A Belated Homage to Dorothy Day

Earlier this week was the anniversary of the death of Dorothy Day, a woman who heard the call of God and allowed that call to shape her life.

A convert to Catholicism, Day had a passion for God, but believed that passion had to be expressed in action on behalf of those less fortunate than herself. Her prayer to God for guidance as to how to use her talents for her fellow workers and for the poor were answered when she met Peter Maurin, with whom she co-founded the Catholic Worker movement. Together they developed a model for radical Christian living – living and working among the poor in New York City (although today there are Catholic Worker communities all around the country).

It is clear that Day internalized something Vincent de Paul so stressed – seeing Christ in the poor. She treated each person with an incredible dignity and love. In a review of a new book about Dorothy Day, Rosalie Riegle writes that the “core of Dorothy Day was “her deep love of God and her unwavering ability to see God I those the world shuns.” Or as a biographer put it, “Dorothy has helped us better understand one of the primary biblical truths: that each person, no matter how damaged or battered by the events and circumstances of life, is a bearer of the image of God and deserves to be recognized as such.”

An admirable model of discipleship for today’s world.

The Promise of Spring

It has been a long winter here in the Twin Cities. I was beginning to wonder if the snow and cold would ever end. (I was actually doing OK until the snowfall last week, which dropped three inches, again covering my lawn that was – before that fall – virtually snow-free.)

As the weather hit 50 yesterday, I remembered a quote by Dorothy Day about the resurrection of spring. Given the news about Libya, the continued suffering of the people of Japan, the concern about how state budget cuts will affect the poorest among us, it seemed a good quote to share as we begin the welcome spring:

It is surely an exercise of faith for us to see Christ in each other. But it is through such exercise that we grow and the joy of our vocation assures us we are on the right path. Certainly, it is easier to believe now that the sun warms us, and we know that buds will appear on the trees in the wasteland across the street, that life will spring out of the dull clods of that littered park across the way.

There are wars and rumors of war, poverty and plague, hunger and pain. Still, the sap is rising, again there is the resurrection of spring, and God’s continuing promise to us that He is with us always, with His comfort and joy, if we will only ask.

Spring reminds us that, no matter what we experience, God is with us always.

Working at Love

We love some people naturally, our children for example. We grow to love some people very quickly, an acquaintance who quickly becomes a loved friend. In both cases, our good feelings toward the person flow and we affirmatively seek to do things that will bring them happiness

With others, however, love – at least in the spontaneously-arising good feeling sense of the word – doesn’t come so naturally or quickly. Yet, we are called by Christ to love everyone.

Dorothy Day, who understood the need to love all others, said something helpful in this regard. She writes, “Love is a matter of the will….If you will to love someone and try to serve him as an expression of that love, then you will soon come to feel that love.” Day had no illusions that this is easy; she readily admitted to her own shortcomings and feelings of anger and resentment toward some persons.

But her suggestion seems a good one. We can’t force ourselves to feel love toward another. But we can will ourselves to act toward them in a loving way, allowing the feeling to arise on its own.

It takes time. As Day also wrote, given that our love for one another is tied to our love of God, “all our life is a practice to learn to love God,”

Hope

In response to frustration over the government’s handling of an issue of social policy, someone I know recently sent an e-mail to a group of people that included me, that read, “Hopelessness is the only practical response in the face of [the handling of the issue that upset the writer].” I’ve thought about the e-mail a number of times in recent weeks, as I’ve watched the public, Church officials and legislators talk about health care reform.

Discouragement is something I understand. One looks around at so many big problems like that one and the seeming inability of our society to reach any sort of consensus about how to fix them. As an individual, one watches all of this and wonders how it is possible to have any impact on problems so big and so complicated. It is hard not to get a bit discouraged.

Some people may view hopelessness as “the only practical response,” but hopelessness is never an acceptable response for Christians. We are called to transform the world to Kingdom. To work to create a just society which recognizes the dignity of every human person. To build a civilization of love. As Christians, as disiples of Christ, we don’t get to throw up our hands and opt out because problems are big and solutions are hard.

In the words of Dorothy Day, “No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There’s too much work to do.”

Dorothy Day

Today is the anniversary of the death of Dorothy Day, a woman regarded by many as a saint during her lifetime (to which her brusque response was: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”). It was once remarked of her that “she did for her era what St. Francis of Assisi did for his: recall a complacent Christianity to its radical roots.” And that she did, founding the Catholic Worker movement and doing all she could to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

In an early reflection, she explained the motivation and the work of the Catholic Worker houses in very simple terms:

No one asked us to do this work. The mayor of the city did not come along and ask us to run a bread line or a hospice to supplement the municipal lodging house. Nor did the Bishop or Cardinal ask that we help out the Catholic Charities in their endeavor to help the poor. No one asked us to start an agency or an institution of any kind. On our responsibility, because we are our brother’s keeper, because of a sense of personal responsibility, we began to try to see Christ in each one that came to us. If a man came in hungry, there was always something in the ice box. If he needed a bed and were were crowded, there was always a quarter around to buy a bed on the Bowery. If he needed clothes, there were our friends to be appealed to, after we had taken the extra coat out of the closet first, of course. It might be someone else’s coat, but that was all right too.

We are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper. We have a personal responsibility. Like one of the saints I most admire, St. Vincent de Paul, Dorothy Day took that responsibility seriously, managing to see Christ in each person she encountered. Inspired by that model, let us try to see Christ in each person we encounter, today and every day.