Book Review: “At Play in the Lion’s Den” by Jim Forest

In a time of death, some men, the resisters, those who work hardily for social change, those who preach and embrace the truth, such men overcome death, their lives are bathed in the light of the resurrection, the truth has set them free… We say: Killing is disorder. Life and gentleness and community and unselfishness are the only order we recognize.” (The Trial of the Catonville Nine)

Jim Forest continues here in At Play in the Lion’s Den. A Biography and Memoir of Daniel Berrigan (Orbis Books, 2017) his biographies of persons with whom he interacted in Roman Catholic nonviolent efforts. His latest entry follows All Is Grace on Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and Living With Wisdom on Thomas Merton, Trappist monk but concerned with the events of the world. The events of the world can be symbolized by the biblical account of the prophet Daniel placed in the lion’s den. As Forest writes:

“Dan Berrigan spent much of his life in various lions’ dens — at home as a child when his father was in a rage, in paddy wagons and prisons, in demonstrations that were targets of violent attack, in a city under bombardment, in urban areas police would describe as hazardous — yet remarkably he lived to be ninety-four, dying peacefully in bed, though he bore many invisible scars and scratches.”

Unlike Day and Merton, who became Catholics in adulthood and so were able to select those parts of Catholic thought which spoke to them, Daniel Berrigan was born into a Roman Catholic family, with a mother who was devoted to the Virgin Mary and a father active in Catholic social movements. Dan and his brothers attended Catholic schools, where some of the students were thinking of becoming priests. As he was finishing high school, he wrote to various religious orders for information. He decided to join the Society of Jesus — the Jesuits.

The Jesuits were founded by Ignatius de Loyola in 1534 to be the soldiers of the Counter-Reformation. De Loyola and Jean Calvin had attended the same Paris law faculty a couple of years apart, and both men advocated a legalistic, intellectual doctrine. One had to fight fire with fire, was the Jesuit doctrine. It became a teaching order, reaching out to the elite who might be tempted by Protestant ideas.

Preparation for ordination within the Jesuit Order is long, and persons undertake learning experiences in different countries. Thus, in 1953, Daniel Berrigan was sent to a Jesuit study center in Paray-le-Monial, near Lyons, France. Paray-le-Monial is a pilgrimage site where the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus first took root. Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was just the sort of religious practice the Jesuits opposed, sentimental and without an intellectual base. The large Sacred Heart Church in Paris was built just as the French government was expelling the Jesuits from France for their efforts to influence French politics. The symbolism of the Paris church was to say “We don’t like the Jesuits either.” However, Berrigan could see that there was value in devotion to the Sacred Heart as a way of saying God loves everyone.

France in 1953 was facing both the political and religious issues which he would have to face in the United States later. 1953 was a high (or low) point of the French war in Vietnam (1947-1954). A few French military were refusing to be sent to Vietnam in what they saw as an unjust colonial war. There were efforts to stop trains from taking munitions to ports by people sitting on the tracks. Political opinion was divided on the wisdom of the war, but the French army was “winning,” and so the political opposition was weak.

On the religious side, there were debates on two issues. One was a worker-priest movement with priests taking jobs as part of an effort to build relations between the Church and the French working class. However, the priests became visibly active in the trade union movement largely under the control of the Communist Party. The worker-priest effort was shut down on order from the Vatican.

The second religious issue which was closer to Jesuit concerns was the degree of intellectual liberty which was to be allowed to members of the clergy. Pierre Theihard de Chardin, a member of the Jesuit Order — who had spent many years in China and had developed an idea of Christian evolution — was prevented from taking a university teaching post in France and sent to New York because he could not speak or write English well and so his influence was limited. Yves Congar, a French Dominican theologian, an early advocate of dialogue with the Orthodox and Protestant branches and favorable to a role for laypeople was prevented from teaching or publishing. Other French theologians were under the same ban.

Berrigan returned to the United States at the end of 1954, and most of Jim Forest’s book is devoted to how the issues he met in France became central U.S. issues. The U.S. had largely financed the French war in Vietnam, but after the 1954 French withdrawal, the U.S. became a major actor in Indochina: first by opposing elections which were to have unified the country in 1955 and then by active support of the South Vietnamese government.

Opposition to the war in the U.S. took time to grow. At first, opposition was largely limited to those who are opposed to all wars. However, by the mid-1960s, opposition to the war had grown — although there were those high in the Roman Catholic circles, such as Cardinal Spellman of New York, who visibly supported the war.

Dan Berrigan and his brother Phil, also a priest, became increasingly visible opponents of the war. There is a moving chapter in the biography, “Night Flight to Hanoi,” that recounts their trip to Hanoi for the release of three U.S. military prisoners, a peace gesture of the North Vietnamese government.

Dan Berrigan preaching at the “Service for Oppressed Peoples” on August 9, 1968 (the 23rd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki) at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem, New York City. Courtesy of Ethan Vesely-Flad.

As Dan Berrigan wrote in one of his poems, “There is no guarantee of political or personal success. There is rather a sense of ‘rightness’ of standing within history in a way that confers health and creates spiritual continuity.” (From his 2009 collection No Gods But One.)

Berrigan highlighted spiritual continuity by his writings and university teaching on the biblical prophets, prophets who were critical both of the powers-that-be and the people who followed blindly. (See also Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings edited by John Dear, 2009, Orbis Books.)

Jim Forest has written a lively book filled with photos and quotes from Daniel Berrigan’s poems — an inspiration to those working for peace and justice using nonviolent means.

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