Revisiting Dorothy Day

July 9, 2018 at 2:31 pm | Posted in Catholicism, feminism, war and violence | 4 Comments
Tags: , ,

Because of my half-century of participation in the Grail movement, I have always felt related to Dorothy Day. The first recorded contact between the Grail and American Catholics was a 1936 letter to her from the co-founder of the US Grail, Lydwine van Kersbergen. In 1943, with the Grail planted in the Midwest, Day, on sabbatical from the Catholic Worker, participated in a three-week Grail program on rural living, liturgy, and the women’s apostolate. Later she made a silent retreat at Super Flumina, the Grail’s farm in Foster, Ohio.

My personal contacts with Day were limited. She spoke at a meeting of the Catholic Art Association—or maybe it was the Catholic Art Guild, since the Art Association shut down in 1970––during one of the summers that I spent at Grailville, the Grail’s farm and conference center near Cincinnati, when I was still a fourth-grade teacher. Her talk followed the showing of a short art film, “Two Men and a Wardrobe.”* My recollection is that Day was quite dismissive of the film, something that led me to categorize her as a crabby, old-fashioned Church type; I was in my mid-twenties at the time and not very forgiving.

I also wrote to Day in 1975, after I had become a full-time member of the Grailville staff, asking if she would send me a copy of the Muslim “Ninety-Nine Names of God” that another Grail member, recently home from Egypt, had given her. She responded,

Sorry. Those 99 Names have disappeared from my treasure box, though the beads remain. My bedroom is always used in my peregrinations, so things disappear, are ripped off, liberated, to use the language of the young. My love to all there. –– In Christ––Dorothy.

The message came on a postcard bearing the kind of dramatic woodcut, this one by Antonio Frasconi, that appeared frequently in the Catholic Worker. Eventually I had the postcard framed archivally, to preserve it. When I show it to visitors I tell them that if Dorothy is canonized, it will become a second-class relic, a comment that baffles most of them.

All the rest of my “encounters” with Dorothy have taken place since her death in 1980. One was reading the letter from Cardinal John O’Connor to the Vatican nominating Day for canonization. It highlights, as a reason for her canonization, Day’s repentance for the abortion she underwent she became a Catholic. Later, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, at an event in Day’s honor at St. Joseph’s in Greenwich Village, the church where Day was baptized, described her as an “obedient daughter of the Church.” I was well past my mid-twenties by then, but my responses to these statements were still not very forgiving. With regard to Day’s obedience to the Church, for example, I thought: except for the cemetery workers’ strike, where Day and her Catholic Worker colleagues picketed against the strike breakers brought in by the Archdiocese.

Most recently, my encounters with Day include reading Jim Forest’s biography, All is Grace (Orbis 2011). I have had it in my head for years to write a book about Joan of Arc, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Day, because of the strong but seemingly unlikely connections between them––Thérèse the ascetic having written a play about Joan the warrior, and Day, the pacifist, devoted to Joan as well, then writing a book about Thérèse. Forest’s book is part of the material I’ve been accumulating for the project.

Forest is a terrific writer, and I learned a great deal from his biography that I had not known about Day. For one thing, I learned that she really was in many respects a traditional, if also utterly committed, Catholic. She was also a fairly judgmental individual, a sin she confessed again and again. So my evaluation of her in the 1970s was not entirely mistaken.

I also learned that Day really was an obedient daughter of the Church, frequently following the directions she received from bishops and priests—though she was by no means naïve about the sins of the institution.

I even learned that Day really did seriously regret—repent of—her abortion, though whether she would want to be remembered for that before anything else is another question. Indeed, she objected strongly to any suggestion that she was a saint, believing it undercut the Catholic Worker’s fundamental commitment to egalitarianism and denial of self.

Perhaps the most important insight I took away from reading Forest’s biography, however, is that precisely because of her high level of Christian commitment and the strength of her positions, Dorothy Day may well be exactly the kind of role model needed in this difficult time. In the midst of the environmental crisis that engulfs us, for example, I look around our apartment and wonder why in hell I ever bought all these clothes, these books, those items of kitchen ware, and I find myself deeply inspired by Day’s poverty and self-abnegation.

As I observe the chaos that paralyzes many of the groups I belong to, underpinned by the individualism and expectations of gratification by so many in my generation, I find myself profoundly challenged by Day’s concern with and obedience to authority, however communal her understanding of it was.

And when I am too lazy to turn out for public demonstrations, or too afraid of being arrested, I remember Day’s endless commitment to social action, and her many stays in jail.

Could it be, I find myself wondering, that the woman I once dismissed as too traditional a Catholic and too judgmental a person is exactly the model––the saint––we need as we face the crises that confront us?

 

Versions of this post appeared in EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference and Gumbo the monthly publication of the Grail in the US.)

 

Advertisements

WWJD?

November 27, 2017 at 12:23 pm | Posted in Aging, Climate Change, Environment, women, world water crisis | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , ,

No, not what would Jesus do. What would Jane O’Donnell do?

Jane O’Donnell was part of the generation ahead of mine in the Grail, the international women’s movement I’ve been active in since my senior year in high school. Many of the women in that earlier  generation were utterly amazing. I would not be who I am without the example they set for me.

Jane O’Donnell was a native Philadelphian (as I am), and came to the Grail through the Catholic Worker. There was a close connection between the US Grail and the Catholic Worker from the outset; the Grail founders corresponded with Dorothy Day before they came to the US in 1940, and Day later made several  retreats at the Grail’s house near Cincinnati. And from time to time over the years, Day sent women to the Grail who seemed more suited to us than to the CW. Jane was , I believe, one of these.

Jane lived most of her adult life in Grail communities, and did amazing work with the poor. One story I heard involved her leaving a Grail Christmas celebration to take food to a family that was without any.

I knew Jane mostly from Grail meetings, but perhaps we lived together at Grailville, the Grail’s southern Ohio farm and conference center, in the 1970s. In any case, I have to confess, I mostly found Jane baffling. Eventually I read in an introduction to the Myers-Briggs test that extroverts are people who determine what they think by talking about it, and this helped me understand Jane a bit better. Suffice to say that in my family of origin, editing before you talk was a highly valued, not to say required, practice.  So I often had a hard time understanding what Jane was taking about.

I am thinking about this now because once, toward the end of her life, when we were both at the Grail Center at Cronwall on Hudson, Jane said to me that she had decided that it doesn’t really matter whether there are dirty spots on your clothes; you should just wear them that way. Striving as I was then to move from my working class background into the professional-managerial class as a professor, I thought once again: What is this woman talking about?

In recent years, however, I have been using my professorial skills to research the impending climate catastrophe. In a review of a book on the gargantuan increase in consumption since World War II, I read that after the war something like 70% of Europeans wore their socks two days in a row before washing them , but today, virtually nobody does. Since then, at the end of the day, I have been hanging my socks over the edge of my sock drawer and wearing them again– though my post-working class try-not-to-smell-like-a poor-person tendencies make it hard for me to admit this.

I am also trying to get myself to wear clothes that have spots on them. It would save water, because I would wash them less, and put fewer soap chemicals into the water system. Doing this is made easier by the fact that our fist-floor west-Flatbush apartment is a bit dark; sometimes I go out and see spots that I had missed when I got dressed (or see that I am wearing clothes a different color from what I had intended!)

In any case, there’s one thing I am fairly sure of: I know what Jane O’Donnell would do.

 

The Folly of the Cross

October 3, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Climate Change | 6 Comments
Tags: , , , ,

Here’s a review of a book about the history and influence on Dorothy Day of a spirituality called “Lacouturism.” It was published on the Pax Christi Metro New York webpage a few months ago.

The Bread of the Strong: Lacouturisme and the Folly of the Cross by Jack Lee Downey. (Fordham 2015).

It’s almost a truism among progressive Catholics, myself included, that the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council were good ones. But it also seems that the world is not in much better shape—is perhaps in worse shape—than it was in 1965. In The Bread of the Strong, Jack Lee Downey, assistant professor of religion at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, offers some hints as to why this may be the case.

The Bread of the Strong is a study of the distinctly pre-Vatican II spirituality of a French-Canadian Jesuit, Onésime Lacouture, and his followers, and of the massive impact of that spirituality on Dorothy Day. The book traces the trajectory from Lacouture’s maximalist spirituality to Day’s radical politics.

The first three chapters of The Bread of the Strong explore Lacouture’s life and the development of his spirituality. Once intending to become an academic, Lacouture underwent a series of powerful mystical experiences during his formation at a Jesuit mission in Alaska. He emerged from these experiences with a radically changed vision of the faith in which academic theology, and even much of the Catholic Christianity of the time, were vile, inadequate pursuits.  Fundamental to Lacouture’s transformed world-view was an absolute dichotomy between nature and grace, Christianity and paganism, self-mortification and pleasure. Lacouture preached this ascetic theology passionately in clergy retreats over the next several decades. So absolute and unambiguous was his position that the Jesuits eventually silenced him.

One participant in the Lacouturist retreats, Pittsburgh diocesan priest John Hugo, was so profoundly influenced by their ascetic spirituality that he began giving his version of the retreats to Catholic laypeople in the United States. And let me be clear: these were retreats aimed at “spiritual withdrawal and moral perfectionism,” albeit with a social-justice dimension that Lacouture himself did not include.

Dorothy Day was one of the laypeople who participated in these Hugo-led retreats. Day, after her conversion, had struggled to integrate her radical sociopolitical activism with her newfound Catholic faith. Peter Maurin’s spiritual iconoclasm helped Day to integrate these seemingly contradictory dimensions of her identity. But Downey shows that it was the Lacouture retreats, with their emphasis on  “a redemptive spirituality of suffering” and ego-transcendence that solidified Day’s spiritual/political identity. This identity in turn undergirded Day’s heroic leadership of the Catholic Worker from the early 1930s to her death in 1980.

I myself am not much inclined toward asceticism or self-mortification. And as a feminist theologian, I have argued vociferously against the nature/grace, spiritual/material, male/female binaries that characterized the Church for millennia.

Yet I am also aware that the challenges facing the human race, and perhaps especially those of us who consider ourselves non-violent, or justice seeking, are nearly incomprehensible. Take, for example, the climate crisis that Pope Francis addresses in Laudato Si’.  The vast majority of us do not begin to comprehend the changes in our consumerist, convenience-oriented way of life that saving God’s creation demands. What kind of spirituality, what return to self-sacrifice and self-mortification, is required so that we will be able to face up to these inconceivable challenges?

What Would Dorothy Do?

June 2, 2014 at 5:33 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

When I started blogging, back in 2009, the young publicist at Columbia University Press who got me started told me that blogging means having a conversation with other bloggers. From his point of view, what you’re reading may not be a blog at all, just a writer’s webpage, since I rarely respond to another blogpost.

But that  may be changing. A while back I subscribed to a blog on the massive religion website Patheos The Deacon’s Bench, by journalist and Roman Catholic permanent deacon Greg Kendra. Often the deacon’s posts are primarily quotations from and links to other posts about Catholic happenings. But Kendra usually makes pretty clear his opinions about said happenings, sometimes in just a few words.

Deacon Greg, as he calls himself, is clearly a good man, and a competent journalist. But I am considerably to his left on most issues, so it’s not unusual for me to find myself talking back to him as I read his posts, or do the dishes, or walk around Brooklyn. On May 29, for example, Deacon Greg posted an article “Catholic Worker Hosts ‘Women Priest.’ What Would Dorothy Day Think?”, including a long quote from the Columbia Missourian about Roman Catholic WomanPriest (RCWP) Janice Sevre-Duszynska celebrating the Eucharist at St. Francis Catholic Worker House in Columbia, Missouri.

Now Deacon Greg makes it pretty clear what he thinks about Catholic women’s ordination, posting, for example, links to various bishop’s announcements of the excommunication of recently ordained RCWPs, or about an RCWP deacon repenting and renouncing her ordination. I wasn’t surprised, then, that he followed the news about the RCWP Catholic Worker liturgy with a long 1966 quote from Dorothy Day about her unflinching obedience to the Catholic Church. Yet Deacon Greg knows very well that when Cardinal Spellman, in 1951, ordered Day to take the word “Catholic” out of the title of the newspaper she had founded and  in which she had criticized the cardinal for breaking the cemetery workers’ strike, Day respectfully declined.

There were, of course, no ordinations of women during Day’s lifetime,  so we don’t really know how Day would have reacted to them. She was certainly an orthodox, even rigid, Catholic on sexual matters. Yet she also had little time for clericalism; a friend who worked on the The Catholic Worker while Day was alive tells of Day once getting really angry because there were three articles by priests in the previous issue. Not for nothing was Day one of the most influential Catholics in the history of the American church.

It’s also the case that Day’s legacy is vastly more complex than her journalistic statement of obedience suggests. The Catholic Worker is not only Catholic, but anarchist. Dorothy Day may have pledged obedience to the Catholic Church, but Catholic Workers didn’t always obey her, or each other.  On more than one occasion the level of conflict at a Catholic Worker farm was so extreme that Day was forced to sell it and start another farm a few years later. Some years ago, the daughter of a dear Catholic friend of mine, now deceased, left the church and married a Jewish Buddhist. One of her daughters recently spent several meaningful years at a Catholic Worker house in Chicago. And for more than a decade, my friend Karen Lenz edited EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference, even as she “led” the Philadelphia Catholic Worker (if anybody can really be said to lead a Worker house).

What Deacon Kendra and a lot of other institutional Catholics don’t get is that the orderly Catholic/non-Catholic, form/matter world of the neo-Thomist revival no longer exists (if it ever did). As the postmodernists taught us, there isn’t just an inside and an outside anymore ; there are multiple complex phenomena that hover at or beyond the margins of supposed discrete spaces, making contemporary conversation enormously complicated. Because of this, my colleague Julie Byrne will soon publish an ethnography of an independent Catholic church, to be titled “The Other Catholics,” and Roman Catholic WomenPriest liturgies are often more pious and orthodox than the Masses at my parish church here in the Diocese of Brooklyn. This is also why, from time to time, I intend to write back to Deacon Greg, to complicate the supposedly neat Catholic categories he takes for granted.

Dorothy Day, Patroness of Crabs

November 29, 2010 at 2:03 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , ,

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Dorothy Day. As some of you know, I had a few things to say on Religion Dispatches about New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s take on her as he celebrated the anniversary of Dorothy’s birthday at a Pax Christi vespers in Greenwich Village a while back.

Judy Coode, it seems to me, is much more realistic about Dorothy, in the reflections she shares with readers in this year’s Pax Christi Advent reflection booklet. Coode invites us to rejoice  in Dorothy’s charity and focus and strict simplicity. but she also mentions that Dorothy was “by some accounts a difficult person with whom to live.” Indeed, the only time I met Dorothy Day, when she had come to Grailville, where I lived in the 70s, to speak at a Catholic Art Association meeting, her comments about a film we had just watched, “Three Men and a Wardrobe,” seemed to me downright crotchety. And when a friend, long before the invention of the computer, submitted a manuscript to The Catholic Worker,  Dorothy wrote all over it before rejecting it, forcing my friend to retype the thing from scratch before submitting it elsewhere. 

But, as Coode suggests, human flaws like these are less a source scandal than of comfort to those of us who struggle to “match (Dorothy’s) life of integrity.” Dorothy Day, Servant of God and patroness of the crotchety, pray for us.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.