Dialogue Underground: Inside and Outside the Church

The following is the concluding excerpt from conversations between Daniel Berrigan and Robert Coles which were held last July, two weeks before Dan Berrigan was captured on Block Island. The complete text will be published in September as The Geography of Faith.

The Editors

COLES: We are now being told on radio and television and in newspapers and magazines that this is the first time that a Catholic priest has been a fugitive from justice. As I read and listen to those accounts I find myself thinking of our past, our history. What do we in fact know about our history? We are only now beginning to realize how distorted our history books have been so far as blacks and Indians are concerned. The issue often is one of blatant misrepresentation by historians; but, more subtly, a certain tone or shade of emphasis can also lead the reader far along into an ideological position which he confuses with a statement of “fact.” So, I wonder about the history of the underground in America and other countries. I wonder how unique and surprising and unprecedented your behavior is.

I have the impression that this country was founded by people from England who had been in the underground. Not only were many of our first settlers in the underground in England, but in addition they fled, they became exiles; so it was exiles and ex-members of a religious underground who started the United States of America. And then one wonders whether, apart from the underground railroad in the nineteenth century, there isn’t a tradition in this country of dissent similar to yours, a tradition whereby people not only say controversial things, but take action that challenges the society in a more significant way, a more comprehensive or unnerving way—and do so without immediately surrendering themselves to sheriffs and judges. I am thinking of the South and Appalachia and the Southwest, where the needs of “justice” as well as “banditry” have prompted men to defy authorities believed to be corrupt or worse.

BERRIGAN: I do believe very much that what I am doing has a tradition behind it. As for what you now hear about me, I believe in this country one constantly has to contend with the ahistorical and sensational aspects of our news media. We see every day how a “folklore” of sorts is created, how the words and acts of particular individuals are written about and talked about wildly, uncritically, hysterically, romantically, foolishly. And certainly in our culture religion and the words or deeds of religious men are just more grist for the mills that the media run.

I mean, every breakaway from the so-called “norm” is going to be a headline for the media, who obviously are interested in all kinds of grotesquerie and deviation. I really don’t know whether it’s useful any longer to consider my status or that of my brother in the light of the Roman Catholic segment of the population. It seems to me that it’s much more useful to consider what I am doing in relation to a broad spectrum of dissent that goes back, as you just said, to the act of leaving Europe and settling here, then waging a revolution against England, a colonial power.

While we were in jail in Catonsville I learned about the career of a seventeenth-century American priest whose real name is not even known; evidently he used the alias John Urey. Very little is known about him except by hearsay and by reports and comments written after his death. He was executed and his execution was not recorded; his trial was blacked out, and the very disposition of his body was never revealed. But during those years before the American Revolution, when we were well into our terrible and brutal treatment of blacks, this man (who as far as I can piece it together was an émigré from Ireland) landed in Manhattan and shortly thereafter launched himself on a career of harboring fugitive slaves from the West Indies, and getting them north through Manhattan.

He is said to have settled in the back room of an Irish pub in the lower East Side of Manhattan, and operated by night out of there. When runaway slaves were caught they were drawn and quartered, burned and lynched. And eventually he, too—after some six years of “illegal activity”—shared the fate of the slaves; he was swiftly killed.

So there was an inspiring, mysterious figure out of our national mists for us to think about when we were in jail. At our sentencing I had composed a poem in his honor and read it that day; I hoped to link our fate with his, even though we had not been tested as he was, or shown his degree of lonely courage—and, yes, willingness to defy the established “law and order” and “tradition” of his day.

But in general, alas, one can’t make very great claims about the heroism of religious figures in American history. I think especially the Catholic Church has been very late in catching up with anything that remotely might be called its own tradition. Catholics in large numbers came to this country relatively late and came as large “ethnic” groups, each impoverished and frightened and essentially oriented toward winning its own place in the sun; for these reasons I think social and political radicalism could not take root.

Up until very recently, say five or ten years ago, not only the hierarchy but the overwhelming majority of the Church’s intellectual and theological leaders were intensely loyal to America’s foreign policy. I think in this regard the death of Cardinal Spellman was particularly significant. For a quarter of a century Spellman stood loyally, arm in arm, with the John Foster Dulleses of this nation. Spellman’s international prestige, his connection with figures like Churchill and Pius XII and Roosevelt—all of that militated against anything very powerful rising from beneath. And of course I had a firsthand taste of his ideas and his power. He exiled me from New York and from the country.

C: You had a personal encounter with him?

B: It was personal in the sense that he found even so unexciting an organization as Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam a very personal affront. He and his subalterns were outraged. It was simply intolerable that a priest in his own diocese would make a beginning like this with Jews and Protestants. So I was very quickly got rid of. On the other hand, one can point to the fact that there has been, at least since the Twenties, through the Catholic Worker movement especially, a very solid tradition of Biblical dissent from war; and one can also reflect that the first symbolic draft card burnings were centered in the Catholic community, and that as protest advanced into assaults upon draft boards it was in the beginning also a Catholic enterprise.

So, I guess one might remember, as Francine Gray has noted, that out of the worst something very new and inspiring can emerge, such is the irony of history. Of course, our Protestant communities have never been under the type of suppression that Catholics have on these social issues; whereas we Catholics have been subjected to the iron hand of authority. Again and again we have heard the Church speak—on an astonishing range of subjects—and we have been told that once the Church has spoken, one must bow one’s head and say yes, yes, yes. As an American Catholic, an American priest, one could always point to the fine and progressive statements that have come out of Rome on social issues; but the Church here for decades and decades never really responded to those papal encyclicals.

I guess that’s a long way of saying a very simple thing: more and more Catholics, a distinct minority but still a significant minority, are finally able to see their place in the tradition of Christianity, and able to gain a much wider and more enlightened perspective on their place, and able to go ahead and work at what they believe right (rather than obey blindly the Spellmans of this land) and do that work with their brothers from other faiths.

So in the last five years of this war we Catholics have been able to offer a certain leavening, a certain direction, to the peace movement. Not that Protestants and Jews haven’t also had their moral and ethical struggles. Even recently we would hear in only half-jest that churches like the Episcopal Church could be depended upon to lend us their real estate for actions like Catonsville, but they were often unwilling to participate in an effort like Catonsville.

In any event, in spite of the tremendous hold on Catholics that the Church has, and in spite of the tight discipline of the priesthood and of religious orders, something was evidently gathering, some waters of human passion and concern were rising—were reaching a boiling point—and then, suddenly (it seems to me concurrently with Pope John’s whole breakthrough) the kettle tipped over, the brew spilled, and—well, things will never be exactly the same again.

But it seems to me that Roman Catholic identity as such is unimportant, given the times and the real issues. My brother and I have no continuing interest whatsoever in what you might call the internal questions of the Catholic community, whether that be the question of parochial schools or the question of birth control or the question of celibacy; we look upon such matters as in essence retarded questions of a community that still has to catch up with Christ’s invitation that all men come join Him, and be with Him—in all their variety. And how sad it is that in the face of the terrible, terrible issues which face this planet’s two billion human beings, some in the Church, priests and bishops as well as laymen, continue to be so utterly self-centered, so narrow, so uninterested in others, so aggrandizing—in the name of Jesus Christ!

So let the Church “catch up” through the efforts of others; and I say that not to be arrogant, but to emphasize how urgent are the tasks that all too few of us are taking the trouble to attend to. My brother Phil and I are interested in a kind of raw fundamentalism that has to do with the stance of the Church before mankind; we want to help the Church make that stance, we want to do what we can in that direction. We will join with other communities, Catholic or non-Catholic, religous or thoroughly secular—so long as their seriousness and passion are manifest.

C: But you are loyal to the Church, which is, after all, an institution.

B: I hope so.

C: I suppose I should say that you are loyal to what you conceive to be the spirit of the Church, or loyal to what you would want the Church to be. You are not ready to stop being a Catholic.

B: By no means. In fact, I think I share with you my sense of shock at seeing the statement by David Miller in which he asserts that he no longer considers himself a Catholic. I hope with all my heart that he still considers himself a Christian. I cannot but consider it a great loss when any person decides that his bonds are broken with the tradition of Christianity.

C: Or maybe even with his own past.

B: Yes, I’m quite sure that the issue is personal as well as religious or philosophical. I know David and I know what he experienced in jail. Most difficult for a man like David, ironically, are the church services one meets up with in prison. He has very deep reasons for being embittered. The chaplains who work in prisons and the army can sometimes be totally militarized men, totally lost in their service to Caesar. They have nothing to offer such young idealistic people; indeed their presence among those youths is a horror and a tragedy for the men and women concerned. It’s no wonder that when they are released from jail they walk away in disgust from their own past, from the Church. My hope is that their essential goodness and their connection with the truth of history and of their times will help to lead them (perhaps through a deep and painful path) back to something—and if not specifically to the Catholic community, then to some other community of faith. But we’ll have to wait and see on all of that.

C: Yet you also say you have no interest in many of the pressing doctrinal and polemical issues that the Church itself is preoccupied with—birth control, celibacy, the institutional matters of the Church.

B: Well, who decides which questions are important—and for whom? Because Cardinal Spellman happens to think something is important and urgent does not mean I have to agree—and put my energies into his concerns. My brother and I feel that there’s been a tremendous dislocation of true consciousness for a long time in the American Catholic community. Perhaps in the past, because so many Catholics were the immigrant underdogs of the nineteenth century, the Church had to be narrowly preoccupied with its own power, even as its parishioners were. But in the late twentieth century the Catholic community is thoroughly a part of the American social and economic and political scene—hence we have a corresponding obligation to look outward, extend ourselves, reach across national and racial and ideological barriers.

My brother and I feel that there’s an important chapter of history to be written in our own time, and we would like to help write it. It is a chapter of history which, we hope, will see the center of the Church’s concerns located at the edge of society—where human lives are involved in a really tragic struggle for survival and human dignity.

Phil and I believe it is even selfish for us to get involved with that struggle—because out of it we all will perhaps get a new and vital sense of what it is to be a Christian. What is most precious to us are the elements in our faith that sustain us, and those elements are very mysterious and very difficult to speak about. I often feel that to be asked what is essential to you in your faith is almost as delicate and secret a matter as to be asked what are the elements of a good marriage. And by the same token I am often appalled by the superficiality and the vulgarity of mind that is revealed in those discussions of “what Jesus means” and “what the church means”—and on and on.

C: There are similar all too pietistic discussions of “marriage”—many of them these days dismally laced with psychological and psychiatric terms.

B: Some things are so close to the heart’s core that they are reflected in the quality of one’s life, and defy verbalization. But the analogy is very meaningful to me: faith is like marriage; faith has its fits and starts, its fevers and chills. To borrow from Robert Frost, a Catholic man of faith inevitably will have a lover’s quarrel with the Church. The believer feels quarrelsome as well as devout and obedient. What is most important to Phil and me, I believe, is the historical truth manifested in the actuality of Jesus, and the community which we believe is in continuity with His spirit and His presence—a presence which makes certain rigorous and specific demands on man at any period of time. One’s life style inevitably prompts a debate of sorts within the Church, even as we both comply with and wage our struggles with the powers-that-be of the society to which we belong.

Right now, interestingly enough, I find myself less and less in trouble with the Church, and more and more in trouble with the state. I mean, the Jesuits are more and more thoughtful about the issues that Phil and I and others have tried to raise. Even though there is no massive support within the order there is a definite unease—perhaps of the kind that precedes and accompanies awakening on the part of many people.

By the way, Philip doesn’t have as strong or passionate a sense of belonging to his order as I do with regard to mine. I think I know why. I think it’s fair to say that his congregation’s traditions are by no means as old or as exciting or as imaginative; his order hasn’t undergone the test of so many cultures for so long a period, and there hasn’t been by any means within that order an understanding of what he was trying to do—either in civil rights or in the peace movement. I feel I have at least been understood; maybe not rallied around, given explicit sanction, but understood, yes.

C: How would you characterize Phil’s work in the South? Didn’t the Josephite brothers have a certain tradition for that kind of work?

B: Well, I think for him that kind of work is finished. And in the light of what has happened in this country recently, we ought to re-examine just what the Josephite brothers were doing when they went South to teach black children. Often they were used to help local priests and bishops evade their own responsibilities—to help them dismiss blacks as outside their area of concern. No wonder the order is now going through intense self-scrutiny about such practices. The idea of a white priestly ministry to black people is of course growing more and more unworkable. Phil really doesn’t have much news any more from the order, because progressively they have sort of cut themselves off from him. But among the younger men he says there is a sense that the whole chapter of the last sixty or seventy years has been closed, and the question of where they go from here remains open and by no means easily settled.

But where isn’t it difficult for priests these days? I think that the Jesuits in a more complex way are involved in an analogous kind of stalemate: they are still scrambling up their various academic slopes, still trying to plant their flags at the top—while at the very same time many of those who have reached the top are yelling back that it’s useless up there, it’s barren up there. I have noticed that often the Jesuit graduate students studying in the Ivy League colleges tend to grow very quickly (in which case they want to do more than study, study, study) or else they begin to wither away. In any event, the haunting question is: what does a Jesuit do with his life these days? For that matter, what do we all do with our lives today?

C: Well, you seem to have found an answer to that question for yourself.

B: I have an answer, but I can scarcely fool myself with the idea that my answer is going to be acceptable in any large sense. I’m hoping that we’ll at least cause others to stop and think about certain issues.

For instance, my own provincial, he would be the equivalent of a bishop, wrote me within the month and said that he was indeed aware of the questions I was trying to raise. He is finishing up a job he has held for a number of years and is now looking for opportunities to serve in one of the small Southern colleges. He is going to move away, try to live in a different region, make a fresh start. But beyond that, I think it was quite obvious between the lines of his letter that he was no longer inclined to be an organizational man in the order. Today men like him are trying to find a place where their profession will be useful, and, just as important, a place where they can really demonstrate in everyday work the breadth and depth of their ethical concerns. So, they are turning to experimental schooling, North or South, or to social service work—to things like that.

C: Then that is the direction the Jesuits and others in the Church are taking—rather than a position of more radical protest, even though I know there are a number of seminarians who pay close attention to your ideas?

B: I don’t really know what to say. These days things happen swiftly and surprisingly. I wonder whether anyone can really know what changes the Catholic Church will undergo in the next few years. I do think that right now priests are leaving all the orders, looking for new ways to serve God; and of course men are leaving the priesthood in great numbers. What they are finding at the other end of things is something I just don’t know right now—maybe they don’t know either. But I am pessimistic—because I don’t think a move from the Church to the world really solves the problem. The Church and the secular world are struggling with similar problems, the same problems—so I think quite another kind of move is necessary, one in which the individual challenges more vigorously the assumptions shared by Cardinal Spellman and Richard Nixon, for example.

C: Maybe you should go into the reasons for your pessimism in greater detail.

B: I wonder if instead I could stop for a minute and turn some of the last questions around; they have been very searching questions, the ones you have put to me, and I would like you to respond to them. I would like to know something about your feelings as to what it is to be a Christian in your profession. I would like to know what the Church means to you, what it offers you, and your sense of its future, if any.

C: Psychiatry and psychoanalysis today still very much rely upon Freud’s view of the mind—at least in America. He was a fearless man, unafraid of a world he had few illusions about. He had a practical and yet brilliantly imaginative mind; he could both observe things with extreme care and then go on to construct theories that are suggestive and illuminating and to this day utterly indispensable for us clinicians. And he was, by self-definition, a conquistador, which means he was ambitious: he wanted to understand more than the particular patients he saw; he wanted to understand the riddles of man’s origins and his history.

In the course of that quest he wrote The Future of An Illusion in which he pretty well indicates what he understood about the nature of religion—in my opinion, a good deal, but not enough. He understood that people delude or comfort themselves, that they often use religious faith to delude or comfort themselves—even as they can use psychiatric and psychoanalytic theories to delude or comfort themselves. He knew very clearly that there is a stale, treacherous, rotten quality to a lot of institutions—among them our churches. I think he was a sharp and canny observer of religious idolotry and blindness, even for human blindness and weakness—the frailties of people who don’t have the strength to face up to the various kinds of predicaments that we all go through from our early years to the last breath we take.

But Freud did not understand, I believe, the genuine, deeply felt religious faith that a person can feel. He seemed to have no comprehension of the order and significance that faith gives to human life. So, I don’t really think his ideas about religion are very valuable or important, except for the fact that he justifiably continues to dominate a profession which (such are the ironies of life) has itself become a sort of religion to thousands and thousands of middle-class, educated, agnostic Westerners.

I cannot now in a few words tell you all that Christian faith means to me, but I want to mention this: I believe self-centeredness is one of the great temptations and dangers we all have to struggle with—man’s apparently inevitable inclination to worship himself, and, by extension, his thinking. Nowhere today is this danger greater than in contemporary psychiatry, which has become one more secular messianic faith. If you read Freud’s writings, or the writings of many other psychoanalysts, you get the sense that if one plumbs the depths of the unconscious, and if one obtains more and more awareness, a new kind of man will emerge. In some of Freud’s lectures he expresses the hope that if only larger and larger numbers of people could be psychoanalyzed we would in some way have a better world. Not that psychoanalysis (for some today at the very least an ideology) hasn’t made the world significantly different, in the sense that we know more about ourselves.

But I constantly find myself suspicious of all man-made ideologies, be they political ones or intellectual ones. To me, going into a church and getting on my knees and praying is something important and almost liberating—but at the same time it is something I don’t like to talk about. I was brought up to believe that my faith is no one’s business but my own. All I know is that I learned as a child to call upon Isaiah and St. Paul—and I have never wanted to learn to do without either of those two, not to mention Jesus of Nazareth. And I suppose it is important for me to state my “dependence” on the Biblical writings, because many psychiatrists and psychoanalysts today make such a point of explaining away things, calling things evidence of this or that “problem,” and in general taking very little at face value.

Still, it is hard for me to talk about my religious beliefs. I can only say that the people I feel closest to are people like Simone Weil and Georges Bernanos. When I was a resident in psychiatry the person I felt closest to was Paul Tillich. I studied with him. What those “people of grace” have meant to me I cannot put into words. When I have found myself thinking that if only I knew a little more about a person’s past or present, if only I knew a little more about his or her mind, then I would be able to “save” him or her, accomplish some psychological miracle, I have usually found myself after a while stopping and instead trying to be much less ambitious—which right then and there can be of help to a patient. At those moments I have been able to ask myself: Save that person for what? Save myself for what? Understand all this for what? I fear we in medicine and psychiatry don’t ask ourselves often enough “for what?”

In recent times leading psychiatric theorists have insisted that our concepts and even our work must be “value-free”—yes, those are the words used. At the same time, of course, we were becoming secular priests to a disenchanted American society. We had some fresh ideas to offer people, but they wanted more, wanted what philosophers and theologians have always offered, some coherent view of an exceedingly hard to fathom world. So we went along and became preachers of sorts. Now preaching in and of itself is not necessarily dangerous, but to preach and say that one is not a preacher—to be unaware that one is a moralist whom others turn to for advice and consolation, for criticism and sanction—can be mighty dangerous.

Certainly it is also dangerous when one takes for granted and even profits from all sorts of social and economic values—and doesn’t really “analyze” how that state of affairs affects the way a so-called “objective” theoretical system is interpreted and put into use by daily “practitioners” whose patients so predominantly are of a certain class, hence able to pay fees most Americans simply cannot afford. One leading psychoanalytic theoretician used an expression “the average expectable environment”—which was his way of dealing with the so-called “environmental factors” which he saw as a kind of background to the more decisive “internal forces” at work in us. Indeed, for a certain kind of psychoanalyst we grow psychologically as a result of forces at work within the mind which to a great extent are independent of the society in which we live.

Now, a man who can talk about “average expectable environment” is a man who has seen a very limited number of patients, all of them quite well-to-do. Ninety percent of the people in this world have no “average expectable environment” but are indeed hungry, even at the edge of starvation, and are living in squalor. One doesn’t dismiss the impact of hunger and starvation and severe poverty, with all the fear and anxiety such a condition generates, with a phrase like “average expectable environment.” As I said to you before, many of us who analyze so carefully the various subtleties of the developing conscious and unconscious mind in children and older people can miss a whole range of forces that affect the unconscious and the conscious—and can also miss a comprehension of what religion is about.

I believe that religious faith enables man to be free of himself, to find a destiny for himself that is outside his own inevitably narrow sphere. To me the great danger in all political activity, not to mention professional activity, has to do with this kind of egoism—call it narcissism, call it the sin of pride that is in all of us and is exploitable and that will exploit. We cannot completely rid ourselves of the kind of self-centeredness that is potentially destructive through more analysis, not five years of it, not ten years. But I do think a religious person like Simone Weil can spend a lifetime struggling against that self-centeredness (and its perhaps most malignant expression, self-righteousness) and succeed—and do so in a way that we have yet to understand.

What for instance did she do with her brilliant mind, her fussiness, her cantankerousness, her pride, her chronic despair, her defiant self? I mean how did she wage a struggle with herself that had such significance? Her kind of struggle is an important one, not because a particular literary or political coterie deems that to be so, but because so many of us are faced with the kinds of agonies she faced. We seek after justice in the world; we look for a sense of our own particular distinctiveness; we feel a sense of outrage at the unnecessary pain so many millions of men and women experience. At the same time we realize, as she did, how we can as easily become an oppressor—oh, naturally, in the pursuit of what is right, just, and true.

Simone Weil’s greatest achievement as an intellectual, a political and moral philosopher, may have been her slowly realized and painfully stated distrust of her own mind’s brilliance. She became increasingly skeptical of her capacity for symbolization, for dense theoretical display. Her eventual distrust of the mind’s capacity for arrogance and coldness is what I think religious faith buttresses or ought to buttress. Man as himself subordinate to larger forces, to God, has to be reminded again and again (because he so very much wants to forget) how dangerously prideful he can become, how mean and vicious the best educated minds, even well-analyzed minds, can turn out to be.

I don’t see in the writings of certain psychoanalytic theorists the kind of grace and humility that I find comes across in theologians, and which I particularly see in writers like Simone Weil—or Flannery O’Connor, to move to our country. I don’t see in psychoanalytic theoreticians the kind of loveliness, the capacity for ambiguity and irony, that I find in Bernanos. So, I guess I feel sad, even as I know that my profession has a lot to offer people who are struggling and hurt and troubled.

Having said that I immediately have to qualify myself—because it’s not my profession that offers people anything, it’s the particular individuals in it. And yet those individuals have learned something that is called “professional knowledge,” which is what any profession offers to those men and women who get to call themselves a little ponderously and dangerously (the danger has to do with self-importance) “professional men” or “professional women.” So these various abstractions and the “reality” they are meant to describe amount to a tightrope, which each of us must walk upon.

I look upon psychiatry and psychoanalysis as new elements in a tradition which goes back for centuries and centuries. As Erikson has pointed out again and again, we are the heirs of men like St. Augustine and Pascal, men who looked inward and struggled with themselves and somehow gained territory on themselves. I do not look upon us as proud scientists or the seers that we have become in a particular kind of culture, American culture.

Ironically, for all of his blindspots Freud was a political as well as an intellectual rebel; he had all sorts of thoroughly personal and also prickly ideas that alienated him from an entire society, an entire profession. But now he has become an icon, celebrated with statues and pictures, his words mulled over and chewed over—and why, one wonders. I suppose the answer is that so it goes in history. Those who place themselves on the shoulders of dissident leaders eventually become a respectable group of people who are hardly at the forefront of intellectual struggles. So we have become fat, well-off, of good reputation; and such people don’t usually go to jail.

In any event, I see no overwhelming reason for psychiatrists or psychoanalysts to be asked for their estimate of what constitutes or is “valid” about religious faith—and I say that even though I know how many psychiatrists have written about religious matters, and how steadfastly ministers and priests and rabbis, perhaps doubtful themselves, struggling hard and unsuccessfully for faith and belief, have turned to secular sources like us for a nod of support. The only sensible and sensitive job I have ever seen done on this subject is Erikson’s book on Luther, in which he explicitly refrains from interpreting psychoanalytically religious faith or religious doctrine or theological knowledge. Many others of us have shown how immodest we can be by taking on whole areas of human experience and labeling them, gratuitously at times, stupidly and meanly at other times, with all those choice new psychological expressions we have added to our everyday language.

One thing I know: I couldn’t have done the work I did in the South without the inner sanctuary that churches can provide. And besides my personal desire to go to church and sit there and think and pray and sing and listen and feel touched and somehow more alive, I was constantly learning from blacks in the South and whites in Appalachia what religion can mean and be to people. I suppose I could say that I learned a lot about the mind of the poor—if one wants to get into that kind of abstraction, “the mind of the poor”—by going to church with poor blacks in the South and Appalachian whites in Kentucky and West Virginia.

I learned a lot about how those men and women think and feel, and what the possibilities are for them, how they manage to survive, how they struggle and keep some of their wits about them. Yes, I learned those things right in church while listening and joining in; nor could I have learned from such people by sitting and asking “psychological” questions, questions aimed at “tapping their unconscious.”

As a matter of fact, I have seen in those people strengths, redemptive moments, that my particular mode of looking at them—the psychiatric and psychoanalytic mode—is simply not able to comprehend. We are experts at trying to fit into a theoretical body of knowledge certain kinds of complaints people have. We know less not only about human survival, but about human endurance—as I say, the redemptive possibilities in people, the way people grow, the way they struggle and overcome almost incomprehensible hazards and obstacles. To reduce that struggle to a series of psychopathological names is of course simply to reveal the cast of our minds.

I suppose we are all entitled to have our various casts of mind—but it does seem fair that those who are so quick to examine the motives and assumptions of others ought to be as willing to look upon occasion at the character of their own thinking. I have in mind something broader and more painful perhaps than goes under the name of “counter-transference.” That is to say, we have to look at not only our irrational responses to the irrationalities we contend with in our patients, but the irrationalities we demonstrate toward one another in our professional meetings, our theoretical discussions, and our daily lives a citizens.

B: I want to return if possible to Simone Weil—to what we could call the nature of modern religious experience. I remember reading recently in her diary (I think it is Gravity and Grace) that again and again she felt torn between the concrete and the abstract or universal. She speaks of the body of this world as being the larger body of man himself, analogous to his corporal body. In the midst of her wish to transcend herself and to adore God she also wanted to plunge into history, into man’s particular struggles. Her whole spirit was distended, grievously, between those two realities, the reality of God and the reality of human suffering and human death; she took part in both, embraced both.

She was in anguish personally as a woman who prayed to God, as a supplicant; but she also wept for suffering people alive here at this time, and she worked to change the world. She connected her personal quest and struggle to the life and death experiences of the Nazi Occupation. And then there were those haunting, strange last days of hers, when she just about starved herself to death as a way of expressing her unity (across the miles and across her exile) with those under the Occupation. She took upon herself the world’s suffering and died—and yet she has meant so much to some of us who are trying to work for a better kind of world.

C: In some lives the history of mankind becomes almost incarnate. It is very interesting: we talk as clinicians about “case histories,” and we are always trying to give our patients an essentially historical sense of themselves. The questions we ask in our offices are historical questions. What was your past like? What did you do at five? What did you think at eight? What were the experiences you had x years ago? But we are not willing to go further and dwell upon the psychological significance to our patients of that larger history which is also part of the individual’s history—because, after all, American history lives on in every American child as a concrete fact of his or her growing up.

My children are growing up in a certain way because certain things have happened in America over the years. I mean, my children are having their experiences with their mother and me—they live in a particular house in which my wife and I think and act in a certain way and thus affect the way our children think and act. But our children are also young Americans, which means they now have 200 years of a certain kind of history behind them, and that history affects their lives every single day; affects what they do; affects what they think; affects what they plan; affects what they dream about; affects what their future is going to be; affects the way they get along with people, and with which people and under what sets of circumstances. Thus does larger history become the individual’s history.

I think the children and young men and women I worked with in the South in the Sixties, when one phase of the civil rights struggle was taking place, knew what we are talking about. They weren’t educated in psychiatric training centers, and they hadn’t read Freud, but in their bones they knew they were in their lives joining individual action to historical change. In so doing, interestingly enough, they did very well. They surprised themselves (and certainly surprised me) with the strength and courage and persistence they mobilized, in spite of serious and sometimes almost inconceivable pressures.

Perhaps they did so well, survived so hardily, because they had a chance to turn suffering into an achievement, a tangible social and political triumph. I have to contrast them with Simone Weil. Like her they were very conscious of what was going on all over the world but they were going uphill and she was going downhill, even as her world was going downhill and their world was going uphill.

I want to keep emphasizing this: when the black children I worked with in New Orleans and Atlanta talked about the efforts they were making as they desegregated schools in those cities they made it clear to me that what they were doing was a psychological fact for them; they weren’t only doing something historical, something for future Southern historians to write about or for political scientists to analyze. Simone Weil, for all the complexity of her thinking, would have easily understood the lean simplicity of those black children’s remarks. What they all have in common, her and others who have struggled for social justice, is the direction they wanted their lives to take—a direction which made their so-called “personal” lives mean something to others as well, others who would be grateful for what they said or did.

Simone Weil felt called upon, as indeed the sit-in leaders were called upon, the freedom riders were called upon, to find out for herself and those around her, in so far as she could, what it is to live close to history. Now I saw a little girl in New Orleans do the same thing—and talk about her efforts with the drawings or little compositions that she gave me. She tried to set down on paper what it meant to be at a turning point in the black man’s American experience and what it did to her, what she felt. She wrote as Simone Weil wrote. She wrote as someone who felt history quite nearby.

I think that for some reason we doctors don’t want our patients to think about such issues, because we have isolated ourselves from history. We too often talk as if everything begins with Freud. We don’t want to know about Kierkegaard. We don’t want to know about St. Augustine. We don’t want to know about Nietzsche or Schopenhauer and what they have to say about the mind and the struggles and tensions that plague the mind.

So, being somewhat ahistorical ourselves, being prideful and overly preoccupied with a certain body of knowledge, we exclude ourselves from other currents of knowledge, whether they be philosophical or theological. We don’t think of political developments, or social and economic developments, as psychological forces. We are at the mercy of our narrowness. Simone Weil for us becomes one more “neurotic.” Her “obsessions” interest us clinically—and meanwhile we ignore her challenge to us as persons. Under such circumstances we naturally would fail to comprehend what Faulkner did—the endurance of black people, their capacity to deal with the most overwhelming kinds of stresses in ways that are not only dignified but (the best word I can find) redemptive.

B: Do you hesitate to use that word? Is it one you were taught as a psychiatrist to ignore?

C: I fear that there were a number of important words and ideas I somehow didn’t think much about when I was learning to be a psychiatrist. When I was taking my training in child psychiatry I was asked by a young boy I was treating who happened to be black if I would come to his home, to visit his home. I told my supervisor that, and asked what to do about it. Well, I was immediately asked why the boy asked that of me, what his request meant. Was the child perhaps trying to “manipulate” me, “control” me, get me to do things for this reason and that reason? And on my side, what was I doing, what “technical” error was I making, for the child even to ask such a question?

We went over and over the matter in the legalistic way that supervisors and supervisees so often do. Only now do I realize how thoughtless and self-centered the two of us were, how uptight and bound to our own way of seeing things and doing things. The child was telling me that if I really wanted to understand him I would have to see his world; I would have to understand what housing is like in a ghetto, what he and his parents as black people had to face, what they had had to face all along, as they lived in South Carolina and then in Boston.

I wasn’t interested in any of that; I didn’t even stop to think about such matters. (It was in the late 1950s, and we had no “race problem” then!) I wanted to know why the child was having a “learning block” in school. And a “learning block” is something that for me, then, had to do with an Oedipal family almost abstract in nature; that is, not tied to the particular social and economic and racial elements in a child’s life, but only to his mother’s and father’s “relationship” with him and his “relationship” with them—as if such “relationships” ever exist in a social or economic or racial vacuum, a historical void.

So I think Simone Weil was onto something about not only history but our deepest psychological needs. She was onto the “relationship” between an individual life and the moment of history in which that life is lived, and particularly she was onto the relationship between those “spiritual pioneers” who are especially sensitive to the bridges which connect history and life history. She may well have been a cannier psychologist or psychiatrist than most of us.

B: She presents us with a fascinating puzzle. On the one hand she was suspicious, as you have mentioned, of almost every possible political alignment or ideological position; and on the other hand, she demonstrated a very mysterious but organic or spiritual unity with others. It seems to me that she expresses in a rather exemplary way the struggle practically every modern person wages with alienation.

I could say wages against alienation, but I mean with it, with the inescapable reality of it. We can be only so close to family or religion or culture. We can take only so much part in the continuing conflicts which go to make up history. Yet, we have a need to do so, to link arms with others, and I mean not only our neighbors but others in history whose sacrifices have given us much to fall back on. Nor was she content to link arms only symbolically or intellectually. She loved books. She loved Plato and the Greeks, but she wanted to be part of the struggle her own countrymen were making. And strangely enough, she supplies us with an example, a metaphor almost, of where and how that “link” can be accomplished.

We have the metaphor of prison, and in her case we have the metaphor of exile, and maybe the two are not that far apart. For her it was important to be a certain kind of exile; she was in England and yet she chose to die rather than to luxuriate in exile or rather than to use exile as an excuse for further alienation from her people, further spiritual distance from suffering. It seems to me that she turned totally and consumedly in the other direction and in the end died with the conviction that she was one with those workers she loved, those occupied and conquered people who were so much on her mind, and whom her soul reached out to with such passion.

C: Speaking of Simone Weil’s exile, are you perhaps trying to stake out for yourself an alternative which is both personal and historical? I mean, you have chosen to be a fugitive—and in your case that means you are willing to go through the difficulty and pain your present situation imposes, and you are willing to remove yourself from a particular relationship to society you have up to now enjoyed.

I presume you want to do so because you feel you cannot bow to the government’s wishes. Yet you are not a lawbreaker of long standing; you have not exactly lived the life of a confidence man or a criminal. I would imagine you are trying desperately to weigh the dangers of breaking a law and the dangers of silence or only token (or “manageable”) opposition to a state of affairs you consider an outrage and a scandal. When does the individual have an obligation to assert himself in such a way that he makes a public statement about his country’s policies? What are the limits to protest—when the protesters feel things getting worse and feel they have done all they can by marching in parades or writing to their congressmen?

You have heard those questions asked before by me and others before me. I merely mention them now because the answers you seem to have come up with place you in substantial spiritual jeopardy—or so Simone Weil would no doubt say, and not necessarily without sympathy.

B: I think I have at least some idea what she meant when she talked about the experience of rejection and alienation, when she talked about the acceptance of exile—but then at the same time went on to assert a very powerful sense of solidarity with others, with all of her countrymen. As for myself, I don’t know how to explain in detail my present position. I know this, though: I am trying with all my heart and soul to move closer to the realities of history, the realities which millions of people have to face in their everyday lives. I may now be an exile within my own country, but I feel that I have been trying in what I have done to speak for others as well as myself, and to embrace across the world many who are undergoing what I take to be struggles which are related to mine.

I am trying to say clumsily something that I think is very simple: I have a sense that the future of man lies not with the pretentions of the White House or the Kremlin, but in those very small and humiliated nodes of light which are to be found all over the world, including our own country, but which perhaps exist most poignantly and strikingly in the so-called Third World, where suffering is so universally experienced, where memories of colonialism are so recent, and where unusual people arise almost in the nature of things.

I still feel I am not being clear, though. Maybe one cannot speak about such matters without becoming complicated. Anyway, I think there is something important to be undergone, something with a certain spiritual value to it; it is almost as if to be cast out can become a way of being cast in, which means I will taste not solely or even primarily the bitterness of being an American locked up, as my brother is, or an American on the run, but I will also taste a fate millions of others know, millions of people whose historical struggle matters very much, even if not to those who run our military machine and plan our foreign policy and invest money in the semi-colonial countries we still dominate in various parts of the world.

I can only speak tentatively about all of this, but I do have the sense that to be right now in some serious trouble with respect to the “powers and principalities” of this nation means to occupy a most important geographical position—if one wishes to struggle with others all over the world for their freedom; and by the same token to be in no trouble at all is to share in what I take to be a frightening movement toward violence and death. To resist that movement is one’s choice.

C: I do not see our situation in this country as starkly (even apocalyptically) as you do. I am interested, though, in the implications of what you just said. Those who want to fight deathlike conformity and learn about both themselves and the world may have to take risks they find unacceptable. Perhaps if one really wants to find out about himself he has to become unsettled in a truly significant and continuing way—as Freud certainly knew.

But I question whether one can find out all there is to know about oneself psychologically by free-associating in an office, in a private office at forty or fifty dollars an hour. I mean, what one misses in that kind of guided introspection is just too vast. The whole tone of one’s life as it is lived in the world politically and economically and socially and historically simply does not come across in that kind of analysis, and if we want to know all there is that is going on in the mind (and I mean by that as much as we can know—obviously we can never know everything) then it seems to me that we have to look for new places in which such knowledge can be discovered.

After all, when Freud set up that office of his and devised the couch, he was also locating himself and his patients in what you would call a new geographical position; and a very redemptive position it was for those who had never gone to people like him before, had never before been treated as Freud treated them, never been given the kind of respect, the kind of revolutionary respect he offered to those so-called neurotics in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Now it may just be that new geographers will have to help us obtain the kind of freedom and self-awareness we want and need today—this being seventy years after 1900 and this being not Vienna but the United States of America.

B: My brother and I talked to a lot of people over the two years in which we were under appeal—and we urged them not to follow us in a literal-minded way, but to look to their own situation, and then act accordingly. We were trying to reduce the chasm that exists in most lives between what we have called awareness on the one hand and on the other action—and I mean action that responds to the mind’s intelligence and the heart’s “reasons” which Pascal wrote about. My brother and I have tried, as Phil puts it, to “share our lives.” And it is interesting, I think, and very profound on his part, that he calls that the revolution—sharing one’s life with others.

Now, is there a difference between that kind of “sharing” and what goes on between a psychiatrist and a patient, or a priest in the confessional and a person who comes to see him? I think so. It seems to me that if we are to “share our lives” as Phil and I hope to do, we have to share ourselves not only with each other but with the world; the horror of war, the horror of racism, these become very personal matters, and propel us outward, away from those private and pleasant and satisfying and “supportive” encounters which too often help people “forget about” the world’s tragedies, and so feel, ultimately, indifferent to them. The world becomes a “third party”—an annoying “interference,” so to speak. Do you see what I mean? In so many of my discussions with students—with young Catholics in the late Fifties—we settled difficulties in their lives by talking together, just the two of us—and in a way, I now see, we didn’t even touch upon so many things, let alone “settle” them.

C: Yes, I think I see your point. In psychiatry, too, we so often want to exclude the world. Many of us have gone to absurd extremes to do so. We won’t put certain things on our office walls, because they reveal to the patient things about ourselves. We darken our offices, the patients come in, they lie down, they close their eyes, they have “associations,” we interpret them, and the whole drift of the hour gets them away from the world, removes them from outside “distractions,” so that they can have a certain private kind of experience with us.

Within limits I can go along with some of that: people have their various nightmares, and they need to concentrate on finding out what is wrong and why. But the outside world lives in our every bone and muscle—and affects how things go even in the most cloistered rooms. And some of our patients get the notion that a kind of ultimate reality is the kind of reality they experience in our offices. They want to focus on their “problems” to the exclusion of their “activities”; they even lose interest in doing—all they want to do is analyze, analyze themselves.

Now certain individuals do indeed need to stop and take a look, a long look at themselves and their behavior, but it is an illusion for them to think that life itself ought to be lived that way—with endless self-consciousness and detachment. Nor are some patients (and their doctors) able to avoid turning their preoccupations into weapons; anyone “unanalyzed” is looked down upon, treated as somehow a lesser person. Again, the illusion—an illusion with no future, I might add—is that a particular kind of private (therapeutic) encounter will satisfy the person’s various existential dilemmas, perhaps by replacing them with the infinite demands of “analysis.”

B: I find a very strange kind of resonance in what you’ve said with my own experience. I am talking about “sacramental confession” or “regular confession”—that is, the one-to-one relationship in a confessional. You know in recent years, as the Church has changed, fewer and fewer Catholics are presenting themselves for that sacrament, and at the same time more and more Catholics are trying to find ways of celebrating the Eucharist together.

It’s not that people don’t still feel various guilts and a sense of moral failure before God and the community. Rather, young people especially don’t find confession a suitable way of expressing such feelings. They don’t want to go into darkness and talk into the ear of one man. What they are looking for, it seems to me, can be called a socialization of conscience. They want a social expression of the sacrament, a renewal on their part to the community—as one of its members who has been delinquent and is seeking readmission through confession of fault and through the forgiveness of the whole community. I don’t want to push this too far, because I think on certain occasions a one-to-one relationship can be very important.

C: And very rewarding.

B: But the fact is that for a long time many of us had observed that the one-to-one sacramental exchange actually worked toward the alienation of conscience rather than its education or its further imbedding in the reality of the world. We could hear hundreds and hundreds of confessions over a period of years, as I did, and remember on the fingers of one hand the persons who had ever spoken to us about racism or wars and the everyday social and economic injustice we ought to notice and as Christians work against.

C: We are educated not to think of certain things as sinful; they are simply what is, what the world is like.

B: Yes. And ironically, when one is allowed to “confess,” but is not (as in a more communal situation) asked to confront these issues and face them with others—then, of all things, one’s isolation and indifference, one’s sinfulness, is strengthened, rather than “forgiven,” hence presumably diminished.

C: By the same token patients who go to psychiatrists have been educated not to think of some of these social problems as things to discuss with a doctor—namely, the way they hate other people, the way they exploit others. How often do patients come to clinics worried about their racial prejudices, their resentment of various groups of people, their wish to destroy whole nations or to see their country destroy another country? One would think that such ideas and wishes and hates constitute a very profound kind of psychological difficulty.

But those are not the difficulties we have been educated to look upon as “problems” in need of help or “analysis.” One doesn’t get that analyzed. One doesn’t try to get rid of that. Nor do many doctors even try to ask their patients the kinds of questions that would highlight such ways of thinking, and challenge them—as we challenge other “phobias” or “anxieties” or “rivalries” in those who come to see us. We don’t look upon those matters as our domain. Those are “social problems,” those are for the sociologists to ask people about.

B: One thinks about how Lyndon Johnson went off to pray during the night before he decided to begin bombing North Vietnam. I think that that is one of the most extraordinary and instructive things I have heard in the last ten years. It says so much about religion, about that man’s soul, about his expectation from prayer, and—at least it seems to me—it says much about our churches that he would return from an experience like that clothed in a kind of divine approval for the murder of people in cities. He not only was convinced that it was the good American thing to do; he believed he was blessed, given Christ’s sanction to go ahead and press all those buttons in his big office. One would want to laugh contemptuously—if the matter were not so awful and obscene and tragic.

I don’t want to bother you with the still unsettled theological questions that I find knocking on my mind’s door in the middle of the night these days—as I struggle to make sense of Mr. J. Edgar Hoover and Mr. John Mitchell and the rest of them. I mean, exactly who are they? Henchmen of a Roman Emperor? Grandsons of Cain? Kind and loving disciples of Jesus Christ our Lord? And apart from them, I keep wondering what is possible for human beings. In my recent experience I see things converging constantly across the lines of “culture” and “religion” and “ethnic background” into a common assumption, held by many, that we either enter into a profound form of nonviolent humanitarianism, or we become part of the proliferating problem, as Cleaver would put it—having refused to become part of the solution.