June 5, 2010
Some people strike us as saints. Some as sinners. Some as
troublemakers, radicals. We don't have a word for Dorothy Day (1897-1980).
I wonder, however, whether anyone who hasn't washed the feet of Jesus
with their tears and has been in some ways a troublemaker should ever
be honored as a saint.
When a journalist called her a saint, Dorothy Day said she didn't
want to be dismissed that easily.
An anti-war demonstrator, outspoken opponent of Sen. Joe McCarthy in
his heyday, a Greenwich Village radical and activist, she had an
abortion, was divorced, and bore a lover's child out of wedlock.
Once asked about her recipe for soup at shelters she founded, she
said you cut vegetables until your fingers bleed.
Her challenging twist on a gospel verse was, ''Your love for God is
only as great as the love you have for the person you love the least.''
In 1933, she and a French Roman Catholic and Christian anarchist,
Peter Maurin, co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her nearly 200
Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence,
voluntary poverty, prayer and hospitality for the homeless, exiled,
hungry and forsaken.
Her urban soup kitchens and shelters still set the standard for
compassionate treatment of the homeless and dispossessed.
Engrossed in a conversation with a drunken woman at a soup kitchen,
she recognized someone by her side. ''Which one of us did you wish to
talk to?'' she eventually asked.
She lost many radical friends when she accepted the Lord and entered
the church. They thought she had capitulated to the opposition,
lining up with property, the wealthy, the state and capitalism.
She agreed with much of this, though not with lining up. ''There was
plenty of charity but too little justice,'' she once wrote about the church.
Some 20 years after her death, surprisingly she was approved for the
process of study that leads to her being recognized as a saint. Will
her early life and the troublemaker aspect of her later life affect
this? Will they be sanitized? We'll see. Probably later than sooner.
''Rare was the seminarian and young priest of my era untouched by
Dorothy Day's life,'' wrote the late New York Cardinal John O'Connor
(1920-2000). ''Whether or not we honored in our own lives her
passionate commitment to the poor, or followed even distantly in her
footsteps, she worried us. That was her gift to us.''
I have long regarded people who worry me as saints.
They worry me because I know how consistently they live with
integrity, how they witness to Jesus Christ even without uttering the
words, how they respect the poor and marginalized and work for
justice on their behalf, among others.
There probably are some among your friends and colleagues, in your
families, and among those you may know of.
Some may worry you because you see their integrity and witness in
their work of decades in soup kitchens, food banks or other agencies
that serve your sisters and brothers.
Some may worry you because you know how authentically they have
washed the feet of Jesus with their tears. Some may worry you because
you know how courageously they work for justice and peace.
They worry us because they set the bar so high.
There's some ecumenical irony here for me. Dorothy Day's parents were
Episcopalians who did not go to church very often. While working in
New York City, she might have seen the Roman Catholic Church as the
church of the immigrants, the church of the poor.
It might not have been how she saw the Episcopal Church of those days.
If during my lifetime, my former church declares her a saint, I look
forward to reading an official biography that includes her rough
edges, one that might make her accessible while continuing to worry us.
Canon Bill Lewellis, email@example.com, a retired Episcopal
priest, served on the bishop's staff of the Episcopal Diocese of
Bethlehem for 24 years and on the bishop's staff of the Diocese of
Allentown for 13 years before that.