March 13

Lenten Series 2022: The Life of Dorothy Day

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 13:31-35

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Bring to our troubled minds

Uncertain and afraid

The quiet of a steadfast faith

Calm of a call obeyed

Sometimes an encounter with a radically committed person, one like Dorothy Day, can free up a part of a person in soul and spirit in a way that frees up the rest of him or her.  One wonders whether that might happen for some, for some of us, this Lent?  These three weeks we converse with Day, her life and her faith and her work, even as we listen for the Gospel in Luke.

No other Lukan passage, nor any in the Gospels together, so firmly as ours today fixes Jesus and his Word, the church and its Gospel, in the waves, swells, eddies and swirls of politics.  Amid much happier parables, chapters 8-18, blessed and beautiful and exclusive to Luke—Samaritan, good; Son, prodigal; Steward, dishonest yet somehow noble—Jesus accosts us and upbraids us today in full cultural mien.  The governmental power of the day is Herod, whom Jesus dresses down, insults even, as ‘that fox’.  The warning about power and its move against truth comes, perhaps with a strange motive, but cast by Luke in the affirmative, comes from Jesus’ opponents, the Pharisees.  Jesus is fearless, here, though not so such in the garden of Gethsemane later.  He places Himself, or rather, Luke places himself placing himself, in the centuries’ long tradition of the Hebrew Prophets, a tradition pristine, golden, unlike any other in religious history, four the greater and twelve the lesser.  All found their way, or their voice, or both in Jerusalem, the religious and political center.  Jerusalem whom Jesus loves, loves so much, loves like a mother hen, loves like a momma, like a hen gathering her chicks.  A striking, feminine image of the divine, strong and true.  The Gospel is social through and through, as Luke here today reminds us.  Read the Bible and Luke and Luke 13:  Jerusalem! Jerusalem!  Or for us today:  Pollution! Pandemic! Politics! Prejudice! Pocketbook! Peril!  Jerusalem! Jerusalem! There is no holiness save social holiness, taught Mr. Wesley.  None. No other Lukan passage, nor any in the Gospels together, so firmly as ours today fixes Jesus and his Word, the church and its Gospel, in the swells, eddies and swirls of politics.

What do we find in Luke?

Luke was written nearly a generation later than Mark, by most estimates, Mark in or near 70, Luke in or near 85 or 90 of the common era (in fact, possibly much later).  Traditionally ascribed to Luke the physician, its author and that of its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, is finally unknown to us.  We know him only through the writing itself.

Luke is made up of a mixture of ingredients.  First, Luke uses most of Mark.  An example is the memory of a part of our passage today, Luke 13: 34ff.  Like Matthew, Luke knew and repeated most of the earlier gospel of Mark.  But he made changes along the way, or construed the gospel according to his own desires and emphases.  This is hopeful for us, in that it is an encouragement for us to take the gospel in hand, and interpret it according to our time, location, understanding, and need.  In fact, we are summoned and ordered to do so, and not free not to do so.  Second, Luke uses a collection of teachings, called Q, as does Matthew.  An example is our Lord’s Prayer, later in the service.  Luke’s version is slightly different from that in Matthew, as is his version of the beatitudes and other teachings, found in the ‘sermon on the plain’, rather than the ‘sermon on the mount’.  Third, Luke makes ample use of material that is all his own, not found in Mark or elsewhere.  The long chapters from Luke 8 or so through Luke 18 or so, where we find ourselves this morning, are all his.   Luke brings us a unique mixture of materials, and makes his own particular use of them.  And what does Luke say?  Ah, this will take us the rest of the year and more fully to unravel, including our work this Lent.

 For our Lenten Sermon Series, beginning today, will engage in conversation with Dorothy Day, a Lukan Christian if ever there was one.  In this Marsh Chapel pulpit, from 2007-2016, Lent by Lent, we identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition, so important to the first 200 years in New England.  In the next decade, we have turned to the Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England.  With Calvin we encountered the chief resource for others we engaged over ten years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), John Calvin (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin)(2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008), summarized with the help of Paul of Tarsus (2016).  Then in this decade, beginning with Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, turned left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we have preached with, and learned from the Roman Catholic tradition, and some of its great divines including Henri Nouwen (2017) Thomas Merton (2018) John of the Cross (2019), Teresa of Avila (2020), and St Patrick (2021).  In future years, it may be Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, or others, one per year.  Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?  For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list.  Yet something about this past year and its hurts, something about Covid life in Boston it may be, something about the events and outcomes of late autumn, something about immersion in the home of the bean and the cod for several years, something, a connection say with our many Roman Catholic friends, listeners, correspondents, partners in the fellowship of the Gospel, brought her forward.  Day was viscerally engaged in the political struggles of her era, out of her hard won understanding the rudiments of Christianity.  Hers may be a very timely voice for us in late Covid, winter, 2022.  Today we mark two years of Covid, costly, costly years.  Right now, we are viscerally engaged in our own struggles.  We are seeking to support, for instance, what is right and best in Ukraine, with measures both of resistance and restraint, resistance to merciless brutality, and restraint before the prospect of nuclear conflagration.  One pastoral word, among others, might be today to keep us focused on our own circles of influence, the places where we can actually make a difference, over against the global and endless circles of concern which we carry. (One such is the United Methodist Committee on Relief, UMCOR.)

 Today, perhaps, we can begin to converse with Day, in connection to her sense of spirit throughout the course of her long, troubled, and difficult life.

In Covid autumn, 2020, our son gave as a birthday present a book,

(Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century. John Loughery and Blythe Randolph.  New York:  Simon and Schuster, 2020.).  Initially, it lay unread, but still at hand.  Books have a way of staying around, of quietly reaching out to us.  Its first chapters, about her raucous wayward early life, were at the first off-putting, even as much as they were news or unknown, so again, it moved back in the pack.  Somehow, though, the tome came on and proposed, even insisted, to be read.  Read it was.  And what a gift, one of the quiet Covid gifts that kept us going through two years, marked this day, two years of rot, of loss, of diminishment, of worry, of hurt, of anxiety, depression, loneliness and deadly wreckage, especially for the least, the last and the lost. We have miles to go in recovery before we sleep. And what better document to peruse in Covid?  It became read because it demanded to be read and should have been read.  And was.

Born in 1897, Dorothy was raised in vaguely Episcopalian home, with two brothers, a philandering father, and a devoted mother.  What is striking to the average revisitation of her early life is just how chaotic, tempestuous, conflicted and hard it was. (It seems, at least to this observer, that she spent much of the rest of her life trying to escape her youth—its emptiness, its infidelities, its spiritual sterility, its abandonment of faith and church and God.)   She was raised for a time in Chicago, went to college in Champagne Urbana on her own steam and dime, and for some decades lived a bohemian life.  She drank heavily, loved widely, moved frequently, and befriended generously.   Most of us know her, if at all, through the lens of The Catholic Worker, which is fair enough.  But prior to the advent of that publication, she had already developed an experienced writing life, largely in New York City, which included community, consort and conversation with some of the leading cultural, theatrical, musical and political leaders of the time.

Dorothy was a convert to Catholicism, drawn heavily, as are so many seminarians today, to the biblical and historical Christian commitment to justice, and for the poor.  Wrote her biographers Loughery and Randolph: The belief that material comfort—and, in particular, wealth—might actually be dangerous, putting a distance between God and one’s fundamental humanity, wasn’t a notion Americans were or are comfortable with.  She came to believe that the true objects of devotion in Western culture—security, affluence, national pride, an enthrallment to innovation and technology—were the sources of our undoing as a moral society, and she was impatient with anyone who made religions seem reassuring rather than demanding and transcendent.  The New Testament called on all believers to fight racism, war and poverty, or it meant nothing at all.  Faith was less about solace than a call to action and disruption.  Piety and conformity to social norms had little to do with each other. (2).

 Following her younger years in the mid-west, Dorothy Day primarily lived in New York City, in and near the Bowery.  She wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin, which had some critical success and modest sales.  The reading and re-revisitation of her younger adult years is simply harrowing.  She embraced a series of, frankly, violent men, who after a time each left her, one leaving her pregnant which led to an abortion.  The homes were harrowing, the circumstances harrowing, the labor required harrowing.  One Greenwich Village apartment engulfed her in a gas leak, leaving her unconscious, and almost leaving her dead.  Yet she read widely and knew many of the great writers of the age—Maugham, Wolfe, Lawrence, Wharton, James, Merton, Anderson, Auden, O’Neill (one of her consorts), London, Dell, Fitzgerald, Monroe, Merton, Berrigan, Crane, Porter, Chesterton, Maritain, Sanger, all–and wrote for various radical publications:  The Call, the Masses, The Liberator, others.  In 1926 she gave birth to her daughter, Tamar, (Hebrew for Palm Tree) (106).

One of the ways, it seems, that over time Dorothy Day could handle and withstand the kind of stress and difficulty of her activist life, had to do with the regular use of retreats.  How else would she be able steadily to speak out, as she did in a letter in Commonweal in 1948:  Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his brothers…and the Russians are our brothers, the Negro is our brother, the Japanese are our brothers, the Germans, the Mexicans, the Filipinos, the Jews and Arabs.  (235).  In the same issue, the editors of Commonweal wrote a strong critique of Day and her letter.

Dorothy Day’s life, work and faith are described in her best-known book The Long Loneliness, 1952.  Asked her biographers:  How much of Christ’s message were Christians really willing to accept? (256) (She was) committed to building a new society within the shell of the old (258).  A new society within the shell of the old.  Hm. It is striking just how faithfully, consistently, sacrificially and fully Day combined a dual allegiance:  both to her progressive ideals, and to the Roman Catholic Church, though she acquired many critics from both communities.

She was buried on December 2, 1980, following a funeral service at the Church of the Nativity on Second Avenue.  The readings in the service included Isaiah 58: 6-12, 1 John 4: 11-18, Matthew 5: 1-12.  The recessional hymn was ‘A Mighty Fortress.  Her eulogy included her own motto, or statement, or credo: All my life I have been haunted by God. (369)

Sometimes an encounter with a radically committed person, one like Dorothy Day, can free up a part of a person in soul and spirit in a way that frees up the rest of him or her.  One wonders whether that might happen for some, for some of us, this Lent?  One in one such moment prayed, Lord make me common as sagebrush, then set me on fire for the Gospel.  She and others point us to the living Christ, who promises today, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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