Have Faith: Learning for Lent

Remembering good advice from an old friend.

Jerry Berrigan, right, is arrested on March 9, 2008, while protesting the Iraq war in Syracuse. —Mike Greenlar

Lent is here for those who recognize it, and I’ve pledged to do a better job of … everything … for this liturgical season. I think it all boils down to mindfulness. If I only took the time to simmer down and think before I act, on so many levels, I’m pretty sure it would make my life easier, not to mention the lives of those who have to deal with me on a regular basis. For me, mindfulness doesn’t necessarily mean sitting in an amber-lit room alone with my thoughts, and ready to begin a meditation session — although, wouldn’t that be nice? It just means I need to stop reacting so much, and instead, take a few minutes to be thoughtful about the words and actions I’m about to put out into the world.

I do have a little sentence I try to say to myself whenever I feel slighted by something someone says or writes, and I feel the urge to get up in arms about it: Everything is not about me. I tend to think the opposite, and that’s not a great way to live in the world. I’m learning, though, and I can actually stop myself (sometimes) with that sentence. Then I typically realize that the response I planned isn’t necessary at all. We don’t have to “respond” to every little thing that gets thrown at us every day.

We can learn a lot about this subject from other people we admire, by observing how they live (or lived) their lives. Some years ago, in a conversation we had about God and other topics, my late friend Jerry Berrigan said that the older he got, the more he realized he rarely needed to talk at all. And he was the same about excesses, saying that we really need very little to get by, and the less, the better. Jerry was a great advocate for civil disobedience when he felt it was necessary, and was arrested for protesting war, nuclear weapons, and unjust practices too many times to count. He mellowed in some ways as he got older, I’m sure, like many folks do. (I did see him shimmy under a fence at the former Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, N.Y., at a protest when he was nearly 80, though.)

Jerry was a college professor and father of four adopted children alongside his wife Carol, who died just a few weeks ago, at 93. They were a wonderful pair; both were active in the civil rights movement, and one of the things I loved most about Carol — besides how she made everyone feel so special when she spoke to and listened to them — was that she carried over her social justice work into the realm of people with disabilities. She worked at the Center on Human Policy at Syracuse University, where they support research, teaching, and advocacy to promote the rights of those with disabilities, according to their website (thechp.syr.edu). I needed help with my son Dan, and she picked up the telephone the minute I told her that he was having some difficulties in the classroom. That call led to an advocate coming to every individualized education program meeting we had at the school, for years. Jerry and Carol weren’t afraid to act on their convictions, and at the same time, they were very kind and devout people. Jerry trained for years to be a priest in the Josephite order, like his brother Philip, but he ultimately decided he wasn’t “holy enough.” Anyone who had a conversation with either of them came away better for it.

Whenever I feel like I’m getting carried away, and start to feel that chip growing on my shoulder, I try to think of the Berrigans, the kindness they possessed, and the tenets they lived by. It reminds me that there are indeed other ways to handle what’s happening around me — and in the world. There are times to be silent, and times to use our voices. The catch is to know when to do each. That’s what I’ll be working on for Lent.

If you’ve got something you’d like to share about the upcoming season, send an email to connie@mvtimes.com, and we can commiserate.