Loaves and Fishes: The inspiring Story of the Catholic Worker Movement
By Dorothy Day
Orbis Books, 1997
Reviewed by Chris L. Rice
Sometimes the most radical ideas are the simplest ones. Take for instance the idea that every family have a room set aside for hospitality for strangers. It’s said to originate with St. John of Chrysostom, and such a room is called “the Christ room,” because, after all, the stranger in need is Jesus. Why is this idea so radical? Well, there are many reasons. Families don’t feel safe taking in strangers. Children are taught not to talk to strangers. We all know stories of well-meaning do-gooders who were thoroughly cleaned out for their naïve hospitality. The most sensible thing to do is to see that the stranger is taken to the nearest state sponsored non-profit who handles such things professionally. Either there or to the police station, where they may really belong. But is this common wisdom really sensible? Is it even Christian?
Dorothy Day set out to ask such hard questions, not just with words, but as a life’s vocation. Loaves and Fishes is her 1963 account of the story. This edition from Orbis thirty years later includes a Foreword by Thomas Merton and an Introduction by Robert Coles. With the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Catholic Worker upon us, I took it upon myself to visit this book for the first time. Its pages contained what felt to me like the warm, personal words of an old friend. Dorothy writes that way, explaining what her life looks like, what the people who surround her are life, and why she lives this way. (The “why” only comes with the journey.) Her style epitomizes what is now known as creative nonfiction. She is a tried and true journalist, but she is a personalist, not writing what we expect to hear, but about a new life she believes is possible only because of Jesus Christ.
I want to keep this review about Dorothy’s experience, but I have to tell you why her story touched me so profoundly. I grew up in a home that, while not modeled on Dorothy Day’s particular story, was dedicated to living and identifying with the homeless and poor. My family ate donated food, invited homeless women and children into our home, and wore clothes from a “free store” set up to give everything away. I can tell you from my own experience that such a life is not easy. My parents were under a lot of pressure trying to balance finances with the hospitality itself, which my sisters and I endured in-kind. Sometimes we made the mistake of trying to bear the strain alone.
Dorothy’s example is that she seemed to always know that the work wasn’t hers personally. The vision was one brought by a vagabond Frenchman whom she felt she treated badly. Peter Maurin’s Easy Essays reflected his manner of oral delivery. He’d just walk up and talk to whoever seemed to be listening. Her stories make it clear that whether they were listening or not he’d go on talking. Sometimes they couldn’t seem to be rid of him. Even so, Dorothy knew that what he was saying was true.
When Dorothy writes about her fellow workers at the Catholic Worker with all their idiosyncrasies, she makes me laugh, and she makes me feel at home. The old man with a cane who was hopelessly racist, who started a fire and fought with a black man constantly, whose only prized possession in life was his cane, with which he could defend himself. Another old man lived on the farm in a little shack down by the gate. He stole the community’s new tools and sat on his porch with a shot gun lest they try to get them back. She loves these people and humanizes them. She feels called to be their neighbor, and so she asks God for love for them. These candid accounts make her way of life appealing. On a personal level I felt finally understood when I read this book. Like my way of life, growing up in one community and then choosing another as an adult, made sense to someone else. But the truth, I know, is that Dorothy was doing this long before my family.
This way of life is still radical. Not having to pay taxes to fund the war because we annually make so little income that we just don’t count. Asking what we can do for a neighbor in need, without asking first whether we have the means. Taking Jesus at his word: “Freely you have received, freely give.” Dorothy seemed to believe that sainthood was for everyone. I think about that now that the canonization process has begun for Dorothy. She wanted to see everyone after Christ’s likeness. Her writing here reflects that. Her chapter on her brief stay in a women’s prison finds her looking for Jesus in the very women who were spewing profanity at her and looking to violate her. I’m still a bit bewildered by that approach. I know she’s right, and I’m still praying for that kind of love, those eyes to see Jesus suffering and the heart to welcome him.