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No Retirement for the Good: A Testimonial for (Uncle) Dan Berrigan

Last weekend, Pax Christi Metro NYC honored Father Daniel Berrigan, SJ as part of its Peacemaking Through the Arts Winter Benefit. Outside, the weather was icy, but, inside, friends gathered from as far away as Montreal, Canada, to celebrate Dan. I was invited to give a “testimonial” about a man I had known since birth. It was a tough assignment, but I thought I would share it with the Waging Nonviolence community. I did not really talk about all his many accomplishments; those are well documented in many places, including his autobiography, To Dwell in Peace. Here is what I said:Father (and Uncle) Dan Berrigan.

It is hard to sum up a life in a few sentences, especially when the man living that life so boldly and so fully is sitting in the front row and is smiling wryly and with tolerance. This assignment makes me think about retirement—it brings up a lot of iconic images, doesn’t it? You know; the gold watch for years of dedicated service, the gilded plaque etched with platitudes, the break room or Elk Lodge or church hall party. And then the life afterwards: golf, fishing, carnival cruises, and a fun and stimulating hobby like carving duck decoys or learning French.

Some people never retire. Dan Berrigan has never retired. And we are here to say thank you and thank God for that.

Everywhere I go I meet people who express to me overwhelming love and admiration for my uncle. They mention his poetry, his prose, his bold activism… but most of all they talk about his time. Many of you know this and have experienced the gift of my uncle’s time and attention.

Uncle Dan, you spend so much time with people. And I know the delight you take in their accomplishments. You meet their sorrows and disappointments with empathy and compassion. You give gentle advice without judgment or hector. Your advice has literally shaped the lives—and for the better—of so many people.

Uncle Dan, for so many people, you are a critical link, a life link to a church that has disappointed and alienated so many. An institution that has forgotten or dismissed the man we are taught to follow, the man who prayed and thought and acted on his feet and with his friends, who made a poem out of his life and always had time for children, for women, for the sick and the disabled, for the disenfranchised, for the castigated and the cast-asides. You keep the gospels alive in a cynical time. You bring us back to Jesus, to that man. And you bring the church out of the darkness and the pomp, you free our brother Jesus from its clutches and you bring the sacraments out to us: to the soup kitchen, the picket line, the occupied block, the AIDS clinic, you bring the church to where people are.

I revel—in a slightly awkward sort of way—at these encounters, basking in the refracted glory of my Uncle Dan, agreeing wholeheartedly with how awesome he is and recalling all of our own far-reaching, hilarious, profound and life-altering discussions.

“Well, we solved it all, haven’t we?” he’ll sum up. Or, sometimes, “Come on, we’ve been good long enough,” he’ll quip, and we pour a drink.

I stand here on behalf of my family—but really on behalf of all these people who celebrate you Dan—far too many to be in this room. And on behalf of all of them, I say: thank you for leading, thank you for listening, thank you for loving.

I would love to give you a gold watch and a holiday cruise to honor your ongoing non-retirement. But instead, I will share the gift of my own poetry. Yep, you heard it here first: Dan Berrigan is not the only Berrigan kissed by Calliope.

A little background. Every Christmas, members of the Jesuit community choose a secret Santa. In addition to a small gift, the men write each other limericks. They are often read in Don Moore’s inimitable cadence. I love this tradition. Limericks unleash the poet inside each of us, and so, to close, I offer my own limerick:

Uncle Dan, you are inspiring
For peace, synapses are firing
Your words are so kind
Brilliant is your mind
So please, no thoughts of retiring.

And because one limerick is never enough, here is another (and I promise it is the last):

Berrigan, you’re second to none
The struggles for justice are won
Love, all for the least
You’re more than a priest
We are all your daughters and son.

That’s it. After Liz McAlister (my mom) and Bishop Tom Gumbleton both spoke, Uncle Dan got up and read a real poem. He wrote it soon after September 11, 2001. I had never heard it before. Far cry from limerick, but good (nonetheless).

Parable

Once on a time
the heart, a sure compass
voyaged
by torrid demarche, portage, storm

to the Land of Basilisks, Neros
tarnished Judges, Dementia
enthroned, Commissars born
thumbs down.

Heart
crossed the border surreptitiously—
was shortly seized.
Crime; “Demeaning
the peoples’ and the state’s integrity,
displaying
for public viewing
a decadent artifact.”

“Honor, the accused was apprehended
distributing in a public place
a drawing entitled ‘Self Portrait,’
portraying
a human frame naked, arms outstretched
a bird suspended from each palm

and in blank mid rib cage
a curious organ
otherwise unknown.”

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