TO DWELL IN PEACE An Autobiography By Daniel Berrigan Harper & Row. 389 pp. $19.95

AMONG HIS 35 books, priest-poet Daniel Berrigan at 66 has already published so many autobiographical works that you might think a new one superfluous. It is not; this may be his single most self-revealing book. That is because Berrigan barely sketches here the best-known episodes of his very public life -- the trip to Hanoi, the trial at Catonsville, his flight from the FBI -- referring his readers to such works as Night Flight to Hanoi, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, etc. It is also because he at last yields up the secrets of his early family life, placing his father at the center of his life's energy.

Reading these painful pages, those who are not sympathetic to Berrigan may be tempted to become so. Seldom has a child experienced such grim unrelieved oppression as Berrigan portrays in his first 50 pages. Drifting through the snowy Iron Range of Minnesota, much like the Okies of The Grapes of Wrath, the six Berrigan brothers were tyrannized by a restless, self-centered, innocently ruthless father. "Early on," Berrigan writes, "we grew inured, as the price of survival, to violence as a norm of existence. I remember . . . my astonishment at seeing that wives and husbands were not natural enemies. What a puzzlement, novelty, it was, that affection might be thought to exist between spouses and parents."

In this land of opportunity in the 1920s and since, Thomas Berrigan (who lived to be 90) is described by his son as a loser/ victim, violent in his moods, impossible to please, relentlessly precise in his demands. Worse, in young Daniel's eyes, his father always used words of virtue to cover his "extraordinary conglomerate of passion and illusion." The game Daniel's father "lost in the world, he won with us. We, not his peers, were the pawns in his game of power and dominion . . . the shame of it all mounted in his guts like a lake of bile. It overflowed; on us." And, a little later: "Power, rightly, sanely used -- this was an enigma to my father." Berrigan apologizes for lingering "over such painful matters; they are of moment to the fate of at least one of his sons."

Daniel believed that his mother, a German immigrant frozen out of the clan by the Irish Berrigans, had lost romantic love after the first year or so of marriage, and then discovered her own way of rebellion: by nonviolence, by nonconfrontation, by endurance: "It was a slave rebellion. She created, within the strait limits set by husband and church (she, being a believer, clung to both), a kind of slave culture; within it she breathed free . . ." Daniel's heart never ceased to ache for her. Her husband died at 90; she outlasted him.

Like his mother, Dan met his father's violence by evasion. For unexplained reasons, physical or psychic, the child did not walk until he was 4. Spindly, he was exempted from the heavy work his brothers were obliged to share under their father's rod. When he was 2, out in wolf country, Dan was chucked upon an older brother's shoulders for a trek in the snow; then in a burst of macabre humor thrust into a dark shed. Something furry touched his face.

"The child screamed and screamed, in terror beyond words. In an act of misbegotten humor, his face had been thrust into the muzzle of a timber wolf. The corpse, stiffened and frozen, was hung by its rear legs from a rafter, its mouth and eyes wide open.

"It was the child's first death head. His face was pushed into death, death swung at him its hundredweight. Death in midair, green eyes and stiff fur. Death the hunter and hunted.

"It was not wonderful that in later years, death should be a theme of his poetry, a theme more constantly involved than was fitting, in the opinion of some. But had his critics, he was led to reflect ruefully, met their death head at the timorous age of two years?"

BERRIGAN SAYS that his father gave him his first image of God, an awful God, of the church, and of the Jesuits (the order that attaches unusual value to obedience, and which Daniel entered a year after high school). The encounters that the young boy had with his earliest teachers -- save one -- were equally bleak. "Ours was an education," he writes of his incredibly overworked female teachers, "decreed from on high by iron-browed idols, determined to produce a race of sycophants." Likewise, "the indelible lesson" of his first year at a Catholic school when, after fighting a storm all the way, he is bitterly scolded by an inexperienced nun for coming late. Where is the justice? He had no one at home to complain to.

"No recourse. Thus the abnormal attained a kind of spurious normalcy. This was the way the world went; large dog eat small. Too bad for it, one was small. There might come a time when one grew large enough to dispense the law himself. But that time was unimaginable, to conjure it up was asking a galley slave to play slavemaster. One might someday taste a kind of glee at cracking a whip over others. But the dream corrected nothing, by day or night; neither the dreamer's moral condition nor the folly of human arrangement. {Italics added.}"

Is it any wonder that Berrigan rages against the shapes and forms of the world's authorities? The wonder is that he did not take to violence, a "galley slave" become "slave master." These seemed to be the only two roles he knew.

"Neither victim nor executioner," is one of Berrigan's favorite lines. He always saw himself a victim. He has always loved victims. Those who come to him helpless, poor, victimized, in need, he responds to admirably. But for persons of achievement, eminence, self-confidence, position, or even ordinary concerns and ordinary tastes, he can scarcely hold back his own lake of scorn.

In the world he depicts, and judges most harshly, Berrigan has contempt for many: President James Perkins and the faculty and staff of Cornell (where he was chaplain), J. Edgar Hoover, Ambassador William Sullivan (whom he calls "killer" in the presence of Sullivan's young daughter, a student), and many, many others. Of the 800 faculty at Cornell, Berrigan finds only 100 salvageable, of these only 25 willing, and of these at best "five" gutsy enough to act. So it goes for Berrigan: so many false human beings, so few true ones.

His own bitter experience would seem to contradict Berrigan's hope of peace through "transformation in Jesus." If men are as he describes them, no wonder his hopes sound so empty. Worse, still, even Berrigan himself does not "dwell in peace." As he pictures it, within, he is the very cauldron of the restlessness his father's taunts produced. Without, discord flows from the extremity of his positions. He seldom writes here to comfort or to heal; his style is condemnation. He cannot abide the sight of an ROTC unit marching on a college campus walk. Authority! Power! Self-defense! Defiant demonstrations -- defiance against what, really? -- seem as necessary to his life as annual physicals: Washington, Catonsville, Baltimore, New Orleans, Berkeley . . .

Virtually never in this book does Berrigan utter a kind word about America. A vat of evil is she to him. Her democracy is a fraud. His view of her is like Gorbachev's, a vulgar Marxism of arms merchants turning economic wheels -- except that Berrigan is wholly antinomian; he hates all systems. Indeed, Berrigan's contempt for all forms, structures, institutions, and the will to self-defense -- not only America's -- is best glimpsed in the peculiar quality of Berrigan's proclaimed "love" for Israel.

In 1973, Berrigan caused a storm of "nearly 100 articles" by a scathing assault upon the Jewish state. Unrepentant still, he again endorses what he wrote in 1973 -- and now tops it: "The state of Israel, as presently constituted, has no future {italics added}." None of his parsing of the exact meaning of this phrase relieves the unfairness of its judgment and the murderousness of its effect as propaganda. But to it Berrigan adds "dialogue" between himself and an Israeli:

"Speaking of Israelis, there's no need to invoke the past to arrive at a very special feeling. Their present situation would bring tears to a stonier heart than mine. Israelis are entitled to more compassion with every day that passes.

"Their leadership, on the other hand -- religious, military, political -- is entitled to ever more contempt. So are their American masters."

For a book propounding Christian charity, this one is a "conglomerate of passion and illusion" every bit as much as Berrigan's father. And, for Daniel Berrigan, as for his father, "power . . . is an enigma." For him our civilization is all evil, under "Lord Nuke," the principle that for him explains everything. "Once the Beast was named, one noted with relief how the mind was cleansed of false names . . . normalcy, security, national interest, family values, legitimate defense, just war, flag, mother, democracy, leadership, religion." No accomplishment of America -- not our Constitution, not our democracy, not the rough-and-tumble civility of our pluralism -- has reality. Only "Lord Nuke."

Three levels in this fascinating book need to be sorted out. Quite consciously, Berrigan confronts us with the fate hung upon him by his father. In seeing how Berrigan refuses to be destroyed by it, or to overpower others as his father did him, we feel almost palpably the workings of human creativity and grace. For Berrigan himself this central story, the psychic one, may well be redemptive. For others, it is far from compulsory; it is sui generis.

In its intellectual story -- the story of how Berrigan formed the "convictions" he is proud of -- there are unaccountable gaps. Given the awful image of God derived from his father's cruel and arbitrary exercise of power, and the contempt for the organized church Berrigan frequently has felt, how did he find his way to be a professing believer? Given its centrality in his life, how did he come intellectually to accept, for a world as prone to evil and violence as he describes it, so implausible a theory as pacifism? Its emotional roots in his mother's rebellion are plain enough.

But the greatest failing of this book is political. The word Berrigan most often uses of himself is "naive"; it recurs. Yet it is not naivete' that is his failing, but an inexcusable failure to criticize his own prejudices, an arrogant insouciance without analysis or evidence, without even civility toward those who disagree. The consequences of his own acts are formidable, but he never notices. The leftwing radicalism he found "creative" at Cornell left him standing in the ashes of Annabel Taylor Hall. The government he assisted in Hanoi drove a million and a half "boat people" into the sea, and is still sending its young men marching in search of bloody conquest. Of the 165 nations on this planet, Berrigan finds but two governments contemptible: Israel and the United States. So evil in his eyes is the empire of "Lord Nuke" that those who charge it only with "moral equivalence" seem by comparison moderate. To Daniel Berrigan politics is only an occasion for the moral condemnation of figures of authority.

To Dwell in Peace is not about peace. It is about hating the world one lives in, hating "normalcy" above all. Observing the world from his window sill on upper Broadway, the melancholy preacher writes: "Mostly the great heave-ho of the street is buying and selling, the stroking of appetite and fantasy. It is an appalling normalcy.

"One can easily come to think that this "normal" beat, buying and selling, marrying and giving in marriage, this turning wheel of the world, this noiseless meshing of the gears of things -- appetite and money, ego and power, pride of place -- that the arrangement, being normal, expresses a very law of the universe."

But Berrigan rejects "appalling normalcy." Since childhood he has missed ordinary kindness in life, and learned to despise the "human arrangement," its "dog eat dog," its "death." Neither in his theology of ordinary life nor in his theology of war and peace is his gospel the full gospel of the Catholic Church. Berrigan chooses the role of grand simplifier, seeing the world as Good and Evil, with very little of the former.

At Cornell, Daniel Berrigan once escaped the FBI by hiding inside a papier mache' head of an Apostle. It looked like an apostle. But was it?

Michael Novak holds the George Frederick Jewett chair in religion and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute. His most recent book is "Will It Liberate? Questions About Liberation Theology."