Tuesday, December 17, 2019

City Notes Magnificat Special '19 | Vintage Saints + Sinners: Dorothy Day: Start Some Trouble

"Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily. ... Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet too, even if all we have to share is a crust of bread." + Dorothy Day

In honor of Mary and her Magnificat (see previous Advent + The Magnificat posts: A Divine Disruption for GoodThe Bold & Courageous First Christmas Hymn, and Exalting God Reveals the Power to Fill Us and Transform Us), I wanted to highlight 4 other women during these 4 weeks of Advent to showcase how others have followed in Mary's footsteps in giving up their lives and opening their mouths to sing a song of resistance that shines in the darkness: that Jesus Christ seeks to be born in us to share and show the Good News of God's Kingdom of mercy, justice, and righteousness, bringing flashes of heaven to earth when the world seems at its darkest.

The first three women featured were Fannie Lou Hamer, an African American Baptist; Mary Paik Lee, a Korean Presbyterian; and Sophie Scholl, a German Lutheran:

City Notes Magnificat Special '19 | Vintage Saints + Sinners: Fannie Lou Hamer: Stand Up, Sing Out!  
City Notes Magnificat Special '19 | Vintage Saints + Sinners: Mary Paik Lee: Taste the Bittersweet  
City Notes Magnificat Special '19 | Vintage Saints + Sinners: Sophie Scholl: Knock a Chip Out of the Wall

And this final post will feature the American Roman Catholic Dorothy Day. 

"Dorothy Day: Start Some Trouble" excerpt adapted from Karen Marsh's Vintage Saints and Sinners: 25 Christians Who Transformed My Faith

As a little girl, Dorothy was drawn to the saints of the Catholic tradition, those noble people who ministered to the sick and suffering. But something really bothered her. Why this determined energy toward softening the effects of evil? Why not change the social systems that caused the suffering? Some saints ministered to slaves, but why not do away with slavery itself? she asked.

Well, if gentle, pious Christians weren't going to actually change the world, then Dorothy would do it without them. After college, she threw herself into progressive politics, marched with pacifists and was arrested with suffragettes. She wrote for socialist newspapers. Among Marxists, pacifists, anarchists, and atheists in bohemian Greenwich Village, the activist life energized her. But after some time had passed, worn out by an affair with a married man, an abortion, and a failed marriage, Dorothy ended on up on a Staten Island beach, living in an unheated fisherman's shack with Forster Batterham, the man she loved. Forster was an honest, independent atheist who could never concede to the "empty form" of a legal marriage license. The couple wrote and worked and walked for miles each day, absorbing the brisk beauty of the world around them.

Dorothy felt the pull of the Holy Spirit there; she wrote in her journal, "I am surprised that I am beginning to pray daily." But Forster was incensed by the very notion of religion, so Dorothy kept her prayers to herself. Out on the beach, Dorothy sang the "Te Deum," the ancient hymn of praise to God who fills the earth with glory. As she swept the cottage, she improvised devotions. She murmured the Lord's Prayer as she walked to the post office. Marx's old phrase "Religion is the opiate of the people" interrupted Dorothy's thoughts, and yet praise of God came to her unbidden. She was praying out of simple, natural happiness. When she gave birth to a daughter she named Tamar, Dorothy's joy was complete. The final object of this love and gratitude, she knew, was God.

"The World Will Be Saved by Beauty" by Doroth Day's granddaughter, Kate Hennessy

Dorothy knew that owning her spiritual transformation would cost her dearly, and indeed it did. When she had Tamar baptized and joined the Church herself in baptism, the result was a searing split with her beloved partner. Dorothy agonized, worried that she'd become one of those Christian hypocrites. She wrote, "I felt I was betraying the class to which I belonged, the workers and the poor of the world, with whom Christ spent His life." Dorothy struggled to bring her newfound love for God together with her lifelong passion to transform society for the better. 

Dorothy and Tamar moved back to New York City, back to urban existence. There she met Peter Maurin an older Frechman in a tattered suit, pockets stuffed with books and papers. Peter was a vibrant Christian of an unfamiliar sort. He argued that the surest way to find God, to find the good, is through service to one's brothers and sisters. To love others is to love Christ, he said. God brought Peter along to chart Dorothy's faith-filled purpose in the world. The city was crammed with desperate, unemployed people made homeless by the Great Depression. Where would they begin? Peter's plan was to start a newspaper and open up houses of hospitality and farming communes, relying on God to provide the funds. In their Catholic Worker penny newspapers, they wrote that Christ's self-sacrificing love made possible "a society where it is easier for people to be good."

Peter and Dorothy started the lay Catholic Worker Movement during a time of economic and human crisis, determined to live out Jesus' commandment to love their needy neighbors, quite literally, by sharing without imposing conditions or limits. Their gutsy personal charity was for real: they welcomed strangers, shared everything. The first Catholic Worker house of hospitality started a whole movement, sustained to this day, a Christian witness of nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and inclusion.

She Might Be a Saint: Recalling Dorothy Day And Her Way of Nonviolence, Voluntary Poverty, Prayer, and Radical Hospitality

With her enduring passion for reform, Dorothy combined works of mercy and a daring brand of "political holiness." Direct action along the path of justice and peace was a way of serving Jesus, so she began each morning at worship with the Church and then hit the streets. Dorothy's unbounded generosity blew people away; they just didn't know how to reconcile her piety and politics. Coming out of jail, age seventy-five. Standing in front of a microphone addressing protesters. Serious, intent, determined. This is the Dorothy tracked by the FBI, condemned by President Herbert Hoover as a threat to national security. She's the public troublemaker who disturbs complacency.

The human, more colorful Dorothy comes through in her confessional writings. Yes, she admits, it really is raving lunacy to give up your own bed, food, and hospitality to any old stranger in need. But that needy person hasn't arrived to symbolically remind you of Christ. No, in "plain and simple and stupendous fact," your guest is, quite literally, Jesus (see Matthew 25:34-40). The Bible shows how ordinary people like Martha, Mary, and Lazarus welcomed Jesus and so can you; there's no excuse. Christ is all around you, meeting you in friends and outsiders. The glass of water you give to a beggar is given to Him. 

Dorothy insists that in the end we will be judged by our acts of mercy, so heaven hinges on the way we act toward Jesus in His frail, ordinary human form (see Matthew 25:31-46). As long as families still need bread, clothing, shelter, Dorothy says "we must keep repeating these things. Eternal life begins now." So don't point to some distant dream of glowing redemption — let's make life today look more like heaven. Get out there and make a difference in Jesus' name. We might hide behind the excuse that our gestures are doomed to failure. We might even complain about the ingratitude we receive in exchange for the good that we do. Dorothy doesn't let us off the hook. She declares that our actions are measured by love, not by success. She assures us that God will repay us — eventually. If we love Jesus, then choosing to serve is simple. "Don't call me a saint! she remarks. "I don't want to be dismissed that easily." She is unflappable. Dorothy is also often quoted as saying, "The coat which hangs in your closet belongs to the poor." In her memoir, The Long Loneliness, she writes that heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet too, even if all that we have to share is a crust of bread. Hers is a vision of companionship, of evenings on the beach with friends and family, praying with eyes open to the glow of an eternal life that begins now.

Dorothy Day with Christ
Jesus Himself has told us that we can rely on God to provide for all of our needs. Dorothy constantly reminds us of this promise — and pushes us to act as if it's actually true. Dorothy both attracts and repels us, that loving, troublemaking follower of Jesus who lived what she believed. She's a saint who won't be easily dismissed.

Next post: 
City Notes '20 | He Speaks in the Silence: The Fear & the Fury & the Beautiful No

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Soli Jesu gloria.

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike “Sully” Sullivan

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