At Play in the Lions' Den

A Biography and Memoir of Daniel Berrigan

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Jim Forest
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , November
     2017.
     352 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626982482.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

“Unless you’re coming from somewhere, you’re not going anywhere.” So says Daniel Berrigan in Jim Forest’s colorful book At Play in the Lions’ Den: A Biography and Memoir of Daniel Berrigan, and the pages illustrate the myriad of places that the Jesuit priest and prophet came from and went to, told through the eyes of a dear friend. Biographical details of Berrigan’s life have been made available before, most notably in his memoir To Dwell in Peace (1988) and Murray Polner and Jim O’Grady’s Disarmed and Dangerous (1997), a joint treatment of Daniel and his brother Philip. But Forest’s is the first book-length assessment of Berrigan since his death in April 2016, affording a fresh chance to gather up the story and significance of his life and legacy. 

For those new to Berrigan, Forest writes a comprehensive and readable account that combines his more famous accomplishments with his more intimate, private side that has received less attention. While he achieved minor renown as a poet, and gained major headlines with eight other Catholics on May 17, 1968 when he and the “Catonsville Nine” doused Vietnam draft files with napalm and burned them in front of the media, Forest digs deeply into Berrigan’s moral and spiritual formation preceding his public witness. Forest highlights the Jesuit’s theological education, radicalization in France while meeting the worker-priests, engagement in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and immersion in the civil rights movement by marching in Selma under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. And while Berrigan would again grab headlines in 1980 when he and seven others entered a General Electric plant in Pennsylvania, damaged nose cones of nuclear warheads, poured blood on documents, prayed for peace before being arrested, and sparked what became known as the Plowshares movement, Forest also turns his attention to Berrigan’s relationship with his family, his debates on nonviolence with friends in Latin American liberation struggles such as Ernesto Cardenal, his quiet service to those dying of cancer in St. Rose’s Home, and his life in community with the Jesuits on Manhattan’s 98th Street. Throughout, Forest balances the public and the private Berrigan well.

This work is not simply a biography, though, and Forest’s decision to narrate as a friend as well as a storyteller grounds this major contribution to the literature on Berrigan. The two met in 1961 but became close in 1964, the year they traveled together to Rome and Eastern Europe while attending the Prague Peace Conference. Some details are new, and make valuable stories and facts publicly available for the first time. Charming vignettes, such as when Berrigan led a Vatican trolley in a rendition of “Blowin’ in the Wind” during the Second Vatican Council, pepper the book and enliven the reader’s understanding of its subject. It is common knowledge to those familiar with Berrigan’s life that he was friends with the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, but Forest illustrates this by homing in on Berrigan’s joyful smile while cooking his Vietnamese friend a fish in France. Likewise, Forest is able to pull from unpublished letters that Berrigan sent to him and his friends, such as the one written to Robert Ellsberg depicting his mindset as he prepared for his 1980 Plowshares action. These writings are of as much interest to the historian, as are the many pictures that jump from almost every page, with some previously printed but  many new. 

Any account of US Catholicism is incomplete without Berrigan’s story, and Forest provides a useful introduction for undergraduate courses, fills gaps in the hefty Berrigan corpus that even the most informed will benefit from, and writes with a beauty and simplicity that will engage non-academics interested in spirituality, history, peace and justice, social movements, Christianity, or simply well-written prose. Close readers will wonder why citations are lacking for certain quotes, and when his sister-in-law, Liz McAlister, will finally receive full treatment for her role in the Catholic Left after 1968—not simply as supportive cast but as a central influencer. But these are picking nits in an admirable and intimate treatment of Berrigan, overshadowed by, for example, an account of the origins of the Catholic Peace Fellowship rather than glaring in omissions that are beyond the scope of this text. 

The kind of personal detail Forest brings to light is exemplified in the story of Berrigan’s death. Not only are the details of his wake, the march through the rain to his funeral, and the impact he had on others vivid, but Forest accentuates the symbiotic relationship that Berrigan had with the Catholic Worker even at the grave. After describing the moving homily given by fellow Jesuit Steve Kelly at his funeral mass, and the moving words by Berrigan relatives like Frida and Kate, and friends like Ellen Grady, Forest includes the wonderful detail of Amanda Daloisio singing while Berrigan’s grave was filled and compatriots like Carmen Trotta and Bud Courtney read from scripture as well as Berrigan’s own writings. To the very end, his loved ones stood by his side, even in death. As Forest depicts Berrigan tutoring younger devotees like Matt Daloisio in the idea of community, the scene takes on a poignant and fitting potency. 

Today, as seven Catholic Workers and Berrigan friends face charges in Georgia for the most recent of over-one-hundred Plowshares actions, inspired by his 1980 action in Pennsylvania, there is no shortage of people living in his wake. “If you want to follow Jesus,” the book’s framing quote from Berrigan says, “you had better look good on wood.” Forest depicts what this means in ways that are relevant to the scholar, the worker, and those who follow Berrigan in creatively fusing the two. As he has done before with Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, Forest has provided a fresh and living story of a mythical figure in 20th century Christianity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eric Martin is a graduate student in Theology at Fordham University.

Date of Review: 
January 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jim Forest is an internationally renowned peacemaker and spiritual writer. His many books include biographies of Dorothy Day (All is Grace) and Thomas Merton (Living with Wisdom). His most recent book is The Root of War Is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers. He lives in Alkmaar, the Netherlands.

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