By Daniel Cosacchi
One of my favorite books by the recently deceased, legendary Rev. Daniel Berrigan, S.J. is his Portraits of Those I Love. As the title suggests, this is a very personal text (although I don’t know of a particularly impersonal Berrigan manuscript) in which Berrigan pays homage to some of the most important people who had touched his own life. As he explains in the preface, the work itself “is envisioned as a tribute to friendship.” Some of the chapters include portraits of “The Monk” (Thomas Merton), “The Woman” (Dorothy Day), and “The Mother” (you guessed it, his own mother, Freda Berrigan). In what follows, I submit my own (unsatisfactory) attempt at painting a portrait of a great man: “The Peacemaker.”
I first met Dan on February 23, 2006 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights, New York. On that occasion, Dan was part of a panel discussion that included his fellow resident of the West Side Jesuit Community, Rev. G. Simon Harak, S.J. and a musical interlude from none other than Dar Williams. Of course, she regaled the audience with a rendition of her classic, “I Had No Right.” After the event had ended, my college roommate and I approached Dan and asked if we could talk with him about some ideas we had for spreading the message of peace around the campus of Fordham University, where we were in our sophomore year at the time. Dan graciously agreed, gave us his phone number, signed copies of our books, and we were on our way. Once we finally got in touch with Dan and set our meeting, it became clear that we were about to meet with a legend. What would we say to him?
Of that meeting with Dan and a group of Fordham students, I recall feeling very much like Mary of Bethany sitting at the feet of Jesus. After embarrassingly mumbling something to Dan upon entering his museum of an apartment, and immediately being struck by the woodcarving of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, I settled in for the most important lecture of my undergraduate years. He told us about Catonsville: “Lots of booze and no little amount of the Holy Spirit brought me to that point. But my brother Phil is responsible! I wish I had done it sooner.” Then he reminisced about an old friend: “I thought Tom was the one who spelled out our opposition to nukes the best.” “Tom who?” “Oh, I’m sorry, Thomas Merton.” Of course, Thomas Merton. Typical! Dan exemplified commitment to ecumenical and interreligious relations when we inquired about the religious make-up of his peace actions: “If you want to walk, let’s walk together.” And when we were about to leave, without a hint of irony, he asked us if he could pray with us. (Imagine for a moment, the prophetic Dan Berrigan asking us if he could say a prayer with us; remarkable). I’ll be honest, I don’t remember beyond the first four words of that closing prayer: “Hey, God of peace…”
Hey, God of peace… I would suggest that Dan likely began every day with these holy words. It was so clear to me that evening that Dan Berrigan experienced a very close relationship with the Lord he served so faithfully in his life. That was the one relationship that explained all of his writing, his activism, his public speaking, his ministry to the sick and dying, his friendships, and his prayer. I was only able to visit Dan a handful of times after that night, but as soon as I arrived home that evening, I was aware of two irrevocable changes to my life. First, I was enamored by this beautiful man who had given his life to working for peace and justice in this broken country and this broken world. Second, and far more importantly, I was introduced anew to Jesus, whom Dan served with a single-minded devotion for his entire life. My life had been changed – sometimes for the better, but also sometimes for the worse. For every ounce of beauty Dan’s witness revealed to me, I became equally as aware of the many injustices surrounding me on a daily basis. Every time I saw the culture of death at work – in war, the death penalty, abortion, or even interpersonal violence – I constantly asked myself, “How would Dan denounce this?”
The truth of the matter is that Dan Berrigan did so many wonderful things in his long life that he could have very well preached his own greatness. But, at every turn, he demurred to something greater than himself: the Lord Jesus. As a Christian, Dan made it clear that there was one fact that was at the very heart of his own existence. As he put it in an essay entitled “The First Nonviolent Revolution,” Dan writes very bluntly of Jesus, “Once there was a dead man, a criminal, a subject of capital punishment. And lo! He refused to stay dead. He stood up.” Time and again, Dan also challenged the death-dealing powers of our state to be converted. When very few people dared to speak for the dead, Dan stood up. When few people decided to break unjust laws, Dan volunteered himself as “criminal.” When our nation submitted to the temptations of cheap justice in the sin of capital punishment, Dan said clearly, “not in my name!” All of this, he insisted would have been impossible without Jesus’ example first. If Jesus had simply stayed dead, Dan’s life in our midst wouldn’t have been possible. In season and out of season, Dan Berrigan preached the Lord of Life, the Prince of Peace, the Lord Jesus alive in our midst. I am immensely grateful for that gift.
As I bring this “portrait” to a close, allow me to address the elephant in the room. Isn’t this an act of hagiography? Dan had so many detractors during his life. Wasn’t he a communist? Disobedient? Arrogant? Rude? (For the record: I don’t think so.) As with all other human beings, thankfully, we will not be the ones tasked with judging others at the end. Unlike the vast majority of us, who are so bogged down by our own limitations, Dan Berrigan trusted fully in the one who was unlimited in glory. In a typically moving line, Dan once wrote, “We want to taste the resurrection. May I say we have not been disappointed.” Now, as we continue to run the race of which Saint Paul has so famously written, the great “Cloud of Witnesses” has expanded even more. Any of us who now call on Dan to give us an appetizer of the resurrection will never be disappointed. Amen. Alleluia!
Daniel Cosacchi received his Ph.D. in Christian ethics from Loyola University Chicago, and teaches in the religious studies department at Fairfield University. He is co-editor (with Eric Martin) of the recently released The Berrigan Letters: Personal Correspondence Between Daniel and Philip Berrigan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016).
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