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The Aunt
Daniel Berrigan, SJ
With eyes a dying candle
with voice telling the years awry
my aunt at her high window
counts the seasons by —
bird wedges or air of snow
or red leaves of a leaning sky.
Eighty-one years have whittled her hands
white coals have whitened her sweet mouth:
Christ has fountained in her eyes
and crumpled her face to drought:
flood and drought, He entered once —
in and never out.
It was all gardens then: young winds
tugging her trees of cloud.
At night His quiet lay on the quiet
all day no bird was loud:
under His word, His word, her body
consented and bowed.
And what is love, or what love does
looks from a knot of face
where marching fires could but leave
ruin and gentleness in place:
snatched her away, and left her Self:
Christ to regard us, Face to face.

Daniel Berrigan was born in 1921 in Minnesota, and grew up in Syracuse, New York. One of six boys, he entered the Jesuits straight out of high school, in 1939, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1952. He taught theology and Scripture, and was highly regarded as a poet as well. Berrigan was also a prominent activist. He gained fame, and notoriety, from his outspoken protests against the Vietnam War, alongside his brother, Phillip Berrigan. The brothers’ peace work was rooted in their Christian faith and in the Gospel, but they got a lot of pushback for their approach—especially when they led the “Catonsville Nine,” a group of Catholics who seized draft files and burned them in the parking lot with homemade napalm. Berrigan later said of the incident, “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children.”
Throughout his long life, Berrigan never stopped protesting, teaching, writing, and preaching. He ministered to AIDS patients, protested nuclear armament, and spoke out against abortion and the death penalty. He saw all these issues as interconnected. He once said, “I see an 'interlocking directorate' of death that binds the whole culture… an unspoken agreement that we will solve our problems by killing people in various ways; a declaration that certain people are expendable, outside the pale. A decent society should no more have an abortion clinic than The Pentagon." Berrigan was a polarizing and prophetic figure. He died in 2016 at the age of 94.
In the poem Jackie just read, we get a different side of Berrigan. In this poem, “The Aunt,” Berrigan gently and reverently describes an old woman, his aunt. She is fading away. Everything speaks of diminishment—her “eyes a dying candle,” her hands “whittled” away, her mouth faded, her face crumpled. Her mind, too, is going, as she tells “the years awry,” losing track of time. She seems to be the shell of what she once was—as he says at the end of the poem, the “marching fires” of life have gone through her, and now nothing is left but “ruin and gentleness.”
But there is more to this story. It is not just time that has wasted this woman – it is Christ. “Christ has fountained in her eyes / and crumpled her face to drought,” Berrigan writes. He describes his aunt in the prime of life, when she gave herself for Christ: “It was all gardens then: young winds… At night His quiet lay on the quiet…. Under His word, His word, her body / consented and bowed.” She invited Christ into her life, and Christ is still there—he came “in,” Berrigan writes, but “never out.” Thus now, when every part of her is wasted and diminished, one thing is not—that presence of Christ in her. “What is love, or what love does / looks from a knot of face,” Berrigan writes. When he looks at his aunt, love looks back—Christ looks back. The aunt he knew is gone, in a way, and now all that is left is the Christ whom she loved throughout her life: “Christ to regard us, Face to face.”
I thought this lovely poem was an appropriate one for this week. February 2 is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. When Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple, forty days after his birth, they encounter Simeon and Anna. These two elderly people have been awaiting the Messiah all their lives, and when Jesus comes, they are ready: they recognize him. Their lives have immense value as they are among the first to give witness to Christ.
“The Aunt” is a tender poem, especially coming from one of the “Catonsville Nine”! But there is no contradiction here. Berrigan’s poetry and his activism were both rooted in the same place, his faith in Christ, and in his deep reverence for human life—at every stage.




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