That the life of Dorothy Day should be so terribly misunderstood ought not to come to any great surprise to any of us. When CNN pretends to have a serious debate about Easter by manufacturing a panel made completely of Resurrection deniers and those who don’t even believe Jesus existed, no wonder Dorothy is painted as some sort of radical leftist paragon.
In a conversation the other day about her, acquaintances at a table attributed her conversion to the Catholic Faith as just an effort to be closer to the poor. While true that she could not help but notice that those coming out of the Catholic Churches in the 19-teens and 20’s were predominantly the working poor of this country. It was also spectacularly true that what drove Day to the Church was not just a calculation directed at proximity with the impoverished. No, she was drawn by more and still more.
An intelligent woman, she thought through at every level what becoming Catholic meant. She felt drawn to the rubrics and the rules, the doctrines and the dogma. But still, she knew in the end that to become Catholic was to enter into a relationship with the Creator for whom she had cultivated a quiet but deep reverence.
After her conversion and after having started the Catholic Worker House with Peter Maurin, she began to go deeper into the writings and spirituality of the French theologians of the time. These included such contemporary giants as de Lubac and Congar. Her spiritual life became rooted in regular retreats with priests who preached on the classics by de Montfort and Caussade, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Dorothy Day was not one to tread gingerly into something. She plunged head first into the Catholic life.
Thus, these words from her book The Long Lonliness interested me:
In Pittsburgh there had been a slight difference in opinion as to what true Franciscanism was. A few of the young people broke off from the main house of hospitality, which was then housed in a former orphanage on Tannehill Street and seemed to them to be too organized, to start a little house of their own in another section. I disagreed with the small group who felt themselves to be the spirituals of the movement, the perfectionists. At St. Francis house they were more truly poor than those at St. Joseph’s, they felt. They didn’t want to make the retreat [with these French priests] because they lived a retreat – they were superior.”
It is a terrible habit of some in the social justice crowd to eschew the hard work for the spiritual life for “living the retreat” by being with the poor. Who needs the saints, the theologians, the trappings of deep spirituality, they might argue, when I can know what it truly is to be without food or proper clothing? In other words, for some, my ministry is my spirituality, my work is my prayer life, my chosen poverty is my retreat. But this is dangerous, oh so dangerous.
Day goes on to write,
But they ended up by coming at midnight, after imbibing at a few taverns along the way, but the important thing is that they came. There is a Bohemianism of the religious life among young people as well as Bohemianism in the labor movement, and it too smacks of sentimentality. The gesture of being dirty because the outcast is dirty, of drinking because he drinks, of staying up all night and talking, because that is what one’s guest from the streets want to do, in participating in his sin from a prideful humility, this is self-deception indeed!”
I’ve seen this myself. I mean I’ve seen it in myself, and I’ve seen it in others. Today the Bohemianism is not just being dirty – though of course our Bohemian youth today consider being dirty the choice to settle for the cheap body spray – today the Bohemian youth must be dirty, licentious and must question all authority because isn’t that what the poor do? It’s not just dread locks and piercings like some mangy pirate – curse that Jack Sparrow. No, we have to love Jesus and hate religion. The young of today have to rail against something, anything because to be docile in spirit is only what the oppressive bourgeois want us to be.
Solidarity with the poor in today’s world means drinking like the poor, smoking like the poor, sinning like the poor. The higher things are of no import. The spiritual life is just your being hung up on the stale doctrines of a petrified faith. Attending Mass with regularity is the badge of the idiot. The popularity of reality TV shows where the depravities of dysfunction are displayed demonstrate this fact. This is the way the “little people” live, so why shouldn’t we?
Above all things, Dorothy Day loved our Lord deeply. She understood that at the center of a life of love for the poor had to be Christ Jesus encountered in prayer, in devotions, at the sacrifice of the Mass. This was part of the lesson that Dorothy left us. It is a shame it is not better learned. For without the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, all she and Peter Maurin did would have died a sickly death and the Catholic Worker House would have been a whitened sepulcher.
Earlier in her autobiography she quotes the French novelist François Mauriac who wrote
There is a kind of hypocrisy which is worse than that of the Pharisees; it is to hide behind Christ’s example in order to follow one’s own lustful desires and to seek the company of the dissolute.”
You’ve heard it before I’m sure. “Well Jesus hung out with the prostitutes and the sinners, so I’m okay to do x, y and some of z too.” This is worse than Pharisaical, friends. It is a deep hypocrisy, and so we must avoid it vigorously. It pops up in our lives when we succumb to the temptation to justify our sins in the name of being “with the people,” or being “accessible” to our culture, or being an “effective” evangelist, or – shiver – being “relevant.”
So, you want to help the poor, convert your neighbor, be wildly attractive to those who come to know you? Go to Mass, pray the rosary, recite the hours, read on the saints, be like Dorothy Day and pursue sanctity. That, friends, is the antidote to hypocrisy and is the path to helping the poor and the ignorant.