Monday, November 29, 2010

Dorothy Day: Bridging the Gap

Today is the 30th anniversary of the death of (Servant of God) Dorothy Day. There are few figures in American Catholicism who manage simultaneously to balance radicality with orthodoxy, activity with contemplation, or liberality with poverty -- Dorothy Day was such a figure.That Dorothy spent her life -- even before she was a Catholic -- defending the poor, the worker, the homeless, the disenfranchised is well-known; addressing injustice was her life's work. And yet, haven't these activities, in a certain detached sense, become somewhat trite to us? To say she defended the poor, to say she fought for justice, to say she lived voluntary poverty -- how much of these phrases has become, for most of us, a snazzy phrase we use to gild the grit of the saint's life? To apotheosize a life spent in the real world, full of grime and sin?  Not to say her works lose their beauty, but that they begin to mean so little to us being 30-years removed. Certainly Dorothy Day has had many wonderful eulogies -- her work is not, as far as I know, a mystery. But how is she relevant today? In Advent 2010? How can her example bear fruit in our lives, not as a nod to make ourselves feel better, but as a call to conversion?

Perhaps such questions are a bit daunting for this little meditation. With that in mind, I'd like to offer the role Dorothy Day has played in my own conversion. As you, reader, may or may not know, I was confirmed Easter 2007. Upon entering the Church, I was a confused liberal: a vegetarian, pacifist, socialistic, tramping, poor little college student with a new idea every five minutes. I had been confirmed in the Holy Spirit and received our Lord in the Eucharist, and yet the "world was too much" with me -- I could not brook the seething Republican Catholicism with which I was confronted; could not understand why more people hadn't embraced the poverty espoused in Matthew 19:21; couldn't assuage my conscience which told me war was a horrid, heinous defeat for humanity, or that capitalism was a "dirty, rotten system." I was in a difficult spot: I had been entranced by the Beauty, Reason, and Order of the Church, and yet I found much of her milieu to be disheartening. I was as faithful a Catholic as I knew how to be, and still found myself on the fringe. And yet, that is where Dorothy met me: on the fringe.

Dorothy, for me, was an anomalous figure -- a Catholic pacifist and anarchist, who derided capitalism, but was not a communist; an outspoken woman who faithfully adhered to all the creed while vociferously rampaging against the cruelties of her time. When I began to read about her and Peter Maurin (who, I must sheepishly admit, remains more of a hero in my heart than even Dorothy), I was inspired, I was filled with hope, I was vivified. Her Personalist Ethic, Pacifism, Voluntary Poverty and Love of the Poor -- all spoke to my heart that I need not despair; that there was, despite many voices to the contrary, a place for guys like me in the Church. Dorothy and Peter thus became not only my inspiration but my guiding light -- in them, I saw the "bleeding heart" of a liberal, not destroyed by grace, but perfected. Because the heart full of compassion for the lost and indignation for the abused is not to be smothered out -- but the fire needs the fireplace, the wild vine needs tending. The Church thus molded Dorothy, and Dorothy thus molded me.

This perfection of the liberal's heart is what I think Dorothy has most to contribute today. Not as though her contribution to American Pacifism isn't enormous, or that her example of true love and solidarity with the poor isn't astounding; but rather, that Dorothy's gift, as I see it, is to be the saint that stands in the gap between the Church and the liberal. The world is positively brimming with well-intentioned people, crunchy-cons and bleeding heart liberals alike, who have a desire for justice and equality, not merely as it relates to performing works of mercy, but as it relates to the structures of society itself. But they, like their estranged conservative cousins (without whose stability we would be lost, I'd wager), need the guiding hand of the Church, to shape them, prune them, and teach them true justice, true equality free from the errors of modernism. And so for me, and for many other liberals who have found their way into the Holy Catholic Church, Dorothy is a bridge and a friend. She is an image of the machinations of grace upon the liberal heart, showing us that there is indeed, as Peter Maurin said, more "dynamite" within the Church than without.

By her life, Dorothy reflects, in a particular way, for a particular time, the work of Christ throughout history: to bring the outskirts of mankind into the work of his Incarnation; to embody "grace and truth" in a period which needs certain graces and certain truths; an "antidote," as Chesterton phrases it. And thus was Dorothy Day for the 20th century and its liberals: a word of grace and truth to those who, in perhaps the world's darkest hour, desired the light of economic justice, freedom from the brutal obliteration of war, and liberation from the oppression of the State.

May Servant of God Dorothy Day pray for us, liberals and conservatives alike! And may her canonization come quickly!

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