The Prophetic Voice (Accompaniment)

A Reflection on Rosalie G. Riegle, Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her

Convert to Catholicism, unapologetic pacifist, denizen of the Lower East Side, comforter of the poor, journalist by trade, and nay-sayer to secular authority, Dorothy Day is a fascinating person known to many from her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.[1] Indeed, like countless others, I was introduced to her and Peter Maurin’s Catholic Worker movement through that book. In the fall semester of my senior year at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky, I read the Harper and Row reissue of The Long Loneliness and she was like no Catholic I had ever encountered in all my many years of Catholic schooling. That edition contained a compelling introduction by Daniel Berrigan, which led me to his other writings, which serendipitously led to a personally decisive encounter with a Catholic priest in Louisville, Kentucky, Jim Flynn, who was also the only person I knew at that time who was reading Berrigan.[2]

In short order, Jim invited me to join him in an experiment in community living and peace-making. By this time, the spring semester of my senior year in 1982, I was all too eager to pass on going to law school and so, after graduation, I chose to live in community in Louisville’s West End. Through Jim, who was like no other priest I’d ever met and for whom the word “prophetic” had a resonant accuracy, I soon met Pat Geier, who became my best friend and who encouraged me to apply for a ministerial position in justice and peace at her parish, the Church of Epiphany.

I was soon hired at that parish as well as Fr. Flynn’s own community at St. William in the city and became involved in the Sanctuary Movement for Salvadoran refugees, Witness for Peace (which maintained a nonviolent presence in Nicaragua war zones between civilians and contra terrorists) and the Pledge of Resistance to U.S. intervention in Nicaragua. In 1985 soon after getting arrested at our Senator’s office to protest the allocation of more aid to the contras, Pat Geier and I took off five weeks to study at Maryknoll’s Summer Program at the Institute of Justice and Peace. There I met the man who became my teacher, Marc Ellis, a Jewish religious thinker then beginning to wrestle with the tangled and tortured histories of the Holocaust, Israel, and Palestine. He had lived at the New York Catholic Worker in the 70s and had published A Year at the Catholic Worker as well as written a biography of Peter Maurin.[3]

In 1988 I retuned to Maryknoll where I met Mev Puleo, the woman who would later become my wife, as we attended the summer program in honor of Peruvian liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez. Later that year, Mev introduced me to her best friend, Teka Childress, one of the sparkling mainstays at the Karen Catholic Worker House in Saint Louis.

By the reading of that one book by Dorothy Day, I was led on a path that took me, mysteriously, on to Dan Berrigan, Jim Flynn, Pat Geier, Epiphany and Saint William, Maryknoll, Marc Ellis, Mev Puleo and Teka Childress. I can only marvel at what my life would have been like if I had never discovered and took to heart The Long Loneliness. The closing lines of the book touched me in 1981 but gave me strength in 1996, a few months after Mev died from a malignant brain tumor at the age of 32. For the several months preceding her death, we were accompanied through her suffering by Teka, Becky Hassler, and Tim Pekarek, who had made accompaniment a way of life all those many years they lived at Karen House.[4] Here’s the passage from the end of The Long Loneliness:

The most significant thing about The Catholic Worker is poverty some say.

The most significant thing is community, others say. We are not alone anymore.

But the final word is love. At times it has been, in the words of Father Zosima, a harsh and dreadful thing, and our very faith in love has been tried through fire.

We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. 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.[5]

Roselie G. Riegle has compiled a stirring book that speaks of that love and that companionship, Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her (Orbis Books: 2003). The book is comprised of interviews with many folks in and around the Catholic Worker Movement, arranged according to themes such as “Politics and Protest,” “What She Was Really Like,” and “Love is The Measure.” With a book like this, I read to be instructed, to be inspired, and to find parallels between Day’s times and our own. I read to make an act of countercultural resistance to the speed and frivolity of so much of American life. I read to contemplate the meaning of sanctity. I read to open myself to the challenge of an extraordinary yet mere flesh and blood mortal.

Readers already familiar with the broad outlines of Day’s life will naturally gravitate to some chapters, less to others, depending on their own curiosity, journey, and temperament. There are many gems throughout this book to clarify one’s thought and spur one to action. Here are twelve passages to which I will return again and again.

Joe Zarella, a Worker in the 30s: “She loved [composer Richard] Wagner, which was something very difficult to understand.” [12]

Ade Bethune, a long-time artist for The Catholic Worker newspaper: “Peter taught her you do not just write about hospitality. You do it.” [14]

Judith Malina, a co-founder of The Living Theater: “I think she unified the concepts of idea and practice better than anyone. Her ideas extended all the way to the pacifist idea, all the way to the anarchist idea, all the way to the poverty. Dorothy’s human generosity could include the most pitiful person and the finest in the same embrace, and so I finally learned what she had been trying to teach me, that anarchism is holiness. It’s a holiness here and now that consists of treating every person as a holy being. No dividing into good ones and bad ones.” [57]

Jim Forest, a biographer of Day: “[During the period of the Cold War] [w]e went into this really smoked-filled room [at New York University] and somebody asked her, with great venom, ‘Miss Day, you talk about loving your enemy. Well, what would you do if the Russians invaded?’ Without any trouble at all, not annoyed or incensed or ready to cross swords, Dorothy just said, ˜I would open my arms and embrace them, like anyone else.’ Which was a staggering response at the time.” [87]

Dorothy Gauchat, founder of Our Lady of the Wayside: “At [Dorothy’s] wake, you saw Frank Sheed and all these famous people. And then a street person would come and stand by the casket and weep. A raggedly, pitiful man. One of them kept saying over and over, ‘She loved us, she listened to us, she loved us.’ Then he bent over to kiss her.” [90]

Pat Jordan, who lived at the Worker in the 70s: “When Kathleen and I were at the Worker, the most remarkable thing was the sense of forgiveness within the community. You would see people do terrible things to one another and yet, because of this unwritten sense of Christian forgiveness, people were able to come back and start again. We saw this happen again and again and again. Dorothy kept repeating ‘seventy times seven.’ You have to forgive seventy times seven.” [91]

Michael Harrington, author of The Other America: “She said, ‘If our dear, sweet cardinal, who is the vicar of Christ in New York City, told me to shut down the Catholic Worker, I would close it down immediately.’ She was dead serious. Dorothy really did go around referring to [conservative Cardinal] Spellman as ‘our dear, sweet cardinal’ and ‘the vicar of Christ.'” [61]

Jeannette Noel, who lived at Maryhouse in New York: “I remember one time she was complaining about what she saw as luxury. She says, ‘I have a TV, I have an air conditioner! Now that’s not living in poverty.’ She was just going on and on. And I said to her, ‘Dorothy, just say, Thank you. Thank God for gifts.’ She laughed and didn’t answer.” [107]

Robert Coles, a Harvard professor who took his students to the New York Worker’s Friday night clarification of thought meetings: “I did it three years in a row, and to this day that is what some of the students remember about their Harvard education. They don’t remember all the teachers, they don’t remember all the books, but they remember that trip down to the Worker. And they remember Dorothy coming down and talking to them.” [141]

Eileen Egan, associate editor of The Catholic Worker: “You can take course after course in so-called theology and never hear the message at the heart of Christianity–the message of Jesus, which is indiscriminate love. This includes loving the enemy. This is the simplest of theology. Somebody has said that much of theology consists in getting round the Sermon on the Mount. Well, Dorothy and Peter didn’t get around the Sermon on the Mount. They accepted it straight on.”

Fr. Richard McSorley, active in the Catholic Worker in Washington, D.C.: “One example that impressed me very much, especially because I’m a Jesuit priest, is when a reporter asked her, ‘What do you think about your Jesuit friends? They have very nice rooms and very nice food, and you’re living with the poor and outcast. Don’t you think it would be better for them to live here with you or to live at least this style?’ And she said, ‘Well, I know that the spirit calls people in different ways. . . I don’t know what the spirit of God tells other people, but do know what the spirit of God calls me to, and I know that there are other people called to other things.’ Well, the reporter was very insistent and asked the same question again, and she gave the same answer. Now I think that’s a real sample of the Catholic Worker spirit. If she had said that the Jesuits would be better off imitating her, she would be implicitly saying that ‘I’m better than. . .’ Well, no doubt she was ‘better than.’ But she wasn’t saying that, and she didn’t think that. And that’s the mark of all the saints, that they consider themselves least of all. They not only genuinely feel that, they live it.” [150]

Joe Zarella: “Even though Dorothy is respected, she’s still controversial. She’d be a hero to everyone if she’d just practiced the works of mercy. And that’s the difference between Dorothy and Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa helped the people who are hurt in society, but she didn’t attack the institutions that hurt the people she’s helping. Dorothy helped the people and also attacked the system.” [191]

Marc Ellis tells the following story about his last meeting with Dorothy in New York: “Dorothy was sitting outside waiting for someone to take her to a doctor’s appointment when she suddenly called me over to talk. This was somewhat unusual and I was a bit nervous as I sat down next to her. Then she simply told me that my time at the Worker was coming to an end and that it had been good that I had joined them for a year. It was appropriate that I move on now, she continued, for I had learned what I could here and I should feel no hesitation or guilt in moving to my next place in life. The Worker, she said, was like a school, sending its students on toward life’s work.”[6]

I’ve been involved with Karen House since 1996: working on the occasionally published journal, The Round Table, taking the Sunday morning house shift, inviting my university students to visit, tutor the children, join protests, and hang out with the community. I suppose I’m one of hundreds, no, probably one of a few thousand people over the years who have shared some time, energy, and material resources at this local house of hospitality with room for thirteen women and about as many kids. To use Dorothy’s image, we’ve all been going to school. And what kind of “school” is Karen House?[7] It’s a school where we learn to practice indiscriminate love, to forgive seventy times seventy, to express gratitude for all our gifts, to respond more readily to the spirit in our own lives, to give and receive the works of mercy, to recognize the filthy rotten system’s many manifestations, to open our arms and embrace one another, to notice and minimize our annoyance and anger, to be hospitable to everyone who comes in, to speak kindly of hierarchs, and, if not listen to Wagner, to at least listen to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or Ani Di Franco.

 

[1] Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness: An Autobiography (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981).

[2] Berrigan’s testimony: “Without Dorothy, without that exemplary patience, courage, moral modesty, without this woman pounding at the locked door behind which the powerful mock the powerless with games of triage, without her, the resistance we offered would have been simply unthinkable. She urged our consciences off the beaten track; she made the impossible (in our case) probable, and then actual. She did this, first of all, by living as though the truth were true.” Daniel Berrigan, S.J., “Introduction,” in Day, The Long Loneliness, xxiii.

[3] Marc H. Ellis, A Year at the Catholic Worker: A Spiritual Journey Among the Poor (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2000) and Marc H. Ellis, Peter Maurin: Prophet in the Twentieth Century (New York: Paulist Press, 1981).

[4] For appreciations of Teka and Becky during those days, see The Book of Mev, 331, 347.

[5] Day, The Long Loneliness, 285-286.

[6] Marc Ellis, Revolutionary Forgiveness: Essays on Judaism, Christianity, and the Future of Religious Life(Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2000), 39.

[7] If you wish to volunteer at Karen House, call 621-4052. For more on the Catholic Worker Movement, see www.catholicworker.org.

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