Daniel Berrigan has never lost his wit despite his hard conscience, which is hardest on himself, and his focused eye, which looks bleakly at the war footing of America. He reports that when a Jesuit colleague hied off to a $1,000-a-month seminar, a friend remarked: "If this is the vow of poverty, bring on the chastity."
I have never known Berrigan not to be good-humored, whether we were talking in his communal apartment in the Bronx or spending the morning outside the Pentagon, where the planners of military violence, marching in to work, shout at Berrigan that it's time he got a job.
Berrigan does have a job. It's on graphic and splendid display here, a collection of what he calls "mere notes describing an unfinished way." He earns his living as a teacher and writer, and as yet, unlike Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell and other bejargoned reverends on the holy dole, he has issued no appeals for money to keep himself going. The notes he offers in this book are not mere at all, at least not in the large invitation they provide to look into the mind and soul of one of the earth's authentic peacemakers.
This is nothing but my opinion about Berrigan, one that is hotly disputed by many of his fellow Jesuits who believe that the order should have booted him out long ago, and by others who see him as a publicity seeker or -- the worst put-down of all -- a '60s holdover. If he is guilty of either of these cultural sins -- though we are willing to tolerate, even cheer, any number of national characters who live by the press release or exult in the past -- it doesn't show here.
In this journal of his current thoughts and his recollections of the past 20 years, Berrigan describes the global reality and then asks the only question about it worth discussing: "There are refugees, hostages, prisoners of conscience everywhere in the world, their numbers multiplied beyond counting. Refugees fleeing crimes, war, disruption of lives. Hostages, captives of violent regimes, women and children paying the price of their service to imperial malpractice. And prisoners in every pocket of the globe, dying in gulags and ghettoes, hauled before kangaroo courts, under torture and duress of every kind.
"These are the ones to attend to . . . Meantime, what are we to do, who are at large (though ourselves hostage to nuclear terror)? The question arose time and again during the Vietnam years. It will never cease to arise in our lifetime. To me, the question gives shape and form, even coherence, to life itself. What indeed are we to do with our lives in such mad times?"
Berrigan's personal answer -- which he shares without preaching -- is to travel in "the direction of modest possibilities." He writes of his work in a cancer ward in New York City, of befriending some workers striking at a university for fair wages, of teaching in the Bronx, of being arrested at a Lockheed plant, of his time in the Danbury prison, of his alliance in the works of peace with his brother, Philip.
Above all, the last: "We continue to offer a serious religious resistance to war making, American style. We have been at this task for some 15 years or more, always in conjunction with a discipline of prayer and sacrament . . . The American ethos swamps the gospel and rides it under like a great tide a low dwelling. We put at a distance the question of violence, and therefore the question of nonviolence . . . Meantime, a violent church and its craven leadership is quite prepared to bless and push another military outrage."
If that sounds strident, it is only because the church has few Amoses or Jeremiahs. Tough talk is out. The buddy system rules: The state coddles the church with tax exemptions and the church prays over the state and blesses its wars. When a Berrigan shows up, like Amos in full wrath against the rich Jews of northern Israel, he is condemned by the inquisitors, whether elected or ordained. He is sent to Danbury for three to five, and if he does it again, three to 10 in a Pennsylvania prison.
If he were just another huffer and puffer on the radical left -- as so many of them turn out to be, from Eldridge Cleaver to Abbie Hoffman -- Berrigan would have no claim on anyone's attention. But he has paid in full for his beliefs: jail, obedience to his priestly vocation, availability to society's forgotten, and a willingness to work hard at producing writing that is both spare and metaphorically rich.
At times, though, he is unduly harsh on his fellow Jesuits. Razor-like, he cuts into them for being "masters of invention. They come out of the culture, they know how to take its pulse, try its winds and trim their sails . . . We're not running the Little Brothers of Jesus, we're not running the Catholic Worker. Manifestly. We're running Georgetown University, the School of Foreign Service, we're a nursery for the State Department . . . The Shah of Iran, Kissinger, are good dollar connections."
This is unfair. For sure, plenty of Jesuits are sycophants to the powerful and rich, and more than a few are mired in deep ruts. But what about Jesuits like Horace McKenna, Richard McSorley, Peter Henriot and Phil Land, to name a few in Washington. These are men of risk, conviction and service. Elsewhere in the world -- Central America, the Philippines -- Jesuits are being martyred for siding with the poor. Berrigan offends brotherliness by lambasting the Jesuits as though the order contains only sail-trimmers.
A tension runs through these pages. Berrigan is a citizen of fire. He writes with heat. He burns with hope. The latter was one of the virtues they taught him in the Jesuit novitiate, and which, church and state notwithstanding, he hasn't forgotten.