SEVEN LAST WORDS OF CHRIST: Third Word, Witness—Dorothy Day by Charles M. Murphy

Holy Hour Meditations on the Seven Last Words of Christ

Third Word, Witness—Dorothy Day by Charles M. Murphy

From Eucharistic Adoration

Today you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)

Dorothy Day, with the French exile Peter Maurin, founded the Catholic Worker movement with its houses of hospitality for feeding and sheltering the poor and homeless.  They also began a monthly newspaper, The Catholic Worker, to communicate the church’s social teachings.  The Catholic Worker, true to its mission, still sells for a penny a copy.  Day and Maurin preached and practiced a “radical” Christianity of social justice, charity, and pacifism – radical in the sense of going to the roots of our beliefs and living out the consequences.  Voluntary poverty and direct, one-on-one love of the poor are expected of all members.  Dorothy always credited to Peter her discovery of this challenging vision of Christian personalism.

To humanize the slums through direct personal action was part of their vision.  Another part was to establish agrarian cooperative communities, places that were an alternative to what Maurin called the lopsided money economy that robbed people of their most sublime instincts to use their heads, hearts, and hands as gifts to others.  Through these direct personal actions he hoped to create a society from the bottom up in which it is easier to be good.  Pope Benedict XVI used similar terms in his social encyclical Caritas in veritate (issued in 2009), speaking of the need for “quotas of giftedness and community” to build up the bonds of community.

It was never easy to live in a house of hospitality.  Peter Maurin used to sleep with his trousers rolled up as a pillow so no one would steal them during the night.  Stanley Vishnewski, a lifelong Catholic Worker, commented, “The Catholic Worker is made up of saints and martyrs.  You have to be a martyr to put up with the saints.”

I was only two years ordained when I met Dorothy Day in June 1964.  A local Roman Catholic college was hosting a two-day conference on civil rights that featured Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr., as speakers.  I attended the conference and joined them for lunch before they spoke.  Dorothy was wearing an old, black dress with white pearls tangled with the chain of a religious medal, her white hair arranged in braids around her head.  I was not surprised that she was overweight because, as she once dryly observed, only the rich can afford to be thin.  Twice during lunch she appeared to have lost her speaking notes, thinking someone had taken them.  In any case, she did not refer to her notes when she spoke that afternoon, just giving “witness,” as was her usual style.

Over lunch I mentioned that I had used The Long Loneliness in a parish discussion group.  The group, I told her, found it a “sad book.”  She responded, firmly, “It is not a sad book.  We must go after perfection, as Saint Paul says, not as having it but always tending toward it.”

A significant part of her personal striving toward perfection was giving up the Bohemian life of Greenwich Village and the intellectual circles she once frequented, as well as painfully and only gradually separating from the father of their daughter, Tamar, because of his refusal to accept her Roman Catholic beliefs, which included the baptism of their child.

The diaries of Dorothy Day were published in 2008 under the title The Duty of Delight.  Robert Ellsberg, the editor, said he chose this title because Dorothy was fond of it.  He quotes her as follows:

Today I thought of a title for my book, “The Duty of Delight,” as a sequel to “The Long Loneliness.”  I was thinking of how, as one gets older, we are tempted to sadness, knowing life as it is here on Earth, the suffering, the cross.  And how we must overcome it daily, growing in love, and the joy which goes with loving.

Editing the diaries, Ellsberg said how impressed he was that this woman of immense activity maintained what he termed “the intense discipline of her spiritual and sacramental life.”

She attended daily Mass, which usually meant rising at dawn.  She prayed the monastic hours from the breviary.  She devoted time each day to meditating on scripture, saying the rosary or other spiritual exercises.  None of this is particularly remarkable.  And yet the matter-of-fact recital of such habits underscores the fact that her daily life was spent in continuous reference to God.  As she writes, “Without the sacraments of the church, I certainly do not think that I could go on.”

Psychoanalyst Robert Coles has written much about Dorothy Day, whom he met as a young medical student at the house of hospitality on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  Coles found her engaged in a deep, seemingly interminable conversation with a woman who was obviously inebriated.  When would this absurd conversation end?  “Finally,” Coles recalls,

silence fell upon the room.  Dorothy Day asked the woman if she would mind an interruption.  She got up and came over to me.  She said, “Are you waiting to talk with one of us?”  One of us: with those three words she had cut through layers of self-importance, a lifetime of bourgeois privilege, and scraped the hard bone of pride.  With those words, so quietly and politely spoken, she had indirectly told me what the Catholic Worker Movement is all about and what she herself was like.

Simone Weil provocatively once wrote, by way of expressing her attraction to it, that Roman Catholicism is a religion of slaves.  This humble, hospitable feature of Roman Catholicism also intrigued both Dorothy Day and Edith Stein.  They saw very humble folk, poorly dressed, entering Roman Catholic churches through the day to say their prayers and feeling at home there.

Dorothy Day’s spiritual autobiography, The Long Loneliness, ends with these powerful summary statements of her most deeply held beliefs.

We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other.  We know him in the breaking of the bread, and we know each other in the breaking of the bread, and we are not alone anymore.  Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.

We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.

It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.


Prayer

O holy banquet in which Christ is received,
his passion is recalled,
our souls are filled with grace,
and the pledge of future glory is given to us.

 

O Lord, I am not worthy
That thou should come to me,
But say the word of comfort
And my spirit healed shall be.

O Sacrament most holy,
O Sacrament divine,
All praise and all thanksgiving
Be every moment thine.

 

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