The battle at home now is to conquer the bitterness, the sense of futility and despair that grows among the young and turns them to violence, a violence which is magnified by the press, the radio and television. We lose sight of the poor people’s cooperatives and boycotts, the conquest of bread, as Kropotkin called it, which goes on daily in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, not to speak of California, Texas, and all the states where Mexicans have been imported for agricultural labor.
Thich Nhat Hanh:
…we have the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. But in the name of freedom, people have done a lot of damage. I think we have to build a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast in order to counterbalance. Because liberty without responsibility is not true liberty. We are not free to destroy.
-PBS interview 2003
During this time of COVID, some Americans are refusing to wear masks because it infringes on our freedom. One such person said: “We’re Americans, we can do whatever we want.”
Dorothy Day’s life makes clear how differently we live when we rely on our spiritual tradition as the source of our actions. Clinging to a half-baked definition of “freedom” is bad. However, simple “decency” may not be quite enough. And here is where Day makes us uncomfortable.
Day made her spiritual home in the Roman Catholic Church. She did not blind herself to its many faults. However, here she found she could dig down deep into a level of commitment to God-in-each-other. And so she stayed. Why did she not remain devoted to Communism? Many of the same ideas and visions of justice remained with her always. What was missing?
We have ideas of justice, of freedom and responsibility, of the family of humanity. Recognizing God-in-each other is more than an idea, it is a gut-wrenching challenge to everything we hold dear.
The Catholic Church is not the sole, or even perhaps best, spiritual home for most Americans. The dig-down-deep spiritual traditions of 2020 cannot be enumerated. The specific source of gut-based, love-based, willing-to-sacrifice conscience does not matter. Catholics called humanity “The Mystical Body of Christ.” By any other name, it means the same.
Provided we dig down deep.
The list of people Rev. Barber was channeling at the Dems’ convention is very, very long….back to New Testament and further.
Rev. Barber mentioned Dorothy Day in his speech. Small wonder.
This is the introduction to the first Dorothy Day’s newspaper, Catholic Worker 1933:
“For those who are sitting on benches in the warm spring sunlight.
For those who are huddling in shelters trying to escape the rain.
For those who are walking the streets in the all but futile search for work.For those who think that
there is no hope for the future, no recognition of their plight, THE CATHOLIC WORKER is being
It burns me up what the right, Protestant and Catholic, deem Christianity all about sex and give hate-filled sermons. Churches, synagogs, mosques, are grassroots organizing places, not right-wing Hotspots.
I saw Dorothy Day at a Mass one afternoon. She sat in a front pew with her head bowed in prayer. I had the same contradictory reaction to her that I do now, forty years later.
Her uncompromising belief in pacifism inspired everyone I worked with in the Catholic Left, activists who worked for the end of the American War in Vietnam, and for a shift in America’s attitude toward war. She is best known for her work with desperately poor people, opening Houses of Hospitality to feed and house the most marginalized in Depression America, and after. She constantly confronted the Catholic hierarchy in their neglect of the Christian message of social justice. Her stand for pacifism was absolute. Christians, she said, had no other choice.
That afternoon, what I saw in her bowed head was a piety and submission to authority that made me cringe. She once said that if the Cardinal told her to stop printing her Catholic Worker newspaper, she’d shut it down immediately. The idea of totally obedient and will-less devotion to a religious authority is a destructive medieval hold-over. It is an infantile approach to church. She was devoted to that obedience.
However, to categorize Dorothy Day as totally obedient or will-less or infantile verges on the ridiculous, and counter to everything we know about her life. So Dorothy Day, enigma, paradox, embarrassing hero, haunts my spiritual life.
This year, when a pastor was arrested for feeding homeless people outdoors in Fort Lauderdale, I swear I could see her right there. She goes to Palestine with Sherrill; she’s in jail for acts of social justice next to Paki. She is working at the Food Pantry. She is insulating walls with Richard to protect the creation she loved. She is striking with fast-food workers for a living wage. She is an unfailing guide for social justice.
But, a spiritual guide? Yes: “How can you not believe in God when there are so many beautiful things?” she asked her lover. Her beliefs about the sanctity of voluntary suffering? No. Her rigidity about women’s roles and about divorce? No. Her humbleness before church authority? No. Her humbleness before God? Yes.
I gave up this year. The only way to deal with a ghost is to face her. I’m reading what she wrote and what is written about her. I’m sitting next to her before God. The result: her paradox is becoming more pronounced – not what I was hoping for. Now the paradoxes in my own soul are clearer to me. Wandering in the celtic knot of Dorothy’s life is making me recognize the knot of my own life. Celtic knots are mysterious and beautiful, however unsettling to live with.
“I quote the Gospel, they call me a Communist.”
Websites dedicated to the idea that Dorothy Day was a Communist agitator are easy enough to find.
Pope Francis and Dorothy Day are neck in neck for the title of The Most Communist Catholic. Francis took the lead when Fox News reporter Stuart Varney called him “the Obama of the Catholic Church.” To him, that’s even worse than being a Communist.
Trying to stick a political label on Dorothy Day is futile. Feminists who came to see her were disappointed, Communists were disappointed. Because one Catholic Worker headline proclaimed “Feed the Hungry, Starve the Bankers,” probably the bankers were disappointed. She was outspokenly anti-communist. Communists believed that the good of the “masses” mattered more than the good of the person, an idea she strongly opposed. Also, they were atheist.
She kept her eyes focused on God and the “Body of Christ,” feeding poor people, caring for the most marginalized.
One thing is for sure, state control of the economy would be an anathema. Much of what she said about unemployment insurance and other programs would be hailed by Rand Paul.
If Day had any ideology, it would be, using her word, “personalism.” Personalism is the opposite of communism and popularized in the Church by John Paul II. He summarized it as, “persons are not to be used, but to be respected and loved.” “ (Redemptoris Missio)
Debates about Dorothy Day’s ideology already fill books and websites. They miss the point.The center of Day’s thinking was her beliefs in God, Christ living in every person, in every moment. She read the Bible every day. Whoever advanced the vision of the primacy of The Beatitudes was her companion, regardless of affiliation. She writes:
“The truth is the truth, writes St. Thomas, and proceeds from the Holy Ghost, no matter from whose lips it comes.”
Currently there are only four communist countries in the world. Granted, China is pretty big, but it is also turning more toward capitalism. So declaring the supposed communism of gospel-inspired people is a waste of time. It detracts from the message of the kinship of all people.
These are the teachings on social justice that Dorothy Day held dear.
But Communist? Marxists? No.
She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.
Simple as that.
“We can train ourselves to walk with reverence. Wherever we walk, whether it’s the railway station or the supermarket, we are walking on the earth and so we are in a holy sanctuary. If we remember to walk like that, we can be nourished and find solidity with each step.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, “Shambhala Sun,”August 6, 2012
Thich Nhat Hanh, teacher and social activist, advises his students to sit in meditation for 20 minutes at a time, no longer. This meditation does not bring us to other realms of experience, but to the world as it is around us right now. Whether we are sitting or walking, meditation helps us realize we are in a “holy sanctuary” no matter where we are.
Sister Tri Hai, a student of Thich Nhat Hanh, was arrested in Vietnam while working for peace. He says, she “practiced walking meditation in her prison cell. It was very small—after seven steps she had to turn around and come back. Sitting and walking mindfully gave her space inside. She taught other prisoners in her cell how to sit and how to breathe so they would suffer less. They were in a cold cell, but through their walking meditation, they were grounded in the solid beauty of the earth.”
Prayer is simply creating space so we can consciously step into the very place we are. In fact, the ground under our feet is the only place we can meet God. Rummaging over the past, wishing, pondering the future… these thoughts crowd out God. The mind needs to open, drop theological rumination, doubts. These thoughts will not go very far away; we can turn to them any time we want. Meditation teaches us to be open, to experience what is freely given, to meet God without mediation.
“When [Dorothy] tried to pray on her knees, arguments against prayer and religion overwhelmed her thoughts, but whenever she set out walking – no matter what the direction, the purpose, the hour, the distance or the weather – the debate was stilled and she found it impossible not to pray.”
All is Grace, Jim Forest p. 77
In The Long Loneliness, Dorothy describes her time living on Statin Island. She says, “I found myself praying, praying with thanksgiving, praying with open eyes while I watched the workers on the beach and the sunset, and listened to the sound of the waves and the scream of snowy gulls.”
Theresa of Avila is famous for her, sometimes cranky, conversations with God. I suspect these must be a nice break from all the rote, sentimental words that find their way to heaven. She spent her life clearing out “The Interior Castle,” finding her way to the inner-most room where God lives.
Prayer is simply cleaning up the living room to have room for your guest. Or just stuffing all the detritus into a closet for a while.
After a walk, Dorothy says, “…on the trip back I neither prayed [with words] nor thought but was filled with exultation.”
Dorothy Day and Thich Nhat Hanh are leaders who embody the “open to Presence” that is the foundation of their work for justice and peace.
“It is the people who matter, not the masses.” (The Long Loneliness)
Looking back, it seems easier to see which people were poor during the Great Depression than to see them today. They were people you see in black & white.
Then, papers printed pictures of “Hooverville” camps, shanty towns with houses made of cardboard, scrap lumber, tin, whatever the people could find. People evicted from their homes built them across the country. They were clearly poor.
A Hooverville, Seattle 1933
(picture by Karen Apricot)
The soup lines went down the street and around the corner.
The Great Depression was so long ago. The Great Recession is still with most of us. People live in inadequate houses, stand in line for meals today as then. But our image of poverty has changed. People look more destitute in back and white photography. In the 21st century, an improbable number of U.S. citizens blame poverty on people who are poor. Unsavory politicians claim that race, low I.Q., laziness are to blame. Democrats are to blame, Republicans are to blame, Obamacare is to blame, Roosevelt is to blame, Reagan is to blame.
In the 1920’s – 30’s, radicals discussed which ideology might lead to a more just society. Socialism, communism, anarchism? Dorothy was not as interested as her co-workers in theory.
“It is the people who matter, not the masses.” (The Long Loneliness)
People use the New Testament as justification for all kinds of political agendas, not noticing that the New Testament does not talk about political agendas.
Dorothy’s outrage at poverty and the crushing of civil rights combined with an insight about the connection each of us has to each other …to each person as brother and sister. She saw God in each person. She focused on the person in front of her.
The debate continues. What is our country’s best direction?
However, the question, “Who are you calling poor?” is easy to answer. The person in front of you, down the street, in the other country, who needs food, housing, warm clothes.
That has not changed.
“So long as we talk and argue and busy ourselves on the plane of this world, evil seems the stronger. ….The thing is to enter on another plane, to find that fourth dimension which represents the kingdom of the Spirit…. – Henri de Lubac, quoted by Dorothy Day, Catholic Worker, 1978
Injustice is easy to see. When black men are targeted, when rape is dismissed as a prank, when gays are murdered, when families struggle for food and shelter, we see injustice in the flesh.
But what is justice? Is it simply the absence of injustice? Revenge is a kind of justice; it is the desire to rebalance the scales. The image of Justice is a woman with a blindfold holding a scale. When one man murders another, the world is thrown out of balance. By killing the murderer, some think, the world regains its balance. The forces have been equalized again. The family of the victim, the community can be satisfied. The value of the death penalty is not as a deterrent to murder; it is the restoring of balance from chaos.
Then along comes Jesus. “You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.”
We’re being told to keep the scale unbalanced. We are being told not to attempt to purge evil by killing. He’s talking about another kind of justice.
What does this justice look like? smell like? feel like? An abstraction like justice or hope or love, stays uselessly abstract until we give it form.
“The legal battle against segregation is won, but the community battle continues.” Dorothy Day The Catholic Worker, November 1956
On December 12, 2014, friends and neighbors stood in the cold in Greenfield to declare the obvious truth that black lives matter.
Afterwards, thirty people came together in the Upper Room at church to celebrate Our Lady Of Guadalupe, or Tonantzin, the Mother. The 12th is her “birthday.”
In December 1531 at the hill of Tepeyac, Mexico, Mama Lupe appeared to the First Nation peoples. She spoke to the peasant, Cuauhtlatoatzin, (Juan Diego), in his original language, Nahuatl. She demanded that the Spanish conquerors build a church on the place where people had come for centuries to honor her as Tonantzin, the Mother. Cuauhtaltoatzin, a devout Catholic, repeatedly brought her demand to the Spanish authorities until, after she miraculously spread roses at their feet, they relented.
And so a Presence of Love and Protection appeared on the hill, in a country where people lived under the oppression of an occupying army.
In celebration, we placed images of Mama Lupe on a table with roses and candles. We lit candles to bring together all who call for justice: for parents of slain young men, for black children, for racism’s end. We prayed, sang, listened. We called down justice to live among us.
Praying gives justice voice. When evil seems overwhelming, sounds and images springing from the creation of ceremony can crystalize peace and freedom, allowing us to hear and touch it, and each other. And give sustenance to action.