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Fr. Dan Berrigan's Meditation, October 28, St. Malachy's Tribute to Franz Jagerstatter's beatification (Catholic Peace Fellowship, December 2007, Philadelphia chapter Pax Christi), and posted here with its author's permission.


Meditation on a Martyr, in Tribute to Franz Jagerstatter
by Daniel Berrigan, S.J.


He came alive under that murky ambiguous sign; not a double cross, so to speak, but a bent cross, disabled, tampered with, horribly altered, crooked, nightmarish. A swastika.
Dare we admit it; this is the cross (which despite all frantic denials) - we too are born under ? Or the one we create for ourselves ?
The one we bend around, to our own crooked uses and whims and frenzies.
What we make of the cross !

I would not venture that Franz saw this from the first (who does) ?
Only that he saw it eventually. That cross hideously altered in form; a cross that favors deception, warmaking, unaccountability.
He saw . And he told what he saw. And then he died resisting what he saw.

What happened to Franz that this came to pass ?
One thinks that a burning glass was granted him for soul, in place of the soul of a good citizen, or the soul of a hell raiser (he had been that, for sure ).
Something else; a third eye ?
He told in his letters what happened, that momentous turnabout....

One doesn't want to give inordinate credit. Franz's life went this way; 1) adolescent hellion in a backwater village. 2) then in spite of all, - a totally unlikely event , a conversion.
Now the real act gets under way. A wife who loves him, cleareyed, determined to bring to life all that submerged goodness in the beloved.
So she beckons this wild eyed colt (who in the best part of his soul is waiting for this) to a maturity, a wholeness - a kiss with consequences.
Three daughters are born.
He becomes, by little and by little - himself. And in that measure and for the first time, problematic to those he loved, a public authority.

We see him then, husband and father, - slowing down, newly reflective. The bride helps, the children help.
Realization dawns in him; one must live for the sake of the next generation (And for his own. For the children will be different only if we are different).
He has a job: village sacristan.
Now of all uneventful events, this is surely the winning yawn. A sacristan in a village even God couldn't name.
Couldn't the story of Franz end here, for embarrassment's sake, for ecumenism's sake ?
Not yet.

Toward mid day, the church is empty. We picture Franz sitting there or kneeling there, an open Bible in his hand, he is quite alone.
He is trying to make something of a certain text. On the one hand, he sees the words violated or ignored or trivialized all over Austria. This is astonishing; for the text seems simple and clear.
What can it mean, this business of 'loving enemies, doing good to those who do ill, turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile ?"
He's really not dreaming. The gospel doesn't encourage that. His brow is furrowed, he's looking for a light in a midnight tunnel.
He gives the words time, a long time. Days, weeks.
Eventually he realizes; all this thinking is going nowhere.
Then he starts to let go.
And his heart begins to breathe. Now his mind dwells on love. Love that opens doors, opens texts, means what it says, does not counsel lightly, matches words with deeds. And above all, is not fooled, but scrutinizes - the heart, the public situation.
The heart that so to speak, sees something, then makes up its mind. And follows through.

Indeed, Franz is under the gun. His world is going to very hell. In a tank. In a (newly created) bomber. In a blitzkrieg.
In a racing train, as he saw later in a dream.
that train ! 'All aboard!' sounding, and everybody scrambling to obey, to climb on, to go with what's going.
Or as he wrote bluntly (as a voice in his dream said bluntly) - To go to hell - to hell on earth. This is the appalling thing, the unbearable thing. Christians are climbing aboard. Priests and bishops. and then the faithful, assured that the ride is free and fast and safe. What direction can he seek from such a church (a church which only of late he had begun to take seriously) ?
But will the church take him seriously ?

Hitler. War. Fatherland. Gospel. Family. And coming closer; military draft; farewell wife, farewell children.
Farewell gospel. Climb aboard, toss the book out the train window. For the duration, as they say. Irrelevant, out of this world (as they do not dare say; but the actions are deafening). That train, forever steaming toward him in the darkness.
All aboard for hell ! Hell on earth.
What to do ? The burden of asking one's soul, again and again, and with little help from others - what to do ?
And what of Franzeska and what of the children ?
Premonition dwelt in his wife's eyes. What does it mean 'to have a martyr in the family' ? Glory, glory, but glory never put bread on the table.

One day, when it was all over, a box arrived, accompanied by a document so horrible, it must all but self destruct in the mails.
'Herein contained the remains of one FRANZ JAGERSTAETTER, executed at such and so hour in such and so place.'
The box. And the document, impersonal, a form, the name typed in.

They buried the ashes against the outer wall of the church. And that was all. Or so it seemed.
There remained only his prison letters and a few photos, of a young husband and father.
One notes the large clear eyes, the high forehead, a gaze free of ambition and servitude alike . He looks - lucid, sane, able to weigh things, with no thumb on the scales, tilting this way and that; toward safety, toward delay, toward the perplexity that salvages ego and loses its soul.

Things as they are ! Hitler as he is ! And then the gospel whole cloth ! No slogans could win him over, no command to fall in line. The priests tried, friends tried.
But neither church nor state could shunt his conscience around.

He uttered a great (though modest, and generally despised) refusal.
What was the source of that refusal ? One could speak of timing, of solitude, of steadfastness. Of a purity and clarity of soul no contempt could besmirch.
Indeed in time, the contempt and anger yielded to a kind of grudging admiration, slowly gathering force. Until this week and a chant   Blessed Franz, pray for us.

In those who condemned and criticized him there was more than met the eye; or the talk, for that matter. There was the unpleasant thing called 'bad faith'. Millions of Christians rode along on the monstrous train, while one among them trudged, alongside the tracks so to speak, - to his death.
Many among them (so to speak) saw him through the train windows. He walked and they rode for free; in time, they learned the consequences of both choices.
Such knowledge leaves a bad taste in the mouth, a kind of heartburn in the guts. ' We did no wrong', or 'We didn't know', or 'Who was he to push heroism in our face ?' or 'Just look, how he left his family unprovided' ...And so on.
It was as though the clarity that marked Franz had deserted the earth. As though all sweetness, and tears, and compunction, were dead as coffin nails.
This was the double darkness before the dawn.

Was he right in refusing to board the train, and others, who consented and climbed aboard, desperately wrong ?
Maybe. But this is cold comfort, this proving something,
he the winner, they the losers.
Let us say rather, some of the passengers, since his death have undergone a change of heart, stepped down from this train.
They have come on an insight, not a comforting one, but salutary. The quality of his Christianity; and their own.
The difference; but also, through him, the possibility.
The possibility of - faith. Bedrock. Faith in the living God.
And of necessity; no more faith placed in the idolatrous state, the hideous 'fatherland', the 'volk'.

That ragged solitary figure trudging alongside the train -
he beckons them. Off the train, get off !

To speak of today; it is no longer Hitler's death train we ride, the train of the living dead. Or is it ?
It is. The same train. Only, if possible (it is possible), longer, faster, cheaper. On schedule, every hour on the hour, speedy and cheap and - unimaginally lethal. An image of life in the world. A ghost train still bound, mad as march weather, for hell. On earth.

Hitler's train, Hitler's world (Hitler's church ?). Despite all fantasies and homilies and 'states of the union,' urging the contrary.
Today, a world of normalized violence, world of standoff, of bunkers and missiles nose to nose, world of subhuman superpowers.
The ghost train and the easy riders. The train beats its way across the world, crowded with contented passenger-citizen-Christians.
And alongside the tracks, a few solitary figures, like animated scarecrows, trudge along. On their own.
The train hoots in derision and thunders by.

The great 'no' of Franz came of course, after the sublime 'yes' of his vows.
Vows of baptism, vows of conversion of heart, vows of marriage.
He stood by these. Then something else.
His world falling in pieces.
The dust and frenzy and blood.
And above all - the beckoning, the seduction, the great bray of the express train out of the darkness.
All aboard ! Irresistible.
The boots resound in the night. the unanimity of it !
Soldiers, scholars, ministers, priests, jurists, students, workers, shopkeepers, mothers and fathers, doctors, teachers, young and old, climbed aboard. Helped one another aboard, courteously gave place when required, assured by the conductors: Room for everyone! All aboard!

And the church, the assured settled look, the sobersides, a lethal courtesy, "You first Bishop, after you Father." All aboard.

And then the glances in his direction, bemused, baffled, annoyed, as Franz pauses there in the night, jostled this way and that. He is not to be hastened, not to be conned. Taking stock. Consulting his own soul. The thing to be done.
Everyone around is in possession of a ticket.
Possession; the nine points of the law. And if the possession is demonic, - why then, ten points of the law.

Drama, parades, flags, slogans, and all becloud the soul.
Glory, homeland, blood, and fire, nordic purity, a law, a law. Heil Hitler! And if here and there, some malcontent like Franz, some besotted Hamlet in a nation of movers and winners, - if such as he stands in the way, slows the rush to greatness, - why, let him be cast beneath the great wheels and perish! And good riddance.
The train speeds on, in no way impeded. And his memory in a few years, a few months even, is utterly lost.

We know something of the fate of the train.
The train, the one Franz saw, and then refused to board - it did reach a destination of sorts. He had named the destination Hell on Earth. And the proud cavalcade steamed into hell - on schedule. It delivered its passengers, millions of them, to the appointed place.
They died. They died before they died. Indeed the destination was in the decision; the end was in the means. They died clambering aboard; died along the way. Died eating, died singing, died drinking, died talking (about everything except one thing), died beaming and smiling on the children (the children too died). Died of the worm that dies not, died of the serpent's promise (you shall not die).
Died the second death, of which John the Divine speaks.

Alas alas, had so many died before for so little ? Died by common choice and no choice, by a rollicking freewheeling choice,
by decision and no decision, by triviality - distraction,
by routine, and misreading of event ?
By - a shrug ?


Franz Huber Jagerstatter was an Austrian farmer, a father, an anti-Nazi who refused to collaborate with the Nazi regime and so refused their order to military service. He was condemned to death, placed in prison and in 1943, beheaded. He was legally murdered for refusing to join the war machine invading countries, enslaving peoples, and depriving the innocent of life. This meditation takes the images we grew up with and suffered with, of those condemned by the Nazis to the railway cars of that particular final solution, and finds on that journey to the death camps all 'Chrstian' society and its conformity, the world of slogans and materialism of those pardoning what we know is criminal, to defend 'our way of life;' those railway cars are the train to extinction, the destination of the war machine; it is as though the western middle classes were preceded by their souls, as though all those stripped of life by totalitarian ideologies were the souls of our contemporary people as this living horror finds our own time. Daniel Berrigan is one of the very few American writers who can still write with moral compass, and no one else could have written this: he pulls together the myth and substance of our lives and prayers in any language to this statement of our pain, to recognize the human validity of a man with faith who refused what was unspeakably ugly then and now. - J.B. Gerald



gerald and maas night's lantern
may 6, 2008