I just finished reading At Play in the Lion’s Den: A Biography and Memoir of Daniel Berrigan by Jim Forest and I’m surprised at the chapter in the book that I keep thinking about. As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, Dan is my peace hero. I got involved in protests and civil disobedience, starting in the late 60s, due in large part to his prophetic witness.
I was expecting to get fired up again reading about his dramatic actions and poetic proclamations of draft card burnings, going underground rather than report to prison, literally beating swords into plowshares. But no. The chapter I liked best was “Listener of Last Resort” and it detailed his hospice work with cancer patients and AID sufferers.
For four years, Dan was a regular presence at St. Rose’s Home, a hospice for patients dying of cancer. Founded in 1896 by Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, the daughter of famed American novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the hospice cares for the working poor and penniless. The nursing care is all free…no money is even collected from insurance companies or from city, state, or federal coffers. You’d expect a cleric to visit the dying to hear confessions or anoint. But Dan didn’t go as “Father”. He listened to the guests, held their hands, shared silence, made beds, cleaned, prayed and comforted the relatives of the dying.
In the early 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic hit, Dan shifted his presence to St. Vincent Hospital, the hospice for most of New York’s AIDS victims. For 12 years he went weekly to walk the wards with the patients, listen to their stories, always keeping a special eye out for those who had no visitors. He visited AIDS patients at home, cooked meals for them and their loved ones in his apartment, took them shopping and to restaurants, and buried many of them. A friend recalls “As the men grew sicker he fed and bathed them. He washed their soiled clothes. He sat with them for hours in the hospital as they declined…The suffering that comes upon his friends is horrific. Some became covered in lesions. Some went blind. Some are rendered unable to eat or suffered from endless diarrhea.”
Reading this chapter turned all his arrests and prophecies into pure gold. I reread my favorite Dan Berrigan passage with new eyes: “Sometime in your life, hope that you might see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope that you might have baked it or bought or even kneaded it yourself. For that look on his face, for your meeting his eyes across a piece of bread, you might be willing to lose a lot, or suffer a lot, or die a little, even.” Dan sat at the table with many starved men and women—the cancer victims at St Rose’s and those dying of cancer from the bombing of Hiroshima; the napalmed children with peeling skin in Vietnam and the ulcerous skin of AIDS victims. He looked at each of them and all victims of war and poverty and endless suffering with great love; and he offered them the “bread” of his life. That meant he lost and suffered a lot, and even “died” a little—such a beautiful legacy.
I have a friend who tells me that she stays in the church not because of the words of the Creed. She stays in the church because of the lives of its saints. Me, too. And Dan Berrigan is one of them.
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A blog by Mary Lou Kownacki
A personal journal captures what’s in the heart. Most of my adult life I’ve recorded my notes, brief reflections, poems, reactions to daily events in a journal. It is an ongoing source of monastic formation; the rich and raw material of life that helps shape my Monastery of the Heart. About a year ago, Old Monk began to appear on my journal’s pages. Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, is the Monasteries of the Heart coordinator.
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