Daniel Berrigan, S. J. died on April 30, ten days shy of his 95th birthday, ending an extraordinary life of creativity, commitment and courage. The following interview was conducted in late 2000 and published in part in January 2001. I send it out again in its complete form for those who may have never heard Dan Berrigan’s voice as well as for those, like myself and thousands of others, who will miss it dearly.
To wed, even for a day, one’s beliefs with corresponding acts is perhaps the most difficult, dangerous, and noble endeavor any person can undertake. This is all the more so when said convictions run counter to the given order, laws, and culture of the age. To integrate one’s principles in such a fashion over the course of a lifetime is thus at the very least extraordinary, if not sublime. Exactly such an endeavor, however, has been the life’s work of Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., who now enters the ninth decade of his life as vital as ever. Along with his brother Philip, a former Josephite priest who has spent ten of his last 30 years in federal prisons for various acts of civil disobedience (and who is currently serving a two-year stint in a Ohio for “vandalizing” a Navy guided missile destroyer), Daniel has for the past 40 years strived, regardless of personal cost, to force America to live up to its ideals and to forge a new, higher, and truly spiritual consciousness unto this land which, for some reason, never tires of calling itself “Christian.” In the process, like few before them, the Berrigan brothers have scandalized church as well as state, drawing the wrath of both—a revealing and interesting double whammy if there ever was one.
Indeed, in what would set off one of the most disgraceful judicial actions of the past century, the brothers Berrigan drove the normally staid and silently vicious J. Edgar Hoover into a state of frenzy. With no evidence other than some purloined personal letters and the word of a paid FBI convict informant, and in direct violation of the Bill of Rights, the FBI king publicly denounced them at a U.S. Senate hearing, thus successfully forcing their indictments as leaders of a conspiracy to kidnap then Presidential Advisor (and hopefully future convicted war criminal) Henry Kissinger. That Hoover came close to succeeding—despite the fact that at the time of the alleged conspiracy both Daniel and Philip were imprisoned (for invading a Baltimore Selective Service Office and ritualistically burning hundreds of draft cards)—was nothing short of disturbing. (See The FBI and the Berrigans, by Jack Nelson and Ronald Ostrow.) The brothers, however, prevailed.
The fifth of six sons of a German mother and an Irish father, Daniel was born in 1921 in Two Harbors, Minnesota, and raised in upstate New York. Accepted by the Jesuit order at 18 and ordained as a priest of the Roman Catholic Church at 33, Berrigan had his first brush with activism while living among the Worker Priests movement of France in the mid 1940s. Two decades later, Berrigan’s own activism against the war and for the poor found him exiled to South America by superiors in his own Jesuit order. The exile ended due to a sustained public outcry by Berrigan’s supporters, and upon his return his activism increased, as did his arrests and imprisonments. After the Vietnam War ended, the brothers Berrigan founded the Plowshares Movement, and they continue to lead anti-nuclear protests around the country.
It’s been said that one can tell the make of a man by the company he keeps. Among Daniel’s dearest friends and allies were Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, and Howard Zinn to name but a few. More importantly, there is virtually no humane and intelligent movement of the last four decades—from civil rights to the death penalty, from Vietnam to the Irish Hunger Strikers, from the suffering of AIDS victims to the starvation of the children of Iraq, where Daniel has not lent his presence, his voice and if, need be, his freedom. Daniel Berrigan served two years at the Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, Connecticut for his activities opposing the Vietnam War. Despite strident governments efforts and a near fatal illness while incarcerated, Daniel was not corrected. Indeed, like his Biblical namesake, who was sent to hungry lions for refusing to obey idiot laws and kneel before human gods, Berrigan has withstood all pressure to break his will and get him to betray his beliefs. Along the way, Berrigan has also found time to become (in no particular order) a prize-winning poet, acclaimed playwright, fugitive, convict, professor, theologian, actor, author of fifty odd books, and always and ever the rarest form of our species a man of almost frightening and certainly humbling integrity and a fearless, indomitable friend to those in need.
I met Fr. Berrigan at his small but comfortable flat among the Jesuit Community on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where he’s resided for the past two decades. Asked to describe his work these days, Fr. Berrigan replied casually that he spends “lots of writing and teaching and doing retreat work…and getting arrested, which is the one I’m proudest of.” Taller than you’d think, graceful, and capable of moving from utter seriousness to the mischievous and back again in a matter of moments, Daniel Berrigan keeps one on his toes in a most delightful and witty manner. For one who has devoted his life to the eradication of the suffering of others, Daniel Berrigan has suffered enormously and does so these days each time he contemplates that, once again, his beloved brother and friend Philip is imprisoned, that once again needless afflictions are cast upon the already afflicted, that once again the Church fails to live up to its creed, that once again America has acted barbarically. But Daniel Berrigan likes to laugh and Daniel Berrigan does so often. Above all, Daniel Berrigan believes and, in believing, acts.
Patrick Walsh: How would you define your work?
Daniel Berrigan: Well, well, lets see here … there’s a lot of writing and teaching thought I’m not teaching this semester and around the country with retreat work, biblical retreats all over the place and getting arrested. that the one I’m proudest of.
PW How many times have you been arrested?
DB I don’t know. I’ve run out of toes and fingers.
PW I believe its in the hundreds.
DB Could be.
PW The transformation of Christianity from an small and obscure renegade Jewish cult whose leader is put to death by the occupying Roman Empire to its emergence as the guiding force of that very empire is, from any rational stand point, wholly and utterly absurd. Yet it happened. The Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church has arguably been both the most emancipatory and repressive force in Western or even world history. It is more than strange that the same force that brought forth and formed a St. Francis could also bring forth a Juan de Torquemada, a Hildegard von Bingen, and a Borgia Pope, and in your life time a Fr. Coughlin and a Dorothy Day. How would you explain that?
DB (Laughs) I’m gonna run for the john! ( Pause ) I don’t know, it just seems to me that this is the biggest show in town. Under that umbrella is every human species, every human exemplar, every human scoundrel and you know, its all there. And I think that inevitable that it all be there. Even thought we should cringe. I never thought I would see what I’m seeing today as far as the church is concerned. I never thought that I would see Jesuits murdered around the world. and this kind of Pope, and certainly in my younger years I never dreamed I would meet the likes of Dorothy Day or Merton or Chavez or so many others . I never dreamed of being in a community of this quality. So you really run the spectrum of emotional life and hope and near despair and its really kind of rough at times but it also very wonderful. Let me give you an example of how hard it can be and how marvelous. I have a Jesuit brother in prison out of this community and my own brother is in prison and that’s very tough. That’s very tough. It’s almost beyond, my vocabulary to tell you how tough it is. At the same time it s lifeline and its important and crucial to this community that this go on. It makes us all dig deeper. It makes us more serious about our place in the world. And in the church. And it brings home to us the pain of being human.
PW Has your relationship to the mainstream church has it changed greatly or have you always been outside the mainstream.
DB Well, everything about the church is filtered through the Jesuits, which is a great protection and gives us a lot of room. In fact, I often felt that we (Jesuits) have really as much freedom as we can stomach and some of us can’t stomach a great deal of it but that’s our problem. Not the Churches.
PW What kinds of freedom don’t want to take advantage of?
DB I think that’s that a very large question because it moves in so many directions. I think that what we rejoice most in among n one another is intellectual curiosity and some kind of stirring of the imagination about life today and about where we are, where we are in the scheme of things and that’s one kind of freedom you have to take the official rhetoric as a kind of blueprint for life and kind of work through things yourself … with others. I think there is level of trust here that’s really quite extraordinary. And then there this freedom from the law which I think every one in the community honors. Not everybody gets arrested but they support those who do with all their heart.
PW Jesus showed a great respect for women and, if there were excluded from his twelve chosen disciples, they certainly play a large and important role in the Gospels. Before it’s institutionalization Christianity may have well have been the was the first religion to grant women equal spiritual status. It seems a fact that in the early formative years of the church or more accurately the forming as yet Catholic churches, the role of women was scarcely different from that of men even to the point of women serving as leaders of the church, even as bishops. And yet, over time as the Church grew, and consolidated its power women became both demeaned and exalted in a way that is somehow different and weirder than a mere contradiction. The same organization that eventually worshipped the Virgin Mary and referred to itself with utter sincerity as “Mother Church”, held that women’s place in it was small and utterly powerless. This point not only did not escape the more brilliant minds that the Church produced. It was promulgated by them.
Following are two passages of Tertullian, a hugely influential Church father. “The Son of God was crucified. (I am unashamed of it because men must needs be ashamed of it. ) And the Son of God died. It is by all means to be believed because it is absurd. And he was buried and rose again the fact is certain because it is impossible.”
Now, these are words that could only have been produced by a mind that has somehow moved past the shackles of logical thought into some kind of visionary perception of reality. And yet, the same mind produced the following: “Do you not realize that Eve is you? The curse God produced on your sex still weighs on the world. You are the devil’s gateway. You desecrated the fatal tree. You first betrayed the law of God. The image of God, the man Adam, you broke him, it was child’s play to you. You deserved death and it was the Son of God who had to die.”
DB Oh my, how horrible! From the sublime to the horrible. It leaves you kind of speechless. That was really seeding that kind of imagery into history and remains in essence as regards women in the church. Someone like myself is constantly encountering extraordinary women who feel this to the marrow , this kind of exclusion , what one Jesuit called apartheid around the alter and it’s a bitter pill. And some take it and walk around and some take it and stand there and both are occurring On the other hand, this is a quote from an ordained Protestant women who runs a retreat where I go twice a year in Penn and she’s ordained in the United Church of Christ and she says the most interesting people who come to that retreat house both as presenters and as participants are Catholic women and she concludes that as an ordained women that there is a certain strength and virtue that comes from being at the edge rather than in the center and that Catholic women in many way are proceeding with their own agenda which is higher education especially theological education and all sorts of innovation, liturgically , among themselves. In no sense could I justify what is going on from above but on the other hand it seems to me it does have certain compensations and that I have tasted that in my own life that not to be at the front side of the power and privilege keeps one lean and mean. My father used to say, Well boys,” – he would address us oracularly – “a lean horse for a long race.” And he lived to be well over ninety. And he was lean. And mean. (Laughs )
The world’s most lovable felon.
PW In my experience, Catholicism seems to effect people more deeply that the other Christian sect. Take a figure like Joyce who was defined by the church in reverse or Graham Greene’s character Pinky in Brighten Beach who says something like, ” When a Catholic goes bad, they become evil. “Do you find that Catholicism has a peculiar hold on those who are raised it?
DB Oh it does and you can’t walk around without ricocheting off it … I couldn’t not say that it ever leaves one unaffected, whatever the decision, whatever the direction one takes. And it’s like being a Jesuit. I mean, you can never be the same even if you walk away. It brands the soul.
PW James Joyce answered famously when he was asked if he was a Catholic, ” Oh no, I’m a Jesuit.”
DB (Laughs) What a nice saying! That’s’ really great! I went looking for some memento of his in the Jesuit school there — Clongowes? — and interestingly enough I couldn’t finds any record on the walls and I thought this was really strange. And I was very stirred up by this kind of — what can I call it ? — ignorance and fear or dread. I love the Irish Jesuits but somebody official, somebody agreed that for all these years Joyce would not be commemorated there.
PW How long ago was this?
DB Oh… a decade ago.
PW Things have changed or what?
DB Things have changed at least outside of the Church. If you now walk along the streets of Dublin they now have plaques and quotes for this scene in Ulysses or that scene in Ulysses and so on. Within the church, I don’t know. Joyce was never officially banned in Ireland, you just could not find him. He wasn’t there. He wasn’t available. That was their solution. but now you can find him all over the place. They sell posters and they’re finally proud of him.
PW You write about the “trivializing of evil and its secular counterpart “Gnostic psychoanalyses.” Could you explain that?
DB Well, just to step back a bit, I’ve often talked about this from the point of view of the Bible .. the one who gets the divine sin gets great power. I always said during the Vietnam War that I couldn’t win because the Catholics — this was in the early stages of the war right up till maybe 1968 — were fiercely against abortion and pro war. And when I faced a secular audience it was exactly the opposite . And I was speaking from a place that would protect the unborn as well as the adults. And that was very, very tough for quite a while. I run for the hill when psychoanalysis starts in a conversation or . I love to ask these people what is their definition of a healthy person and you really can’t get very far . It all kind of squeezed into “me, I and mine.” That’s not really very close to the way I see a healthy person which I would see largely in terms of lifelines and connections.
PW And the things that people do in their lives is that what you mean by lifelines and connections. Their rootedness in the world?
DB Well, yeah I would put it a little differently. I mean standing by one another especially in cruel circumstances. It’s another point of view of non-betrayal because that’s really the style of the hour, betrayal.
PW But betrayal is no longer seen as betrayal. I hear all the time, things like, “Well that’s the way it is” or a look that says, “O poor child you don’t yet understand the world.” As if that kind of attitude is superior to the one that you’re speaking about. DB It seems to me it implies the same thing when it’s betraying the other by down putting or these accusations of immaturity or romanticism or whoever.
PW What is your idea of the demonic? Is it a physical thing? A spiritual thing or both?
DB It seems to have been crazily real to Jesus and what one is to make of it, again, I guess it can be psychologized out of existence what we call the demonic. I like ( Protestant lay theologian William) Stringfellow’s view of it and he would say simply that it is the spirit of death, and the pursuit of death as a social or personal goal. And when this gets into a huge apparatus like the military or the White House and those kind of monsters you’ve got the active and virulent and institutionalized pursuit of death as a goal. Get rid of some people and you’ll get rid of problems. So let’s go.
PW You mean like the war machine and the death penalty…?
DB All that stuff. Yes. None of it makes any sense and it makes less and less of it all the time. There’ s a little bit coming out now about Kissinger in Harpers….
(Berrigan is referring to “The Case Against Henry Kissinger, Part One: The Making of A War Criminal ” by Christopher Hitchens published in Harpers Magazine, February 2001. Hitchens elaborated on his thesis in The Trial of Henry Kissinger. A Similar argument appeared in the August 15, 2001 Village Voice under the title “Manhattan’s Milosevic ( How You Can Arrest Henry Kissinger For War Crimes “) by James Ridgeway. It has taken some 30 odd years, and millions of needless deaths but it appears, at length, that at least some of the world is beginning to understand at least some of the perspectives of the Berrigans. -ed )
PW ( Sarcastically )You were part of a plot to kill Kissinger, right ?
DB Oh…no kidnap him. We were going to do a citizens arrest I understand. Of course I was in prison so I’m not sure how I was supposed to do it
PW You’re a very wily fellow!
DB But I thought it would have been a good idea. But it always takes a long time, doesn’t it, for anything approaching clarity or justice and a whole generation of wicked official is dead and he’s still hanging around but……
(In November, 1970, J. Edgar Hoover publicly denounced the brother Berrigan’s and others as members of a fictional conspiracy called the Catholic Resistance to Save Lives who planned to dismantle the electrical system of Washington and, for good measure, kidnap then presidential aide and architect of the Vietnam war, Henry Kissinger. Against the advice of his own top advisors, Hoover rammed the fantasy into an indictment and thus a protracted trial in Harrisburg PA. As the trial got underway, mysteriously, and without explanation, Daniel went from the ringleader to an equally mystifying status as ” un-indicted coconspirator” and the government focused largely on Philip Berrigan. Both Berrigan’s were imprisoned at the time of the alleged conspiracy. The charges carried with them life sentences without parole and ended in a mistrial. -Ed )
PW In all your words, the one time I felt bitterness creep into your writing was in your description of the conspiracy trial in Harrisburg when the government got a stooge, a paid informer….
DB Right, Boyd Douglas.
PW And at that point your diction, the tone of your writing changed.
DB Really? Well that interesting. Hmmm…. I guess I was still feeling it.
PW You wrote that you should reach out and touch this guy ( Douglas ) because he was a victim of the victimizers but you couldn’t do and that you would have to leave it to Christ to forgive this guy it.
DB Well, I could now … and recalling that and putting it so adamantly I wish I had given it more time, maybe.
PW Well, what I thought while reading it was that your love for your brother was so great and this guy was putting the hammer to him and trying to put him away for life and …
DB Oh yeah. And very nearly succeeded.
February 1968, New York, USA — The Reverend Daniel Berrigan, 46, (left), a Cornell University instructor and Howard Zinn, 45, Boston University professor, leave Kennedy Airport here on January 31st for Hanoi. They represent an American peace committee allegedly asked by the North Vietnamese to send escorts for three U>S> fliers being released. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
PW What to you is the purpose of prayer?
DB Well as far as I can understand it doesn’t have any purpose. Prayer is prayer is prayer. It’s perhaps equivalent to asking what is the purpose of God. My own theory is that God is useless. And so is prayer. That is to say, such realities are not to be put to this or that use. Other wise, you get Bush evoking religion and wanting to give millions of dollars to idiots.
DB It can’t be without theology poisoning it.
PW I came upon an ad for the rosary in which your name was used.
DB Well, that’s nice. I have one right here. (Reaches to the arm of his chair where he retrieves a set of red rosary beads.)
PW You‘ve written that , “Every Christian requires the shadow or light of a Jew upon life: a presence, a Shekinah, a friendship something of the ancient blood mingling with his own, as blood of parent and child mingle.” Could you elaborate on this?
DB Well you could start with Jesus and go right up to my Jesuit friend Steve Kelly who ‘s in prison, in fact, in solitary.
PW For what?
DB Well, he and my brother Philip and two other poured their blood on depleted uranium shells in Maryland. But I brought up Kelly because I was around Kelly a good deal. I’m missing this guy who really quite a number, everything about him, his body language and his sense of humor and gestures and all that stuff wasn’t Irish at all. And I’m sort of watching this guy and listening to him and all that and I said, ” Kelly, what is it with this name Kelly? You’re not Irish at all. You’re Jewish! And he said, you know I was adopted by the Kelly’s, right? Now I think there’s a certain continuity here about the people I’m attracted to, the people that will walk with me. It’s very Jewish. It’s very single minded. Even the guards down there in Maryland (guarding Rev. Kelly ), they have this kind of grudging admiration for this guy. “Hey, he don’t give in, does he?” And of course we know Kelly very well and he sure doesn’t give in.
It’s not to make an ethic thing out it but to recognize a sort bloodline of the spirit which I feel very deeply about and which I constantly find very fine an experience… though I’m not very proud of the state of Israel right now …. and that’s the understatement of the millennium. I was at this thing right here in the city with James Carroll who’s just written this enormous tome, called The Sword of Constantine on Jews and Catholics, Judaism and the church. Anyway he was in town, the book was making a big splash and he gave this talk and then there was this panel which included a Jewish women and a Catholic women. I’m sitting there in the front row because Carroll and I have been friends for 30 years and I’m listening in a stupor of disbelief because for two and half hours the word “Palestinian” is never mentioned. And this is so outrageous, so outrageous. He ( James Carroll ) called the next day and, you know, “Thanks for coming” and “What did you think of the evening?” and all that. And I said what I just said. He agreed but I let it drop, just let it drop.
PW There’s an atmosphere of fear around that subject and I know that you were hounded for a year for a speech you gave defending the rights of Palestinians.
DB Oh yeah …..the memory lingers. You know I was reading this pro- Palestinian essay by Dr. (Edward ) Said and the remarkable thing about the essay was it was about his sadness for the state of Israel.
PW As both a poet and a theologian how would you explain the absence of physical description in the Bible. Outside of an occasional mentioning of some characters beauty or strength or Samson’s hair, we have little if any idea of what these figures, look like. What do you think of this absence signifies?
DB you mean in both Bibles, the Hebrew and the Christian?
PW We don’t know what Moses looked like, we don’t know what Jesus looked like.
DB I’ve never even given much thought to that but it seems to me ,at least on the surface that there’s a connection between the very, very old prohibitions against images. For instance, Ezekiel barely got into the Hebrew canon because he spoke of images he saw. The rule was you could tell only what you heard but you could never tell what you saw. For this same reason Daniel was demoted in the Hebrew bible from the Prophets to something amorphous called ” Writings.”
PW What are your thoughts on the Gospel of Thomas? In this work there is not only an absence physical description but also no action whatsoever. No passion. No crucifixion. Merely the so called “wisdom sayings” and very, very enigmatic sayings at that. What do you make of this?
DB Well, I can’t say I’ve really gone into that (The Gospel of Thomas). I can’t add a great deal to it. Stories, stories, stores. Maybe I found it a little bit too direct and felt a little inhibited that there wasn’t some activity going on there. I kind of proceed on the assumption that in the Christian Bible, that I had had was all I needed.
PW Jesus spoke in parables In a very real sense, the speaking of parables posits an enormous respect for their audience, forcing them to think and expecting if not forcing them to do so. Parables are a very, very demanding form both for the creator and the receiver. What does it mean to you that the Jesus of the Synoptic gospels choose to speak in parables?
DB First of all I like him more for it. (Laughs ) He has my approval! (Laughs) O My ! Well, it just seems to me that among great things that Jesus was setting a pattern about the acquisition of knowledge or insight or new directions or the freeing of the imagination. Respecting, honoring the imagination. I think that is pretty much gone and what has taken over is the Law. The message of Jesus is altogether prophetic. He never once quotes the Book of Samuel or the Book of Kings or any of that. He quotes Isaiah all the time and the other prophets. They fire his imagination. They free him up to say, I’m like that and commands that message to those who hear it. And I think that there’s a direct connection between the loss of that power of imagining reality and the emergence of stereotypical lawgivers. If the one skill dies the other non-skill takes over.
I was just thinking about, again, ones own experience, and I grew up in a family where there was very little promulgation of the Law. Daddo ( his father Thomas Berrigan) did some of it but there wasn’t any kind of verbal urgency about being virtuous. We were brought up by example which I think required enormous patience because we used to be savage but it took. It took. It really did. Eventually.
PW Both D.H. Lawrence in The Man Who Died and Nikos Kazantzakis in The Last Temptation of Christ said they wrote their books because they wanted to create a Christ who was both fully human and fully divine. I find this dubious as even a cursory ready of the Gospels will disclose a Jesus who is at times frightened, proud, angry, confused and so on. Nonetheless, what both Kazantzakis and Lawrence do add to the portrait of Jesus is sexuality which one definitively does not find in the Gospels and that is substantial. Why do you think there is no mention of any sexuality in Jesus of the Gospels?
DB Haven’t thought about it lately. As I understand things, the form of the Gospels that we have in out hands is a proclamation either to the a community or to the world and my question is, was that ( knowledge ) necessary? Was that crucial to that purpose that we want a certain version of God incarnate? We have knowledge of sexuality available in other parts of the scriptures. But Jesus chose this way and… I don’t know. We have Peter a married man, and we have Paul a married man and others. I just hope, and I guess one can only engage in hope, that it wasn’t out of a sense that this was a superior way to God. It was His way to God and as we find in our Jesuit community there’s a certain freedom in that, a certain freedom. It’s not easy but it does free us from the material in one way. I don’t know. It’s all speculation. ( Pause)
By the way I detested that movie The Last Temptation of Christ. Just horrible. I was one of the so called “religious leaders” who were invited to an advance screening of that film and I decided to go because I wanted to see how bad it would be. They really did everything to butter us up. They had this very elaborate lunch ahead of time. And we were racing across town in danger of our lives being pursued by these crazies who were trying to stop the film.
PW They were after you?
DB No, they were after the whole crowd of clergy who were going to see it. And, to compound things in the middle of a summer day, you know quite bright, the theater was struck by lightening and the lights out and the screen went out.
PW Is that so? The Big Fellow was angry!
DB ( Laughs) Yes, they had to bring out the director to stem the tide because no one knew what the hell was up and he began talking about the film and it was ridiculous.
PW Why did you think it was so horrible?
DB It was vulgar. Scorsese, is that the directors name? I thought that the film that came closest to portraying Jesus and one that I view with great affection is the Italian Gospel According to St. Matthew. The director was murdered later. He was a gay guy. (Pier Paolo Pasolini – ed.). And he dedicated the film to Pope John XXIII though he was a non-believer himself. And he used all amateurs and made it in Spain and it was just very powerful.
PW It’s obvious to anyone who has read your work the great love, affection and respect you had for ( Catholic Worker founder ) Dorothy Day? When did you first meet her and what was your first association with the Catholic Worker?
DB Well, we pretty much grew up with the Catholic Worker newspaper.
PW “We” meaning your family? DB Yeah. It always ended up in our house somehow, probably through relatives. But that started it. And there was a very close affinity, without anyone ever formulating it between the ethos of the paper and the way we were living. And that “we” being my mother. The open door policy and the hungry man at the table and people over night. People for longer periods during The Depression. So that was very interesting. Now as far as meeting her, I was teaching in Jersey and I would bring students over to the Worker. That was in the late 40s and she was still very vigorous and youthful. I was sort of on the edge of things but then I came back after being in Europe for a while and started teaching in Brooklyn and then I got very close to her… bringing students to her.
PW Where in Brooklyn?
DB A Jesuit school called Brooklyn Prep which is now Medger Evers Collage and then around the time of Pope John XXlll in the 60’s when those encyclicals came out (Pacem In Terris/ Peace on Earth and Mater Et Magistra/ Christianity and Social Progress.) and she was really, really so moved and exalted by those writings and so was I. I was teaching them in collage by then. And we got together in the city here and had a panel on the Upper West side here on Pope John and his writings, his world view and all that. So that was very nice and I felt very honored to be in her presence and … yapping away. Then she came to my college and we had a community going called the International house. I was living with the students and we had built a chapel in the basement and we were having liturgies that were held nowhere else, with all the table facing outward and all that. And that was a very lovely time and she came fro that mass and was a great hit with the students .I still remember we were sitting around eating afterwards, I think ham and eggs or something like that and I noticed her quietly toward the end of the meal taking this cold toast and making a sandwich with the cold eggs wrapping it a napkin. and she announced ,” that to eat on the bus on the way home” (Laughs) And I thought, this is so terrific. She was so consistent and unobtrusive. But clear.
PW (Arch conservative) Francis Spellman would have been the cardinal though a large period of her life. Did he actively try to undermine her work?
DB Well, as nearly as I remember he called her in only once and he wanted her to drop the word “Catholic” for the Catholic Worker and obviously it was about the war question and she had also been interfering in a strike, a grave diggers strike, on the side of the unions. He (Spellman) was breaking the strike. And she said he never gave her a direct command to drop the word “Catholic.” She later said, “If the Cardinal had said drop it, I would have dropped it.” Somehow she got him off the topic. He didn’t know what to make of this women. She had him off kilter.
PW The Catholic worker seems a real anomaly in today’s ultra material world, especially when there are so many Catholics who are doing well financially and yet here’s this one group holding on to this tradition…
DB Well, it not just holding on to the tradition, it’s flourishing. They’ve doubled the number of houses that had when Dorothy was alive. They’re springing up all over the world. It’s an answer to an increasingly empty Catholicism, for those who have an aversion to traditional Catholicism and the search for roots and for discipline that says,” this service to the poor makes sense.” Dorothy had it all. I was a slow learner in her corner. I think I was greatly inhibited and I had Jesuits that were telling me to keep away from her as they told me to keep away from Merton and it really became a kind of battle of turfs. (Commandingly), “This women is entering very complicated questions of war and peace. She’s OK among the poor but…” And it just made me more curious and I kept saying, there must be something there if they don’t like her. And all these distinguished Jesuits — I shouldn’t say all of them but one of them has stayed in my mind who would say about (Thomas ) Merton — ( Commandingly ) ” That Monk! That monk is entering into very complex questions. War! Racism! He should be on his knees!” So that would send me back to Merton.
PW In commenting on the struggles and trials of Dorothy Day, you’ve written that of ” hardly less trying …than the immediate disorder of street people, the mentally afflicted, the furious the defeated and the violent …were ” , the insurgents who invaded the Worker with their own brand of Catholicism: The Way Things Should Be”. What do you mean by this?
DB Well, that started really with the Second World War. It took different forms as time went on and all that but it started with her insistence that we don’t have a “good war”. Your latest war is not my good war. She was so clear. And Catholic Worker houses closed and the subscriptions to the paper fell. And she just went on the same. You know, “Not in my name.” . That was one form in the 40’s. Then in the 60’s, after things picked up a bit, the invasion I remember because I was living here (in New York) at the time was a sort of hedonism of drugs and sex and so forth. Young people getting in there with that and she was appalled. Conversion is a very difficult process.
( Note: Day, raised an Episcopalian spent years as a Communist and bohemian. ) And I think the whole thing took years for her to get a kind of a balanced ethic — about sexuality especially. She was kind of a Graham Greene character in a way. That one novel which I thought was really awful … The End of the Affair. The women that is converted and gives up her lover? Well, that was Dorothy’s story. She connected those ideas that a conversion meant you had to give up someone. And then she took that into certain arenas of her life and she began to excommunicate from her orbit people like my brother, a priest who got married, people who were divorced. Anyway, she told me toward the end of her life that that behavior was awful and that she bitterly regretted that kind of treatment of people. And she had written everyone apologizing and saying,” Please come back. You’re welcome to my friendship,” and so on. And then, she said, “And you know, I’m visiting Foster ( her former lover and the father of her child ) everyday and we’re holding hands like young lovers.” That’s her.
PW Dorothy Day didn’t vote. Do you think that non-voting is a legitimate course of action?
DB I have never voted. My brother Philip said,” If voting made any difference it would be illegal” — A dictum in which I heartily agree. The word vote you know is a very interesting thing and its from the Latin and its a participle of the verb to vow which I find very interesting: To vow.
So the original idea is that one vowed one’s life in a certain direction and that was a casting of a vote for life, on behalf on life and it originally took the form of a votive, a votive offering and we get our word devotion from it and there’s a lovely, lovely kind of development in that whole idea. I think to be a Jesuit is to cast a vote. We take vows. Married people take vows. That’s the words at it deepest and best.
Q You’ve spent a long time ministering to AIDS victims, many of who were gay which remains anathema to the Catholic Church. You’ve also written passionately in defense of Jesuit psychologist and philosopher John McNeil, a founding member of the Catholic gay organization Dignity and author of The Homosexual and the Church which argued from a Biblical standpoint that gays had a place and voice in the church. McNeil was soon to be silenced and later dismissed from the Jesuit order altogether. How to you account for this. This seems to be intellectual violence of a very high and sophisticated order. How do you account for it? What does the church fear in such a position as McNeill’s?
DB Well, lets step back a bit. You know I come to recall some very painful history here. Did you read his (McNeil’s) autobiography? He gives a whole chapter to his connection with this community. And he speaks of us and especially myself with great affection and gratitudewhich he should cause that’s what he found here. See, I sort of went out on a rotten limb …when McNeil got into trouble and it looked as thought things were going to get worse I made a proposal and I said I would write an article in his defense but he would have to releases to me all the documents that the Roman curia ordered kept to himself.
Q Church documents?
DB Yeah. Warnings. Pronunciations. You know, “Don’t try that again, ” and all that stuff. And he had, I think, foolishly obeyed. And that was in violation of anything that I can understand in sense of community, your own community which was not the Roman Curia. It was us. Well, he agreed which for John was quite a step. And so I wrote this article in Commonweal. I didn’t know if the sky would fall or what would happen. They (my Jesuit superiors ) didn’t do anything. They just chose to ignore it which was probably sensible. Like most difficult stories, it s a very long and complex one. My experience is that if one has a community, if one is responsible in a community, the community will be responsible for me in a crisis. But you can’t live elsewhere and drop by now and again.
PW Was the church afraid of him and his conclusions?
DB I thought John made a very solid case from scripture. I don’t know what to say except fear. Too many ghosts in the closets. I don’t know. That what strikes me. Its not in the spirit of Jesus, God knows that.
Q There’s a recent book out about Thomas Merton called Heretic Blood: the Spiritual Geography of Thomas Merton which puts forth the intriguing argument that the key to Merton’s thought and spiritual development was the work of William Blake. Now it’s true that Blake was a Christian but certainly not a Catholic and there is no disguising his antipathy toward both organized religion and the clergy. How did Merton reconcile that?
DB Well first of all when Merton first fell before Blake he was a freewheeling nonbeliever. I never talked to Merton about Blake which was strange, you know… I guess we had too much to talk about. It just seemed to me that Blake rushed into a vacuum in Merton’s life and Columbia and the kind of life he was leading simply wasn’t working for him and he really didn’t know much of any thing of alternatives. He was on his way, obviously, he was on his way, through some remarkable friends mainly but it seems to me that Blake among others, living and dead, offer that alternate spit to inhabit his soul.
PW What did you learn from Merton?
DB Well, how many hours to you have? ( Laughs ) This kind of friendship is once in a lifetime. As with Dorothy as with my brother. I didn’t go down there (to Gethsemane Monastery in Kentucky where Merton lived ) as a pupil to the master. I was his other side. I was his equal. And he knew it and I knew it. So we realized that the chemistry was good and I went every year often for several days. He had lived so differently than myself, in all sorts of ways, his early years were very akin to Dorothy Days’. They both lived in up in all sorts of ways and each had a child. He had a child in England and the best anyone knows the mother and child were killed in the bombing in London. My thing was entirely different.
As they say in the old hagiographies, ” I rather never knew the world, then left it.” I came into the Order at 18. I didn’t have enough time to be bad! So… I didn’t realize how deep this was going until he was dead. And then I was just devastated. I was devastated for 10 years. I was functional from 68 to about 78. I went out and all but I was couldn’t talk about it to friends or publicly for 10 years. I just… something died. I couldn’t make any sense of it. It was just too much. I could have been hit worse if Philip had died. And then, you know. I recovered. After 10 years, I can remember the first time was up here at St. John the Divine I gave a big public talk on Merton in 78. I guess I had to learn the hard way how deep friendship goes and just like cutting a way a Siamese twin. Augustine says somewhere, he had a friend die, and he called him, “the other half of my soul”. That was Merton to me.
PW Merton began publishing The Seven Story Mountain in The New Yorker. Do you think you can be that straight forward and spiritual today and still be published in a magazine like that?
DB There was a very crazy thing going on even when that book( The Seven Story Mountain ) was hitting the bestseller lists. It was never recorded in the bestseller list in The New York Times. I still remember the shock when that publisher took out a full-page ad in the Times disputing this fact and wondering why. They didn’t want a religious book that popular.
PW Or maybe that brilliant. You’ve spent a considerable amount of time in the last decade or so writing about the prophets. What to you is the work of a prophet and how would you define a prophet ?
DB Well, I think he or she is a truth teller and who says it and pays up.
( Pause ) Or down.
PW Did you think Merton a prophet?
DB Well, I kind of cringe from these words about friends. Merton? If a prophet is a truth teller who pays out, Merton is one, yeah.
And Dorothy was one.
And my brother is one.
PW Do you know Blake’s definition of a prophet: The prophet is the voice of “righteous indignation”
DB I’ll have to remember that. That’s beautiful.
Fame and Infamy
PW You have written of the “infection of clericalism” — heavy if not astonishing words coming from a cleric. Could you define what you mean by that?
DB What I meant was a sub culture that’s now pretty well dissipated I think. But it was a very vulnerable thing, lets say, up to the Second Vatican Council. I mean it looked on this business of the priesthood as power, a form of power instead of an invitation to service. And power corrupts and I saw that on every level.
PW You have moved from abstract thought to concrete acts – would you agree with this?
DB Yeah, So what?
PW I was reading in one of your Georgetown Poems where you have the line “money dreaming of money”. What you’ve done is captured the application of the human unto an abstraction at a time machines are given more and more human qualities. Or so it seems to me.
DB Bertolt Brecht has a marvelous poem where he says,” When one of my friends died there was an out cry; when ten of my friends died there was less of an outcry; when 1000 died there were no outcry”. (Sadly) So true. So true. As Madeline Albright of the State Department notably said when she was asked about the children dying in Iraq: ” We think it’s worth the cost.” But she isn’t paying it so…
PW Bringing attention to he suffering in Iraq is one of the things you’re currently involved with?
DB We had a big thing here on the tenth anniversary of the sanctions and 18 of us were arrested at the US Mission to the UN. They’re (the police and the state) coming down harder and harder on civil disobedience here. It’s disturbing.
PW Could you elaborate?
DB Well, they now use the expression,” You’re going through the system”. What that means is that you can spends upwards of two days in the Tombs
( jail ) sleepless and being shunted around before you even get to court. They used to just give you a summons at the precinct. We were moved down Manhattan in a chain gang, nine here and nine there.
PW You were chained together?
DB Oh yeah, chained together. And then we were trying to manipulate these stairways in the tombs and all it was very rough. And the three Jesuits involved, we opted for a trial, we wanted to try to get these issues out about the children of Iraq. So we opted for a trial and they agreed and we went back about two weeks later, the three of us and they got rid of us right away.
PW They didn’t want a trial?
DB There was agreement, clearly, that that the police would not show up as witnesses and they knew that the arrests were illegal anyway because we were never warned, just rounded up. So this women prosecutor gets up and sounds this wacko sentence off: “The prosecution urges dismissal because we cannot prove our case beyond a reasonable doubt.” (Laughs)
PW You’ve been hounded not only by the law but exiled by your own church and your own order. You’ve ridiculed the Catholic Church as “the church compatible” and as a “holy morgue “. And yet you here you are, 79 years of age, still within it. Why? This may be a hopelessly secular question but why did you not simply leave?
DB I don’t know if it was pure cussedness but that was certainly in there. I really felt that this is my church, this is my order, If they want me out that’s their problem, not mine. This is where I belong. Watch the Cadillac’s go by. (Laughs.) It just never became an option. It had no appeal for me. After all, one has to know where one is going if one you’re’ leaving and I had nowhere to go.
Q You also had a great love for the church ?
DB (reluctantly) Yeah…. My church.
copyright January 2001