Wednesday, December 1, 2010

30th Anniversaries: 1. The Death of Dorothy Day

Thirty years ago, on November 29, 1980, Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker passed away. Also, December 2nd marks the 30th anniversary of the martyrdom of Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, lay missionary Jean Donovan and Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, who were killed for their service to the poor in El Salvador.

And, because it is Advent, I found myself going to the Dorothy Day Library on the Web to see if I could find some of Dorothy's Advent reflections. With all the glorious tributes to Dorothy that are floating around the Web at this time, I think her own self-assessment during an undated Advent examination of conscience that she shared with the world in her "On Pilgrimage" column in the Catholic Worker might be useful. It shows a very human woman and goes part of the way towards explaining why Dorothy famously said: "Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily.” Dorothy didn't want people to view her as anything other than an ordinary human being. Her message was that what she did, we can do as well. I don't know about you, but I find a lot to identify with in Dorothy's self examination:

...Many people think an examination of conscience is a morbid affair. PĆ©guy has some verses which Donald Gallagher read to me once in the St. Louis House of Hospitality. (He and Cy Echele opened the house there.) They were about examination of conscience. There is a place for it, he said, at the beginning of the Mass. "I have sinned in thought, word, and deed, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault." But after you get done with it, don’t go on brooding about it; don’t keep thinking of it. You wipe your feet at the door of the church as you go in, and you do not keep contemplating your dirty feet.

Here is my examination at the beginning of Advent, at the beginning of a new year. Lack of charity, criticism of superiors, of neighbors, of friends and enemies. Idle talk, impatience, lack of self-control and mortification towards self, and of love towards others. Pride and presumption. (It is good to have visitors — one’s faults stand out in the company of others.) Self-will, desire not to be corrected, to have one’s own way. The desire in turn to correct others, impatience in thought and speech.

The remedy is recollection and silence. Meanness about giving time to others and wasting it myself. Constant desire for comfort. First impulse is always to make myself comfortable. If cold, to put on warmth; if hot, to become cool; if hungry, to eat; and what one likes — always the first thought is of one’s own comfort. It is hard for a woman to be indifferent about little material things. She is a homemaker, a cook; she likes to do material things. So let her do them for others, always. Woman’s job is to love. Enlarge Thou my heart, Lord, that Thou mayest enter in.


I find Dorothy's frank self-assessment refreshing as her canonization process continues along its merry way, spearheaded by some of the most conservative forces in the Church. I look at the Dorothy Day Guild Web site and wonder how Dorothy would feel about the lily-white corporate-looking Flash presentation on the main page. Dorothy conscientiously kept the Catholic Worker integrated at a time when segregation of the races was popular. She supported Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. She supported Cesar Chavez and the striking farmworkers in California. She even had the Catholic Worker masthead redesigned to include a person of color. And, of course, the Guild site downplays and often completely ignores Dorothy's political activities, her resistance to war and nuclear weapons and her arrests for civil disobedience. It's disheartening. Archbishop Dolan's recent homily on the anniversary of her birth earlier last month, highlighting a story about a time when Dorothy chose going to Mass over attending a rally, exemplifies the direction in which the pro-canonization folks are going. We may gain a saint, but will she be a sanitized "plaster saint"? Will she obscure the real Dorothy Day? In the Church, there's always a fine line between celebration and co-optation -- just look at what happened to Our Blessed Mother.

A better tribute to Dorothy is in the work of Robert Ellsberg who has been compiling and publishing Dorothy's writings. The first volume, The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day came out two years ago. This year we have All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day. Both are published by Marquette University Press. Dorothy's papers are kept in the Dorothy Day-Catholic Worker Collection in the Marquette University Archives. Here, Dorothy is allowed to speak for herself.

And the best way you can pay tribute to Dorothy Day is very simply to keep the work of the Catholic Worker going through volunteering with and making donations to those who are keeping her legacy alive. Click here to find a Catholic Worker house near you.

Photo: Dorothy Day takes the words of Pope John XXIII to the streets: "Why should the resources of human genius and the riches of the people turn more often to preparing arms -- pernicious instruments of death and destruction -- than to increasing the welfare of all classes of citizens and particularly of the poor?"

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