Revisiting Dorothy Day

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

 

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WWJD?

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

 

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