Tag Archives: Dorothy Day

Holy Memory: The Duty of Delight reviewed

The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, Edited by Robert Ellsberg

669 pages, ISBN: 978-0-87462-023-8, Marquette University Press, 2008

In this large gathering of Dorothy Day’s daily personal journaling, we are given the gift of careful recollections, on things small and great in Dorothy’s life for over four decades. In our age of sound bytes and ever shortened attention spans, Dorothy welcomes us back to a way of life that values every moment as precious and every other life as important. Dorothy’s lens on life and relationships is truly unique. She struggles out loud with her sins, questioning herself and her intentions, and relying in the end on the mercy of God as her solace.

Reading Dorothy’s diaries draws me into the present, into things that are truly important, but that I’d forgotten to value, like the sounds of my surroundings, the neighborhood outside my window, the food I eat, the clothes I wear, the beauty in the sounds my children make (which often annoy me). Dorothy pays special attention to what I used to consider the small things in life. Reading her diary gives me a peek into her daily habitus, the routine in which she chose to honor God. She makes this habitus beautiful by honoring it. She honors the people she shares her life with, she honors the provisions she has, but most of all she honors God with her telling. If, as Josef Pieper wrote, love is acknowledging the other’s being, Dorothy Day demonstrates a love for all she is given, and this makes her many years of notes instructive indeed!

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The Catholic Worker After Dorothy reviewed

The Catholic Worker After Dorothy:

Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation by Dan McKanan

Liturgical Press, 2008
240 pgs., $19.95

Reviewed by Chris L. Rice

The appearance of this slim volume finally gives the many Catholic Worker houses across the world their due. Dan McKanan, assistant professor in peace studies at the College of St. Benedict and St. Johns did hundreds of hours of interviews with Catholic Worker members and put in time himself in a communal kitchen in order to really understand his subject. The Catholic Worker After Dorothy accomplishes two goals simultaneously: it answers the movement’s serious critics who charge that after Dorothy Day’s death the movement has been on the wane, and it carefully unpacks the actual vision set up by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.

McKanan says that the Works of Mercy themselves form the hermeneutic by which to understand the creative differences in the many different approaches to the different Catholic Worker houses today. I find this compelling, especially since McKanan is candid about the many tensions within the movement. On issues such as abortion and gay unions different houses do hold very different views. The decision within the Movement overall to concentrate specifically on the Works of Mercy, showing hospitality and identifying with the least of these, seems to create space for disagreement and yet continued involvement.

Many, many different issues get raised within this book. How do families with children create space for themselves and still stay active with hospitality? What does nonprofit status do to the Catholic Worker vision? How does the movement include nonCatholics in its spiritual vision when the founders vision is so Christian in nature? These issues and many more are reviewed in this book. Dan is not afraid to ask the hard questions of this generation of members as they look to the future. He notes for instance that not as many houses are applying the Works of Mercy to this generation’s challenges as was done previously. Nor are they engaging recent papal encyclicals. In this way this is a challenge to continue the work by engaging the spiritual sources.

This book is important reading for anyone interested in doing community with the poor. It is ambitious in its scope, doing what many other histories neglect, namely the socialization process. This served as my first real introduction to the Catholic Worker movement. Reading it caused me to dig into the movement’s writings like the online Dorothy Day archive at catholicworker.org. It also caused me to finally go visit my neighborhood Catholic Worker house. I’ve found these to be sources of spiritual refreshment, and I’m sure this is only the beginning. One other source that I’ll be plumbing is Marquette University’s archive of audio/visual materials. I found out these are available through my local library’s interlibrary loan program. In Christian ministry we need all the witnesses we can get. Brothers and sisters on similar journeys. Saints whose lives testify to God’s enduring love for ordinary people. This book is a great point of entry.

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Loaves and Fishes review

Loaves and Fishes: The inspiring Story of the Catholic Worker Movement

By Dorothy Day

Orbis Books, 1997

ISBN 978-1570751561

221 pages


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.

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New book on Catholic Worker

I’m currently reading Dan McKanan’s book The Catholic Worker After Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation. A review is coming, but for now, I highly recommend it. Through it I’ve learned about Casa Juan Diego and the Houston Catholic Worker Newspaper. On their site I found Peter Maurin’s “Easy Essays” which I’ve quickly added as meditative reading on my Ipod.

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Dorothy Day more than Augustine

I was asking earlier for autobiographies that tell the story with the Church in mind. Augustine’s Confessions was mentioned, but lately I’ve been reading this beautiful little online autobiography of Dorothy Day’s, From Union Square to Rome. Actually it’s addressed to her brother, who was a communist. Here’s an excerpt from the Catholic Worker’s website:

Do you remember that little story that Grushenka told in The Brothers Karamazov? “Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into a lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell God. ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold, and I’ll pull you out. And he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.”

Sometimes in thinking and wondering at God’s goodness to me, I have thought that it was because I gave away an onion. Because I sincerely loved His poor, He taught me to know Him. And when I think of the little I ever did, I am filled with hope and love for all those others devoted to the cause of social justice.

“What glorious hope!” Mauriac writes. “There are all those who will discover that their neighbor is Jesus himself, although they belong to the mass of those who do not know Christ or who have forgotten Him. And nevertheless they will find themselves well loved. It is impossible for any one of those who has real charity in his heart not to serve Christ. Even some of those who think they hate Him, have consecrated their lives to Him; for Jesus is disguised and masked in the midst of men, hidden among the poor, among the sick, among prisoners, among strangers. Many who serve Him officially have never known who He was, and many who do not even know His name, will hear on the last day the words that open to them the gates of joy. O Those children were I, and I those working men. I wept on the hospital bed. I was that murderer in his cell whom you consoled.’ ”

But always the glimpses of God came most when I was alone. Objectors cannot say that it was fear of loneliness and solitude and pain that made me turn to Him. It was in those few years when I was alone and most happy that I found Him. I found Him at last through joy and thanksgiving, not through sorrow.

Yet how can I say that either? Better let it be said that I found Him through His poor, and in a moment of joy I turned to Him. I have said, sometimes flippantly, that the mass of bourgeois smug Christians who denied Christ in His poor made me turn to Communism, and that it was the Communists and working with them that made me turn to God.

She writes in a way reminiscent of Augustine’s Confessions, but with an emphasis on her relationship to the poor. I think this book would be wonderful when read aloud to a group. It’s a treasure indeed!

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