Vox Populi

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Richard Sahn: Life Lessons from Dorothy Day

In 1933 Dorothy Day, a progressive journalist and Catholic convert, and Peter Maurin, a French peasant and philosopher, founded an anarchist-pacifist movement and newspaper they called the “Catholic Worker.” The paper was meant to be the Christian answer to the Communist Party paper, “The Daily Worker.” Not affiliated with the Catholic Church, the movement aimed to follow the Christian gospels by promoting peace—nationally and internationally—and serving the poor and homeless. It urged a culture where the scholar could be a worker and the worker a scholar. It advocated non-violent changes in the very structure of society, based on social justice and economic equality.

Formal rules and strict laws imposed by states and virtually all institutions within society, Day and Maurin believed, were unnecessary and could only impede the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional fulfillment of the individual. Their perspectives were shaped to some extent by the “personalism” philosophy of Emmanuel Mounier. The laws and political policies of most modern societies were ultimately the products of oligarchs and plutocrats, they believed. Human nature is essentially benevolent or at least non-competitive, as long as physical needs are satisfied. The new movement ultimately challenged the culture of greed that has only grown in virulence in these United States.

By the 1950s—Maurin died in 1949—there were Catholic Worker houses of hospitality in almost every major city in the U.S. These “houses” were really shelters for the homeless and provided soup kitchens. In keeping with their anarchist philosophy and Day’s interpretation of what she considered the real meaning of Christianity, CW houses had no formal rules regarding who received hospitality. The one principle every house had to follow—even though no one was directly in charge—was, and still is, that “every guest is treated as Christ.”

During the 1950s Ms. Day denounced the Cold War air-raid shelter program, primarily in New York City, for misleading people into believing that nuclear war was survivable, hence doable. She favored total unilateral disarmament, realizing that nuclear war was the greatest threat to humanity in history. Her advice to citizens was to refuse to “take cover” during air raid drills. Indeed, Dorothy Day participated in numerous antiwar, civil rights, and social justice demonstrations, never hesitating to commit civil disobedience in the process, hence going to jail. Her visits to support Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers rallies in California’s Central Valley are particularly worthy of mention.

Although a practicing Catholic, Dorothy Day never had a problem with atheists, agnostics, Jews, Muslims, etc. working with her in the cause of political and social changes to improve the lives of the disenfranchised and to engage in the search for world peace.

I first met Dorothy Day in 1965 during my senior year at Bard College. The CW had a farming community about five miles from the campus, outside the town of Tivoli, N.Y. Dorothy had purchased the property about a year earlier. Situated on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River with the Catskill mountains in the distance, the farm was a temporary home to indigent residents, scholars, and journalists. In fact, anyone who wanted to stay indefinitely at the Catholic Worker farm—or any of its houses of hospitality– could do so as long as there was room.

I had developed friendships with some of the residents of the farm when they would visit the college for lectures and various events, including the then editor of the newspaper, Marty Corbin. Marty suggested that I stay at the farm for my month long Winter break from the college and volunteer to help paint one of the old mansions on the property. Dorothy herself would stay at the farm on weekends whenever she would return from a speaking tour or doing business at the CW headquarters in NYC’s East Village.

My first impressions of Dorothy—I didn’t know much about her in 1965, just how extensive her national and international reputation was and that her circle of friends around the time of the Russian revolution included Eugene O’Neill, Jack Reed, Emma Goldman—was that she was unassuming, down to earth, and focused on her lifelong message. I soon learned that there was no other organization in the world, perhaps in world history, such as the Catholic Worker. Or, that the movement was as much opposed to Marxism as it was to capitalism.

Nine years later I was teaching sociology at a small Catholic college in Dodge City, Kansas. Dorothy was on a speaking tour of the Midwest. I called CW headquarters in New York City to invite her to speak at the college. She agreed. On a cold weekday night, about 11PM, I met Ms. Day at the bus depot in Dodge. (She rarely ever traveled by plane or in her own car.) I drove her to the nearby home of a colleague at the college since my own apartment was too small to accommodate her. We reminisced during the ride about my days at the Tivoli farm, as if we were old friends. Her talk at St. Mary of the Plains College went very well. The students and faculty were introduced to one of the twentieth century’s most radical journalists and peace activists

On a poster hanging on the wall of my living room is a photo of Dorothy Day at a farm workers rally in California. The quote from Dorothy at the bottom of poster reads: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” Good therapy for those of us who blame ourselves for what Woody Guthrie called our “hard times.”

Dorothy Day wanted to remake the world in the image of Christ. She served the less fortunate and the causes of economic justice and peace. Too many people have never heard of her, and far too many Christians have refused to embrace her (and Christ’s) message of peace and love and understanding. In meeting her and getting to know her, if only for a short time, I believe I encountered a woman deserving of canonization by the Catholic Church (even though I know she would likely have rejected the honor).

Like Dorothy Day, we need to recognize that our problems today stem from our acceptance of a filthy, rotten, system that enshrines greed and injustice and inequity, a system tailored for exploitative competition, brutal punishment, and forever war.

copyright 2015 Richard Sahn. Reprinted by permission of The Contrary Perspective

dorothy-day-004

—Dorothy Day (1897-1980)

5 comments on “Richard Sahn: Life Lessons from Dorothy Day

  1. Kathy Allen
    March 26, 2015

    As a child, Dorothy Day stayed at our home whenever she came through Tucson. Her philosophy is one my parents deeply believed in, and it helped shape my and my nine siblings views on politics, generosity, peace, compassion. She was there the day my grandfather died (he lived with us) and her words gave us comfort and hope. Her ability to accept, not judge, embrace was – still is – inspiring. Each of my siblings consider our time with Dorothy sacred and life-shaping. She would surely hate the thought of being canonized, but we have never met anyone who was so saintly.

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  2. gilbert marsh
    March 26, 2015

    can anyone tell me what is the status, or where in the process, is the canonization cause for dorothy day? also, beyond praying for her canonization is there anything people can do to support, financially or otherwise, her canonization process?

    thank you.
    gilbert marsh

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  3. Pingback: On Progressivism | Peter Grace Online

  4. Daniel Burston
    March 25, 2015

    My vote probably doesn’t count. (I am Jewish.) But if there is one Catholic figure in North America who deserves canonization now it is surely Dorothy Day. Like Oscar Romero, she was a theological conservative. Along with Jacques Maritain, she basically rejected Vatican II – though unlike Romero, her politics were quite radical. It was this peculiar combination of theological conservatism and political radicalism that appealed to her friend Karl Stern, who befriended her in the late 1940’s. Though he never worked in one of her hospitality houses, he was a vigorous (and generous) supporter of The Catholic Worker and Tivoli Farm, and a frequent contributor to The Catholic Worker (from 1947-1970), as well.

    Of course, I am not suggesting that Stern is also worthy of canonization. (Far from it.) But like Day, he is all but forgotten by this generation of religious/spiritual activists. So, my question is: why have so many theologically conservative Catholics in America forgotten Day, Stern, and others of their generation, and aligned their politics and perspectives with those of the 1% and war mongerers? This is a sad and perplexing state of affairs – one I still cannot fully fathom.

    For those who may be interested, the Karl Stern Archive at Duquesne University’s Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center contains the decades-long correspodence between Day and Stern, and I will explore their longstanding friendship in my forthcoming biography of Stern, tentatively entitled “A Forgotten Freudian: The Passion of Karl Stern.”

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    • Vox Populi
      March 25, 2015

      Indeed your vote does count, Dan. The measure of a great spiritual leader is not how much he or she inspires people of a similar background, but rather how much he or she inspires people of other religious persuasions. I am not a Hindu, or a Baptist, or a Jew, and yet Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Martin Buber are my heroes. I am looking forward to reading your biography of Karl Stern — thanks for mentioning it.

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