An Embarrassing Hero

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.

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The Depression, The Recession, The Poor

“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.

whoo caliing poor pix

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 seattle hoovertown

 

 

A Hooverville, Seattle 1933

 

Poverty-In-America-Photo-by-Karen-Apricot-300x225

 

 

Poverty 2013

      (picture by Karen Apricot)

 

 

The soup lines went down the street and around the corner.

1933                                                                    2013

soup line 1933soup kitchen line 2013 pix

 

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.