challenged us, “get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today.”

Then, maybe we might repent, as persons and as nations, and begin to seek the ways of peace.



Jesuit Martyrs in North America

Today the Church in the US and Canada celebrates the Jesuits who were martyred in the mid 17th century in missions among the Native Americans.

The stories of the martyrdom of the North American Jesuit martyrs are horrid.

But their heroism in the face of suffering and death inspired me when I read their stories in high school.

What I now find amazing is that St. Isaac Jogues, even after being tortured and losing some fingers, returned to the missions.

Their life was horrid. As St. Jean de Brebeuf wrote to a friend who would be joining them on mission:

We shall receive you in a hut, so mean that I have scarcely found in France one wretched enough to compare it with. Fatigued as you will be, we shall be able to give you nothing but a poor mat for a bed. Besides you will arrive when fleas will keep you awake most of the night.

They gave up so much – out of love.

There is a poem of Fr. Dan Berrigan, S.J., in his Prison Poems, that expresses their experience as only a mystic-poet-prophet can:

                           A Bit of History
Those Jesuit fathers (wrote Isaac Jogues from New France)
            who purpose volunteering for these wilds
                  and the service of their Indian brothers
                      had best leave behind all regret for
            university degrees, honors, prerequisites.
           The questions raise by their clients will be other
                  than the subtleties their minds
                       sharpened and shone on, elsewhere.
            TO WIT: can they bear heartbreaking portages
                  survive on sour pemmican
            live under intense extremes of heat, cold, solitude?
            The times mitigate the questions, never quite stilling them.
                  As I learn, my middle cast cranium
                      bending to the intricacies, simplicities
                            of a new a b c.

All of us in mission have to learn a new “a b c,” though for most of us far less uncomfortable than the experience of those Jesuits.

But it means leaving much behind.

That is real poverty – and can bring real joy


Apologies for the poem which has indentations that I cannot replicate here.

The quote from St. John de Brebeuf is taken from dot magis: here

A poetic prophet – Fr. Dan Berrigan

Jesuit Father Dan Berrigan turns 81 today. A poet and prolific writer, Fr. Dan has been a prophetic voice in the United States for many years. His poetic readings of the bible are an inspiration.

I met him several times and cherish my copy of his book on the psalms, Uncommon Prayer,  which he autographed many years ago at a retreat of his that I attended, “to the happy philosopher.”

He was so outspoken about the Viet Nam war that he was sent to Latin America. He spent time in jail for his acts of civil disobedience – including burning draft board files with napalm and hammering on planes.

Some “prophets” are grating, full of themselves and their cause. But I found Fr. Dan gentle, even as his words are sharp and disturbing. I think part of this is because he’s a poet.

A few years ago I ran cross this quotation of his. I used to do a lot of baking – it’s harder to do it here in Honduras – and so I found the words consoling and challenging:

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.