I’ve recently began reading the writings of Dorothy Day again during my devotional time in the mornings. Reading Day has been simply refreshing and joyous. For those who don’t know, Dorothy Day was the founder of the Catholic Worker movement and lived and did ministry amongst the poor and downtrodden in the midst of New York City’s Lower East Side. I say refreshing because it brings me back to the essentials, to the basics of a life lived under the Cross of Jesus. With Day there are no frills, it was just barebones ministry amongst the poor of the city.
One of the sections that I have been focusing on has been her stories about the people she has worked with at the Catholic Worker, all sorts of odd characters they are. She writes of Peter the revolutionary who talked endlessly and only had one suit that he wore everyday, of Mr.O’Connell who had quite the temper and was terrible at welcoming people to their farm, of Ammon the anarchist who was quite lawful but didn’t care too much for the Apostle Paul along with a few others of distinct characteristics.
Despite the good, the bad, and the ugly of such a cast of characters, Dorothy continued on and saw many blessings. Quite frankly, much of what she dealt with would be quite unnerving for many a churchgoer. We tend to prefer to be led by the polished well-adjusted successful pastor and to surround ourselves with similar personalities. Many of the personalities that Day encountered and ministered to on a daily basis had nothing to give, weren’t attractive, and for all intents and purposes were “losers” by our cultural standards.
I will confess to you that reading Day has been refreshing because of where we now live. My family and I live in Bronxville, one of the more affluent areas in the New York City area. We live in the parsonage surrounded by neighbors who are quite affluent. This is not a commentary on them as they are quite kind and friendly, but I’ve noticed how living in such an environment can shape what one considers to be normal. Bronxville is beautiful, lush, and scenic and it’s easy to forget that many don’t have similar neighborhoods to walk around in. This always hits me whenever I go to my parents house in South Yonkers, which is where I grew up. I never noticed until living in Bronxville how ugly my childhood neighborhood was, in fact many of the trees on my block have been cut down throughout the years. My point is that normal can be entirely subjective and has every bit as much to do with class, race, and gender. We need to be aware of such biases or we risk further disconnection from human beings who are not like us.
Yesterday I was reading a book on moral theology written by Jesuit James Keenan. In his chapter on sin he writes that we spend too much focusing on “sins of weakness” meaning the sins of lust, getting angry quickly, or cursing. Instead, Keenan argues that we should spend more time on our “sins of strength” meaning the sins of arrogance, self-sufficiency, and moral narcissism. Keenan explains that these sins of strength eventually lead to a sort of complacency, not bothering to love, which is a far greater problem than the weak sins. I think he’s onto something. I think this is why I find Day so refreshing. She brings me back to the basics, to what really matters in a church world that is saturated with much worldliness. In the midst of such comfort I can easily become complacent and forgetful about those outside of the community I live in. Out of sight and out of mind can be very detrimental to the soul and to others. In fact, reading Day brings me back to my time in Colorado where being amongst the poor and homeless was simply the norm. I didn’t have to go to a bad part of town, they were there already. Schizophrenia, alcoholism, epilepsy, gender confusion, cancer, addiction and the list goes on. When I read Dorothy Day I can imagine the smells of the Catholic Worker Houses where she and others worked. The smell of coffee, of staleness, of the many of who have come through that place. I know that from personal experience, it’s hard to articulate here, but you know it after you’ve experienced it. I miss that lack of pretension, it’s good for the soul. It softens the heart.