The Eucharist Commits Us to the Poor

I never met Dorothy Day, but when I was in college I became acquainted, by some accident of chance or Providence, with the newspaper The Catholic Worker. I did not have a Catholic education; I did not know about Catholic Social Teaching; I believe in my spare time at college I had stumbled across and read Gaudium et Spes and I loved it. All around me at college mostly people were moving away from religion. The sense that the life of the mind, the life of critical inquiry, had displaced religion, was, even if unarticulated, dominant. There were a handful of Catholics at the school I attended; enough to gather maybe three dozen students, along with some faculty and their kids, on a Sunday afternoon for Mass in the virtually otherwise unused university chapel. Reading Gaudium et Spes thrilled me because the Church was proclaiming that it had something to offer this very world in which long-accepted structures of meaning were evaporating and, with them, the sense of the dignity of the human person as a permanent value. Obviously I was not reading this text for a course, but instead of what I was supposed to be reading for a course.

It was then, I cannot remember how, that I also came across my first copy of The Catholic Worker. Without being able to put it this way, I recognized a kinship of spirit with the text of Gaudium et Spes that had so enchanted me. The articles were obviously the fruit of educated thinking but they were not stuffy. Peter Maurin’s phrase, “Cult, Culture and Cultivation,” captivated me completely, though I did not really know what it meant, except I could see the integration of the beauty of religious ceremony as a flowering of faith, an approach to “culture” which tried to humanize it in the face of the brutality and contempt of an economy which seemed little more than a war machine, and “cultivation.” The latter appealed to me as a gardener and as a glimpse of an alternative lifestyle on the land.

The presiding genius of the paper was Dorothy Day. Her columnOn Pilgrimage somehow suited my Augustinian temperament (though at the time I did not know I was Augustinian). “We have here no abiding city,” it says in the Letter to the Hebrews (cited in On Pilgrimage). The image of “pilgrimage” evoked that sense, without at the same time being world denying. Later I discovered that Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, begins by recalling Augustine’s Confessions, and I could recognize in Dorothy Day’s evocation of this world in all of its surpassing beauty, and at the same time the sense that it was not a final end in itself and that our destiny lay elsewhere, a quality that was precisely Augustinian. No matter that I could not name it, I was fired up by the idealism that the sense of the beauty of this world, in contrast to its corruption by sin, evoked in me, and I began, with a few other woke students, to picket the local A&P in favor of the farmworkers led by Cesar Chavez, a Catholic. Most of this time was spent talking to the local policeman who was sent to make sure our tiny rag-tag bunch of three people did not get too out of hand. He was an Italian Catholic like myself and, though separated by a generation, we found we had a lot in common. Except he could not understand why anyone would waste their Saturday morning for a useless cause like getting the A&P to buy only union lettuce. But by now I was a subscriber to The Catholic Worker.

Each issue of the paper advertised Friday night meetings at St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality on East First Street intended for “Clarification of Thought”—another phrase of Peter Maurin’s, co-founder with Day of the Catholic Worker movement. The list of speakers was always exciting to me—intellectuals and artists and activists and even a few professors—and it seemed intoxicating to me that somehow these learned people, unlike many I had come to know at college, were not allergic to religion and admired the synthesis of “cult” and “culture.” Once when I was home for the summer, I made the bold decision to take the train from New Haven to New York on a Friday afternoon and find my way to East First Street, still just a place in my imagination, to attend an evening of “Clarification of Thought.”

I was a little surprised and also frightened at the emptiness of the subway station at Bleecker Street, where I had figured I had to get off, confused when someone told me to walk to “Howston Street,” because the sign, when I got to it said “Houston St.,” and shocked by the poverty of the neighborhood. Still I fell in love with St. Joseph’s House. I was thrilled to sit in the kitchen, unobtrusively listening to the talk, and to find myself in proximity to Dorothy Day, who was also sitting, unobtrusively listening to the talk, without comment. It had taken me some time to get up the courage to ask my Dad to take me to the New Haven train station so that I could take the train to a place he never heard of to listen to talks that seemed suspiciously radical to him. It turned out it was well worth the effort. To me, sitting there, I felt in some sense that I was home, not as though I were homeless before, but as though I had found a synthesis of the things I cared most about in life, including in its own way family; and it had been so unexpected. I never had the courage to speak to Dorothy Day, but it did not matter to me. That was not so much the point. I admired her as a living saint.

It is ironic then, that many years later, she insisted she did not want to be called a saint. She did not want her memory dismissed so easily, she said. I believe this is because Dorothy had read a lot of bad lives of the saints, bad hagiography, which she often referred to as “pious pap.” She writes in On Pilgrimage: “In all secular literature it has been so difficult to portray the good man, the saint, that a Don Quixote is a fool; that Prince Myshkin is an epileptic; in order to arouse the sympathy of the reader, appalled by unrelieved goodness. There are, of course,” she continues,

The lives of the saints, but they are too often written as though there were not in this world. We have seldom been given the saints as they really were, as they affected the lives of their times. We get them generally, only in their own writings. But instead of that strong meat we are too generally given the pap of hagiographical writing.

It is all the more ironic to realize then, that Dorothy herself wrote the life of a saint, Therese, a biography of Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower. Dorothy takes her own advice, though, and quotes liberally from the writings of the Little Flower, interpreting them for the contemporary reader who might have disdained St. Therese, as she herself had once done, because of bad hagiography. I hope in this talk to follow suit in order to depict the “strong meat” of this particular saint’s life.

Dorothy Day grew up in the Midwest, the daughter of a journalist father, who moved the family around the country following work. In The Long Loneliness, Dorothy looks back on her childhood as a happy one, and she recounts her early experiences of religion, which were not really part of the family routine but came from the outside, one way or another, with joy. As a young adult in college, and in later years, she became an agnostic; noting that, “The radicalism which I absorbed from The Day Book and Jack London, from Upton Sinclair and from the sight of poverty was in conflict with religion, which preached peace and meekness and joy.” As her own career as a journalist grew, she became interested in covering stories of social unrest and of the movements that were intended to redress social distress and poverty, Marxists of various stripes, Communists and socialists, anarchists, radical labor movements such as the “Wobblies” and the like.

Disabled men, without arms and legs, blind men, consumptive men, exhausted men with all the manhood drained from them by industrialism; farmers gaunt and harried with debt; mothers weighed down with children at their skirts, in their arms, in their wombs, children ailing and rickety—all this long procession of desperate people called to me. Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?

And yet during this phase of her life, Dorothy recalls a growing restlessness, a sense that this attitude represented too easy a solution, and left a kind of lack in her soul. She recounts the admiration, despite the sentiments expressed in the passage above, for persons of devout religious practice, Catholics especially. She recounts, for example, the time she spent in a private home, when she was taken in by a Catholic family after having spent time in jail for having been in a house of prostitution, though that was a political charge leveled against the hostel of the Wobblies in which she had been staying. Still the stigma was keen, and she appreciated the kindness of the family, and was particularly attracted to the devotion of the one daughter and her friend. “I became acquainted with Catholic terminology,” she recalls, “which at first seemed strange to me and even illiterate. ‘To make a mission, to pray for someone’s intention’—what kind of jargon was this?” “Could it be true,” she continues, “all that kindness and delicacy with which they treated me that winter?” Then she goes on to list some of the books she read, Dostoevsky among them: “And always there was the New Testament,” she says. “I could not hear of Sonia’s reading the gospel to Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment without turning to it myself with love.”

The Long Loneliness goes on to recount what is perhaps the most idyllic period in Dorothy Day’s life, her time spent on Staten Island with her common-law husband. “Because I feel that this period of my life was so joyous and lovely, I want to write at length about it, giving the flavor, the atmosphere, the mood of those days,” and indeed she accomplishes just that. We cannot linger as long here, but it is noteworthy for our purposes how the evocation of the joy of this time is inextricably linked to her intensified search for the One to whom one could say “Thank-you,” the source of all the beauty she was experiencing:

Late in the afternoon the wind dropped, the door of [our fisherman friend] Lefty’s shack stood open and he sat there contemplating the sunset. The waves lapped the shore, tinkling among the shells and pebbles, and there was an acrid odor of smoke in the air . . . As I watched, the chapel bell at St. Joseph’s rang the Angelus. I found myself praying, praying with thanksgiving, praying with open eyes while I watched the workers on the beach and the sunset, and listened to the sound of the waves and the scream of snowy gulls.

Later on she describes the pleasure of “rowing about in the calm bay with Forster,” her common-law husband, and comments further, “I had known Forster a long time before we contracted our common-law relationship, and I have always felt that it was life with him that brought me natural happiness, that brought me to God,” which is ironic because he was a dedicated atheist and anarchist who refused absolutely to appear before any civil or religious authority for any purpose whatsoever, including a wedding.

When I cried out to him, “How can there be no God, when there are all these beautiful things,” he turned from me uneasily and complained that I was never satisfied. We loved each other so strongly that he wanted to remain in the love of the moment; he wanted me to rest in that love. He cried out against my attitude that there would be nothing left of that love without a faith.

It was Dorothy Day’s very gratitude for the love they shared that stirred in her even more intensely the conviction that the “Thank-you” she owed to him was only part of a larger “Thank-you” she owed (to whom?) which, far from competing with the smaller “Thank-you,” allowed the smaller Thank-you to be said even more fully, because part of a whole universe for which a “Thank-you” was owed.

It was an even keener joy that brought things to a head, the joy of their having conceived a child and the joy of her birth. During her pregnancy, Dorothy reports echoing Augustine’s Confessions:

I knew that I was going to have my child baptized, cost what it may. I knew that I was not going to have her floundering through many years as I had done, doubting and hesitating, undisciplined and amoral. I felt it was the greatest thing I could do for my child. For myself, I prayed for the gift of faith. I was sure, yet not sure. I postponed the day of decision,

She continues,

Forster had made the physical world come alive for me and had awakened in my heart a flood of gratitude. The final object of this love and gratitude was God. No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.

For Dorothy Day, religion was not a product of misery or an opiate to sedate it, but rather of gratitude.

Again like Augustine, Dorothy tells the story of her own [conditional] baptism, first confession, and first holy communion, some months after the baptism of her daughter, with lapidary brevity. “I felt no particular joy in partaking of these three sacraments,” she comments, because it meant the “misery of leaving one love,” Forster, the baby’s father, and also, it seemed “another love too, the life I had led in the radical movements.” Noting that she was that very winter “working with the Anti-Imperialist League, a Communist affiliate, that was bringing aid and comfort to the enemy, General Sadino’s forces in Nicaragua.” She comments that:

I was just as much against capitalism and imperialism as ever, and here I was going over to the opposition, because of course the Church was lined up with property, with the wealthy, with the state, with capitalism, with all the forces of reaction. This I had been taught to think and this I still think to a great extent.

And yet, she continues, in an unmistakably Augustinian mode, “I loved the Church for Christ made visible. Not for itself, because it was so often a scandal to me. Romano Guardini said the Church is the Cross on which Christ was crucified; one could not separate Christ from His Cross, and one must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the Church.” Continuing with Augustinian perfect pitch: “We could not root out the tares without rooting out the wheat also. With all the knowledge I have gained these twenty-one years I have been a Catholic, I could write many a story of priests who were poor, chaste and obedient, who gave their lives daily for their fellows, but I am writing of how I felt at the time of my baptism.” She longed, she said, “for a synthesis reconciling body and soul, this world and the next,” and three years later, when, after covering the story of the hunger marchers in Washington D.C., she recalls going to the national shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, where, she says, she “offered up a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and with anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.”

As she tells it, when she arrived back home in her apartment in New York, the answer to her prayer was waiting for her in the person of Peter Maurin, a “short, stocky man in his mid-fifties, as ragged and rugged as any of the marchers I had left.” He explained his presence: “’George Shuster, editor of the Commonweal, told me to look you up. Also a red-headed Irish Communist in Union Square told me to see you. He says we think alike.” This meeting was perhaps the most momentous in Dorothy Day’s life. Peter was at once an intellectual and a worker, a man who owned nothing but his clothes and worked as a day laborer if he had need of money. He was a personalist, an anarchist, who did not have a program for a new system, but, as he liked to say, quoting a phrase from the preamble to the constitution of the Wobblies, a program for “building a new society within the shell of the old.” To this he added on his own, “a society in which it is easier to be good,” synthesizing “cult, culture and cultivation.” This was to be a program of direct personal action, not a new system which, as a system, would always be as impersonal and de-personalizing as the old one it replaced. Peter expressed his thinking in a series of rhythmic, chant-like blank verse essays, which came to be called “Easy Essays.” For example:

People go to Washington

asking the government

to solve their economic problems,

while the Federal government

was never intended

to solve men’s economic problems.

Thomas Jefferson says that

the less government there is

the better it is.

If the less government there is,

The better it is,

Then the best kind of government

Is self-government.

If the best kind of government

Is self-government,

then the best kind of organization

is self-organization.

When the organizers try

to organize the unorganized,

then the organizers

don’t organize themselves.

And when the organizers

don’t organize themselves,

nobody organizes himself,

and when nobody organizes himself

nothing is organized (quoted in Loaves and Fishes).

“Personal responsibility, not state responsibility” was a favorite slogan of his. Peter’s program, such as it was, entailed three prongs: round-table discussions or clarification of thought, houses of hospitality, and farming communes, which he called agronomic universities. The newspaper, The Catholic Worker, was conceived as an organ of clarification of thought, a way of clarifying and disseminating the personalist program of cult, culture, and cultivation, while the houses of hospitality were to be a way of giving the rich the opportunity to serve the poor, among other things. Dorothy’s book Loaves and Fishes tells the story of the founding of the newspaper and of the first house of hospitality in New York City, as well, in due course, as the experiments in agronomic universities.  

In Loaves and Fishes and in Dorothy’s other books, the liturgy of the Church—attendance at daily Mass in the local neighborhood parish church, communal recitation of the rosary every day in the house of hospitality, the private recitation of the liturgy of the hours, etc.—is ever present as a kind of training of the heart. Dorothy writes, “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart.” The liturgy of the Church is stitched into the prose of Loaves and Fishes, and into the life of the house of hospitality, as a training of the heart, a formation of the heart in this revolution of the heart, exposing the heart not to a system or a plan but, to that mystery of burning love which gave itself, which gave himself, not for an abstraction created by a system, called “humanity,” but for each living person. The liturgy of the Church trains those following it in the mystery of the person as so loved. Thus, in a way, it is a training in the reinvestment of personhood into those whom the system treats as non-persons, as statistics, as waste products, as human trash, byproducts of an economic system which held no place for them, as negligible.

“How to understand people, portray people—that is the problem,” Dorothy wrote, as she was telling the story of one of the most irascible people encountered in the pages of Loaves and Fishes. Mr. Maurice O’Connell was originally a guest at Maryfarm, one of the early “agronomic universities” in the movement, having come, like many others, prompted by a need of some kind, but stayed on for the rest of his life, developing into “an implacable tyrant in the household,” “a terror” who took up residence in an outbuilding, a cabin at the gate, greeting people with warnings that the residents of the farming commune were “thieves, drunkards and loafers, the lot of them!” (not exactly a complimentary description). “And if anyone living on the farm exhibited any skill, Maurice would sneer at him, ‘What jail did ye learn that in.’ One man who, after living with us for a year, became a Catholic was greeted with taunts and jeers each time he passed the cabin door. ‘Turncoat!’ Maurice would shout, ‘ye’d change yer faith for a bowl of soup!'” In addition he began to regale visitors with tales about how he was never given anything to eat, or to wear, despite the fact that he had a standing order at the grocer’s for which he never had to pay. He became violent and enraged if anyone disagreed with him, though as a man in his early 80’s, he could not really do any harm. There was nothing naturally likeable or loveable about Mr. O’Connell, and of course he was not unique and it raised the perennial issue of the troublesome guest, resident, or suppliant who, far from being grateful, resented the help given and became an obnoxious presence—was it really right to let such a person get away with things? Isn’t there something awfully smug about such piety? “This turning the other cheek, this inviting someone else to be a potential thief or murderer, in order that we may grow in grace—how obnoxious,” Dorothy comments.

But it was a priest of Dorothy’s acquaintance, Fr. Louis Farina, whom she credits with finally answering this question for her. He told her, as she summarizes in her own words,

That the only true influence we have on people is through supernatural love. This sanctity (not an obnoxious piety) so affects others that they can be saved by it. Even though we seem to increase the delinquency of others (and we have been many times charged with it), we can do for others, through God’s grace, what no law-enforcement can do, what no common sense can achieve.

This kind of love, in other words, is the only true source of community. “Holy Mother the State” as Dorothy often called it, could not provide that. But building the new society in the shell of the old depended upon it. Sounding like Pope Francis she said, “So many sins against the poor cry out to high heaven! One of the most deadly sins is to deprive the laborer of his hire. There is another: to instill in him paltry desires so compulsive that he is willing to sell his liberty and his honor to satisfy them.” A system might create a kind of superficial prosperity, even, based on such desensitizing, but it would be even less of a true community than before. The Worker stood for certain kinds of local organizing, such as “credit unions and cooperatives, leagues for mutual aid, voluntary land reforms and farming communes,” and Dorothy comments that “whatever we can do to combat these [such as just mentioned] widespread social evils by combating their causes we must do. But,” she adds, “above all the responsibility is a personal one. The message we have been given comes from the Cross.”

Perhaps it goes without saying that people who embrace this vision, especially those who embrace voluntary poverty for the time they are involved in the Worker, are subject to unfriendly scrutiny and perhaps ridicule stemming from the so-called “common sense” mentioned earlier. “Common sense tells us,” that is, we who live with the poor,

“Why live in a slum? It is actually cheaper to live in a model housing project, have heat and hot water, a mauve or pink bath and toilet, etc. We can manage better; we have more time to pray, to meditate, study. We would have more money to give to the poor.” Yes, this is true according to the candlelight of common sense, but not according to the flaming hear of the Sun of justice. Yes, we will have more time with modern conveniences, but we will not have more love.

Dorothy points to the example of a Belgian priest who had been a missionary in China, where he had walked literally thousands of miles in his work, and his desire to walk from one end of the United States to the other to protest abuses in which the railroads were implicated. And, commenting that we are not all given the grace to do such things, nevertheless it is good to call to mind the vision involved. In On Pilgrimage she says, “It is true, indeed, that until we begin to develop a few apostles along these lines, we will have no mass conversions, no social justice, no peace. We need saints. God, give us saints!”

And Dorothy gives us saints. Not of the canonized variety, and they are not called saints, but nevertheless, the same perspective, formed by the liturgy of the Church, “strengthening the heart to learn to love,” exposing the heart to the mystery of the person, the perspective of the Cross in which all persons are humanized—that same perspective enables one to see the “fools for Christ,” those who defy common sense in the name of love. We receive portrait after portrait of ordinary saints, nonetheless unforgettable for their ordinariness, portraits etched in love and gratitude. “How to draw a picture of the strength of love!” Dorothy asks, when, she adds, “It seems at times that we need a blind faith to believe in it at all.” But it helps if you have concrete examples. Dorothy draws a picture of Mary Frecon, a woman with two grown sons who own fruit farms. She lives on 7th Street though she could live in the suburbs. She took in destitute women in dire need of nursing care, direct personal action, accepting no pay. Dorothy draws a picture of “Mary, nursing a diabetic swollen, heavy with water, holding her up at night so she could breathe, bringing the priest to her, looking after her body and soul, materially and spiritually. Susie, burned by a jealous rival, oozing pus from her infected shoulders cut by glass from broken windows when she tried to escape, nursed back to health of body and soul. Katie, dying of cancer, turberculosis, and syphilis, her body dung now indeed, but once a thing of beauty, strung taut with life and pleasure, and now overwhelmed with torrents of pain. Lucille Pearl, dying in an alley, flies and worms feasting on the open sores of her flesh—these women, dying and yet alive today in heaven . . . already before their death given a foretaste of the life to come.” She adds, “And Mary faces all this misery pretty much alone.”

There is the picture of Peter Maurin, drawn with exquisite love and attention in Loaves and Fishes. Peter one of a family of 23 children, who purposely owned nothing, who was often mistaken for a janitor or tramp or repairman when he showed up to give a talk at a university or church; Peter, who preached voluntary poverty and the works of mercy, who “slept in his clothes and regarded a bath as luxury”; Peter the self-giving agitator, teaching and haranguing anyone who would listen to the prospect of a society in which it was easier to be good; Peter the manual laborer; Peter sitting in front of the Blessed Sacrament for an hour every morning after Mass; Peter in his last years, incontinent and bedridden and unable to think properly. Writing at the time, Dorothy says in On Pilgrimage,

And now Peter is more than ever in absolute poverty. He has achieved the ultimate in poverty . . . We must say it again because it is of tremendous significance. It reveals more than anything else his utter selflessness, his giving of himself. He has given everything, even his mind. He has nothing left; he is in utter and absolute poverty . . . The only thing he had left in his utter poverty which made Skid Row his home and the horse market his eating place and the old clothes room his haberdasher was his brilliant mind . . . Now he remembers nothing. “I cannot remember.” “I cannot think.”

Dorothy asked him if he had offered himself as a victim, and he replied, wryly, implying that he had, “’We offer God so much, and maybe we think we mean it. And then God takes us at our word!’” In Loaves and Fishes Dorothy remarks that:

I was sure of Peter—sure that he was a saint and a great teacher—although to be perfectly honest, I wondered if I really liked Peter sometimes . . . He did not like music, he did not read Dickens or Dostoevski, and he did not bathe. In the summer, or when he was ill, there were times when it was hard to be in the same room with him. … It was no natural “liking” that made me hold Peter in reverent esteem.”

Dorothy also draws a picture of Ammon Hennacy, a “prophet,” as she calls him, who every summer fasted one additional day, beginning on the Feast of the Transfiguration, one day for each year that had passed since the bombing of Hiroshima, spending six months in prison for trespassing in protest on a nuclear missile base, living “like the early Church fathers in the desert” on vegetables and bread, though he included eggs and cheese, embracing heavy manual labor whenever it was needed at the house of hospitality, working without pay. Stanley Vishnewski, who began working at the Catholic Worker in New York when he was just 17, and gave his whole life to the work. Marge Hughes, “the epitome of hospitality,” as Dorothy describes her. “It is never too late or too early for her to be about, serving others.” “Like the widow of Zarephath, she does not hesitate to use ‘the last of her meal and oil’ for the needy and hungry guest, and somehow there is ‘always enough for one more.’”

And so many others, including one canonized saint, Therese of Lisieux, whose “little way” Dorothy so admired as the embodiment of direct personal action on behalf of a vision of humanizing love that she wrote a biography of her. Dorothy sees in Therese’s “little way” the living defiance of “the system,” of any “system” that reduces human agency to a mere outworking of itself. Technocratic regimes seem relentlessly effective in degrading the planet and intimidating any individual initiative to the contrary as ineffective, foolish and weak. “I do not repent of having delivered myself up to Love,” Dorothy quotes Therese as saying in a sentence set off, in the chapter called “Night and Death,” as a paragraph of its own.

Dorothy then comments, “She had offered herself a victim of Love rather than of Justice, offering herself on behalf of all those who rejected Christ’s love.” A victim of Love? Can that language have meaning for us today?

It means that Therese’s faith placed her in a solidarity with all that “the system,” any system, rejects, the criminals, the useless, the despised, those who have rejected even love itself, those whom Heaven must reject if it is imagined according to the inflexible Justice of the system, of any system, where not even a drop of mercy could then be imagined to reside. To offer oneself as a “victim of love” is to protest the final victory of “the system,” which seems to render all human life listless and futile.” (from my afterword to Day’s Therese).

In 178 A.D., the Church of Lyons, established by missionaries from the Churches of Asia Minor, had suffered a savage persecution and they wrote a letter back home describing what had happened. “The Adversary swooped down with full force,” they write, and “the result was that we were not only shut out of our houses, the baths, and the public square, but they forbade any of us to be seen in any place whatsoever.” In other words, even before any arrests were made, the strategy of the Romans was to dehumanize the Christians, to place them into the status of non-persons. As the persecution gains strength, the barbarity of the Roman system and of the mob in its service is featured in the denial of due process, the savage tortures tendered to the members of the Church without regard for old age (the 90 old year bishop, Pothinus, was manhandled and tortured), or youth (a 15 year old boy, Ponticus, was seized and tortured), or for sex, for the women were as mercilessly exposed and tortured as the men. The fury of the persecution extended to the refusal to allow the bodies of the martyrs to be buried—the ultimate offense against civilized behavior in Antiquity—but rather they were exposed for a week to be eaten by dogs, then burned and their bones ground and thrown into the river.

The author of the letter comments that, “Arrayed against [the Adversary] was God’s grace, which protected the weak and raised up sturdy pillars” to support the community. We get portraits of them: the young lawyer Vettius Epagathus, who steps forward to offer to defend the Christians and for a reward is seized and tortured himself; the deacon Sanctus; the physician Alexander; the slave girl Blandina whose courage and tranquility under torture amazed even the torturers; and others. What is emphasized above all, though, was the community of Christians of whom these were the pillars raised up by grace. The grace given to the pillars was intended for the good of the whole community, to support them in their resolution to love the enemy, and even to love and to continue to pray for those among them who had apostatized, refusing to demonize them. “In peace they departed to God, leaving no pain for their [virgin] Mother [the Church], no strife for their brothers, but rather joy, peace, harmony and love.”

I bring this up because it displays an ancient form of hagiography which we have to some extent forgotten. The saints, or pillars, described, are examples of holiness and love, but precisely as pillars, as supporting and cementing a community in the humanizing virtues of peace and love, which is contrasted with the ruthless system of the Romans supported by the barbarity of the mob and the government apparatus which refused personhood to the Christians. Thus, even though it looked absolutely foolish and futile and ridiculous to the common sense of the supposedly civilized state, the Christian community was an oasis of humanity, refreshing witness, precisely as a community, in contrast to the inhumanity of the persecuting community. This is the kind of hagiography we get in Dorothy Day’s writings. We find picture after picture drawn of the saints of the new society growing in the shell of the old, a society in which it is easier to be good. These saints are important as individual witnesses but even more, they are depicted, in their very individuality, as “pillars,” as supporting a community dedicated to the love of enemy and to humanizing values founded on the revelation of God’s love on the Cross. These communities are outposts of humanity, of true human community, of humane values, offering a vision of supernatural love, in a world where options for such a community seem to be rapidly shutting down.

I would like to suggest that this vision of sanctity is a Eucharistic vision, and that Dorothy Day’s brief history of the early days of the Catholic Worker movement, Loaves and Fishes, is a Eucharistic classic. It says in the Catechism that “the Eucharist commits us to the poor" (§1397), and Loaves and Fishes offers the amplest and most vivid exposition of that theme that I know. Early in the text Dorothy reprints a column from the Catholic Worker from the mid-thirties, at the height of the Depression, entitled “On the Coffee Line,” with the anonymous by-line, “by one of the servers.” After a full morning of work serving bread and coffee, he or she recounts their break: “I am relieved now to go to Mass which means I must pass a whole block of hungry, waiting men. It seems a long walk some mornings, especially when it is cold or wet. I receive greetings from those who have come to know us. I wish many more would pass them during their long days to give them a chance to share and realize their troubles.” This is a symbolic moment in the book. Walking past the breadline one has just been serving to go to Mass is not to hurry by with indifference but to extend, as it were, the Eucharistic communion to to include them. It is to extend the Eucharistic remembering of Christ’s sacrifice to all in that line, remembering them, as Christ the Incarnate Word remembered us, by “sharing and realizing our troubles.”

The connection to the Eucharist is also present in Loaves and Fishes through the affectionate remembering of some of the priests who accompanied her and the Worker “on pilgrimage”:

There are times when I grow impatient at the luxury of the Church, the building program . . . and the conservatism of the hierarchy. But then I think of our priests. What would we do without them? They are so vital a part of our lives, standing by us as they do at birth, marriage, sickness, and death—at all the great and critical moments of our existence—but also daily bringing us the bread of life, our Lord Himself, to nourish us. “To whom else shall we go?,” we say with St. Peter.

Dorothy recounts how when she moved to the East Side, she went to a Salesian priest, Fr. Zamien:

It was he who urged me to go to daily Communion. I had thought this was only for the old or the saintly, and I told him so. “Not at all,” he said. “You go because you need food to nourish you for your pilgrimage on this earth. You need the strength, the grace, that the bread of life gives. Remember that Jesus said, For my flesh is meat indeed and my blood is drink indeed.

She observes that this doctrine did not repel her, despite the reaction of her brother, “who called it cannibalism.” She adds,

“After all,” I used to tell him, “we drink milk from the breast of our mother. We are nourished while we are in the womb by the blood of her heart. From her flesh and from her blood we grow before we enter into this life, and so from the Body and Blood of Jesus we are nourished for life eternal.” We are shriven and we are nourished, and my gratitude for this tremendous gift only grows greater with the years.

There is a long and loving remembrance of Fr. Pacifique Roy, who had spent his life among the poor in the South and during the last year of his life lived with the community on the Lower East side, sleeping in the men’s dormitory, working in the kitchen, celebrating Mass and giving the community spiritual conferences and retreats:

We had just started to sing the Mass and those first months must have been hard on Father Roy. He used to look wryly at the servers who sat on either side of him singing the Gloria out of tune. To Father Roy, Mass was truly the work of the day, and he spared no effort to make our worship as beautiful as possible. During even the coldest weather, when the water froze in the cruet and his hands became numb, he said Mass slowly, reverently, with a mind intent on the greatness, the awfulness of the Sacrifice.

To say that to Fr. Roy, Mass was truly the work of the day, did not mean, as one worker took it to mean, that by going to Mass one had no other work for the day. Rather, it meant that the reverent Eucharistic remembering of the “greatness, the awfulness of the Sacrifice,” formed the whole day and the whole life, extending in gratitude outward to bring the compassion enacted in that sacrifice to the most desolate, most intractable and most horrific exhibitions of hardness of heart in the world, those situations which to natural reason alone, unformed by the nourishing remembrance of the “greatness, the awfulness of the Sacrifice,” would cause despair.

No reader of Loaves and Fishes can ever possibly forget the portrait etched in the chapter, near the end of the book, called “Cold Turkey Cure,” the portrait of life in the Women’s Detention Center, where Dorothy and two fellow workers spent time in jail for their public protesting of the civil defense drills which they knew to be a useless sham simply to stoke national interest in the Cold War. The portrait is a portrait of the hopelessness of the inmates and the cruelty, the heartlessness, of the system of detention for women, in itself and as comparted to the equivalent for men. The chapter is the cold turkey cure for Eucharistic remembrance, testing the reverence for the greatness, the awfulness of the Sacrifice and the work, the supernatural work as Dorothy calls it, of extending that reverence to the suffering in this desperation. The chapter is a plea for remembrance, reminiscent of St. Augustine’s plea for his reader’s remembrance of his mother and father at the altar of the sacrifice of Christ:

If those who read this will pray for the prisoners—if New York readers, when they pass the Women’s House of Detention, will look up, perhaps wave a greeting, say a prayer, there will be the beginning of a change. Two of the women, Tulsa and Thelma, said that they never looked out through those bars; they could not stand it. But most of the other prisoners do, and perhaps they will see this gesture; perhaps they will feel the caress of the prayer, and a sad heart will be lightened, and a resolution strengthened, and there will be a turning away from evil and toward the good. Christ is with us today, not only in the Blessed Sacrament, and where two or three are gathered together in His Name, but also in the poor. And who could be poorer or more destitute in body and soul than these companions of our twenty-five days in prison?

Loaves and Fishes is a plea for the “revolution of the heart” I mentioned earlier, which we can now see is a Eucharistic revolution, a formation of the heart in Eucharistic remembering, in the celebration of the one pure sacrifice of inviolable and immaculate compassion that did not, for all that, and precisely because of that, disdain mixed company, and, beyond the resources of natural reason and political calculation, the only true source of human communion that is personalist and not instead depersonalizing and abstracting into an impersonal and thus forgettable “humanity.”

The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us? When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers with that burning love, that passion, which led to the Cross, then we can truly say, “Now I have begun.” Day after day we accept our failure, but we accept it because of our knowledge of the victory of the Cross. God has given us our vocation, as he gave it to the small boy who contributed his few loaves and fishes to help feed the multitude, and which Jesus multiplied so that he fed five thousand people. Loaves and fishes! How much we owe to God in praise, honor, thanksgiving! Every day we go to whichever Mass is most convenient, and a few stay for a while for a thanksgiving.

I have tried to follow the example of the Acts of the Martyrs of Lyons, and Dorothy’s own example, of how to write hagiography, how to write about a saint as saint, by locating her sanctity as that of a “pillar,” established by Eucharistic grace to be an agent and exponent of oases of human communion, in this case loose set of oases of humanity known as the Catholic Worker. These houses of hospitality are not, even today, ordered so much by efficiency as by love, “harsh and dreadful,” as that love may be in its work of encountering and living among the poor, to use words of Dostoevsky often cited by Dorothy Day, intended to illuminate the strength of commitment needed. In the movie Monsieur Vincent, about the life of St. Vincent de Paul, and the last words attributed to the saint in this movie are cited by Dorothy in Loaves and Fishes: “’You must love them very much,’ Monsieur Vincent said of the poor, ‘to make them forgive the bread you give them.’”

Dorothy was a pillar of a network of little communities living out this harsh and dreadful love, supernatural and not based on natural, common-sense assessments, in which the humanity of the poor was returned to them and a community which included them was built. If a saint is one who is a pillar of such a community, then, despite whatever protestations she may have had about being called a saint, in a way, by her own description and practice, I believe Dorothy Day was, and certainly still is, a saint.

Editorial Note: This essay was first delivered as an ND McGrath Institute for Church Life Saturdays with the Saints lecture.

Featured Image: Dorothy Day half-length portrait, seated at desk, facing right, 1934; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.


John Cavadini

John Cavadini is the McGrath-Cavadini Director of the Institute for Church Life and a professor in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame. He was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to a five-year term on the International Theological Commission in 2009. He is the recipient of the Monika Hellwig Award for Outstanding Contributions to Catholic Intellectual Life and is the author of Visioning Augustine.

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