Two years ago I bought a little browned book for twenty-five cents; it was published in 1968, and it was a war journal.
This past Thursday, when my purse only allowed a thin, small something the size of a day planner, Daniel Berrigan’s Night Flight to Hanoi: War Diary with 11 Poems was the only book that would fit. I am not one for superstition; I usually laugh when someone speaks heartily of coincidence. Yet, in many ways, the happenstance of my reading this book has changed that–it has, if I may, made me believe.
Daniel Berrigan, who turned eighty-nine on May 9th, is a Roman Catholic priest who has spent his life protesting against violence, writing essays and poems that reflect his hope for societal and political change. He has been arrested many, many times for his peace protests, but also for more radical actions–he spent eighteen months in jail after burning draft notices during the Vietnam War. In Night Flight to Hanoi Berrigan describes his imprisonment, as well as his time spent in Vietnam, when, along with the late Howard Zinn, he accompanied three American prisoners on their release–this was an offering of peace from the Vietnamese–back to the United States.
Zinn, who wrote the introduction to the book, quotes Father Berrigan: “The last thing Christ wanted to do was start a church.” And it is here that I realize this Catholic priest is different; though incredibly faithful, he has openly criticized the church. As the disgrace Berrigan felt when witnessing the unthinkable destruction caused by his country made him less than patriotic, my abhorrence over what has happened within the church has me confused, hunched over, though, ever yet, clutching the cross at my collar.
Separate from the connection I felt to Berrigan as a conflicted Catholic, when I began reading “Letters from Three Jails,” the power of great literature resonated down to my tiniest bones. I’d last felt this when I read Madame Bovary a year ago, and still something exceeds. It is delicate, pulsing prose written with unwavering strength, despite the shame weighing upon Berrigan as he writes of war–and it is here that I understand divine inspiration. It is his endless hope which is overwhelming, the goodness in humanity that he somehow finds. After an image of a fellow anti-war protester’s pale, thirsty face beside him in prison, he writes, “I have not thought a great deal about the war. Strangely enough it seems that one comes to a center, by way of the war, whose fiery outer reaches protect the heart of the matter–community, the omnipresent possibility of love, waiting like an abandoned child for the moment of recognition.”
A fellow prisoner asks him, “Why do you need Jesus?” Berrigan writes, “To him, I drag along a series of tin cans, empty and noisy, the historical debris and waste of religion: inert ideas; war-making criminals; the hot, anti-human, anti-history, pure, puritan, alienated “religious” community. My difficulty with him is not that I don’t see his point…In spite of it all, what is the story of man, or of religion, except a despised remnant, struggling in the toils of violence tightened by the world and by the world’s religions? But on the other hand, where did God ever announce himself as a majoritarian anyway? The big text on consensus from Isaias is, as one might have predicted, a corruption of the original.”
Noam Chomsky, quoted in a 1970 New York Times article, says of Berrigan: “He is always a couple of steps ahead. But the main thing is the mood he creates. Being with Berrigan places things in proper proportion. People around him move away from their ego trips and factionalism. He is one of the long sequence of forces that keeps one steered on a committed course.”
Discovering such a revolutionary figure–Berrigan says, “To be radical is habitually to do things which society at large despises”–within a largely lethargic community mumbling misused teachings is a saving grace; he is the “old, good words, bathed in a fresh light.” Like my few months as a choir member at the Mission Dolores Church in San Francisco, this book is a reminder of what I believe and why I believe. The New York Times described the atmosphere when Berrigan was freed in ’72: the crowd “embraced each other saying, ‘Christ in Peace.’”
At almost eighty-nine years old, he was arrested on Good Friday for a peace protest at the U.S. Intrepid War Museum; as he said during his time in jail, “Perhaps through this and similar action a few of the younger men might be impelled to get with human history in a more personal and imaginative way.”
Bio: Kristen Brunelli is an intern at Guernica. Read her last recommendation of the film Vincere here.