A few of us got together on the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, just before Lent began, and prayed a rosary on the street. We were Jesuit scholastics and priests, and the idea was that we’d all have our clerics on, our black outfits, and hold signs, and it would be a mighty thing for the people of Chicago to see all these religious men in black praying against the war. It’s an image, we felt, that people hadn’t seen much.
But it was so cold and so windy out that most of us had on jackets that covered up our black shirts and small white collars. There was no impressive black line. Just a bunch of people in winter coats, beige, green, red, and gray.
We stood out there anyway. We prayed. We held signs and prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries, even though it was Monday, which is when you pray the Glorious Mysteries. A few nuns joined us, a few undergrads. About twenty-five of us in all, lifting from Friday the Sorrowful Mysteries, which commemorate the passion and death of Christ, and announcing them on Monday.
What did it accomplish? What did it matter?
A few of us kept doing it, Fridays.
It felt stupid. We recited the Sorrowful Mysteries on the appropriate days, Fridays in Lent, stupidly.
On one of the Fridays when we prayed the rosary, it rained. So the guy in charge of the signs didn’t bring them. He thought they would get ruined. Because there were no signs, I didn’t want to pray the rosary that day. The people driving by Loyola University would have no clear idea why we were out there praying. We couldn’t be doing this to them. We couldn’t be out there, giving confusing signals to sleepy morning drivers. We prayed anyway. Four of us in black praying the rosary on the street. O my Jesus save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy. What is this? Why are we here? How did we mess up? Who left behind the signs to tell the world what we’re doing?
Generally, this is how I pray: I decide I need to. Or I decide I should be one who prays. So I start. I make something up. I say something. I pretend Mary is there because I want to talk to Mary, for reasons I don’t exactly know about. Maybe because in statues she is always very pretty. And so, as I stood out there without a sign, with the three other young Jesuits in our blacks, I pictured Mary before me, in the air. And I asked her to heal us all, to pray for us sinners.
I also may have prayed to Mary because of a phone call I received not long before this. My friend Kelly from North Carolina had told me that when she was driving back from Greensboro she sort of lost it because her dad was dying. Kelly was in the process of becoming Catholic, it so happened, and a little thing she remembered in the car was the Virgin Mary and that Mary is praying for her. She started crying again as she told me about Mary and her intercessions. Since then I’ve tried to remember, too, that Mary is praying for me.
But the other thing involved in my prayer is that when Kelly calls on the phone, and cries, and tells me about Mary, I feel like a jerk. This is because I cannot see my way, it appears, to muster nearly the amount of compassion this phone call requires. My voice doesn’t automatically make the small sounds of empathy, the low-level groans, the breathy yeahs… I just listen silently. I don’t know why this is so. People tell me about their tragic moments, and I take them in with all the warmth of a vending machine, my heart moved remotely, if at all. It’s a disturbing sign of some deeper lack, I am convinced. A hollow space where compassion should be. A kind of unholy detachment, something in me that is cut loose and just doesn’t care.
Maybe I showed up on the street all those Fridays then to protest not only war but my own lack of humanity. To prove to the world with rosaries and posters that, in fact, I do care. Look at these beads, look at these signs, see the good occurring here. There is something good here, isn’t there?
Our signs for peace, when it wasn’t raining out, said to the people of Chicago, Peace is our duty, our grave duty. And War is always a defeat for humanity. These two quotes are from our departed pope, John Paul II. Lord have mercy on us said another sign. We made these simple signs, and we held them, and we recited the ancient prayers. But, really, who were we to hold signs while saying prayers? Haven’t we entered a time when this is so primitive and lonely and hopeless, the sparse row of earnest spiritualists holding signs and praying to end war? It’s embarrassing, holding a sign, on a street, with traffic going by. It’s presumptuous, that the people out there need to hear our message. It’s too righteous by half. It even borders on haughty. And there I am, in my blacks, feeling at turns ghostly, stupid, fraudulent, simplistic, not doing near enough, too little too late, frightened, ready to die at a moment’s notice, stupid again.
I guess I just didn’t know what else to do.
But Senator Barack Obama came to our campus later that spring, April of 2006, the war three years old and counting, and provided some clarity to the situation in general. It was a town hall meeting in our field house, and someone asked why he voted to continue funding the war, and he said he had to pay for body armor. This is why he voted that way, even though he’s opposed to the war, or was, or still is but in a different way. He has to keep the troops in, he told us, in order to prevent the bloodshed of one-hundred-thousand Iraqis. If American troops leave, there will be carnage, a bloodbath. Even peace activists over there tell him this, he said. Peace activists want these troops, it appears, or they want body armor, or they too are for peace but want the troops at least to stay, because they are sensible and, evidently, we too should be so sensible.
And so our rosary. By saying haughtily we must have peace, by crying out self-righteously, “Lord have mercy on us” it appears we were really, in a coded way, demanding the sending of our troops unequipped into battle. Wishing bullets and shrapnel into their unprotected flesh. And further, calling for the wholesale murder of one hundred thousand Iraqis. And we were begging the Virgin’s blessing on such carnage and slaughter. It appears, after the visit by the junior Senator, we should have stopped in the midst of our Hail Marys and gone quietly back to our rooms.
Or, was it that, unlike those who protested the war in a temporal fashion—civic-minded busybodies who dwell on banal political questions about funding the military presence—our little group was seeking peace in a more spiritual, eternal way, a way that did not really oppose anything that the military or its leaders were doing but simply wished that things were better. Maybe we were not really asking God’s blessing for any policy or plan that might concretely lead to an end to the violence. Maybe we were just, basically, praying for the somewhat magical appearance of peace on earth. Maybe we were praying in the way that even people who believe in the war pray for peace. Perhaps our rosary was a non-political prayer requesting that all people in any way involved in the Iraqi conflict have a radical and stunning conversion of the heart such that they will put down their weapons.
All at the same time.
In one spontaneous and beautiful moment.
So no one gets the upper hand.
Maybe we Jesuits were praying for that miracle and then going about our business. Taking philosophy classes, saying mass, riding the exercycle. Maybe we were engaged in the time-honored work of earnest religious people offering in a general way all our problems to God and then going on doing things the way we’ve always done them.
Maybe all that was true, and we could get away with being good-hearted and harmless spiritual personalities. We could be in harmony with the beloved Senator Obama. We could go on with our lives.
And yet, while I generally like to remain in a place of sensible agreement with everyone around me, this wasn’t the case. For me, anyway, our prayers were an oppositional statement, not a generalized prayer of peace. Our prayers and signs haughtily decried all war. They were a statement for one thing and against another. With rosaries seeking God’s blessing on that statement. Marshalling God, or at least our understanding of God, into the camp of troops out now.
A few months before we prayed the rosary on the street, Dan Berrigan came to our school. He came to give a lecture about, of all things, a work of art. In the middle of war-time, Fr. Dan Berrigan, Jesuit poet and peace activist, came all the way to Chicago, to Loyola University, to speak about a painting! A Caravaggio painting, to be exact, Christ being betrayed by Judas. He read a paper about what he felt this painting meant, and we all listened respectfully, and wished the paper was about disobedience and war. Wished, perhaps, he would gather us up, Fr. Berrigan, and we would all non-violently burn something. An act that would, in some small but catastrophic way, affect the continuance of the war. But he didn’t do that. He talked about this painting of Christ in Gethsemane, soldiers taking him away, and a man in the corner painted by Caravaggio to look like Caravaggio; Caravaggio as a part of the mob, holding a lantern which lights up his own face. The artist is addressing his own guilt, Fr. Berrigan speculated. Because in his actual life, Caravaggio once killed a man, he told us. Murdering another man was somehow like being an accomplice in killing Christ. And so the artist needed to shine a light on himself as one who helped betray the Lord. One who in his own way never did enough to stop the crucifixion; one who would paint himself as standing by stupidly, witness before a horrible wrong, in order to scourge some harsh and unredeemed bone in his body.
After Fr. Berrigan spoke, I went up and shook his hand. I told him I was a Jesuit. He looked up a little more sprightly when I said that. Maybe he has practiced looking up sprightly when young men shake his hand and tell him they, too, are Jesuits. He wore a green and brown and orange shirt. It looked vaguely like camouflage. I tried to find some significance in this. I wondered for a moment or two whether Fr. Dan Berrigan was wearing a shirt like that with the wily intent of reclaiming camouflage. Of putting it on his own peaceable body and thereby disarming camouflage. And then I thought maybe he just liked the shirt. He had said in this shirt to the whole crowd, after he stopped talking about art and we asked him about war, that the past four years had been the most difficult of his life. The most difficult of his life! Dan Berrigan! Had he even been to jail at all the past four years? The toughest of his life! After all he’d been through. Burning draft cards at Catonsville, a fugitive from the FBI, months and months in jail, reviled by Catholics everywhere. Rejected even by some of his old admirers for speaking out against abortion or in favor of Palestine. These last four years the hardest of his life!
I was haunted by this. Haunted and remarkably saddened. It’s not how one’s life should go! Shouldn’t you, Dan, be dealing with injustice and violence in a way that makes your life, though challenging as all of our lives are challenging, at least wear on your body a little more gently? Shouldn’t you, while yet disturbed by war, find a slot to put it into that doesn’t shake you so deeply as this war appears to have? Why are you so disturbed? Haven’t you already stood before these wars, witnessed what humans can do to one another, felt imprinted in your flesh the helplessness of trying to do good in a very, very corrupt world? You are in your eighties! Your eighties shouldn’t be like this. Stop it. Quit being so beset. We insist. Cut it out.
I want to be fairly undisturbed when I am an eighty-four-year-old Jesuit. Certainly I want to be, in a quite beautiful way, always on the correct side of issues like war, stupidly dragging God away from generalities and into specific places, but I don’t want that fact to make my life too difficult! Mainly, I want to be free. They say in Jesus is freedom, and if I keep getting closer to Jesus there will be great freedom in me, body, mind, and soul. Even the cross, even that I will take on with greater ease then, without so much pain as maybe even joy. The cross won’t hurt as much maybe, when I am so close to Jesus after fifty years of diligent practice. When I am free it will be better.
I pray and hope that things will get better for me. For I am one who can, at the drop of a hat, sink into a persuasive darkness. Who finds ever more innovative ways to be disgusted with his very self. Who raises the lantern to his own face again and again, convinced of his own guilt, mainly for never doing enough or being enough. For not being compassionate enough in the face of Kelly’s dad’s cancer and every other small-bore catastrophe out there. Who hauls his body over to the protest just to be let off the hook for one more day. I’d like to get beyond it all.
But in the journey there, just as I start making some steps, I encounter these simple words of Dan Berrigan that these have been the toughest four years of his life. You are my Jesuit brother, Dan. Do I really, however, want that kind of brotherhood? Is the depth of one’s caring about something proportional to the amount of misery one lets into their body? To really desire peace does one implicitly invite great pain? Is there a deeper struggle that must be taken on? Opening the soul to a kind of dissatisfaction, an unease that will leave one never quite at home in the world… always taken down into darkness by the violence going on out there? What exactly is the call? Is standing on the corner holding the words of a dead holy Polish actor enough?
The war continued. A year came and went. Some weeks after the war’s fourth anniversary, in the spring of 2007, students from Loyola decided to visit Senator Obama’s Chicago office. A vote was pending to allocate money for an increase in troops and a general continuation of the war—the surge. These students wanted him to vote against it. A few of us Jesuits joined them. We knew the Senator, who had recently announced his presidential candidacy, wouldn’t be there. We just wanted to speak to someone. When we got there, showed our poster, made our case, Obama’s polite staff told us they were not sure what the Senator would do about the upcoming vote. It was very complex. One thing was sure, Obama was a uniter. He would try to unite people around this or any other issue. But as for how he would vote, they could not say. We left and gathered in the lobby. We tried to say upbeat things, the kinds of things people who petition the government say to each other. The good of our just having gone there… every little voice… you just never know... little drops of water forming a river. We said these things to each other, and wondered if we really believed them, and then left separately.
It so happened that, not long after this, Fr. Berrigan came back to our college to receive an honorary doctorate. Before the ceremony, he spoke in an informal session with students. This time mainly about war and disobedience and prayer. He was funny and humble and down to earth. We asked him, How do you do it, how do you keep going, how do you struggle for peace? He told us that he reads the Bible. He prays with a community. He is less and less concerned with results. He said that he invites students to protests with him. He will stand by any student who gets arrested with him. He will be there for them, he said matter-of-factly. After answering a number of questions about war and jail and so on, he said something like, “Now that I’ve completely depressed you all,” and everyone laughed.
Fr. Berrigan also had on the same shirt. The same orange, green, brown, nearly but not quite camouflage shirt he’d worn at the Caravaggio talk. I tried again to find some significance in this. I tried to connect it to the last time he was at our school. I wondered if this was the shirt he wore to all talks on peace and war and art. Or had he worn exclusively that shirt for the past four years? Like a superstitious athlete, perhaps he hadn’t washed this uniform since March 2003, when the war began. In the year and a half since I’d last seen him in that shirt, I myself had traveled much further down the road to peace. Inner peace, you might say, as granted by God almighty after much prayer and reflection. I guess I just felt a little calmer about things, trusted a bit more in the presence of the Lord. Something like that. How to say it exactly, I don’t know. If I tried to explain it in writing, my hands would fall off before I could get there.
What I can say is that I stopped talking so much, if at all, about ending the war as if it were something removed from me. When I asked Mary to pray for us sinners, I started meaning it more. The violence was not only out there, I realized. It was in here, too: how I treated people, friends and strangers, or simply how I thought about them. How I treated even myself, time and again. Invading my own poorly-defended country to spread all kinds of viciousness. The balance, I realized, lay in properly naming myself a sinner, but not in such a way that only led to more sin—namely the pride and arrogance that can mound up when you feel the tragedies of the world are primarily yours to resolve. A new freedom had come about. The freedom to stand on a corner and pray against the war, and a freedom not to be compelled by deathly spirits to do so.
Still, the war went on. And still there were many religious people like myself doing very little to end it. Maybe we all had become too innerly peaceful. Maybe we all at the same time freed ourselves of unholy compulsions to act against war, such that none of us would do anything about it.
Barack Obama actually did wind up voting against the surge. Did our little drops of water help create the river of his vote? Was his decision a thing caught up in prayer, spirituality, the eternal? Or was it just a candidate trying to get himself on the right side of an issue? Or are those two motivations not so distinct? Who can say exactly? However he got there, he surprised us by making a vote for peace. But others voted for it, and the troop increase was funded anyway. The war continued.
But then, incredibly, so did Obama… a rupture, a cataclysm, Iowa, Philadelphia, Ohio, Grant Park, unthinkable. The man whose office we visited, who spoke to our school, who won our respect with his ballot against the surge, this man actually prevailed. Can such things happen? Is this real? And with his new powers he pledged to pull the troops out. Almost as if the spiritualists were writing the script, he careened into office vowing to take our soldiers from the living nightmare of Iraq.
And put them in Afghanistan.
To intensify what Time magazine called the right war.
It appears, in this matter at least, the story is being written in the same way it is always written.
Obama may turn out to do many good things, even in the thorny areas of peace and reconciliation. Still, in the end, our war will go on. The violence of my own heart draped in army fatigues and sent overseas, again and again and again.
To be honest, I am not sure how to end what I am writing, because I don’t want to stop talking, because I hope by talking I will find a way out. Maybe selfishly, arrogantly, just to have a clean conscience. To keep my precious religious self away from unpleasant realities like war. Or maybe God is behind it. I still don’t always know. Nonetheless, I hope to stumble upon some spiritual glimmer, a holy insight, a free-association prayer that will unite my inner calm with non-generalized prayers on street corners and intercessions from the Virgin Mary, Jesuit poets, all rosary reciters everywhere and Kelly’s dad, now deceased. I’d like to be able to talk my way into a mobilization of forces that will in some remarkable, beautiful, specifically political, or generally miraculous way stop the killing.
But I guess I don’t know how to do that.
At the end of our conversation, Dan Berrigan said that recently he had been on a retreat in New Mexico with Catholic Workers, men and women who try to accomplish the corporal works of mercy and at the same time witness for peace. The theme of the retreat was “Walking with Our Sorrows.” They too, apparently, lifted those mysteries from Friday and used them on other days. He told us he liked that theme very much, that we are walking with our sorrows, walking with our sorrows.
Joe Hoover is a Jesuit regent teaching at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.