header icons

Seminarian Discovers Dorothy Day

Jose Rueda is a graduate from the Angelicum in Rome and Texas Tech University, and a seminarian in Denver who spent a month this winter as a Catholic Worker in Houston. He grew up in Spain and Mexico, lived in Ireland, and speaks English with a charming Irish accent.

My first contact with the life and deeds of the Servant of God Dorothy Day took place some months ago, by watching the movie on her life: “Entertaining Angels”. I must confess I liked the movie, which pictured Dorothy as an energetic and sensitive woman who was able to recover her life from the impact of an abortion and who dove into the commitment of social justice. Her thirst for love and protection, despite her “long loneliness”, led her to become a lover and protectress of many forgotten men, women and children and stand for justice and peace in the midst of all sorts of oppositions and difficulties. O yes, and Catholic, by the way, because she wept under the Church’s cross when she couldn’t take it any longer.

Little did I know that I would be sent to the Catholic Worker in Houston as part of a month immersion experience in the Seminary Year. And here I am. But things are different from what I had imagined. I not only found out that Dorothy Day is a proclaimed Servant of God Catholic and that she attended daily Mass, but I’ve been witness to the profound spirituality that the Catholic Workers down here live radically: daily Mass and Liturgy of the Hours, nightly adoration of the Blessed Sacrament every week (on a rotating schedule at a local parish, the practice of voluntary poverty, real and courageous hospitality towards the socially forgotten persons in the United States–and most definitely, Catholic journalists and thinkers, as Dorothy was. All this activity can’t survive only by going to Church once in a lifetime to cry at the Crucifix’s feet, but through a daily spiritual and almost mystical life, on the model of the saints, as Dorothy’s most admired St Therese of Lisieux, mystic in action too: cloistered nun patroness of the missions, or St Benedict, founder of the institutionalized reality of Christian hospitality that gave foundation to Christian Europe. Benedict’s monks held the principle “Ora et labora” (“Pray and work”). Work with prayer and prayer with work. This same principle at the origins of the Middle Ages is alive at the Catholic Worker Houses. These are mystics in action.

Dorothy Day is a Servant of God because, above all, she is a mystic, yes, a mystic in action

In Dorothy’s own words: “We must practice the presence of God. He said that when two or three are gathered together, there He is in the midst of them. He is with us in our kitchens, at our tables, on our breadlines, with our visitors, on our farms. When we pray for our material needs, it brings us closer to His humanity. He too, needed food and shelter. He, too, warmed His hands at a fire and lay down in a boat to sleep. When we have spiritual reading at meals, when we have the Rosary at night, when we have study groups, forums, when we go out to distribute literature at meetings, or sell it on the street corners, Christ is there with us. What we do is very little. But it is like the little boy with a few loaves and fishes. Christ took that little and increased it. He will do the rest.” (Catholic Worker, Feb. 1940).

The movie gives the credit of Dorothy’s conversion and insights of foundation to a rather liberal nun of the time, but the fact was that the real nun challenged Dorothy to learn her Baltimore Catechism well. The movie presents an image of Peter Maurin to be a rather eccentric fellow, while in reality he was also a serious intellectual well rooted in the papal encyclicals and the Fathers of the Church besides being much in contact with contemporary philosophical schools of thought, such as the Personalism & Community of Emmanuel Mounier, whose followers still consider the Catholic Worker in their magazines (Cf.Acontecimiento Magazine, Madrid 2002-2003, n. 64, page 21).

So it is now clear to me where she got all the strength she needed for so many years of persevering in the work: nurtured by the readings her father had encouraged as a child, her conversion, the solid Catholic doctrine of her dear friend and cofounder of the Catholic Worker, Peter Maurin; her spiritual directors, her sacramental daily life, her devoted life of prayer in the midst of so much work. I say it again: so much work. And a third time: so much work… As I’ve witnessed this much work among the Catholic Workers of Houston that definitely put their work where they put their mouth. These are mystics in action..

As Dorothy wrote: “It is because we love Christ in His humanity that we can love our brothers. It is because we see Christ in the least of God’s creatures, that we can talk to them of the love of God and know that what we write will reach their hearts” (Catholic Worker, June 1935). “To be a saint is to be a lover, ready to leave all, to give all. Dostoievski said that love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams, but if we “see only Jesus” in all who come to us – the lame, the halt and the blind who come to help and to ask for help – then it is easier.” (Catholic Worker, April 1958).

Despite these realities, Dorothy is viewed by many as simply a modern symbol of a liberal female who participated in peace protests and wrote audacious articles. But Dorothy was busy with her work and her prayer. Another lady in America stood firm in the midst of war and raised her voice in 1531 to establish a “house where I may show all my love” (Cf. Nican Mopohua): she is now called Our Lady of Guadalupe. And this is exactly what Casa Juan Diego is in Houston and I’m sure many Catholic Worker houses throughout the country are as well: homes where love is manifested. These are mystics in action.

The mystic action of Dorothy Day emphasized hospitality, just as did the First Lady of America in 1531: “The loveliest of all relationships in Christ’s life, after His relationship with His Mother, is His friendship with Martha, Mary and Lazarus and the continual hospitality he found with them – for there was always a bed for Him there, always a welcome, always a meal … where he found a second home, where Martha got on with her work and Mary simply sat in silence with Him. If we hadn’t got Christ’s own words for it, it would seem raving lunacy to believe that if I offer a bed and food and hospitality to some man, woman or child I am replaying the part of Lazarus or Martha or Mary and that my guest is Christ.” (Catholic Worker, December 1945).

To dive into Dorothy’s charism, we seminarians, together with several Catholic Workers, participated in a protest against war in Houston. We found there so many people with different agendas. We were able to talk to a few of them that sold their papers and gave out flyers, besides yelling enthusiastically so that peace would prevail. But when we got home, I realized who was also doing the works of peace with no yelling at all: the Catholic Workers of Houston were welcoming a new guest, a poor beaten woman and her frightened child who were victims of a violent father. This was working for peace to me. These were mystics in action.

As Dorothy Day said, “We are called to be saints, St Paul said, and Peter Maurin called on us to make that kind of society where it was easier for men to be saints. Nothing less will work. Nothing less is powerful enough to combat war…” (Catholic Worker, April 1958).

We then ran and got ready to prepare the free food distribution among the poorest of the poor of Houston. The food distribution is in the style of a sort of free supermarket held once a week to give out all food donations of the week to struggling families, whose salary is not enough. Watching all those families with small children get their basic supplies, the so much read words of the Gospel of Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you fed me…” came into life.

When a man standing in line yelled at us in Spanish (thinking none of us would understand): “Hurry up! It is your obligation to give us all this that God wants us to have and you are late!”, I felt my patience would run over. But a Catholic Worker told me: “We are pacifists. Tell him that you’re sorry and we’ll try to do better next time”.

“…my guest is Christ. There is nothing to show it, perhaps. There are no haloes already glowing round their heads – at least none that human eyes can see… It would be foolish to pretend that it is easy always to remember this. If everyone were holy and handsome, with “Alter Christus” shining in neon lighting from them, it would be easy to see Christ in everyone. If Mary had appeared in Bethlehem clothed, as St John says, with the sun, a crown of twelve stars on her head and the moon under her feet, then people would have fought to make room for her. But that was not God’s way for her nor is it Christ’s way for himself now when He is disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth…” (Catholic Worker, December 1945)

I remembered that man at our weekly Mass (source of all mysticism) with all our guests. I remembered him when we all get together to start a new day praying the Liturgy of the Hours and singing the Salve Regina in a chapel where a beautiful stain-glass window was stoned the very day Juan Diego was proclaimed a saint. I remembered that man when we read Matthew 25 to all our guests twice a week. But if these “mystical” experiences weren’t there, I could have never seen Christ in that poor man that complained, or in that other person who stoned our beautiful chapel.

“What we do is so little we may seem to be constantly failing. But so did He fail. He met with apparent failure on the Cross. But unless the seed fall into the earth and die, there is no harvest. And why must we see results? Our work is to sow. Another generation will be reaping the harvest.” (Catholic Worker, February 1940).

It’s not a matter of social action only. Thank God, most of our guests are precious people whom we learn so many values from, and in no way are disloyal to their countries or this country, as I read on Richard Gordon Cary’s Letter, a sad contribution to the January 2003 Houston Catholic Worker newspaper (By the way, Catholic Workers are not democrats as you state, my brother Gordon). And it’s not a matter of spirituality only, as our guests are not required to be Catholics; to answer J. from Brooklyn ( Cf. “Letters,” January 2003Houston Catholic Worker edition), everyone is loved here; my family is originally Jewish, as many of the volunteers are, and we are loved here indeed. “Come and see” for yourself. So, not social action only or spirituality only. It’s a matter of prayer and work, of being a “mystic in action”.

Thus, as the introduction to a new book of Dorothy Day’s writings indicates, no action without prayer and no prayer without action would be an adequate approach to Dorothy Day’s life: “The vision of Christ in the suffering and the poor has been linked with the Holy Eucharist. Those who criticize Eucharistic devotion as separated from our realistic responsibilities to others should be completely silenced by this book. On the other hand, those who are already dedicated to prayerful Eucharistic devotion will learn from Dorothy Day that you cannot adore Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and walk past Him begging in the street or suffering among the shut-ins.” (Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel C.F.R., Preface to David Scott’s Praying in the Presence of Our Lord with Dorothy Day, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2002).

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, March-April 2003.