Daniel Berrigan: May 9, 1921 – April 30, 2016
I was a young associate editor at Sojourners magazine when Dan Berrigan sent a poem for a special issue sometime in the early 1980s. Accompanying it was a note that read “Here’s the poem—my first on a word processor. Seems a bit jumbled. Might have got a food processor by mistake.” He was not yet a friend, so I wasn’t familiar with the mischievous grin that likely spread across his face as he wrote it.
I had first learned of Dan, his brother Phil and sister-in-law Liz McAlister a decade before. I was a high school senior in Hershey, Pennsylvania—writing papers with such titles as “Stopping Communist Aggression in Vietnam” (well researched from a wide variety of issues of the Reader’s Digest)—while they were on trial thirteen miles away in Harrisburg for their opposition to the war.
I was a searching seminary student at Yale when I first heard Dan speak. It was the day before a Trident submarine, capable of creating multiple nuclear conflagrations more powerful than the one that had destroyed Hiroshima, was launched from the coast of Connecticut. That day Dan joined many others in a public act of resistance and was carted off to jail. I was just beginning to make connections between the gospel and peace and putting faith into action.
One of the most enjoyable of my assignments at Sojourners was editing Dan’s journal from his brief acting career on the set of the 1986 film The Mission. Dan spoke just one word in that movie. That word was “No.”
That “No” had begun many years before when he burned draft files in Catonsville, Maryland. Dan followed that act of conscience with decades of saying no—no to injustice, to despair, to war, to death. But I am even more moved by what he said yes to. Against all odds, he spent a lifetime saying yes to community and compassion, to peace and possibility.
His note about his poem was classic Berrigan, reflecting qualities I grew over time to love about him. First there was that droll sense of humor. I save my greatest admiration for folks who can look the reality of the world in the face—who see its worst inhumanities, who understand its unlimited capacities for destruction—and still know how to laugh.
Second, the note spoke of Dan’s commitment to simplicity. He, like me, was among the last to take the leap from paper and pen to computer. Somewhere along the line, I said to myself, “If Dan Berrigan has a computer, I guess it’s OK for me.” A role model in more ways than he knew.
And his note mentioned food. I remember a delectable pasta dish that Dan whipped up in his apartment in New York City—just one course in a meal that seemed to go on forever. There were the seafood specialties he lavished on guests to his cottage on Block Island. Long evenings, great food, good company, deep conversation—Dan had mastered the art of hospitality. He believed that simplicity and justice don’t demand austerity and stinginess.
I returned again and again to that cottage off the coast of Rhode Island on a bluff overlooking the surf. I wrote the earliest chapters of my memoir, Turning Toward Home, there, and Dan honored me by writing its foreword. I watched a red moon rise out of the ocean from the porch, fell asleep to the sound of the lighthouse’s horn in fog, and shared an unforgettable feast of a dozen lobsters after two friends and I spent a long day on an islander’s boat pulling them and many others out of the sea.
One of my visits to the island was delayed by Hurricane Gloria, another interrupted by Hurricane Bob. Salt spray lashed the vegetation, and heavy rains washed away a piece of the bluff. Gale winds set into frantic motion the colorful lobster buoys that hung along the porch railing, collected here and there like the memories of a lifetime.
It is fitting that such a cottage belonged to Dan Berrigan. It was a place of rest and prayer and inspiration, sitting on the edge of the world, taking whatever blasts came its way. Like Dan, it was humble. And it was this about him that touched me perhaps most of all. The number of lives he changed by his writing and speaking, by his courageous and compassionate presence, is beyond measure. I consider myself blessed to be among that fortunate throng.
My brother Dan, you are missed. But you have earned your rest.