Out of the Fold: A Letter to Daniel Berrigan (Essay)

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Published in Conscience, Consequence: Reflections on Father Daniel Berrigan (Arrowsmith Press, December 2006).

Out of the Fold: A Letter to Daniel Berrigan

Dear Father Dan,

I’m pretty sure you know already that you’re a hero. Lots of people must have told you so, including most of my co-contributors to this little volume. So I won’t bother praising you. Instead, I’d like to exploit you; I need some guidance. I know you won’t mind: you’re a priest, after all; that is, a shepherd. So I’m confident you’ll understand my problem, even though it doesn’t seem to be one you’ve ever had first-hand experience with.
My problem is: I’m a sheep. I’m afraid a lot. Not on the surface; I lead a quiet life and get through most days without any need to be brave. On the very rare occasions when a smidgen of courage is required, I can usually do the right thing – because I’m worried about what others will think if I don’t and they find out, or because otherwise I’ll obsess guiltily. But I fret nonstop. If I don’t call, will X be offended? If I do call, will X be annoyed? Did I take the right tone with that editor? Do I exercise enough? socialize enough? cerebrate enough? agitate enough? Will I someday regret not being more ambitious? Will I have enough to live on when I’m old? Will I burn in hell forever?
It’s not shameful, I know; but it’s sad. Nobility takes many shapes, but one thing it nearly always seems to involve is at least a flicker of fearlessness, a modicum of self-forgetfulness, a fine carelessness of consequences. It’s certainly possible to imagine a hero hesitating, even agonizing, over a difficult choice, uncertain what’s right. As far as I can tell from reading you, and reading about you, you’ve done your share of that. But it’s virtually the definition of a hero that, if he thinks he knows what’s right, he does it, simply, gaily, gracefully, the way you poured blood over those Selective Service files in Catonsville and hammered the nose cones of those missiles at the GE plant in Pennsylvania.
And more – what’s right is what the hero, unlike the sheep, continually thinks about. Inner freedom isn’t so much freedom from doubt, or even from fear, as from the endless, petty, merely personal anxieties that cripple us non-heroes. It – whatever you have and we don’t – frees the moral imagination to brood over the important things, as you brooded in France in the 1950s, when you encountered the soon-to-be-suppressed worker priests; in Brazil in the 60s, when Cardinal Spellman expelled you from his diocese and Archbishop Camara welcomed you to his; in prison in the 70s; in the Central American countries you visited steadfastly throughout the 80s, while our government was torturing them. Instead of, like many of us, brooding all the while about popularity or poundage or pension plans or prostates.
You’ve written a lot about resistance and liberation. What about ontologically-based resistance and ontological liberation? How can I change the grain of my being, enlarge and ennoble it? Where do fearlessness and freedom of spirit come from? Ultimately from God, perhaps, or from DNA; but proximately? Your example is priceless, but I seem to need more. What can an intrepid shepherd tell a trepid sheep?

With many fond bleats,



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