NORFOLK, Conn.—A moment this morning to share the moments of silence and reflection I and surely many others have spent since Dan Berrigan passed away last Saturday, April 30, at an infirmary for aging and ailing Jesuits on the campus of Fordham University. The New York Times obituary was notably generous and can be found here. Some very good photographs accompany it.
I have had an odd experience lately as regards Fr. Berrigan.
I happened to be passing through Washington, en route from Charlottesville to New York and then home, a few days before Berrigan died. It has been my pleasure and honor to become friendly with Ray McGovern, the noted and very principled ex-spook, since we met at a conference in D.C. a couple of years ago. I did a long Q & A with Ray for Salon subsequently (and that is to be found in this site’s archives). So I stopped and had lunch with Ray. He was just returning from New York, and we met at The Dubliner, that long-established Irish bar across from Union Station. I’ve always loved its motto, above the door and adorned with an Aeolian harp: “Give us your tired, your hungry, your befuddled masses.”
Anyway, over virtuous salads Ray and I ranged over numerous topics, one of which was naturally our religious inheritance. We are, I would say, ecumenical Catholics—John XXIII Catholics. McGovern is now a member of an ecumenical church in Washington; I was received into the Episcopal Church (my mother’s church) some years ago. I do not know what that makes me in Rome’s eyes, but Rome’s are not the eyes that concern me. I do not consider my migration to have canceled out anything whatsoever.
Eventually, Dan Berrigan’s name came up. It turns out that Ray had enjoyed a friendship with Père Dan for some length of time we never got to noting. Ray’s admiration was evident. If I understood the conversation correctly, he had just gone out to the Bronx to see Fr. Berrigan. It was clear, McGovern said, that the end was near. The honorable Jesuit was not able even to get out of bed anymore. How fortunate Ray must have felt, when the news came a matter of days later, to have seen his friend a last time.
I NEVER MET Dan Berrigan. He was for me as he was for many others of my generation as we manifest ourselves to one degree or another during the 1960s and beyond: He was an exemplar, a person of courage who put his arms and legs where his mind and heart and spirit and convictions were. He presented an implicit challenge, then. He showed anyone who looked a way to live (and by extension a way one did not have to live, providing one had the guts to accept the consequences of one’s thoughts and beliefs). So I fell into intermittent reflection on reading the Times obit. And I found quite a lot to reflect upon.
Ray McGovern’s friendship with Dan Berrigan—and I hope Ray does not mind I am writing of this—threw into relief the distance between the now-gone Jesuit and the younger me. He was a figure, never a friend. Not a living being, let’s say, with whom one could talk, agree, disagree, learn from, and so on. A figure some distance away and upward—a distance that somehow suggested the greatness he achieved simply by being who he was, nothing more, was beyond our more ordinary capacities.
Then I thought of the extent to which Berrigan was a figure from “another time,” and I will explain the quotation marks in a sec. Dan Berrigans do not seem to rise from among us any more, we customarily assume. There seems little left of the aspiration and principle that characterized Berrigan’s time in the 1960s and 1970s. This, of course, caused me to tumble into a certain vague gloom. Looking back on the days immediately after Berrigan died, I spent some part of each wandering, lonely and in a cloud.
I come out in another place now.
One, there is nothing “another” about the time with which Dan Berrigan is commonly associated. It is our shared past, our possession, and nothing will ever change this. We can draw from it as we wish is the implication, and there is a lot of water in the well, however little we now drink. Westerners, Americans in particular, entertain this odd misapprehension of the past as “another country,” gone. This is why the Times was comfortable publishing its obit as it did, in my view: At his death Berrigan was far enough back in a supposedly inaccessible past that the paper could afford some generosity. There is no truth in this consciousness of the past or ourselves; we lose access to our own riches to the extent we cultivate it.
Two, neither is it true there are no Dan Berrigans among us. I just had lunch with one at a good mick’s pub in our nation’s capital. I know of many others (admirable people, I mean, not Irish pubs). In each case, they bear the very same lesson Père Berrigan inscribed in everything he did: How we live is up to each of us. Whatever our choices, we are responsible for them. Our choices define us. Nothing we say as to who we are, no claim to be one thing or another, matters at all next to what we do.
One reader of my last column for Salon, with the online name “Giacomo,” ended a contribution to the comment thread on a wholly unrelated topic with, “RIP Dan Berrigan.” I thought it the very best gesture and intervened in the thread (which I rarely do) to say so. I join Giacomo, with one reservation: Dan Berrigan believed in eternal life, and he will have one.