Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Heroine Of the 99%

Blessed Dorothy Day died in her room at Maryhouse on November 29, 1980. She was surely one of the Church's greatest advocates for the 99%: ordinary middle-class people and families; the poor; the hungry; the anawim of society, as Scripture calls them -- those easily written-off human beings on the fringes of society.

About 8 months before she died, Dorothy wrote this in her Diary: 
"'The less you have of Caesar the less you have to render to Caesar.' Jesus and the coin. 
'Render to Caesar the things which are Caesar's and to God the things of God.' 'Whose face on this coin?' Jesus.
Foundation of our work.
Voluntary poverty and manual labor. Jesus and the coin. 'Do unto others.'
'Sowing and reaping.' New Testament words of Jesus. 'Sow sparingly and you will reap sparingly.'"

She and Peter Maurin began The Catholic Worker newspaper, which soon became a powerful movement and continues to this day, though not as publicly and forcefully as it did in Dorothy's heyday. The "Caesars" of the world, including the Catholic Church of which she was a loyal and devoted member, were made terribly uncomfortable by this simple, and by her own admission, somewhat mouthy woman who never backed down on her commitment to serving the needy and promoting non-violence and peace. She herself lived an amazing life of poverty among those she served, grappling not only with all the day-to-day problems of those she took in, but with the struggles within her own family and friends, with the on-going ups and downs of the Catholic Worker movement, and with her own admitted shortcomings and failings.

One can get an intimate feel for what she went through in a 2008 book, The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, edited by Robert Ellsberg. Reading her entries, you almost feel as if you're sitting beside her, hearing her recount her daily joys and sorrows. Ellsberg records a prayer, St. Ephraim's Prayer of Penance, found inserted in her final journal: "O Lord and master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power and idle talk. But give to thy servant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for Thou art blessed from all ages to ages. Amen." Ellsberg closes his book, saying that he found the prayer a few years ago in a book by Russian poet Sergey Mitrofanovich Gorodetzky (1884-1967), The Humiliated Christ in Russian Thought. "It was the prayer of a political prisoner in the Czar's time. Also in the book was the story of a pious peasant or serf, a girl who loved dancing. An accident crippled her for life so she lay, a helpless invalid, but 'rejoicing that she was counted worthy to suffer for our Lord.'"

It recalls to my mind the exquisite mural in St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco, of dancing "celebrities" of faith. I can't think of a more appropriate image for Blessed Dorothy Day, an ordinary woman who suffered much for the Lord, but who now dances among the Communion of the Saints.    

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