A Spiritual Lightning Rod Turns 85
by Jon M. Sweeney
was once a person who inspired strong feelings in almost everyone
who knew his name and reputation. If you were at all culturally,
spiritually, or politically aware in the 1960s, 70s, or 80s, you
either loved or hated Daniel Berrigan. The Jesuit priest not only
vehemently protested the Vietnam War, but he celebrated his protests
in essays, plays, screenplays, and poems.
was handsome, too. Novelist Mary Gordon once wrote that all of
the girls in Catholic high school wanted to seduce him. Today,
Daniel Berrigan is largely unknown to any person under the age
of forty. He lives quietly on the Upper West Side of Manhattan
in an apartment where he has been for the last thirty years. The
wiry Jesuit—veteran of dozens of arrests and years of incarcerations—is
turning 85 today, May 9.
was born the fourth of six sons to a hardworking couple in the
northern Minnesota logging town of Virginia. His younger brother,
Philip, also became a Roman Catholic priest, but was excommunicated
in 1973 when it was discovered that he had married a nun (Sister
Elizabeth McAlister, a fellow activist) three years earlier. Philip
died of cancer in 2002.
traveled in France as a young man and learned his activism from
the French philosopher Jacques Maritain and from the example of
France’s priest-worker movement.
He was also a student and co-worker of Dorothy Day, founder of
the Catholic Worker Movement, and often visited Thomas Merton
at his monastery in Kentucky. Through these visits, Berrigan drew
the Trappist monk more and more into making statements about politics,
which led to a censure of Merton by his own abbot.
Berrigan’s first book of poetry, Time Without Number,
earned him the Lamont Prize from the American Academy of Arts
and Letters and a nomination for the 1957 National Book Award.
But it is his poetry about war that has stuck most in the minds
of his readers. His collections include titles such as Night
Flight to Hanoi (1968) and Prison Poems (1973).
in life, he wrote books about the Hebrew prophets, such as Isaiah,
Daniel, and Job, with whom he had long been compared, and he also
wrote a memoir.
Berrigan represents a time thirty and forty years ago when the
left and right became clearly defined for the first time.
He represents the beginning
of a divisive period in our history that continues today. The
red and blue states, the conservatives and the liberals, and all
sorts of labels that are used to define us began in earnest with
the radicalizing actions of many in the 1960s and 70s.
it will take activists with a different set of goals to bring
the sort of change that our society needs. We need people focused
on our commonalities, rather than our differences, those who will
work to bridge what divides us. The counter-culturists of today
will break down barriers, foster understanding, and turn America
away from what it seems to have become: a land of angry factions.
Jon Sweeney is a writer and editor living
in Vermont. He is the author of several books, including Born
Again and Again: Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood,
which was named “Best Book of the Year” in the autobiography
category by Spirituality & Health magazine.
by Jon Sweeney.