A near-Christmas story

In a Brooklyn coffee shop on Sunday morning, unshowered, disheveled, fingers wrapped around a piping hot Americano, I asked the woman across the table what she was reading.

This isn't as rare as myth would have you believe. Strangers in Brooklyn address each other, occasionally in a friendly manner, and many have lived to tell of it.

My tablemate Mary, it turns out, works as an organizer of volunteers in a convent on the east side of Manhattan. The convent is Franciscan, she explains, and for some reason I think of Daniel Berrigan, the Priest who launched the Plowshares Movement of spiritual activists, mostly Catholic but also catholic, who bonk weaponry with hammers and pour blood on them to emphasize the spiritual and physical death these weapons promote.

If Mary were the sort of person who would "shoot someone a look" she would've. But Mary just cocked her head and politely informed me that her convent happened to be hosting Berrigan in under an hour.

I'm making no divine claims here, mind you, but this was a small, unadvertised event.

An hour later I sat on a chair in a circle with perhaps 15 others, mostly women, including 5 or 6 nuns. The room was pleasant, if sterile, and the music was pleasant, if sterile. The feeling was anything but.

After going around the circle introducing ourselves, Berrigan warmly poked fun at the nuns and young acolytes and followed with a short talk, reading from the Book of Isaiah, pausing on seemingly mundane passages to remark on the jewels contained within.

He noted the repeated mention of the mountain as a metaphor for being in a space of ethical awareness: "to be on top of a mountain," he said, "is to be morally aware of the world and one's place in it."

He touched on the passage in Isaiah that gave his movement its name: "And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

Standard stuff for a peace-loving cleric.

But Berrigan isn't just interested in the Bible. He pulled from Buddhism, from his experience with Thich Nhat Hanh, from his co-conspirator Thomas Merton and others.

Far as I could tell, Berrigan had two essential questions. The first surrounds an internal dialogue that takes place in most religions across the world since at least the origin of the city-state. That is, what role, if any, should religion play in the political life of a culture?

The second, and not unrelated, is what role does spiritual practice play in the life of the activist?

On the first, Berrigan was clear. Recounting the experience of being told by a fellow priest that he had no business involving himself in politics his 84-year-old eyes popped open as if hearing the statement again for the first time. They don't?, he responded rhetorically. Emphasizing his point later, he scanned the circle as he said: "If you have a 3rd ear you can hear the Bible closing at the start of war."

On the second point he only mentioned the words of his friend and co-conspirator, the philosopher Thomas Merton. Merton, addressing a young resistor in the 60s offered this bit of advice (in, I think, the most ecumenical spirit possible): "Unless you undertake a discipline of prayer and sacrament you'll never survive America."

One of the problems intrinsic to activism is that anger and discontentment are two of the greatest motivators. But what kind of corrections can we ultimately make, what kind of world would we ultimately build, if we allow these motivators to rule us? The rub is that the snake-oil salesmen have sent many of the most compassionate among us fleeing from the language and practice of religion. And that's a shame.

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