24 October 2012

Dorothy Day: A Holiness that Unites Love and Truth

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In his third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth, 2009), Pope Benedict XVI urges the societies of the world and the Church herself to take a “new trajectory of thinking … in order to arrive at a better understanding of the implications of our being one family” (n.35). This need to re-imagine the Church’s social mission seems more urgent than ever, especially as Christianity becomes caricatured or unheard in the midst of the often strident debates about human rights and equality, bioethical issues, asylum seekers, humane and sustainable economies, and what Benedict XVI calls the ‘ecology’ of love, sexuality and marriage.

The need for us to speak, act, feel and live as if “in Christ charity in truth becomes the Face of his Person” (Caritas in Veritate n.1) is always incredibly demanding. This is especially so in today’s social climate in which Christians are increasingly viewed as the unwelcome outsiders at the family party.

There are two temptations for Catholics today: one is to blend into the secular wallpaper, abandoning the truth of our faith; the other is to ramp up our aggression in the culture war, thereby risking the love that is the key to our vocation.

American Catholic social activist Dorothy Day (1897-1980), now on the path to canonisation as a Servant of God, saw and tasted the tension with salty honesty and gritty humility that provides a more radical solution.

Her uncompromisingly ‘non-violent’ and voluntary poverty and solidarity with the homeless and outcast stood in counterpoint to the materialism and ambition of both the left and right of politics as well as with the conventional blandness that she found in many Catholics.

Her vision of the dignity of every person prefigured the expansive ‘culture of life’ outlined by Blessed John Paul II with his condemnation not only of the destruction of the unborn, disabled and elderly but also of terrorism, capital punishment, slavery, unjust working conditions and of the bloody and ‘soft’ forms of ethnic obliteration.

Dorothy Day was emotionally and physically a tough and wiry woman, whose sense of the ‘truth in love’ was forged and transformed by her earlier life in feminism and socialism, in smoky newspaper rooms and even in the shattering grief of broken relationships and the abortion of her first child. She urged the clergy and laity not to bitter opposition or depressed retreat but to take up what she called ‘spiritual weapons’: voluntary poverty, strictly non-violent resistance, and forgiving faith.

But there was nothing safe and mild about this type of spiritual life. Dorothy Day also called for an intelligent brand of kindness: a kindness that stood firmly in a picket line with underpaid immigrant workers, that rejected militarism with peaceful protest and that even faced down the Archbishop of New York by supporting the exploited Church-employed grave diggers. She wrote in On Pilgrimage (1957) of struggling with kindness: “Kindness is the outward expression of the love in the heart, and is anything but a mild virtue. … it is heroic.”

In words similar to those of Pope Benedict XVI’s in the opening paragraph, Dorothy Day argues that heroic kindness allows us to recognise our ‘kinship’ with others even if we disagree with them. It is a dangerous kindness which propelled Dorothy Day and her co-founder, Peter Maurin, to set up and live in the Catholic Worker communities and their Houses of Hospitality, which led into the “harrowingly painful job” of living with and caring for the sick, the outcast, the poor and the ‘sorrowful’.

But Dorothy Day was anything but a figure of grimness and gloom. Her life of grit was also one of joyful gratitude: “the desire to thank someone”, especially for the “tiny beautiful hands” of her newborn daughter, led her to Catholic worship and to her own distinctive model of Christian mission. “The heart filled with love,” she writes in her work on Therese of Lisieux, “searches for someone on whom to bestow it.” “The problem is gigantic,” said Dorothy Day, with a heart as large for the social inequalities, racism, violence and disruption as for the spiritual vagrancy of her era, “it is hopeless to think of combating it by any means than that of sanctity.”

For Dorothy Day, sanctity is an unselfconscious cycle of three key moments: regular concrete liturgical prayer with moments of contemplative quiet; the ‘little way’ of “naked, blind charity” serving those in need; and the vigorous and often persecuted work of speaking up for the true dignity of the human person.