Dorothy Day, cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement during the Great Depression, has been called the American Mother Teresa because of her tireless work among the poor for the last 47 years of her life. In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II granted permission for the archdiocese of New York to pursue the case for her to be named an official saint of the Catholic Church. Quite a step for the Roman Church, to consider Day for this distinction, considering the bohemian lifestyle she led in her earlier years.
She never married but had long term live in relationships with two different men, having a pregnancy and an abortion with one of them and a pregnancy and a child with the other. She wrote a book about her affair that brought her a bit of fame and even a Hollywood movie contract. She spent time in prison and it wasn’t always because of altruistic political activism, and she once tried to commit suicide. Not exactly the background of your typical saint.
“Saint” is not a word that often issues from the lips of Unitarians, as it seems to conjure up a kind of piety and reverence with which most of us I daresay would be rather uncomfortable. To venerate, or worship, a human being as Catholics do is certainly beyond the pale. But I do think we can learn from the amazing lives others have led and we can be inspired by them. Today I want to explore certain facets of Dorothy Day’s life for that very reason – because I think there are lessons here for us.
Day wasn’t born Catholic. Her parents were nominal Anglicans and rarely attended church. She was a convert. A reluctant one. The process really began with the birth of her daughter, Tamar. About that occasion, Day wrote, “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure, I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms.” Day felt such gratitude, and a need for someone or something to thank. She said, “No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.”
Whom could she thank? For Day, her gratitude came to be directed at the traditional form of God. According to David Brooks, in his book The Road to Character, “A sense of God’s reality and immanence came upon her.” “Day was not answering the question of whether God exists. She was simply made aware of a presence beyond herself. She was surrendering to the belief that independent of one’s own will, there is something significant that gives shape to life.” As Day herself would say, she came to see that “worship, adoration, thanksgiving, supplication – these were the noblest acts of which men were capable of in this life.” Thus began her transformation from the life of a free spirit to one of order and obedience.
Her friends and her lover were totally dismayed by her sudden religiosity. Though she was not comfortable with traditional religious doctrines and knew the Catholic Church only as a backward and politically reactionary force, Day nevertheless had found in her conception of God something that gave a center to her life and infused it with meaning. Forster Batterham, her lover and the father of her child, was no less passionate than Day in his own convictions – convictions that didn’t include the notion of God. He wanted to know if she had lost her mind. He wanted to know WHO was pushing her to an archaic and backward institution like the Church. When Day responded, “It is Jesus. I guess it is Jesus who is the one pushing me to the Catholics,” Forster went into a rage and told Day that she was mentally disturbed.
Day was a passionate, sexual woman and wrote long passages in her diaries about her longing for Forester, even after she had renounced him for the Church. Days tortured decision to give her allegiance and her life to the church had nothing to do with theology. It was the people. Through her work as a journalist, she had become converted to the cause of the poor, most of which, in New York city, were Catholic immigrants. She has seen their communal spirit and their generosity to those who were down and out, and she knew she must associate herself as closely as possible with those who were suffering and join their walk. And this meant joining their church.
After her conversion to Catholicism and her commitment to a life of service, she looked back on the activism of her earlier life quite self critically. “I do not know how sincere I was in my love of the poor and my desire to serve them,” she said. “I wanted to go on picket lines, to go to jail, to write, to influence others and so make my mark on the world. How much ambition and how much self-seeking there was in all of this.”
Once Day found this spiritual center she began attending mass daily, which meant rising at dawn. She adopted the monastic rhythms to her day and began to pray regularly according to them. She fasted and went to confession. Day and her colleagues in the Catholic Worker Movement slept in cold rooms and wore donated clothes. They did not receive salaries. She worked relentlessly. Serving in the soup lines, raising money for various causes, listening to tales of woe, writing articles for the newspaper. But she now had a spiritual grounding for her work. She now had an organizing transcendent framework to sustain her and make the work a genuine reflection of her inner life.
Justice work that is not grounded in spirituality can become arrogant and self serving. Spirituality that is not connected to the work of justice can become narcissistic and disconnected from the world. Jim Wallis of Sojourners Magazine, says, “The connection the world is waiting for is to connect the hunger for spirituality with passion for social change. Because spirituality, when it isn’t disciplined by social justice, in an affluent society, becomes narcissistic. We buy the books. We buy the tapes. We hear the guru speaker. Barnes and Noble has a whole wall of how to be spiritual, balanced, healed, whole. Spirituality becomes a commodity to be bought and sold. So spirituality has to be disciplined by social justice.”
In her book Parables: The Arrows of God, Megan McKenna tells a story that relates this truth so well.
There was a woman who wanted peace in the world and peace in her heart and all sorts of good things, but she was very frustrated. The world seemed to be falling apart. She would read the papers and get depressed. One day she decided to go shopping, and she went into a mall and picked a store at random. She walked in and was surprised to see Jesus behind the counter. She knew it was Jesus, because he looked just like the images she’d seen on holy cards and devotional pictures. She looked again and again at him, and finally she got up her nerve and asked, “Excuse me, are you Jesus?”
“Do you work here?”
“No,” Jesus said, “I own the store.”
“Oh, what do you sell in here?”
“Oh, just about anything!”
“Yeah, anything you want. What do you want?”
She said, “I don’t know.”
“Well,” Jesus said, “feel free, walk up and down the aisles, make a list, see what it is you want, and then come back and we’ll see what we can do for you.”
She did just that, walked up and down the aisles. There was peace on earth, no more war, no hunger or poverty, peace in families, no more drugs, harmony, clean air, careful use of resources. She wrote furiously. By the time she got back to the counter, she had a long list. Jesus took the list, skimmed through it, looked up at her, and smiled. “No problem.” And then he bent down behind the counter and picked out all sorts of things, stood up, and laid out some packets.
She asked, “What are these?”
Jesus replied, “Seed packets. This is a catalog store.”
She said, “You mean I don’t get the finished product?”
“No, this is a place of dreams. You come and see what it
looks like, and I give you the seeds. You plant the seeds. You go home and nurture them and help them to grow, and someone else reaps the benefits.”
“Oh,” she said. And she left the store without buying anything.
B Megan McKenna, Parables: The Arrows of God
Socially engaged spiritual activism was a central part of Jesus’ ministry as He proclaimed it when He began his work. He walked the talk by loving and helping those in need in speech and in deed.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk often associated with engaged spirituality or engaged Buddhism, says, “Engaged Buddhism is just Buddhism. When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time. Meditation is about the awareness of what is going on-not only in your body and in your feelings, but all around you.” Spirituality without a component of dedication to practical action for social change is in essence lame. Social justice efforts that don’t arise from informed spirituality are blind. Efforts to do good in the world that are not grounded in a solid spiritual life are really nothing more than a “field trip” into and out of the suffering and oppression of others. It might make us feel good about ourselves for an hour or so but, when the going gets tough, will usually tire out and ultimately give way to cynicism and despair. Be mindful of participating in social justice causes out of some righteous sense of how much one is giving to the world. There must be a spiritual integrity to our acts that is unfazed by immediate results. A little self inventory is in order. Can we sustain the work whether we receive accolades or indifference, praise or scorn.
Walking the talk of socially engaged spiritual activism is no more and no less than a daily spiritual practice whereby everyday life is sacralized. It includes both organized forms of worship and ongoing spiritual discipline. It also involves “communal mysticism”, which is the active spiritual connection and interaction with the members of the community that are being served.
We can make a difference in the world as we create and maintain a religious community that helps us find and nurture our spiritual center. It’s only such a community that can then, in turn, inspire and support us individually and collectively as we go forward and do the work of justice in the world.
Before spirituality can become an engaged spirituality, the spirit itself must be developed and sustained. Then, and only then will we be the kind of people who will pick up one of those packets of seeds that woman left behind on the counter and start planting. May it be so for all of these in our midst. Amen.