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Communion of Saints, Cornerstone of the Catholic Worker: The Heart Is Made for Heroism

Mark Zwick, Editor, Worker of Mercy, Sanitation Worker

The day after Mark’s funeral (Mark Zwick, December 22, 1927-November 18, 2016) Father Rafael Dávila mentioned that our Wednesday night liturgy on that day would be the first time that Mark accompanied us at Mass from heaven. His comment brought to us a new level of awareness of the Communion of Saints, enshrined in Church teaching in the Apostles’ Creed.

Mark and I had joyfully read together about the Communion of Saints in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the spring of last year when he was still able to discuss readings with me.

Now, with Fr. Dávila’s words, this teaching became a vibrant reality as I realized anew that when we sing the Gloria and the Holy Holy at Mass, we are singing with the angels and all the saints, with believers past and present, and when we receive Communion there is a special bond between those of us celebrating the Eucharist here and the saints in heaven.

It has been a comfort to me in my mourning to remember that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1-2), how we are aided by the prayers and encouragement of the saints, including now especially Mark.

A Saint for Nobodies

Painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Casa Juan Diego

These reflections made me remember the many times that Mark talked about the saints and why we gave our House of Hospitality the name Casa Juan Diego. When we began, Juan Diego was not yet a canonized saint, but Mark identified him as a saint for nobodies, a special saint for us, the nobodies who would start Casa Juan Diego, and a special saint for the poor who would come to us in our Houses of Hospitality, those considered nobodies in the eyes of the world. Just as Juan Diego was considered a nobody until Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to him.

We need Mark’s prayers, those of Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe and the prayers of all the angels and saints in these days.

Our guests and others we are helping (that the world thinks are nobodies) are turning to Mark in prayer.

A young man in a wheel chair came to explain an adjustment he needed in the medical supplies we help him with each month. As we talked, he mentioned that he is hoping to have surgery. Then he surprised us when he told us how he has kept Mark’s prayer card from the funeral by his bed and talks to him, asking for his prayers. One evening after this prayer, he had a dream that he could walk again. The next day he began to have some feeling in his legs that he had not had since he was shot in 2008. He told the doctor about it and was given hope that he may be able to have surgery to see if he might be able to walk again.

What To Do In Dark Times

It is easy to fall into something like desperation in troubled, dark, difficult times. Wars, rumors of wars, divisions among peoples, Machiavellian politics, and individualism create anxiety among those who try to work for the common good. For followers of the Nazarene everything is turned upside down by utilitarian philosophies, savage capitalism, manipulation without ethics, the unbridled search for wealth and power, the destruction of the environment, extreme nationalism, and the lack of concern for the poor, for refugees and migrants.

It is enough to convince us, as Dan Berrigan, S.J., used to say, of the presence of evil— that we are wrestling not with flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers and darkness told of in the Letter to the Ephesians.

Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, turned to St. Teresa of Avila on where to find hope in difficult times: “Let people ‘not lay the blame on the times, for all times are times in which God will give His graces to those who serve Him in earnest.’”

Jim Forest, former editor of the Catholic Worker (New York), and author of All is Grace: a Biography of Dorothy Day, recently wrote to his email list as he and his wife Nancy spoke about how to live in these dark times. He said, “I realized with fresh intensity how important it is to focus on the witness and example of people whom we think of, whether or not officially canonized, as saints — that is people who, in a remarkable way, centered their lives on love: love of neighbor and love of God, people who challenge me to live a braver, freer, more adventurous, less cautious life.”

Jim went on to say, “I’m reminded that, at the beginning of their relationship, Peter Maurin told Dorothy Day how saints, down through the centuries, responded in radical ways to the social ills of their day.  Emphasizing the ‘primacy of the spiritual,’ Peter wanted Dorothy to acquire a view of life and history that centered on sanctity — to study the past with special attention to the lives of the saints and their impact on the world around them. ‘It’s better to know the lives of saints,’ Peter insisted, ‘than the lives of kings and generals.’ Of course studying history was also essential: ‘We must study history,’ he said, ‘in order to find out why things are as they are. In the light of history, we should so work today that things will be different in the future.’”

Dorothy Day and the Saints

Writing when she was fifty and facing difficult, dark times, after many years living with the poor at the Catholic Worker and working for peace and nonviolence,  Dorothy said, “I am not disillusioned. I have been disillusioned, however, this long, long time in the means used by any but the saints to live in this world God has made for us.”

When sometimes Mark and I prepared a talk about the CW movement, Mark would preface the talk by saying, If Dorothy Day were here today, she would begin by speaking of the saint whose feast was celebrated on this day.

Dorothy knew that we are all called to be saints to serve the Lord in one form or another.   She believed, with Léon Bloy and Father John Hugo, that there was only one unhappiness—not to be one of the saints.

She took her cue from Holy Mother the Church instead of what she ironically called “Holy Mother the State,” believing that we should perform the works of mercy rather than the works of war.

Where Are the Others?

Dorothy wrote about the Communion of Saints in the January 1944 Catholic Worker, quoting Charles Péguy; “I am afraid to go to Heaven alone. God will say to me, ‘Where are the others?’”

The author of The Long Loneliness wrote, “In one sense we live and die alone in an awful solitude. But, joyful thought, we are all members one of another, members of the same body and our Head is Jesus Christ.

“Here, too, is the idea of the communion of saints. When the health of one member suffers, the health of the whole body is lowered. And contrariwise, if one is uplifted, he lifts others with him. We share in the honor and glory and beauty and love of others. We can draw upon their merits. We are inspired by their example. We are followers of Christ, our Head.”

Dorothy frequently sprinkled thoughts and prayers about the saints in her writings. She wrote in The Catholic Worker in April 1958, “It is the feast of St. Patrick today and in the new Maryknoll missal he is listed as a ‘pigherd’ when he first lived in Ireland We’ve had quite a few pigherds in our midst, men who have worked cleaning out the pens of the swine over in Secaucus, New Jersey. One man working there came to us to die and was laid out in our chapel at Maryfarm, Easton, while we recited the psalms of the office of the dead for him. St. Patrick, the pigherd, the saint and the scholar; St. Joseph, the carpenter and the saint; St. Benedict (‘work and pray’) and St. Isadore, the farm laborer, member of the world proletariat–-their feasts are all this week. They were followers of Christ, and the Church raises them to the rank of canonised saint for our imitation.”

Then Dorothy added the famous line quoted so often that people thought she invented it instead of Dostoievsky:

“To be a saint is to be a lover, ready to leave all, to give all. Dostoievsky said that love in practice was 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.”

The Little Way

by Ade Bethune

Like St. Therese, Dorothy balanced the call to contemplation and the call to action in her attempts to live out the Gospel teaching and in small ways work to transform the world in Christ.

Peter Maurin and the Saints

Dorothy and Peter Maurin referred often to the saints as models and fellow travellers. Peter said, “In the Catholic Worker we must try to have the voluntary poverty of St Francis, the charity of St. Vincent de Paul, the intellectual approach of St. Dominic, the easy conversations about things that matter of St Philip Neri, the manual labor of St. Benedict.”

Dorothy wrote of Peter’s influence on the Catholic Worker newspaper in this regard: “Peter recommended the writings of the saints, as they had to do with their practical lives, what their faith led them to be and do. When Ade Bethune came to us as a high-school girl with drawings of the saints, Peter urged her to picture the saints as workers, and she drew pictures of Our Lady feeding the chickens, sweeping a room, caring for a host of children; not someone to be worshipped, but to be followed. Ade and others who followed her in this tradition (Carl Paulson in his stained glass) pictured St. Benedict planting a field, St. Peter pulling in his nets, St. Martin de Porres feeding a sick man” (Catholic Worker May 1965).

Peter Maurin

 When Dorothy wrote in the paper in September 1945 about how meeting Peter Maurin changed people, she attributed the challenge of his presence to following the example of the saints: “When people come into contact with Peter Maurin, they change, they awaken, they begin to see, things become as new, they look at life in the light of the Gospels. They admit the truth he possesses and lives by, and though they themselves fail to go the whole way their faces are turned at least toward the light.

“Peter’s faith was invincible. God would supply our needs, provided we were generous with our work and sacrifice. He had never failed any of the saints, and we were all called to be saints, as St. Paul said. Again he would call our attention to those who should be our leaders and teachers, the saints.

“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 [and women] to be saints. Nothing less will work.” (Catholic Worker May 1965).

In that same issue Dorothy wrote in memory of Peter in the communion of saints:

“May is Peter Maurin’s month. He died on May 15. He fought the good fight and gave everything to God, body, soul and mind and he is in the company of our Lady, and St. Joseph and St. Therese and joyful doctrine of the communion of saints!”

Sanctity, the Troubled World, and Mangled Hands

Mark Zwick’s experience in the sixth grade illustrates how even children can understand that the commitment to vocation and becoming a saint, a follower of Christ, can lead to martyrdom. Mark told me a number of times over various years about the Sister who taught his class. She would tell the students that if they were very good, she would read to them from the book Mangled Hands: a Story of the New York Martyrs. She needed no other disciplinary measures for the whole class to be attentive and quiet in order to hear the story.

Peter Maurin had experience as a teacher in the Christian Brothers. In his book on Peter Maurin Arthur Sheehan noted that Peter said, “The heart is made for heroism. To hold up any lesser ideal to children was wrong, he felt. They will read anyway about heroes—supermen, military figures. Why not put before them heroes of the spirit, saints, men [and women] of character? ‘The only true adventures are in the spiritual order,’ Peter would say.”

We talked recently at our Wednesday clarification of thought about Mark’s memories of those ex-periences of the book Mangled Hands as a sixth grader. Anna Meriano reflected on how kids are fascinated by zombies and alien stories in which zombies might, for example, eat a person’s leg. Perhaps, she said, someone could make graphic novels of the stories of the martyrs for young people. They would be at least as interesting as zombie stories and more inspiring.

Finding One’s Vocation

The idea of sainthood is closely tied to that of vocation, seeking a way to live out the Gospel in our lives.

Peter Maurin recommended the writings of Emmanuel Mounier. In the book The Personalist Manifesto that Peter valued so much, Mounier wrote in a creative way about finding our vocation. Arthur Sheehan presents Mounier’s ideas: “In our actions we hope finally to find our true selves but find that in them, too, there is often so much empty talk and the best of our actions often seem strangest to us, as if at the last moment other hands had substituted themselves for our hands.

“By the act of concentration, we delve deeper into a study of our acts, looking for centers of initiative. This is not a systematic and abstract unification but rather a progressive discovery of a spiritual principle of life. This principle does not destroy what it integrates but rather saves and perfects it by recreating it from within. It is precisely this living and creative principle which we call the vocation of every person.”

Sheehan noted that “Peter tried to encourage people to ponder this thought, for he knew that if once they grasped the unique fact that they had a specific purpose in God’s creative plan, they would never again be content to live merely on the thoughts or actions of others, but would try to contribute their unique gift to the community.”

Vocation and Personalism Might Lead to Martyrdom

Dorothy wrote about 20th century martyrs in the Catholic Worker of May 1976: “The Nation has sent me a marked copy of an article (March 6) about the martyrdom of young mission priests in Honduras, telling how they (with peasant leaders) were preaching the Personalist and Communitarian Revolution of Emmanuel Mounier. ‘Priests have been assassinated, jailed and exiled,’ the editorial read.

So we beg our readers (91,000 circulation now) to pray for these men in Central America who have shed their blood. And since we believe in the Communion of Saints (We are all ‘called to be saints,’ St. Paul wrote), let us pray to our fellow workers who have suffered martyrdom, asking their prayers.”

How To Begin–According to the Saints

Most of us are not asked literally to be martyrs, giving our lives for the faith in a physical way. But we are all called to live the Gospel through the Works of Mercy (Matthew 25).

The saints read the Gospels and tried to imitate and follow Jesus. The secret of St. Francis of Assisi was his commitment to the Gospel.  Books were hard to come by at that time before the printing press, so in order to share the Word, he actually took pages out of the New Testament and gave them to people. His life was a living out of the New Testament.

In our book The Catholic Worker Movement Mark wrote: “Francis’ love for the poor and the outcast is dramatically illustrated by his work with lepers, who were completely shunned in his world.  Having met and kissed the diseased leper in the name of Jesus, Francis was never the same.”

Saint Catherine of Siena
by L. V. Diaz

Dorothy printed various passages from The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena in The Catholic Worker, each bearing the essential message that “love for God is shown through love of neighbor.”  Dorothy’s understanding of active love through Matthew 25:31ff., meeting Christ in contemporary guise in the poor, was confirmed for her by Catherine’s example.

Catherine not only wrote that one’s love for God must be expressed through love for neighbor.  She personally cared for the sick and dying even during the outbreaks of the plague.  (From Zwick and Zwick, The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins, Paulist Press)

Thy Kingdom Come On Earth Also

What does it mean to pray the Our Father and ask that “Thy Kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven?” The idea of the Communion of Saints can give us a clue.

Dorothy and Peter and so many Catholic Workers in many cities and farms have not only performed the Works of Mercy, but have followed the Aims and Purposes of the Catholic Worker Movement published by Dorothy in 1940: “We are working for ‘a new heaven and a new earth, wherein justice dwelleth.’ We are trying to say with action, ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’” This means involvement in our world where many do not share the values of the saints or even of the Ten Commandments. It means ardent prayer for our world and for those who suffer, but may also mean involvement not so much in partisan politics, but politics in the Aristotelian sense of concern and involvement for the common good. It means responding to the poor, the outcast, the immigrant, the refugee, all those who suffer, as we strive to create a more just social order.

We cannot talk about the beautiful doctrine of the Communion of Saints without being aware of those who most need our help.

As Dorothy wrote one Christmas:

by Angel Valdez

“It was the hardest to say ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy New Year’ during this holiday time, to these men with despair and patient misery written on many of their faces. One felt more like taking their hands and saying, ‘Forgive me—let us forgive each other! All of us who are more comfortable who have a place to sleep, three meals a day, work to do—we are responsible for your condition. We are guilty of each other’s sins. We must bear each other’s burdens. Forgive us and may God forgive us all!’” (from her Selected Writings)

In her book On Pilgrimage, Dorothy showed us the way:

“Love and more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up. If we love each other enough, we will bear with each other’s faults and burdens. If we love enough, we are going to light that fire in the hearts of others. And it is love that will burn out the sins and hatred that sadden us. And it is love that will make us want to do great things for each other. No sacrifice and no suffering will then seem too much.”

Music and Discord in the Communion of Saints

The path to the Communion of Saints is not smooth in this world. Sin and weakness and doubt plague those who would rejoice in its vision and its music even here and now. And the principalities and powers strive to interfere.

Perhaps J. R. R. Tolkien’s writing in The Silmarillion, “The Music of the Ainur” can inspire and encourage us. In that book, Tolkien tells of the attempts of one who had been given the “greatest gifts of power and knowledge,” but who wanted to “bring into Being things of his own” that created havoc. He brings discord and disunity into the harmony of the Great Music of the One and the Holy Ones and into the lives and work of the Holy Ones, interweaving negative matters of his own imagining that create dissonance and harm community.

The One took the discord introduced by Melkor and wove it into the solemn pattern of the beautiful music. He said, “Thou shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.”

I have always wondered how the many types and styles of music that we have on earth could one day be blended into singing with the angels in heaven.  Tolkien can help us understand how God can make this happen in a motley and imperfect group of the Communion of Saints.

Reminiscent of “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (I Cor. 2:9).

Houston Catholic Worker, April-June 2017, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2.