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The Real Presence(s) of Christ in the Life and Thought of Dorothy Day, Key to Her Canonization

Tom Loome and his wife, Karen, are founding members of the Stillwater Catholic Worker in Minnesota. For many years, Tom had the largest and best scholarly Catholic bookstore in the United States.

Dorothy Day (1897-1980), founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and known for her personal identification with the poor and dispossessed through the practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, lived her life with an intimate sense of God’s abiding presence. For her this presence was truly “real” and manifested itself in countless ways in the Eucharistic liturgy, in the Scriptures, in the community of believers, in those for whom she cared. But for her the world was also sacramental in the deepest sense; all that exists is a harbinger, a sign, of God’s presence.

One of the constant themes of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is this presence in our lives of “the thrice-holy God”:  lovingly sustaining us in existence, lovingly reaching out to us with his promise of mercy and salvation, lovingly filling us with Himself, sanctifying and divinizing our very being.

For the Catechism, also, God’s presence is manifold, and always “real.”

When the Catechism states that “the mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique” and that this “presence is called ‘real’,” it is quick to declare that the use of the word “real” of Christ’s substantial presence in the Eucharist is not to be taken “to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be ‘real’ too” (1374).

We live therefore in God’s presence. There is simply nowhere else for us to live. God is always and unfailingly present to us, and this presence manifests itself in myriad ways. Thus the life of prayer is “the habit of being in the presence of and in communion with Him” (2565) the presence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit a living presence that surrounds and embraces us “coming from all directions”(690) and that “never ceases” (732).

And yet for Dorothy Day two modes of God’s presence were paramount and each enriched and sustained the other: the real and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and His real presence in others – both presences veiled (1404), both experienced only in faith, the latter through the living of the Sermon on the Mount and in particular of the Beatitudes. Dorothy under-stood well the Catechism’s poignant claim that “the Beatitude depict the countenance of Jesus Christ and portray his charity” (1717).

Present in word and sacrament, God was also present to Dorothy Day in her encountering other persons, first within the community of believers, for she knew well the splendid statement of St. Augustine (cited in the Catechism, 795): “We have become not only Christians, but Christ himself, marvel and rejoice: we have become Christ”; secondly, in the face of “the poor.”

“Christ,” she once wrote, “is disguised under every type of humanity that treads on the earth.”

To “see” in faith “the countenance of Jesus Christ “ in others, to experience His presence in all whom she met, is perhaps the great lesson to us of Dorothy’s life and work. “The mystery of the poor is this,” she wrote: “that they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for him.” And she delighted in repeating the words of Peter Claver to someone who was fleeing the presence of a leper: “You mustn’t go. You mustn’t leave him. It is Christ.”

“How can you see Christ in the poor?” Dorothy was asked. “And we can only say: it is an act of faith, constantly repeated. It is an act of hope, that we can awaken these same acts in their hearts too, with the help of God.”

There were those of course who accused Dorothy of an unrealistic and sentimental view of the poor, and to this she could only respond: “let those who talk of softness, of sentimentality, come to live with us in the cold, unheated houses in the slums. Let them come to live with the criminal, the unbalanced, the drunken, the degraded, the perverted (It is not the decent poor, it is not the decent sinner, who was the recipient of Christ’s love.) Let them live with rats, with vermin, bedbugs, roaches, lice…then when they have lived with these comrades, with these sights and sounds, let our critics talk of our sentimentality. As we have often quoted Dostoyevsky’s Father Zossima: “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

This then, was Dorothy Day’s daily practice of the presence of God, rooted in the conviction that  “It is no use saying that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us. And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ…For he said that a glass of water given to a beggar was given to Him. He made heaven hinge on the way we act toward Him in His disguise of common-lace, frail, ordinary humanity….”

Dorothy Day’s life was thus transformed by love in practice, “a harsh and dreadful thing,” often disheartening, often seem-ingly unrewarding: serving the poor, serving in them “the countenance of Jesus Christ.” How, then, was such a life sustained? Through the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. There too He was really present. There also, however veiled, was He to be “seen.” And this is why Dorothy Day was a daily communicant, experiencing in the celebration of the Mass the manifold presences of Christ of which the Catechism speaks (1373): “Christ Jesus …is present in many ways to his Church: in his word, in his Church’s prayer…in the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned, in the sacraments…in the sacrifice of the Mass, and in the person of the minister. But ‘He is present most especially in the Eucharistic species.’”

“To me, the Mass, high or low, is glorious,” wrote Dorothy, “and I feel that though we know we are but dust, at the same time we know too, and most surely through the Mass, that we are little less than angels, that indeed it is not I but Christ in me worshipping, and in Him I can do all things, though without Him I am nothing. I would not dare write or speak or try to follow the vocation God has given me, to work for the poor and for peace, if I did not have the constant reassurance of the Mass.” Or, in another place, “I think daily Mass and Communion is essential. I don’t think I could continue to live without that. I think when people go to daily Mass and receive Communion daily they’re happier, they’re readier and more alive to what God wants of them.”

These, then, are “the Real Presence(s) of Christ in the life and thought of Dorothy Day.”  She is a guide and exemplar, an inspiration and a teacher: in her passionate love of Christ, present always, but especially in the Eucharist and, fed by that Bread of Life, recognized in the face of humanity.

Reprinted from the Stillwater Catholic Worker Community Newsletter