Opening Heart and Home

Early in Dostoevsky'

Early in Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov, a wealthy woman asks Staretz Zosima how she can really know that God exists. The elderly monk tells her that no explanation or argument can achieve this, only the practice of "active love."

The woman then confesses that sometimes she dreams about a life of loving service to others - she thinks perhaps she will become a Sister of Mercy, live in holy poverty, and serve the poor in the humblest way. But then it crosses her mind how ungrateful some of the people she would serve are likely to be. They would probably complain that the soup she served wasn't hot enough or that the bread wasn't fresh enough or the bed was too hard. She confesses that she couldn't bear such ingratitude - and so her dreams about serving others vanish, and once again she finds herself wondering if there really is a God. To this the Staretz responds, "Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams."

I often heard Dorothy Day recite those words. I doubt any chapter in any work of literature had so much importance for her. She had first read Dostoevsky's novel when she was in her teens. It was partly through Dostoevsky that she formed an understanding of Christianity that wasn't typically Western, seeing it not simply as an institutional structure but as a way of life in which nothing was more important than seeing Christ in others.

Of course there were many other influences. Her understanding of basic Christianity was partly shaped by the emphasis on hospitality in the Holy Rule of St. Benedict, with its requirement that "each guest must be received as if he were Christ." There was also the influence of St. Francis of Assisi, who gave an example of downward mobility rather than upward mobility, whose life was the opposite of a rags-to-riches chronicle. He was one of the sources of the stress she put on what she called "voluntary poverty."

Like St. Francis, she discovered in herself an attraction to the poor that led her to live among them. Like Francis, she was drawn to live out the most radical teachings of Jesus, including the renunciation of violence. Also like Francis, she started a movement that was meant for anyone, married or unmarried, young or old or in between.

NEITHER PRAYER NOR the sacraments were part of Dorothy Day's upbringing. Dorothy came to faith slowly and with difficulty. At age 19, she began her lifelong involvement in movements that sought to create a society of greater solidarity, in which people were less likely to be maltreated or abandoned. Nearly all her friends, activists on the left, regarded religion with contempt - a pie-in-the-sky social structure created by rich people to make the poor tolerate their own oppression. Yet Dorothy couldn't write God off quite so easily. She had a quiet envy for the faith of the many poor people she saw going into church to pray. Sometimes she followed them. There was a Catholic parish on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village, St. Joseph's Church, that she would sometimes slip into. Here she experienced a kind of at-homeness and consolation. While she knew very little about Catholic belief, she felt some comfort being in a place set aside for prayer. It was reassuring to be among people who came in for some quiet minutes, their heads bowed toward the consecrated bread hidden beyond the altar that in some mysterious way had been made one with Christ during the Mass.

During the First World War, Dorothy decided it wasn't enough to be a writer when so many people were dying and so took a low-paying job as a nurse in a Brooklyn hospital. It was the beginning of living a life in which what the church calls "the works of mercy" would more and more be at the center of what she did.

In December 1932, Dorothy was assigned to write about a demonstration in Washington, D.C., called the Hunger March. The many men and women taking part in it had only reluctantly been allowed to march into Washington. For days police barricades had blocked their way. Each day headlines warned of a communist menace that bore little resemblance to the actual people who had endured insults and violence to dramatize the hardships and needs of the unemployed. Dorothy was appalled by the role of the press. "If there was not a story, the newspapers would make a story.... The newspaper reporters were infected by their own journalism and began to beg editors to give them tear-gas masks before they went out to interview the leaders of the unemployed marchers."

Yet in the end, the police moved the barricades and stood aside. "On a bright sunny day the ragged horde triumphantly with banners flying, with lettered slogans mounted on sticks, paraded three-thousand-strong through the tree-flanked streets of Washington," Dorothy wrote. "I stood on the curb and watched them, joy and pride in the courage of this band of men and women mounting in my heart."

Soon after her return to Manhattan, she met Peter Maurin, a French immigrant who knew of her through her writings and suggested she start a newspaper that would let Catholics know that that church had a social doctrine, at the heart of which is the duty of hospitality. Five months later, May Day 1933, the first issue of The Catholic Worker was handed out on Union Square.

"Is it not possible to be radical and not an atheist?" Dorothy asked in an unsigned editorial. "Is it not possible to protest, to expose, to complain, to point out abuses and demand reforms without desiring the overthrow of religion?"

THE CATHOLIC WORKER was supposed to be just a newspaper, but when you publish articles on the duty of hospitality, it doesn't take long for people in need of hospitality to begin knocking on the door. It began in Dorothy's apartment in 1933, and now there are nearly 200 Catholic Worker-associated houses of hospitality all over the United States as well as in a number of other countries.

Such houses are not only places of welcome for people in need, but often serve as centers for dialogue about community, the gospel, and the church and centers of action against violence and injustice. Peter Maurin envisioned the Catholic Worker movement helping "to create a society in which it is easier for people to be good." Not only Catholics but many other sorts of Christians, plus people not quite sure they belong to any church, have been attracted to Catholic Worker communities.

For all the labels one might attach to the Catholic Worker movement, the word I find most helpful is "hospitality." Hospitality was Dorothy's life and can be a way of life for anyone. Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, caring for the sick, visiting the prisoner - these are the corporal works of mercy. All of them have to do with hospitality.

But hospitality is far more than providing practical assistance and material help to those who need it. There is hospitality of the eyes, hospitality of the ears, hospitality of the face, hospitality of the heart.

Just think of your eyes. There is so much that one says with one's eyes without saying a word. Eyes can be interested or disinterested, attentive or inattentive, caring or uncaring, loving or hating, welcoming or fearful, warm or cold. When you look at another person with the awareness that he or she is made in the image of God, it's different than if you look at a person as if he and she were a product in a store.

There is also hospitality of the ears. Listening to another person is not always easy. Robert Coles recalls that the first time he met Dorothy "she was listening attentively to a drunken woman. The woman ranted without pause, and Dorothy nodded her head at appropriate moments. After some time, Dorothy asked the woman to excuse her for a moment, then got up and came over to Coles. She asked, ‘Are you waiting to talk with one of us?'"

One of the people we had the hardest time listening to when I was part of St. Joseph's House in Manhattan was a woman we knew as the Weasel. We paid the rent for the small apartment where she lived with her mentally handicapped son. She had a terrible temper, never said thank you, always felt we weren't doing all that we should for her. She had an irritating voice and a hawk eye. I doubt anyone missed her when she wasn't around. I won't go so far as to say Dorothy was an exception, but certainly she was very attentive to the Weasel, and astonishingly patient.

We got all sorts of gifts at the Catholic Worker - clothing, food, money, books. As it happened, a well-dressed woman visited the Worker house one day and gave Dorothy a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked the visitor matter-of-factly and slipped the ring in her pocket. Later in the day the Weasel happened to drop by. Dorothy took the diamond ring from her pocket and gave it to the Weasel, who put it on her finger in a matter-of-fact sort of way and left. I had the impression the Weasel thought it should have been a bigger diamond. One of the staff protested to Dorothy that the ring could better have been sold at the Diamond Exchange on West 47th Street and the money used to pay the woman's rent for a year. Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do as she liked with the ring. She could sell it for rent money or take a trip to the Bahamas. Or she could enjoy having a diamond ring on her hand just like the woman who had brought it to the Catholic Worker. "Do you suppose," Dorothy asked, "that God created diamonds only for the rich?"

PERHAPS THE HARDEST hospitality is hospitality to enemies. The word "enemy" comes from the Latin inimicus, literally anyone who is not a friend. In a letter to Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton once wrote: "Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business. What we are asked to do is to love and this love will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy, if anything can."

Hospitality of the face is looking at another person with the awareness of God's love for that person even if you feel no love yourself. This kind of seeing is a form of prayer. Love of enemies begins with prayer. That's the first and most important step. It is the radical act of connecting yourself invisibly to the person for whom you pray, whether it be Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush, your ex-spouse, the boss who fired you, or the drunken driver who killed your child. Once you are praying for another person, you find it more and more difficult to seek his or her harm or destruction.

Hospitality is patient. Dorothy was often criticized for her non-institutional approach to hospitality for people who were living ragged lives on the street. A social worker visiting the Catholic Worker house in New York asked Dorothy how long her guests were allowed to stay. Dorothy answered, "We let them stay forever. They live with us, they die with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after they are dead. Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ."

It hardly needs to be said, but hospitality is not deadly. You don't kill the guests. If Dorothy Day got in trouble for anything in her life, it was for her inability to sanction war. Her refusal to support Franco's side in the Spanish Civil War cost The Catholic Worker thousands of readers and caused it to be expelled from the Catholic Press Association. The basic problem for Dorothy was that she could not imagine Christ obliging anyone to kill. She wrote essays about Jesus Christ, Son of God, who chose to live in a society suffering military occupation by the Romans but sent none of his disciples to join the Zealots, the nationalist group undertaking violent resistance. He had responded mercifully to people on every side, even a Roman centurion who sought his help. She recalled the witness of Christians in the first three centuries, when many had died rather than shed anyone's blood.

There had been no pacifist movement in the Catholic Church for centuries, until the Catholic Worker. Perhaps more than any Catholic since St. Francis, Dorothy Day began a process within her church that put Jesus, rather than the theologians of the just war, at the center of the church's social teaching.

At the center of Dorothy's faith was her certainty that we are saved not because we are clever or are often found in religious buildings but because of our loving response to "the least." This same teaching led Dorothy to oppose all those systems that cause suffering. "We see that the works of mercy oppose the works of war," she said. Often she quoted St. John of the Cross: "Love is the measure by which we shall be judged."

Dorothy died November 29, 1980. It was a widely marked event in America, noticed not only by Christians of every variety but by many people in other religious traditions. By then many regarded her as one of Christianity's great reformers and a modern saint, though Dorothy herself had once said, "Don't call me a saint - I don't want to be dismissed so easily."

After the funeral Peggy Scherer, an editor of The Catholic Worker, was asked whether the movement would be able to continue without its founder. "We have lost Dorothy," Peggy said, "but we still have the gospel."

Jim Forest worked with Dorothy Day as managing editor of The Catholic Worker in the 1960s. Forest, general secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation for 12 years, is the author of many books, including Praying with Icons, Ladder of the Beatitudes, Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, and Love is the Measure: A Biography of Dorothy Day. This article is excerpted from a talk given at St. Mary's University in Winona, Minnesota, in February 2004.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Opening Heart and Home"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines