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Who worries you?

By Bill Lewellis

[Published in The Morning Call, June 5, 2010]

Some people strike us as saints. Some as sinners. Some as troublemakers, radicals. We don’t have a word for Dorothy Day, 1897-1980.

I wonder, however, whether anyone who hasn’t washed the feet of Jesus with their tears and has been in some ways a troublemaker should ever be honored as a saint.

When a journalist called her a saint, Dorothy Day said she didn’t want to be dismissed that easily.

An anti-war demonstrator, outspoken opponent of Sen. Joe McCarthy in his heyday, a Greenwich Village radical and activist, she had an abortion, was divorced, and bore a lover’s child out of wedlock.
Once asked about her recipe for soup at shelters she founded, she said you cut vegetables until your fingers bleed.
Her challenging twist on a gospel verse was, “Your love for God is only as great as the love you have for the person you love the least.”

In 1933, she and a French Roman Catholic and Christian anarchist, Peter Maurin, co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her nearly 200 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken. Her urban soup kitchens and shelters still set the standard for compassionate treatment of the homeless and dispossessed.

Engrossed in a conversation with a drunken woman at a soup kitchen, she recognized someone by her side. "Which one of us did you wish to talk to?" she eventually asked.

She lost many radical friends when she accepted the Lord and entered the church. They thought she had capitulated to the opposition, lining up with property, the wealthy, the state, and capitalism. She agreed with much of this, though not with lining up. “There was plenty of charity but too little justice,” she once wrote about the church.

Some 20 years after her death, she was surprisingly approved for the process of study that leads to her being recognized as a saint. Will her early life and the troublemaker aspect of her later life impact on this? Will they be sanitized? We’ll see. Probably later than soon.

“Rare was the seminarian and young priest of my era untouched by Dorothy Day’s life,” wrote the late New York Cardinal John O'Connor (1920-2000). “Whether or not we honored in our own lives her passionate commitment to the poor, or followed even distantly in her footsteps, she worried us. That was her gift to us.”

I have long regarded people who worry me as saints.

They worry me because I know how consistently they live with integrity, how they witness to Jesus Christ even without uttering the words, how they respect the poor and marginalized and work for justice on their behalf. Among others. There are probably some among your friends and colleagues, in your families, and among those you may know of.

Some may worry you because you see their integrity and witness in their work of decades in soup kitchens, food banks or other agencies that serve your sisters and brothers. Some may worry you because you know how authentically they have washed the feet of Jesus with their tears. Some may worry you because you know how courageously they work for justice and peace.

They worry us because they set the bar so high.

There’s some ecumenical irony here for me. Dorothy Day’s parents were Episcopalians who did not go to church very often. While working in NYC, she may have seen the Roman Catholic Church as the church of the immigrants, the church of the poor. It may not have been how she saw the Episcopal Church of those days.

If during my lifetime, my former church declares her a saint, I look forward to reading an official biography that includes her rough edges, one that might make her accessible while continuing to worry us.

[Canon Bill Lewellis, [email protected], a retired Episcopal priest, served on the Bishop’s staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for 24 years and on the Bishop’s staff of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for 13 years before that.]


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