A Tobit in Our Time: Notes from the Funeral Mass of Philip Berrigan
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Wednesday, 10 December, 2002
For those who loved Philip Berrigan and could not be at his funeral Mass, I offer this personal account from one who was fortunately able to attend.
I came to know Phil through his wife Elizabeth (Liz) McAlister, who had a life-changing effect on me when I was in the Army back in 1971. She was traveling the country prior to being put on trial in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, facing extremely serious charges that had been trumped up by a jailhouse FBI informant. I was in my Army uniform when I went to hear her speak and she thought me at first to be a government spy. She did not know it then, but I was seeking encouragement to offer some act of resistance while in uniform. Liz later struck up a correspondence with me after she heard on the radio in New York City that I had been court martialed and gone to the stockade for wearing my little silver cross over my uniform and refusing to tuck it back inside my shirt when ordered to do so.
So of course I wanted to be there at Philıs wake and funeral Mass. In my contribution to the "circle of remembrance" that we had at the wake, I read from a letter Phil sent me 25 years ago when I was in the Arlington County Jail for an action at the Pentagon. In that letter Phil was most of all just thankful and encouraging, taking time to write to a young "prisoner of conscience" to say "Thank you" for my act of protest. That was kind of awe inspiring to a 28-year old man who looked upon this man of my father's generation as what they called in those days a "peace movement heavy." Yet here he was writing a letter of gratitude to a young man giving up just a month of his "freedom" while Phil was then, and remained over the years, dedicated to sacrificing much more of his freedom to follow his conscience.
I spoke of how Phil mentioned in his letter that Uncle Sam's "hospitality" (i.e., jail) could sometimes offer material assets greater than that afforded the poor in our nation. As it turns out, that is where most of my life has gone to date -- to addressing the issues of poverty and to trying to bring some relief especially to the homeless poor. Recalling his letter to me, and the linkage between state sponsored violence and poverty that he often spoke about, I told his family and friends that despite the distances in time and space I have always felt a solidarity with his and Liz's steadfast commitment to radical nonviolence, even as I have tried to "work through the system" to relieve some of the system's worst effects on the poor that, we all know in our hearts, could be wiped away if only we were not so committed to war and preparation for war.
Phil's was a life that gave courage to others, not necessarily to do what he chose to do, but to do something with their lives that proclaims the love of God for us, and especially the love of God for the least among us.
So I was thinking of that as we marched down Prestmann Street today in west Baltimore, following Phil's homemade pine casket to the church, and passing block after block of devastation -- abandoned homes and homes literally falling into the street with no one to pick them up. The people on the sidewalk and leaning from upper windows (all African American) looked on, most of them quietly and with a sense of respect at this odd procession of (mostly) white people and colorful peace crane puppets moved through their neighborhood to mourn one of their dead.
Then remembered that this was Phil's neighborhood, too, where he has served as a priest at St. Peter Claver Church where we were headed at that moment, and where his home and community -- Jonah House -- now resides in the midst of an old Catholic cemetery, caring for the graves of the dead as a means to support themselves.
At the funeral Mass there were glories to behold, and much encouragement to be had, especially as we live through these days of imminent war in Iraq, preparation for perpetual war after that, and deepening government assaults upon our basic freedoms.
Father Daniel Berrigan eulogized his brother, speaking at one point of a kind of despair so deep that it becomes hope as people act to contradict that despair. That is certainly a message for our times. But of all that I heard in that packed church I was struck especially by the first reading. It was taken from the first three chapters of the Book of Tobit, from passages that the Jerusalem bible calls "Tobit the Exile."
It starts with "I, Tobit, have walked in paths of truth and good works all the days of my life," and goes on to tell the story of a man who lived the Law as best he knew how, even when thrown into exile to Nineveh in Assyria, but suffered grievously nonetheless. His first real trouble comes when he, a man who "gave alms to the brothers of my race...gave bread to the hungry and clothes to the naked...and buried when I saw them the bodies of my countrymen" decides to bury the dead of those who are killed by the evil king of Nineveh, which makes the king very angry and brings a death sentence upon Tobit's head. Tobit has to flee Nineveh for his life, but is later able to return when the evil king himself is murdered and a relation of Tobit is able to convince the new authorities to allow his return.
All seems well as Tobit celebrates a good Pentecost meal with his family, and in his goodness he sends out his son to "seek out some poor, loyal-hearted men among our brothers exiled in Nineveh, and bring him to share my meal." Unfortunately, the son returns with news of another murder in the marketplace, a countryman. Of course Tobit leaves his good meal to retrieve the body from where it was dumped like so much waste, prepare it for a proper burial, all the while remembering the words of the prophet Amos: "Your feasts will be turned into mourning, and all your songs to lamentation."
Tobit weeps for the dead man, but for his compassion he is laughed at by his neighbors who remember how all this "burying the dead" stuff got him into trouble in the first place, yet still he goes on doing it. When will he ever learn? Does he not respect the law of the land?
Then a further calamity befalls Tobit when he is sleeping in his courtyard and a sparrowıs dung falls onto his face, gets into his eyes and leaves him blind for four years. Despite his good works, he is disabled and his wife is forced into piecemeal work to support them. One day a kindly customer gives his wife a present over and above the price of her goods -- a goat kid for a nice meal -- but Tobit believes that it must be stolen and orders her to return it. He cannot believe her good fortune, having had so much misfortune himself in return for good. She proclaims it is indeed a gift to her and then she says to him, sarcastically: "What about you own alms? What about your own good works? Everyone knows what return you have had for them."
Then Tobit, seeming chastened by his wife and probably remembering the death sentence once laid upon him for his charity in burying the victims of the king, and no doubt the fickle blindness (from bird's dung!) visited upon him despite all his efforts to abide by the Law, begins a prayer of lamentation, asking for God's mercy and forgiveness for his own sins and those of his people.
It was toward the end of Tobit's lamentation that those of us gathered in that church in Baltimore could almost hear Phil speaking to us from his coffin, and in a real sense speaking to us from his life while he was among us:
Whereas all your decrees are true
when you deal with me as my faults deserve,
and those of my fathers
since we have neither kept your commandments
nor walked in truth before you;
so now, do with me as you will;
be pleased to take my life from me;
I desire to be delivered from this earth
and to become earth again.
For death is better for me than life.
I have been reviled without a cause
and I am distressed beyond measure.
Lord, I wait for the sentence you will give
to deliver me from this affliction.
Let me go way to my everlasting home;
do not turn your face from me, O Lord.
For it is better to die than still to live
in the face of trouble that knows no pity;
I am weary of hearing myself traduced.
"Traduced" in this sense means: "to expose to contempt or shame; to represent as blamable; to calumniate; to vilify; to defame."
Philip Berrigan certainly had his share of that. Mourning as he did so often the deaths of those innocent ones who are killed by the king, and acting to see to it that they are at least properly remembered and buried with honor and dignity -- this would properly be called a spiritual work of mercy. It constitutes a resistance to the prerogatives of a state that claims hegemony over all life, whether in the name of Pax Americana or some other statist idolatry. It symbolizes in important respects what Phil did with his life, and such acts to honor and protect the dignity of life made him an exile in his own land.
For which I would respond to Phil after 25 years, believing as I do that he remains with us in our struggle to protect and preserve and choose life as God would have it be for all of us, glorious and splendid -- to Phil I would simply say, as he said to me a long time ago, "Thank you."
Then commit to him that I will do whatever I can to stop this war in Iraq. And tell all my family and friends to go out and do the same.
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