Love, Daniel: In Remembrance of “Father Dan,” 1921–2016
by Joan Cavanagh (one of the NH Sunday Vigilers at Broadway, Park and Elm Streets)
“Eternity is a rose, Dante says/ We will wear/ give/ Yes, have time for.” Daniel Berrigan
In May 1968, in Catonsville, Maryland, 20 miles from my home town, nine people napalmed draft records of young men headed for Vietnam. Father Daniel Berrigan, one of the nine, named it “the burning of paper instead of children.” Dan was in North Vietnam earlier in 1968, and had held a Vietnamese child in a shelter while American pilots dropped bombs overhead.
Those non-electronic records could not be reconstructed. Hundreds of Americans were presumably exempted from going to war.
This incendiary act of nonviolent civil disobedience forced us all to witness what napalm did to paper and to imagine what it did to flesh and blood in our names as United States citizens. My 14-year-old view of the war as a nightmare that might one day claim the lives of some of my older class-mates evolved into a deeper awareness that it had already made a nightmare of other young lives: the unnamed and unseen Vietnamese.
In August 1973, eight months after the Paris Peace Accords, the U.S. war on Indochina continued. 100 people were arrested at the White House. The day of our first Federal Court appearance, the elevator stalled between floors. Dan flashed his signature elfish grin, then glanced heavenward with outstretched hands, palms up.
Draft board raids eventually gave way to raids on other offices prosecuting the war more covertly. I turned 21 in April 1975 while serving a 52-day sentence in the Women’s Detention Center in Washington D.C. Dan, veteran of a much longer, much more serious prison stay, sent poetry and a letter: “Dear Joan, I don’t know if they let poems into Caesar’s Harem. I hope so. Sometimes it helps…When you get out, springtime will be upon us all. That will be worth waiting for. We’ll all have a bash! Love, Daniel.”
Dan visited Jonah House and Advaita House in Baltimore several times while I lived there. His lightness of being often defused community conflicts and restored clarity of purpose sometimes abandoned in favor of argumentation and self-righteousness. His pecan pies were a sinfully rich delicacy which sweetened continued discord.
Sometimes I walked with him to the Baltimore train station for his return trip to NYC. Dan carried very little baggage.
I did not see him or talk with him for nearly four decades. We disagreed on his approach to abortion in the 1980s. I wish I had known him again in his later years, our beloved old “radical priest” caring for AIDS and cancer patients, joining the occupiers at Zuccotti Park, continuing to resist endless war – still living out the kindness and clarity of his poetry in action. Now his absence has come to stay: a sadly welcomed eternal presence.