OPINION: “Dorothy Day’s Day”

Here’s a great article that win this week’s copy of The Nation. It’s by Coleman McCarthy:

At Dorothy Day’s death in November 1980, at 83, talk was heard that
the Catholic Worker, the movement she co-founded in 1933, would vanish
without her. She was its Earth Mother–or better, its Reverend Mother,
a convert to Catholicism who took literally the call of the Gospels to
practice personally the works of mercy and rescue. She would do it
with full-risk commitments to pacifism and nonviolent anarchism.

The talk was unfounded. With scant eyeing from the media, and far from
the rites of soft-core religion that sanction coziness with Caesar and
his court clerics, nearly 185 Catholic Worker houses of hospitality
are currently operating in thirty-seven states and ten countries. From
July 9 to 12, several hundred practitioners of Day’s methods are
expected to gather in Worcester, Massachusetts, hosted by two local
Worker houses: Sts. Francis and Therese and The Mustard Seed. The
occasion is a celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the
Catholic Worker, going back to May Day 1933, when Day, then a
35-year-old journalist who had written about class conflict, strikes
and war resistance for The Masses and The Liberator, handed out the
first copies of her monthly newspaper at a Communist rally in
Manhattan’s Union Square.

Through thick and thick–there is no thin in poverty’s
underworld–Worker houses have been models of stamina, going extra
miles beyond counting. The Ammon Hennacy House in Los Angeles offers
shelter and meals for homeless people and publishes The Catholic
Agitator. Viva House in Baltimore runs a food pantry and family soup
kitchen. St. Peter Claver House in Philadelphia gleans for food and
clothing and has it on hand for all comers. Washington’s Dorothy Day
House shelters five families, distributes food and stages weekly
antiwar demonstrations at the White House and the Pentagon. Scott
Schaeffer-Duffy, who with his wife, Claire, started Sts. Francis and
Therese House in 1986, echoes Day’s line–”we confess to being fools
and wish that we were more so”–by saying that Catholic Worker houses
seek “an irrational and personalist way of doing things that trusts in
the miraculous power of God…. Without government aid, salaries,
grants or institutional help from the Church, and often without many
volunteers, we feed and house people, deliver aid in war zones,
confront local and national injustices, and still manage to have happy
personal and family lives. That’s pretty miraculous to me.”

In the years before Day embraced Catholicism, in 1927 at 30, she lived
on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She bibbed with Eugene O’Neill and
Malcolm Cowley, interviewed Trotsky, went to jail with Alice Paul, was
on the barricades with the Socialists, read Peter Kropotkin, Tolstoy
and Jack Reed, reveled with Greenwich Village bohemians, had an
abortion, gave birth to a daughter and left a common-law marriage. In
The Long Loneliness, Day’s 1952 autobiography, she tells of
transferring all that fury and fire to living out Christ’s message of
siding with the scorned.

Like today’s followers, Day worked her own side of the street with no
official ties to the Church. A pacifist, she had contempt for
churchmen who duped the faithful into accepting the “just war” theory.
She struck matches to burn down the hierarchy’s chumminess with power.
In the late 1960s, when a war-supporting Catholic cardinal was in
Vietnam blessing US warplanes and another cardinal went to the White
House for a prayer service with Richard Nixon, Day unloaded: “What a
confusion we have gotten into when Christian prelates sprinkle holy
water on scrap metal to be used for obliteration bombing and name
bombers for the Holy Innocents, for Our Lady of Mercy; who bless a man
about to press a button which releases death to 50,000 human beings,
including little babies, children, the sick, the aged….”

Day’s fifty-year ministry included war tax resistance, commingling
with society’s broke and broken, imprisonment–she was arrested so
often for civil disobedience that a New York City jail had a “Dorothy
Day suite”–and getting out a newspaper that still sells at the same
penny-a-copy price and holds the same pacifist line as when it
started. Day’s biographers in books and magazines include Robert
Coles, Garry Wills, Daniel Berrigan, Abigail McCarthy, Dwight
Macdonald, Dan Wakefield, Michael Harrington and David O’Brien–the
last writing in Commonweal that Day was “the most significant,
interesting and influential person in the history of American
Catholicism.”

Few writers have been closer to Day than Robert Ellsberg. He took a
five-year student sabbatical from Harvard in the mid-1970s to join Day
at the New York Worker, washing dishes, unclogging the toilets and
editing the newspaper. This summer Ellsberg, now the editor and
publisher of Orbis Books, comes forward with The Duty of Delight: The
Diaries of Dorothy Day. It is 669 pages of sere and flexuous prose,
virtuosic in its candor. A diary entry from June 16, 1951, begins: “I
have a hard enough job to curb the anger in my own heart which I
sometimes even wake up with, go to sleep with–a giant to strive with,
an ugliness, a sorrow to me–a mighty struggle to love. As long as
there is any resentment, bitterness, lack of love in my own heart I am
powerless. God must help me.”

From the evidence in Day’s life and what endures daily in the Worker
houses, help kept–and keeps–coming.as

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Posted on 07/05/2008, in OPINION and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hello

    I’ve just uploaded two rare interviews with the Catholic activist Dorothy Day. One was made for the Christophers [1971]–i.e., Christopher Closeup– and the other for WCVB-TV Boston [1974].

    Day had begun her service to the poor in New York City during the Depression with Peter Maurin, and it continued until her death in 1980. Their dedication to administering to the homeless, elderly, and disenfranchised continues with Catholic Worker homes in many parts of the world.

    Please post or announce the availability of these videos for those who may be interested in hearing this remarkable lay minister.

    They may be located here:

    http://www.youtube.com/user/4854derrida

    Thank you

    Dean Taylor

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