“The Berrigan Letters: Personal Correspondence between Daniel and Philip Berrigan,” edited by Daniel Cosacchi and Eric Martin, Orbis, 340 pages, $30.
Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., who died on April 30, 2016, was a poet, priest, prophet, activist, and convicted felon. Starting in the late 1960s, he and his younger brother, Philip, waged a public struggle against war and injustice, and were the first Roman Catholic priests in the United States to be arrested for anti-war activity.
They founded antiwar groups such as the Catholic Peace Fellowship and the Plowshares Movement. They made headlines when they burned draft records and damaged nuclear weapons. They gave lectures; they wrote books.
They publicly disagreed with members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy about war, peace, and social justice. They spoke out against U.S. foreign policy, and they went to jail.
They also wrote many letters to each other over a 62-year period.
Daniel Cosacchi and Eric Martin have selected some of those letters for their book, “The Berrigan Letters….” It contains approximately 500 letters—out of 2,200 housed at Cornell and DePaul universities—and provides an always engaging, sometimes searing look at the two brothers and their beliefs about the Gospel-based response to violence.
Cosacchi and Martin define unfamiliar terms and provide context in an effort to pass on “the [letters’] spiritual resources” and help readers to see beneath historical events like destroying draft records to “the [brothers’] hard-fought struggle for faith.”
As Elizabeth McAlister, Philip Berrigan’s widow, puts it in a preface, “The brothers agonized over the crimes of our nation.”
Daniel seems to have first proposed saving the letters in 1971, calling them “immortal patchworks.” That term suggests the scribblings and colorful designs on Daniel’s own letters, which were in contrast to Philip’s neat and precise handwriting.
Unfortunately, the book does not include photographs of Daniel’s artwork or samples of Philip’s script.
Daniel, who published 50 books, won the prestigious Lamont Poetry Award for his first book of poetry. In his letters, one can see his fondness for the expansive metaphors of Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J., the metaphysics of Wallace Stevens, and the style of E.E. Cummings as in “…the ordinary days pummel me along in their wake + it’s not often you hit a crest where the horizon is total.”
Philip’s writing was simpler. He speaks of his brother as a bringer of grace, and sees himself as a “cabbage.”
Self-deprecation aside, Philip’s letters show him to be the stronger of the two. Philip was the first to become involved in the African-American struggle for civil rights. Later, he decided the Vietnam War was morally wrong and burned draft records. Daniel followed–inspired by Philip’s example and that of pacifists like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
The letters begin in 1940, just before the U.S. entered World War II, as Daniel joined the novitiate of The Society of Jesus. They end in 2002 with Philip’s death from cancer.
In between, the brothers share ideas for anti-war activities, updates on the books they are writing, plans for travel, news about family including the deaths of their father and mother as well as the births of Philip’s three children, concerns about health, and about the poor conditions in prison.
The letters contain some compelling personal moments, as when Philip apologizes for not telling his brother in advance about his marriage to Elizabeth McAlister; or when he complains that Daniel doesn’t respect his judgment, even though he’s been his partner in the search for social justice; or when the brothers discuss their abusive, hot-tempered father, and Daniel angrily suggests that Philip may share their father’s mean streak.
They voice opinions about racism and warmongering in the U.S., the silence of Church leaders concerning injustice, and their thoughts on religion and war.
Daniel writes, “Our thesis, passing strange, is that theology and the Bomb (the one having lost its capital letter and the other gaining it) cannot easily coexist…. They [the jails] are our true seminaries—in there our theology will be forged, and our God worshiped.”
There’s a letter from Daniel suggesting that his relations with the Jesuits was rocky: “The Jebbys [Jesuits] lie low except 4 a few…. The rest lick their neuroses + stroke their diplomas + call it a livin’.”
Philip’s dealings with the Catholic Church are also precarious. He writes, “…the Bishops are professional obfuscators. They keep people on pacifiers, Pablum, and pre-school programs.”
Why us? Philip asks Daniel in an excruciating letter dated April 3, 1981. Of all Western clergy, why are the two brothers the only ones “to give a Gospel turn to c.d. [civil disobedience], to go to them [the imperialists] with the truth”?
“Why only you and me,” he asked, “to enter their lairs and to shake them with the symbols of faith and justice”?
Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University. She is the author of several books including “Radiant, Prayer Poems.”