Celebrant’s Flame

Celebrant's Flame coverCelebrant’s Flame: Daniel Berrigan in Memory and Reflection
Bill Wylie-Kellermann
Cascade Books (April 26, 2021), 214 pages
Kindle edition $9.99

Although Cascade Books published Celebrant’s Flame in April 2021, The Christian Century gave it an extensive review in its 2022 Spring Books issue.

I don’t question the importance of keeping Daniel Berrigan’s legacy alive, but I found this to be a rather odd book. The chapters are a strange mixture. Some chapters are the author’s reflections or material Wylie-Kellermann has published previously. Some chapters are letters that Wylie-Kellermann solicited from those who knew Berrigan, asking for their recollections, while others consist of Berrigan’s own words.

It was difficult for me to follow the book as there were no consistent chapter headings to indicate the contents of a given chapter. Sometimes a footnote provided the information and the chapters that contained letters often made the name of the writer clear. Sometimes I had to read into the chapter to figure out that it was Wylie-Kellermann’s own commentary. Because the book draws from multiple sources there is also a lot of repetition; there is no forward-moving narrative.

The book paints a picture of Berrigan’s life as an activist that seemed to me to be unbalanced. For example, Berrigan spent just over eighteen months in prison for his part in destroying draft records. But some sections of the book read as if he were incarcerated for twenty years. After his conviction Berrigan went underground, but Wylie-Kellermann gives no explanation for Berrigan’s motivation for doing so. When agents finally arrested him at the home of peace activist William Stringfellow he surrendered without resistance.

One enjoyable aspect of the book is the picture it gives of members of the religious community involved in social activism. Thomas Merton frequently appears in the book as does Thich Nhat Hanh. Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker communities are important figures in the movement. And, of course, Berrigan’s brother Philip plays a central role.

Bill Wylie-Kellermann is not an objective observer. He was a young seminarian when he met Berrigan, right after Berrigan’s release from prison. He became a Berrigan follower from there on. I assumed that Wylie-Kellermann was Catholic, but it was only when I got to the author credit at the end of the book that I learned he is a Methodist pastor.

Celebrant’s Flame is not page-turning reading, but it represents an important archive documenting Daniel Berrigan’s life as a social activist.

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