On “The Dark Night of the Soul”

(This is from the first chapter of a long work composed by Father Berrigan while underground, and “in progress” when he was arrested by the FBI in August, 1970, and sent to the Danbury federal prison where he is now prevented from publishing anything he may write)

Late April, 1970

…It is as though a man were to awaken one morning with the bitter revelation on his tongue—I am going to die. I am going to jail. Like a man with terminal illness whose cunning apothecary has come on a new potion, I am spared a few days. The days are here. But I live under proviso. That is my freedom and my urgency.

Meantime, I would like to do something unfashionable, in the sense not of mystification, but facing the fact that everything or nearly everything of worth today is bound to be despised or devalued.

Except to a few, to whom these words, in all seriousness and affection, are dedicated.

I should like to use, as a general guide, master text, source of imagery, the book of John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul.

The choice is deliberate. It implies, in the first place, that my present situation is primarily an experience in and of the spirit, that its only coherence and meaning are to be sought on those terms. Otherwise, one is playing cat and mouse with the hunters; and the chase becomes frivolous, thoughtless, or pathetic, played out according to their feints and starts, exercised in their fears. In the second place, I claim for myself the dignity of a Christian and a man, present to his tradition (as chief strength), often faithless to that tradition (as large weakness). But in any case, within it: for good, for ill, but unrecognizable to myself apart from it. To be drawn on here and now, quickly, because the times are rude and descend like a guillotine.

This saint John; why him?

He was a resister and prisoner, and suffered grievously; as it happened in the circumstances of his world, at the hands of the church. No matter; let us say from irrational and inhuman power, in those times (as in our own, in less spectacular ways) wielded by church as well as state. He was neglected, cast down from the places his talents would justly claim. Yet in the dark socket of existence into which he had been flung to be ground to powder, a most stunning event occurred. It was a though, out of season, on the desolate streets near this house, winter-ridden and sullen, a wand of forsythia had burst into bloom, only one. In a dungeon, the light broke upon him. John was granted something due no mortal man: access to the mystery of love, sight of the bare bones and plan of the universe, odor of the heart of Dante’s rose.

He wrote an ecstatic poem (poetry: the primary inevitable response to tyranny). Later, in a rare calm interval of his life, he used the poem as source of a prose commentary, which would enlarge and make available, as far as words could, the generous grace and access which had been granted him. Both commentary and poem are among the supreme achievements of the spirit of …

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Letters

The Berrigans December 3, 1970