November 29: Remembering Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day, 1929
Dorothy Day, 1929

November 29 marks the anniversary of Dorothy Day’s death. I owe much of my formation as a Catholic, as an activist, and as a writer to Dorothy Day and the Worker movement. Currently, I’m making my way through the recently released The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, edited by Robert Ellsberg. Dorothy’s personal papers were embargoed for 25 years after her death. Ellsberg has done a phenomenal job in sifting, collecting, tracing, and editing. (I’ve written a few times about D. Day and the Catholic Worker movement for Sojourners.)

Below is a poem by my friend Ted Deppe, recalling Dorothy:

House of Hospitality
Tivoli, NY, 1976

Down the hall, someone’s playing Schumann and cursing,
and Dorothy says, ‘That’s why we call this a house of
hostility. At least we don’t turn away those in need,
but all our farms are failures.’ She quotes Dostoyevsky
to sum up fifty years of the Worker: ‘Love in dreams
seems easy, but love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing.’

Outside, the ice on the Hudson keeps breaking with loud booms,
and Dorothy recalls the San Francisco quake
when she was eight. Which prompts an elderly man, silent so far,
to clear his throat and say, ‘I was there—I heard Caruso
sing from the window of the Palace Hotel. We were running
down Market Street when Mother stopped, pointed up,

and there he was, testing his voice they say—he was afraid
he might have lost it during the disaster—singing from La Boheme,
that magnificent tenor of his floating above the sound of collapsing
buildings.’ ‘And you heard him sing?’ asks Dorothy, ‘you heard
Caruso?’ and the man—a very articulate schizophrenic—says,
‘I saw a city destroyed and heard Caruso sing on the same morning.’

‘What a life!’ Dorothy says. ‘See, I was in Oakland,
where it wasn’t so bad. I only read about Caruso. And his valet—
did you see him? A character out of Ignazio Silone!
I mean, I love opera, I love Caruso, but this valet, when the quake hit,
reportedly came into the maestro’s hotel room
and told him, “Signor, it is nothing—nothing—but I think

we should go outside.” Then, once he’d waited in the shaking
building for Caruso to sing, a cappella, the complete aria,
once he’d finally escorted him safely to the open square,
he climbed six floors to that Room with a View
to pack the great man’s trunks, and carefully—apparently
calmly—carried them down, one by one.’

This poem appeared originally in The Shop and will appear in Orpheus on the Red Line (Tupelo Press, 2009)..

Pope Francis on the balance of ‘being’ and ‘doing’

Pope Francis boards commercial flight for Brazil for World Youth Day.
Pope Francis boards commercial flight for Brazil for World Youth Day.

Pope Francis reflects on the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42):

“[The two sisters] both welcome the Lord, but in different ways. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, listening, whereas Martha is absorbed in domestic tasks and is so busy that she turns to Jesus saying: ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me’. And Jesus responds rebuking her with sweetness. ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is the need for only one thing.’

What does Jesus wish to say? Above all it is important to understand that it is not a matter of two contrasting attitudes: listening to the Word of the Lord – contemplation – and concrete service to our neighbor. They are not two opposed attitudes but, on the contrary, they are both aspects that are essential for our Christian life; aspects that must never be separated but rather lived in profound unity and harmony.

So why does Jesus rebuke Martha? Because she considered only what she was doing to be essential; she was too absorbed and worried about things to ‘do’. For a Christian, the works of service and charity are never detached from the principle source of our action: that is, listening to the Word of the Lord, sitting – like Mary – at Jesus’ feet in the attitude of a disciple. And for this reason Mary is rebuked.

In our Christian life too prayer and action are always profoundly united. Prayer that does not lead to concrete action toward a [sister or] brother who is poor, sick, in need of help … is a sterile and incomplete prayer. But, in the same way, when in ecclesial service we are only concerned with what we are doing, we give greater weight to things, functions and structures, forgetting the centrality of Christ; we do not set aside time for dialogue with Him in prayer, we run the risk of serving ourselves and not God, present in our [sister or] brother in need.”–Pope Francis

From the Vatican Information Service

Joan Chittister: ‘Hospitality Is A Lifeline’

Lake Erie by Hank Plumley

“To live the monastic life in a monastery on the edges of a windswept Lake Erie makes something very clear: hospitality is not a matter of gentility or niceness. Here, as it was in biblical desert lands, hospitality is often a factor in physical survival. Too often, if it weren’t for the spirit of hospitality in this area, people would freeze to death in stranded cars or in city parks or in unheated homes.

It is an important lesson for people who live a monastic spirituality. It teaches us that hospitality is a lifeline that is part of the fiber of life. People need physical hospitality, spiritual hospitality, and psychological hospitality always. That’s why hospitality is a basic theme in The Rule of Benedict. That’s why there’s always someone in charge of answering the door at the monastery. Monastic hospitality dictates that there must always be someone there to care for anyone and everyone in need. The cold of February reminds us to open our hearts always. Someone is waiting to get in.

A Danish proverb reads: “If there is room in the heart, there is room in the house.” Who is there in life that you seem able to bear in unlimited quantities? Who is there that you have little room for at all? Try to remember that coldness of heart is always a call to personal growth.”–Joan Chittister, OSB

From A Monastery Almanac by Joan Chittister

Radical Openess

Sr. Joan Chittister is one of my heroes in the faith. Rooted in her life modeled after the 1500-years-old disciplines of St. Benedict, she writes and speaks from a position of prophetic wisdom.

The home of whites that has never had a person of color at the supper table is a home that has missed an opportunity to grow. People of color who have never trusted a white have missed a chance to confirm the humanity of the human race. The man that has never worked with a woman as a peer, better yet as an executive, has deprived himself of the revelation of the other half of the world. The comfortable contemplative who has never served soup at a soup kitchen, or eaten lunch in the kitchen with the cook, or clerked in a thrift shop, or spent time in inner-city programs lives in an insulated bubble. The world they know cannot possibly give them the answers they seek. The adult who has never asked a child a question about life and really listened to the answer is doomed to go through life out of touch and essentially unlearned.

“When someone comes to the gate,” the Rule of Benedict instructs, “say ‘Benedicite.’” Say, in other words “Thanks be to God” that someone has come to add to our awareness of the world, to show us another way to think and be and live beyond our own small slice of the universe. –Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB (Illuminated Life)

Nonviolent Resistance and Gandhi’s Psychological Jiu-Jitsu

Last night I was reading reflections sent from Shelley Douglass at Mary’s House in Birmingham, Alabama. Shelley and Jim Douglass are  long-time Catholic Workers, authors, activists, and practitioners of radical hospitality. In her note, Shelley mentioned a new book on Gandhi that she’s really enjoying. It’s called Gandhi: The Man, His People, and the Empire by Rajmohan Gandhi (Mohandas’ grandson). Here’s a description:

This monumental biography of one of the most intriguing figures of the twentieth century, written by his grandson, is the first to give a complete and balanced account of Mahatma Gandhi’s remarkable life, the development of his beliefs and his political campaigns, and his complex relations with his family. Written with unprecedented insight and access to family archives, it reveals a life of contrasts and contradictions: the westernized Inner Temple lawyer who wore the clothes of India’s poorest and who spun cotton by hand, the apostle of nonviolence who urged Indians to enlist in the First World War, the champion of Indian independence who never hated the British. It tells of Gandhi’s campaigns against racial discrimination in South Africa and untouchability in India, tracks the momentous battle for India’s freedom, explores the evolution of Gandhi’s strategies of non-violent resistance, and examines relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, a question that attracted Gandhi’s passionate attention and one that persists around the world today. Published to rave reviews in India in 2007, this riveting book gives North American readers the true Gandhi, the man as well as the legend, for the first time.

Then today I came across Tom Hasting’s blog on nonviolence. I appreciate Tom’s emphasis on applied nonviolence and on highlighting those who are teaching nonviolence in the U.S. today. Tom also mentions Gandhi, along with social philosoper Richard Gregg, and Helen and Scott Nearing, the early “back to the land” pacifists in this post:

Richard Gregg was inspired to visit and learn from Gandhi in India in the 1920s. Gregg was a social philosopher who really began to translate Gandhian nonviolence into practical, explicable social organizing and conflict management models. He thought about the psychological aspects, calling what Gandhi did ‘psychological jiu-jitsu’, that is, using the power of the oppressor against himself, allowing the hatred and violence to expend themselves with far less harm than if those tactics (the oppressor’s strength) would have been countered with similar but asymmetrically weaker hatred and violence. Gregg really influenced the western analysis of why Gandhian nonviolence might work.

Gregg’s 1934 germinal work, The Power of Nonviolence, is still a classic, and the second edition, in 1960, included a foreword by the young Martin Luther King, Jr. Gregg also integrated the swadeshi philosophy in his own life, moving to a farm with Helen and Scott Nearing, who were quite influential in the nascent self-reliance movement in the US. Gregg coined the term voluntary simplicity and staked out an early claim toward our slowly developing notions connecting war to resource conflict to consumerism to ecological care to urban dependency to injustice. We are still learning this basic system of interlocking causes and effects.

Due to the fact that our God is one of hilarious surprises, you just never know when something new will pop up. Read more of Tom’s post here.

Happy Birthday, Dorothy Day!

DDay film

Very nice article in St. Louis Today celebrating Dorothy Day’s Nov. 8 birthday titled Dorothy Day: Giving Proof that the Gospel Can Be Lived.

Author Sharon Autenrieth works with the Church of the Nazarene’s Good Samaritan Ministries in East St. Louis. She writes, “There are now over 185 Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, including three in St. Louis, and it all started with soup and coffee in Dorothy’s kitchen.”

Here’s an excerpt from Autenreith’s article:

Dorothy Day never abandoned her anarchism or pacifism.  Her politics were a scandal to Christians who felt the church should serve as chaplain to the state and maintain the status quo.  Her religion was incomprehensible to the anarchists, Socialists and Communists with whom she’d spent her youth.  But Dorothy continued to reach out to both sides, seeing herself as a faithful daughter of the church, and yet a radical called to disturb the comfortable – even when the comfortable were in the pews, or the prelate’s office.  And so she often found herself, as she once wrote in her column “On Pilgrimage”, talking “economics to the rich and Jesus to the anarchists.”  It wasn’t an easy path.

Read Sharon Autenrieth’s whole article here.