Monday, February 28, 2011

Dorothy Day and the Presence of Christ

In her early memoir From Union Square to Rome, Dorothy Day posed a dilemma that we all must have felt. She remembered vividly reading about the saints as a child. “I could see the nobility of giving one’s life for the sick, the maimed, the leper. Priests and Sisters the world over could be working for the little ones of Christ, and my heart stirred at their work. But there was another question in my mind,” Day continued.

“Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first places? Disabled men, men without arms and legs, blind, consumptive, exhausted men with all the manhood drained from them by industrialism; farmers gaunt and harried with debt; mothers weighted down with children at their skirts, in their arms, in their wombs, and the children ailing, rickety, toothless—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?

Day was a controversial figure and remains one. She was a young Communist before she was a Catholic; she had an abortion before regretting it and raising a daughter alone; she was a pacifist when all the world was at war and proud of it (1941–1945). Still, the cause for her beatification has been advanced.

What was her dilemma? She wrote:

“Our Lord said, ‘Blessed are the meek,’ but I could not be meek at the thought of injustice. I wanted a Lord who would scourge the moneylenders out of the temple, and I wanted to help all those who raised their hand against oppression.” Sounds like liberation theology, doesn’t it, Catholicism as social action? But here is the line that is different:

“Religion, as it was practiced by those I encountered, had no vitality. It had nothing to do with everyday life; it was a matter of Sunday praying. Christ no longer walked the streets of this world. He was two thousand years dead, and new prophets had risen up in His place.”

Isn’t this precisely what Father Carrón means when he insists on the contemporaneousness of Christ?

“Not just any version of Christianity will be capable of reawakening humanity,” Carrón writes in his book presentation for The Religious Sense. “Neither a Christianity reduced to ideas . . . nor a Christianity reduced to ethics will be able to bring people out of their torpor, . . . out of the ever more egregious flattening out of their desire, of their original impetus, of their gusto in living.”

Elsewhere he writes, “The religious sense is the ultimate criterion of every judgment, of a judgment that is true and authentically ‘mine.’” (It’s clear to me that Dorothy Day was activated by and her judgments taken from such criteria.) “If we don’t want to be ‘cheated, alienated, enslaved by others, or exploited,’ we must become accustomed to comparing everything with that immanent and objective criterion that is the religious sense. After the Christian encounter, we continue to live in the world and are called like everyone to face the challenges of life.” (Day courageously faced poverty, homelessness, injustice in all its masks.) “We must face them in this particular moment in history, dominated by confusion and the ‘drop in desire,’ by a suffocating rationalism, on the one hand, and by spreading sentimentalism, on the other; by the reduction of reality to appearance and the heart to sentiment. If Christ is not incisive in our life, reawakening our humanity, broadening our reason, and not reducing reality, we find ourselves thinking the same way as everyone else. . . . We continue to affirm the ‘truths’ of the faith but not be protagonists in history, because there is no appreciable difference in us.”

Dorothy Day was not satisfied with thinking like everyone else, going to Sunday Mass in a world where Christ was “two thousand years dead.” So she started the Catholic Worker, first as a newspaper, then as a remarkable chain of “Houses of Hospitality,” for the care and feeding of the homeless and out-of-work. Impatient with a world in which Christ was dead, she brought Him to life in the thousands of faces whom she went out to meet and for whom she cared. Often alone, frequently ridiculed, but always soldiering on, Dorothy Day gives us a great model for living in and begging for the presence of Christ, day by blessed day.

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