March 27

Lenten Series 2022: The Work of Dorothy Day

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

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We listen to St Luke this year.  We do so, one step at a time, one Sunday at a time, one episode, teaching, exhortation, miracle, or, as today, one beloved, venerable parable. at a time.  Still, there are some outstanding features of the Lukan horizon, which we may simply name as we go forth.   First, Luke displays a commitment to and interest in history, and orderly history at that.  Both Luke and Acts are cast in a distinctive historical mode.  Second, Luke employs and deploys his own theology, or theological perspective, including this emphasis upon history and the divine purpose, or better said, divine meaning, in history—on this more in a moment.   Third, Luke highlights the humanity and compassion of Jesus in a remarkable way.  The Christ of St. Luke is the Christ of magnificent compassion, embodied in the humility of a birth among shepherds.  The poor, women, the stranger, the injured, those in dire need all stand out in Luke, as the recipients and subjects of Jesus’ love, mercy, grace and compassion.  Fourth, Luke carries an abiding interest in the church.  Ephesians says that ‘through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers.’ That catches the spirit of the author of the third gospel and of the Acts to follow.   It is this feature of Luke, the Lukan passion for compassion, upon which our passage has centered this morning.  So, we are taught:  know history, think for yourself, love the church, have compassion.  Dorothy Day, our Lent 2022 theological conversation partner, would have agreed.

Now I put it to you:  how long has it been since you have had a prodigal thought?  The prodigal son is prodigally reckless in departure.  But he is prodigally excellent and ecstatic in return.  His negative prodigality in descent is eclipsed by his positive prodigality in resurrection.  How long has it been since you have come to yourself?

Though no one says so, and to my knowledge no one has yet so written, Luke 15 may be the most Gnostic of chapters in the New Testament.  It is about gnosis, self knowledge, coming to oneself. As the Gnostics taught, we are trapped in a far country, a long way from our true home, like a man who has squandered his birthright, and moved from light to darkness.  As the Gnostics taught, we are meant to get home, to get back home, to get back out from under this earthly, fleshly, pig slop bodily existence, and back to higher ground, to heaven, to the heaven beyond heaven, to the land of light, to the loving father, like a prodigal son returning to the home that is truly his.  As the Gnostics taught, there is just one way to get back home, one key to the magic door.  That way and that key is knowledge, self knowledge, the knowledge of one’s own self—whence we come, wither we go.  As the Gnostics taught, salvation comes from this sort of esoteric, personal, soulful knowledge.  When he came to himself…

It is jarring, I give you that, to admit that this most traditional and most popular and most orthodox of parables may well have grown up outside the barn, outside the fences of mainstream Christianity.  But there is nothing orthodox about the prodigal and his coming to himself.  His is truly a prodigal thought.  I need to get back home.  Back to the land of light.  Back to the pleroma.  Back to the God beyond God.  No ‘Christ died for our sins’, here.  No ‘lamb of God’, here.  No settled orthodox Christology here.  No cross, no gory glory, no Gethsemane, no passion of the Christ, here.  It all comes down to self awareness, to awakening, to a moment of clarity.  When he came to himself. The parable of the Prodigal Son is the most Gnostic, most heterodox, most Johannine of them all.  Stuck here in the middle of Luke, read here in the middle of Lent, interpreted here in the middle of March.

The Gospel challenges us to come out from hiding.

You cannot hide behind a distrust of organized religion today.  The prodigal thought soars beyond that.  You cannot hide behind a disdain—often altogether true and righteous–for clergy, for formality, for robes and choirs and altars and candles.  This prodigal thought pierces all that.  You cannot hide behind the hideous moments in religious and Christian history—many there be—as a way to fend off the gospel, at least not this morning.  The knife cuts deeper, to the deeps, to your very soul.

Nor can you even hide behind a critique of Roman Catholicism today.  Prodigal thought soars beyond that.  You may reject the celibacy of the priesthood, the sacrifice of the mass, the subordination of women, and the infallibility of the pope.  But many, very many, Catholics do the same.  No, the gospel undercuts your smart but narrow critique, and asks about your soul.  You do have one you know.

Luke 15 asks whether you are coming to know yourself?  Are you?  This is the parable, oddly enough, that calls the seekers’ bluff.   Today the Gospel attacks where you have finally no ready defense.  It moves to your mind, your soul, your own most self.  Dorothy Day would emphatically agree.  In this very hour, we are caught in an awful dilemma, a tragedy of global proportions today.  We pray for those seasoned sober leaders, President Biden and others, seeking somehow to balance a rigorous resistance to heinous, unprovoked warfare and slaughter in Ukraine, with a measured restraint to keep this horror from becoming a global conflagration.  At the least we can find ways, say through UMCOR, to support refugees, now with our means, and perhaps later with our spaces.  Dorothy Day would admonish us to do so.

The Work of Dorothy Day

How surprised, stunned, even, we were to learn that the Roman Church itself has this winter proposed her for consideration for sainthood, after 20 years of study.  Not only her life, troubled as it was, nor only her faith, radiant as it was, has brought this consideration of canonization.  More than either of these, it was Day’s work that did so.  Hers was a work life of continuous experimentation.  In a way, she embodies our parable today.  We think of her obedience, as with the figure of the older son at the end of the parable.  But her life began much closer to the waywardness of the younger son with which the parable begins.  In a way, as with the prodigal, and strangely, that early prodigality somehow quickened in her a prodigious generosity, a prodigality of work.  Our biographer guides, Loughery and Randolph, often cited in these sermons, have taught us so.

For instance, after WW II, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers began to experiment with farming, with country living, including a purchase in Newburgh, NY.  She was a 21st century soul, ahead of her time in world consciousness, in ‘thinking globally, acting locally’, in communal living, in critique of technology, in continuous experimentation, and, in Newburgh and elsewhere, in love of nature and regard for the natural world.  And she wanted people to learn and go, to grow and move.  Of the Catholic Workers Houses she said, This is a school.  No one is meant to stay here forever. (251)

 For instance, later in her life, Dorothy Day received a visit from the famous author Evelyn Waugh.  A friend had encouraged him to enjoy all the great good things in New York, but also to make sure to see the poor of the city, and especially to visit with Day.  He offered to take her to a fine restaurant, one she in fact had known well over the years, but she declined, inviting him rather to a simple restaurant, and then to visit the hospitality house nearby.  Waugh’s biographer later wrote:  Waugh encountered in…Day a personality as tough and autocratic as his own, yet infinitely less selfish—a disarming combination.  Confronted by this genuine ascetic whose entire working life was devoted to practical charity, he discovered a more sympathetic version of a close friend’s argument:  that the aims of Christianity and capitalism were fundamentally opposed.  It was not an idea he cared to ponder for long, but he retreated to the Plaza somewhat chastened (238).  Sometimes a single, personal experience of someone’s sacrificial living and giving can make a lasting, transformative impact.  And sometimes, perhaps Lent 2022, an encounter with a truly radical spirit, with whom you and I may not always agree, can cause oen, you?, to come to himself.

For instance, The Catholic Worker began as a newspaper, but fairly quickly expanded into a movement.  The movement, with Dorothy Day at the head was devoted to hospitality, and hospitality in particular for the poor.  Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day were committed to radical hospitality for the poor.  ‘Voluntary poverty brought into living practice the radical egalitarianism preached by Jesus’. (150)…’There are three things you have to accept about very poor people who have lived on the street…they don’t smell good, they aren’t grateful and they are apt to steal’ (152).

The work with and among the poor, it should be emphasized, was every bit as much about the spiritual development of the worker, as it was about the care of the needy.  The houses of St. Joseph offered hospitality to the guests, and spiritual formation to the workers.  And the conditions in these houses were very rough.  As the Catholic Worker movement, publication and hospitality and all, began to expand, so did Dorothy Day’s work in public speaking, which would consume much of her life over the next forty years or so.  Hers was a wide angle vision, a high hope, a global voice: If working men and women were solely concerned with better wages for themselves and not with larger ideas about community, societal change, and our God-ordained obligations to one another, the labor struggle would mean nothing in the long run (181).

 For instance, an especially striking outgrowth and outcome of her earlier work with the Catholic Worker emerged with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.  For Progressive Catholicism worldwide, the Spanish Civil War produced the horns of a very difficult dilemma.  On side were the republicans of Barcelona and elsewhere, like Hemingway’s Robert Jordan, committed to liberty and justice and progressive treatment and care of the poor. On the other side were those who supported the Church, the Catholic Church, and its traditions and clergy and history and culture.  One Progressive.  The other Catholic.  Spain tore American Progressive Catholicism in half.  Support the Church and stomach Franco, or support freedom and stomach Stalin.  She and her communities were torn apart from both sides.  She largely sided with the republicans, but not enough to satisfy everyone.  Still, the Catholic Worker movement and paper, like Allan Knight Chalmers and others, voiced and continuously retained a strong, clear utterly pacifist position through the Spanish War, the Second World War, the Korean Conflict and the War in Vietnam. This split the movement.  The Detroit, Cleveland and Boston houses agreed with her; the Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles houses did not (199).

For instance, by the 1950’s, Day and The Catholic Worker were involved in opposition to nuclear war, arms and weaponry.  Some of us grew up with weekly air raid drills, in which all in the elementary schools were sent to sit underneath our desks in preparation for a nuclear attack.  Day and her community chastised this (in hindsight clearly misguided) practice because it purpose, she asserted, was allowing the government and the military-industrial complex to render the unthinkable thinkable and therefore less in need of an immediate solution (264).  Our own experience of January 6 is similar, to take what would be utterly unthinkable, the assault on and desecration of the nation’s capital, and to normalize, or accommodate, or make space in the mind and the culture for such travesty.  In a year, already, we have seen just how successful that kind of project can be.  One ongoing, continuous aspect of her work came through acceptance of many invitations to speak, lecture, occasionally to preach.  And she had influence.  After Michael Harrington wrote The Other America (1962), he included in the preface: It was through Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement that I first came into contact with the terrible reality of involuntary poverty and the magnificent ideal of voluntary poverty (297).

Born, recall, in 1897, Dorothy Day was vibrantly active in the late 1960’s, in opposition to the war in Vietnam, the ultimate heartbreach for Dorothy Day the citizen as well as Dorothy Day the Catholic, shattering hopes formed fifty years earlier that her country would ultimately use its power and prestige for greater ends (308).  Born in 1897, her view of the youth of the 1960’s was anything but starry-eyed…(including) acerbic comments about the long haired, sexually active, drug-indulging young women and men she encountered so frequently in New York and on her travels (315).  She made time to visit, and admire Haley House, here in Boston, and said in ringing oratory: Our present capitalist, industrialist system is inhuman and wicked (330)…we don’t measure our success, we don’t despair and we don’t judge; we simply do the work God intends us to do.(336).  These are steadying late pandemic words for us, in 2022.  Do the work God intends us to do.  Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.  And she found time every Saturday afternoon to listen to the broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera.  The work with the poor continued on: A Catholic Worker house, unlike a Salvation Army shelter or city shelter, would expect nothing, demand nothing from (the poor).  Many of us, myself included, might well have difficulty with this.  Yet she was not a 21st century feminist, at least not in the standard sense.  Poverty, race and religion were more important to her that gender (349).  She spoke in public for the last time in 1976, suffering a heart attack that year, the same autumn some of us began seminary, up the street at UTS.  St Joseph House and Maryhouse remain, four decades after Dorothy Day’s death, exactly where they have always been, but surrounded now by chic eateries, high price co-ops, boutique hotels and chain stores (360).  One wonders.  Could Dorothy Day cause us to come to ourselves?

 We give Day the last word: “We must practice the presence of God. He said that when two or three are gathered together, there he is in the midst of them. He is with us in our kitchens, at our tables, on our breadlines, with our visitors, on our farms. When we pray for our material needs, it brings us close to his humanity. He, too, needed food and shelter; he, too, warmed his hands at a fire and lay down in a boat to sleep.”

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

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