Memorial Day. 30 May 2016.
On the morning of June 9, 1981, engaging in a pious practice long ago recommended by Ignatius of Loyola and many other spiritual guides, I opened the Bible at random to find a passage that could focus my morning prayer. The passage that lay before me was the story of Jacob in flight from his brother, resting his head on a stone, dreaming of the ladder that stretched from earth to heaven. And I read further into the story, being made brand-new to my mind, following the adventures of one of the most disreputable heroes in the Old Testament -- from his creative responses to matrimonial betrayal, to his even more creative measures to ensure that, even while working in an indentured servant’s capacity, he would become economically independent of his uncle, Laban. The part of the story that especially captured me was the story of Jacob wrestling with the “stranger” during the dark, solitary hours while Jacob prepared to attempt reconciliation with Esau, his brother.
That afternoon, on the campus of Marquette University, I was to profess my final vows in the Society of Jesus, before a congregation of more than 300 Jesuit priests, brothers, and guests – including my mother and my sister Arlayne. Just before we processed into the church, the coordinator of the afternoon liturgy (the “master of ceremonies”) said to me, “The other two men pronouncing their vows don’t want to say anything during the Mass. I suppose you don’t want to speak, either.” “Oh,” I said, “I think that this occasion is far too important to pass without a comment. Yes, I will say something.”
The music started. And that was the last of it, until after the rather complicated ceremony of professing vows (some in public, before the altar; others in a semi-private setting in the sacristy). After we had settled into our chairs after Communion, the provincial superior of the Wisconsin Province leaned over to me and said, “Don’t look now, but you are being introduced.” So I went to the pulpit and looked at sixteen years of my own wrestling match with dozens and dozens of men, leading to periods of deep depression; extreme traumatic stress; thoughts of walking away from all aspects of religious ministry and communal responsibilities. I looked at my history. And theirs.
And I said, aloud, how grateful I was to have read the story of Jacob in Genesis (chapters 28 – 32). I made an interpretive choice that has served, for more than 35 years, as the foundational interpretive tool that I have used to build my theories of cross-cultural criticism. I saw Jacob as representative of the men of the Society of Jesus with whom I struggled – struggled to be seen, to be heard, to be accepted, to be confirmed in my several identities. And that necessarily led me to identify myself, in that wrestling match, with the “stranger,” the angel-messenger of God. “We have wrestled with each other, these last 16 years,” I said, “and we have not ‘prevailed against’ each other. But we have sought to learn, and have sometimes wounded each other; and I now see myself as one who can give you your true name.”
Returning to New Haven, I kept both my comments and the Jacob story clearly in my mind. The next summer, I went to Toronto in order to write my Afro-American Studies M. A. thesis. Fr Robert Doran handed me a copy of Joseph and His Brothers, by Thomas Mann. I consumed all four sections of this monumental work, which begins far before the birth of Jacob and creates a world that is compelling and breath-taking. Jacob wrestling with the angel appeared in my thesis. But the most radical epiphany I experienced while digesting this narrative was to go back to the place Jacob named, “Bethel,” after he has his dream about the angel-messengers traveling from heaven to earth, and back.
The song that made everything new and old and simultaneous was “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” If I could see African Americans as the ones who identify themselves as the angel-messengers, then I would have to develop a strong understanding of mysticism as a foundation post of Black Theology. And if mysticism can be seen as an essential strategy in the performance of theology in the Africana world, then I had found a cultural justification of seeing Black believers describing themselves as the voices of authority in the world of religion and culture. It turned the world of received theology upside-down.
Which eventually would lead me to my simple declaration that we must begin all our intellectual work with the simple question, “Who defines the terms by which we live?” Sometimes I joke that if a person stood in a large airport or train station and shouted that question, who knows how many people would respond with “Yeah! I took that class too!” But now there is something more to consider, in order to re-shape what I have known all along.
The question must be doubled. “Who defines the terms by which we live? Who defines the terms by which we die?”
The motive for this remembrance is a day to “remember our fallen soldiers.” The difficulty of bringing the names of certain of my heroes is this: the three who are especially remembered here would strongly resist any identification with any aspect of military involvement; resist any deed that would lead to the death of any one of God’s children. The only comfort for bringing forth the names of these recently deceased priests is that the song I am singing refers to “soldiers of the cross.” And one of the basic understandings of “soldier” is “one who serves under any cause.”
So let us now praise these glorious angels of the Lord, three men who served to wrestle with every institution of privilege and oppression and violence until their very lives, their words, their life-witness would at the very least wound the complacent who are cloaked in denial and fear.
Once again, we let James Baldwin teach us, as he taught Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. And Bayard Rustin and, eventually all who came under his gaze.
Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us. [from “Down at the Cross”, in The Fire Next Time]
“For the sake of those who are coming after us.” This is the wisdom to apply to the life and testimony of Rev. Daniel Berrigan, SJ (1921 – 2016). One “ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.” This is the life witness of Rev. Anthony Clark, SVD (1944 – 2016). And the life of the great and humble and fiercely clear servant-priest, Rev. Al McKnight, C. S. Sp. (1927 – 2016), carries this truth, as he continues to bring us the blessing word of God, from beyond the grave: “One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness. . ..”
Listen for them.
They will continue to visit us, healing our dreams, nourishing our faith, and calling us to be faithful to the vision of what must be, as we make our way at the cross(roads) of our lives.