Though Invisible to Us, Our Dead Are Not Absent

Those  titular words were sent to me by Fr. Daniel Berrigan, shortly before he died.

It is a glorious spring day as I write.  The day my father died was also glorious, and I cried like a baby. It was 25 years ago today, May 1, 1993. To the young it must seem like a long time ago.  To me it is yesterday. I am his namesake for which I feel blessed.  Every day that passes I realize how profound his influence has been on me.  Perhaps not obvious to others, it runs like an underground stream that carries me forward and soothes my soul through the passage of days. The early morning he died was so beautiful, almost as beautiful as he was.  The call from the hospital came at 5 A.M.  When I was leaving his apartment shortly thereafter, the birds were in full throat, singing madly.  The flowering bushes leading into his apartment building were in full bloom and the smell intoxicating. The morning was arriving and my father departing and my heart was aching. The bittersweet juxtaposition of his day of departure has never left me, nor has the feel and smell of him as we would hug in those final years as he was weakening and preparing for his restless farewell.  My father never waivered from his faith that “though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.”  Those words ring their reminders in my ears continually.

Now it is spring again.  Yesterday as I drove to work through the gentle New England spring rain, I noticed how fast the grass was turning green and how in a few days the weather will turn quite warm and the flowers and foliage will explode with joy. “Explode,” yes.  That word dragged my thoughts across the world. And I thought of all the bombs and missiles exploding throughout the Middle East and the guns of the killers exploding everywhere, extinguishing the possibility for joy for so many. And the nuclear ones hiding in their silos and those treacherously sliding silently under the world’s oceans in Trident submarines, primed to kill us all.  And the indifference of so many people to this carnage, initiated and sustained by our own government.  Or was it indifference or something else?  It seemed to me as I wondered in the rolling silence of the car that it was that and yet wasn’t just that.There was a missing link that I couldn’t fully understand., and still don’t.  Was it fear?

Then I recalled that yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Dan Berrigan two years ago, another father and mentor whose influence runs through my veins.  Dan and my father never met, and in ways they were opposites, but yet a marriage of opposites.  Both trained by Jesuits, and Dan a Jesuit priest, who became a renegade radical priest, a criminal felon in opposition to the American Empire and its terrifying violence; my father, eight years older, a gentle more conservative soul inspired by the same faith expressed in quieter and more personal ways and possessed of a gift with words equal to the eloquence of Dan’s writing but more humorous and sometimes acerbic.  Dan, the serious poet; my father, a master of the epistolarian’s art and quite the serious comedian.

The tragedian and comic, faithful to the paradox of our condition.  In one of his last letters to me my father wrote, “I am hooked up to a heart monitor and have been examined by a neurosurgeon named Block.  I think he is H.R. Block of tax forms.  I have also just signed a consent form for a cat scan.  I think that’s to see if I like cats.”

And of course Dan, in his role as dissident, wrote so famously, fifty years ago this May 17, as he stood burning draft records in Catonsville, Maryland with his brother Phil and seven other brave resisters to the war against Vietnam:

Excuse us good friends for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house.  We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.  For we are sick at heart.  Our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children…We say killing is disorder.  Life and gentleness and community and unselfishness is the only order we recognize….In a time of death, some men… the resisters…those who preach and embrace the truth, such men overcome death, their lives are bathed in the light of resurrection, the truth has set them free…

Who am I?  Who are we?

The mystical and political poet Kenneth Rexforth wrote in “Growing”:

I and thou, from the one to

The dual, from the dual

To the other, the wonderful,

Unending, unfathomable

Process of becoming each

Ourselves for the other.

How do we become who we are? asked Nietzsche, while paradoxically telling us. But in speaking paradoxically, he, the alleged murderer of God but himself a paradoxical lover of Jesus, spoke the truth about us all, or at least about me.  I am a paradox, a combination of influences of those who came before me and now whisper to me from the shadows and those living friends and enemies who inspire me. Their spirits flow into me while I flow on.  It is a vast conspiracy of the communion of the living and the dead.

I can hear my father whisper to me what he wrote years ago: “The other day Mama saw a death notice of an Edward J. Curtin but happily he came from Brooklyn, so it wasn’t either of us.  I told you things would get better.”

I am laughing through my tears as I recall how he would often end his epistles with the word pax, and then further on the question – quién sabe? (who knows?).

I don’t know, but knowledge is overrated.

The world is beautiful, and we must save it by listening to the voices of our blessed dead, who instill us with life and love and the spirit of resistance.  We must carry it on.


6 thoughts on “Though Invisible to Us, Our Dead Are Not Absent”

  1. Dear Edward, Thank you for a wonderful post and sharing the memories of your father. It made me think of my father and his influence upon me today as a 66 year old man. My father and I had a much more conflicted relationship that you and your dad by way of what you shared. It was sometimes love/hate in fact, but the clear reality is that my social conscience is a reflection of him and his values (my mother’s too), and that through the pain I’ll always be glad for what he taught me about power and the need to choose whether we serve humanity or money and those who worship it. I too cried like a baby when my father died in 1982. It was only then that I could begin a healing process in terms of our relationship. In the car when alone I would sometimes talk to him after his death, telling him the things I could not muster the courage to say while he lived. The hurt and anger subsided over time and with it the ability to see him and love him with both his angels and his demons increased and helped me find peace in his death and in remembrance. We are truly all of the earth and of the generations and through my father I know I am also of a grandfather who died before my birth. Before I retired as a therapist I became fascinated with the emerging field of epigenetics, as it finally opened a door to how and why we are so deeply connected to each other through the generations, impacted collectively through both bounty & good times, and through collective trauma. Somehow it all dovetails nicely into the mystery of all things, something I’m much more comfortable with today than in my youth when I still expected answers. I deeply appreciate your work Edward. Through your writings you have been a consistent voice for a humane and generous world. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, for your beautiful response, Gary. You are so right, the connections go deep and long. I know little about epigenetics, so have some learning to do. Pax, Ed

  2. I have been reading your articles lately and with this one I am moved to tears.
    Love and heart. I had the boldness to send it to fellow travelers and risked their annoyance at being sent articles by email.
    But, I decided it would gift them as it did me.

    Thank you.

  3. Ed, thanks for your response to my comments. I do want to pass on an article on some epigenetic research that I think is quite important. I worked for most of the last 7 years as a therapist with Alaskan Native peoples of different tribes. My Native co-workers were all familiar with the concept of what is referred to as “historical trauma,” that is trauma affecting current generations of Native peoples that is inherited from the large scale collective trauma’s of the past. The science of neurobiology has shown the clear pathways trauma in one’s own lifetime shapes and changes brain functioning, leading to higher rates of addiction, suicide, depression, etc. However, only recently has the emerging field of epigenetics shown that events in one generation can impact the “expression” of genes in subsequent generations. This validates the theory Native peoples take as common sense about their own trauma impacts, but it also has far reaching implications for those of us from European backgrounds. My wife and I spent most of the last three years in rural France visiting places where Holy Mother Church burned Cathars alive for their thought crimes, and places marked by centuries of war, black death, and other collective trauma. The question that I find most interesting today is how these collective traumas in Europe may have impacted Europe’s subsequent brutal colonization of the entire planet. I’ve attached just one study below that raises paradigm shifting questions about the impact of collective trauma on subsequent generations. There are similar studies involving intergenerational impact on humans. I think you’ll find this research interesting as it opens the door to many questions. Such as why were Europeans so amazed by how kind to their children and generous Native Americans were if “human nature” – as defined by Europeans – is selfish, and violent, and dog eat dog? What epigenetics is suggesting is that “human nature” is an expression of collective group human experience, rather than something set in genetic stone. Sorry to go on so long. I’ll just post a couple of links so you can see what you think:

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