“An Act of Prayer”: Dorothy Day’s Influence on Daniel Berrigan (and Even Vice Versa)

Jesuit poet and activist Dan Berrigan, pictured left in 2008, and journalist and Catholic Worker activist Dorothy Day.

 

 

“She lived as if the gospel were true.”

—Daniel Berrigan¹

 

 

Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness², was placed in my hands fifty years ago by Daniel Berrigan, Jesuit poet and prophet of nonviolence. Fresh from federal prison for burning draft files as a protest against the U.S. war in Vietnam, he was my teacher at Union Seminary in New York, and then, in a way I had not yet understood, my “spiritual director.” The book and conversation weekly over mint tea, were my first exposure, as a young Protestant, to Dorothy and her Catholic Worker movement of hospitality houses and nonviolent resistance.

In his own autobiography, Daniel has two extended reflections on Dorothy. The first is in childhood recollections, predicated simply on the regular presence of the Catholic Worker newspaper in their Minnesota home, but it reads from a view of that seed bursting full-blown in his life. “She became my friend and the friend of my family; and the friendship was to spur our moral and spiritual development.”³

As a seminarian in the 1940s Berrigan was no pacifist, assuring his brother Phil, at the front, that “the soldiering of war is a vocation” and moreover “our Lord wants you as surely in a field artillery.” Eventually they led a victory parade together around the campus.⁴

No parade, but rather lamentations, by Dorothy and the Worker. In her classic essay, “We Go on Record,” which would indeed one day deeply touch Berrigan, she named the “victory” in Hiroshima as blasphemy, the bomb a demonic parody of the gospel (“born not that men might live, but that men might be killed”), raining down fire from heaven, on this Feast of the Transfiguration.⁵ Indeed, the day the war had been officially declared, her editorial traced the history, and confessed in headlines, “We Are to Blame for the New War in Europe.”⁶ As Berrigan was to learn, “She said No to war—once for all, unequivocally. Once was enough perhaps, but she repeated it month after month in her paper.”⁷

Berrigan first met Day during his Jesuit formation in the early 1950s, bringing his Brooklyn Prep students to her place near the Bowery. “It was life-changing for all of us,” he remembered. In 1961 Day attended a talk of Berrigan’s on Catholic social teaching and the influence of John XXIII. “Just like a priest!” she snapped afterward, leaving no time for others to discuss, but the next day she requested a copy of his talk for possible publication.⁸

That same year, the Catholic Worker movement concluded a six-year resistance campaign against New York City’s annual air raid drill. At the sound of the siren, they would gather in the streets, refusing to take shelter and suffering arrest. Dorothy Day drafted the religious leaflet declaring one could not have faith in God and depend on the atom bomb at the same time. In 1961, two thousand people joined in public refusal, and the compulsory drills simply ceased. It should be considered a liturgical precursor to the Catonsville Nine.⁹

The Worker had offered other antecedents to that action. In 1965, David Miller, a former student of Berrigan’s publicly burned his draft card outside the NY induction center. It was the first such act since it had been made felonious by Congress. Berrigan stepped forward to support and encourage. In the weeks thereafter more young Workers followed suit. Then, within a month, a new arrival to the community, Roger LaPorte, doused himself with kerosene and ignited it in front of the UN, immolating himself, as a number of Vietnamese Buddhists had done, in protest of the U.S. war.¹⁰

Ordered by his superiors not to comment publicly on LaPorte’s death, Berrigan assumed a homily with Day, and the community was not precluded. He was wrong. His reflections that they “not be dismayed,” and their minds be open to it as “a great gift offered to us . . . for the sake of life” sparked an ecclesial firestorm and his prompt exile to Latin America.¹¹ Though others protested on his behalf, Day did not. She wrote to Thomas Merton, “his silence will cry out” but also “that being sent off on such tour will be to his advantage.” She was right on both counts. And in her own column that month, “Suicide or Sacrifice?”¹² Berrigan surely took long-distance comfort.

The 1968 draft board raid in Maryland, where Dan, Phil, and seven others burned the 1A files with homemade napalm, was a religious watershed in the anti-war movement (he and his brother were enshrined in collars on the cover of Time) but likewise in Berrigan’s relationship with Day.

Her first reactions to the Catonsville action itself were from her gut. Was property destruction nonviolent? She remembered, as a twenty-something, her own office at a communist paper in NY being ransacked by the cops, as a traumatic assault. The golden rule seemed to apply. “I understand the grief, the horror, but I do not think them right.”¹³ “These [Catonsville-type actions] are not ours,” she said more than once.¹⁴

But then. On receiving an award from the Liturgical Conference, she spoke highly of the Berrigans and called their witness, “an act of prayer.”¹⁵ Her letters to them in jail were always loving and nothing but supportive.

By the time she spoke at the Festival of Hope preceding their trial, she was expressing sympathy “for this act of peaceful sabotage which is not only a revolution against the state, but against the alliance of Church and state . . . Only actions such as these will force the Church to speak out when the state has become a murderer.”¹⁶ She was moving.

From a letter to Daniel and Philip, December 1972:

 

 

I cannot tell you how I love you both, and see more clearly how God is using you, reaching the prisoners and reaching the young. They all call you “Dan” and “Phil,” but I call you Father Dan and Father Phil because you are to me priests and prophets.¹⁷

 

 

In the 1980s, Berrigan took up hospice work first with indigent folks dying of cancer (he had been led to St. Rose’s by a young Catholic Worker serving there as an orderly¹⁸), and then with those dying of AIDS.¹⁹ It was spiritual ballast and balance. Bifocal contemplation. A two-handed work. Day had “taught me more than all the theologians. She awakened me to connections I had not thought of or been instructed in—the equation of human misery and poverty with war making.”²⁰

In 1980, again with Phil and others, Berrigan helped pioneer a new action form—damaging nuclear warheads with hammers at a GE missile factory in Pennsylvania. They enacted Isaiah’s prophesy of beating swords into plowshares (and spawned some hundred more similar deeds since²¹). Day was then ailing and died November 29, 1980, at eighty-three. Her take on this biblical escalation of nonviolent sabotage is not known to me. However, her granddaughter, Martha Hennessy of the New York Catholic Worker just completed a ten-month sentence for the most recent of those Plowshares actions—in Kings Bay, Georgia. This conversation, it seems, continues.

 

•  •  •

 

¹ Jim Forest, At Play in the Lion’s Den, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2017), p. xiv.

² Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness, (New York: Harper & Row, 1952)

³ Daniel Berrigan, To Dwell in Peace,” (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 71.

⁴ Daniel Berrigan to his brother Philip, September 15, 1943, in Daniel Cosacchi and Eric Martin, eds., The Berrigan Letters (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016), p. 7.

⁵ Dorothy Day, “We Go on Record,” The Catholic Worker, September 1945, in Tom Cornell and James Forest, eds., A Penny a Copy, (New York: Macmillan, 1968), pp. 67-70.

⁶ Since the obliteration bombing of Guernica, she had accurately foreseen that the distinction in war between combatants and civilians had been morally demolished. Hiroshima the culmination of Coventry, Rotterdam, Dresden. See John Loughery and Blythe Randolph, Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century, (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2020), p. 20.

To Dwell in Peace, p. 171.

At Play in the Lion’s Den, p. 40.

⁹ Bill Wylie-Kellermann, Seasons of Faith and Conscience: Explorations in Liturgical Direct Action, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), p. 104.

¹⁰ At Play in the Lion’s Den, pp. 90-91. See also Dan’s conversation with Thich Nhat Hahn on self-immolations, Vietnam and U.S., in The Raft is Not the Shore (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975), pp. 59-65.

¹¹ At Play in the Lion’s Den, pp. 92-93. For the full homily, see Daniel Berrigan, “Death Does Not Get the Last Word” in Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings, John Dear, ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1970), pp. 65-73.

¹² Dorothy Day, “Suicide or Sacrifice,” The Catholic Worker, November 1965, pp. 1, 7.

¹³ Kate Hennessy, Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty, (New York: Scribner, 2017), p. 256.

¹⁴ At Play in the Lion’s Den, p. 121.

¹⁵ Ann Klejment, “War Resistance and Property Destruction,” in Patrick Coy, ed. A Revolution of the Heart (Philadelphia: Temple University Press,1988), p. 285.

¹⁶ Francine du Plessix Gray, Divine Obedience (New York: Vantage Books, 1969), p. 162.

¹⁷ Dorothy Day letter to Daniel Berrigan, in Robert Ellsberg, ed., By Little and By Little (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), p. 347.

¹⁸ Daniel Berrigan, We Die Before We Live: Talking with the Very Ill, (New York: The Seabury Press, 1980)

¹⁹ Daniel Berrigan, Sorrow Built a Bridge: Friendship and AIDS, (Fortcamp Publishing, 1989; Wipf and Stock reprint)

²⁰ At Play in the Lion’s Den, p. 40.

²¹ See Arthur J. Laffin, ed., Swords Into Plowshares: Volume 11 (Rose Hill Books, 2003). Available as a Catholic Worker Reprint from Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene OR.

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