And so on Memorial Day Weekend I went to visit my Ma and together with my wife and child went to visit the grave of Dorothy Day, the astoundingly bold and beautiful co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. My mother, a devout Catholic who raised and fed eleven children largely on her own after my father’s untimely death at age 52, has a soft spot for Day as well as a similar sensibility.
Dorothy Day raised one child but fed untold thousands of men and women whom she perceived as nothing less than children of God, but not before she spent years as a hard drinking journalist of a decidedly anarchistic bent. Day was the acting editor of The Masses when it was shut down by the U. S. government and she was arrested for picketing Woodrow Wilson’s White House for women’s suffrage. Day was also known for hanging out with the likes of Eugene O’ Neill and Kenneth Burke, both of whom it is said, she could drink under the table.
Quite a feat, given the thirsts of such crazed Irishmen. But that was nothing to what she would do in years to come.
While she was still young, Dorothy underwent a crisis of meaning, brought forth, in part, by her experience of having an abortion. This crisis resulted in her conversion to the Catholic Church, hands down the most historically repressive of all Christian denominations and at the same time the church with the richest intellectual and cultural legacy. In short, a complicated institution to say the least. Some of Dorothy’s friends were lopsided with shock at her conversion, some considering her mad.
Mad she was and mad she remains in the context of the culture of what William Blake called “Selfhood” in which she was raised and which rages on in ever greater ferocity and diabolical intensity in our own time, when in 1932 she met the enigmatic Peter Maurin. Together they embarked on a project based on the Sermon on the Mount which was both very simple and very radical: to build a “ society in which it will be easier to be good.” Five months later, at a May Day rally in Union Square, the first Catholic Worker newspaper was sold. The price of the paper in May of 1932 was one penny. Catholic Workers were selling copies of the paper this May Day in Union Square. The price of the paper in May of 2013 remains one penny.
You figure it out.
Around the same time Dorothy opened the first Catholic Worker hospitality house in which anyone who showed up was fed, no questions asked. There are now over one hundred spread out in cites all over America. God only knows how many thousands and thousands of despised and desperate souls were fed by Dorothy and those who came after her.
Moreover, there is but one rule: To proselytize was and remains forbidden.
This work of the Catholic Workers is strangely taxing. The people who come to eat are sometimes crazed and often filthy. They are the Unwanted. The Weak. The Failed. They embody the most damning of all American insults: they are the Losers. Their mere presence calls all kinds of metaphysical and theological questions into mind. One must have iron faith. One must have limitless compassion. One must make your breathing and believing one or you may well run out the door in horror.
Dorothy did this work for almost 50 years, on top of her non-stop political activism, until her death in 1980. Her work continues all over America, all over the America demented by greed and the need for power over others, debased by degenerate forms of religion preying on the weak and keeping them so, degraded by a culture where “all that is sacred has become profane. ”
Some time ago I was speaking with the writer Jim Douglass, author of JFK and the Unspeakable and The Non-Violent Cross, who runs a Catholic Worker hospitably house with his wife Shelly in Birmingham, Alabama, when he said something about Day that startled me. I did not know that Jim had actually known Dorothy and when I realized he did I asked him what she was like. Jim paused for what felt like a long time and at last he said simply, “ Dorothy was a lover.”
I was shocked and asked him what on earth he meant by that. Jim went on to say that when you are in love with someone, you see only the good in that person, only the potential in that person. That, said Jim Douglass, was how Dorothy Day saw the world.
I think of those words from time to time or rather they swim into my consciousness to haunt or invite or inspire depending on my mood and my strength at the time of their always unexpected arrival. They bespeak of a spiritual state I can only call sublime. They describe a spiritual power of which I am in awe.
Dorothy Day was a Catholic anarchist. Such a thing is an absurdity, something that should not logically exist. But then so is the sun. And so is the soil. And so a song. And so a frog. And so you. And so I. And so all.
But here we are.