Dorothy Day: Works of Mercy (Guest Blog Post by Rev. D. Scott Cooper)


as preached by the Rev. D. Scott Cooper, November 12, 2023

This church year we are learning about, and I hope are being inspired by, some of the great spiritual activists of the twentieth century. Diverse in their philosophies and theologies, these stimulating leaders were people who found a sense of the mystic – a connection to the infinite – within the day-to-day work of justice making.

Author and theologian Howard Thurman defined a mystic as one who finds something within their own “experience that opens up into the infinite.” Thurman, whom we’ll talk about next month, wrote that among the insights upon which the mystic rests [their] position is that there is “an all-pervasive Spirit, time-transcendent, space-transcendent, that gathers up into itself the total gamut of human experience.” This reminds me not only of the “interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” mentioned in our seventh principle, but Gloria Anzaldúa’s assertion that “Spiritual activism is a visionary yet practical form of activism based on the belief in our radical interconnectedness.” Furthermore, she believed that “Spiritual activism is spirituality employed in the service of social justice.”

In this sermon series, we’re looking at the lives and writings of ten mystics and spiritual activists in order to help us answer some questions for ourselves. Questions such as ‘What does it mean to lead a good life?’ and ‘How can I deepen my spirituality to mobilize my social justice service in the world?’ Today we turn our gaze toward Dorothy Day to look for answers.

Dorothy Day began the Catholic Worker movement with Peter Maurin in the early 1930s, and she was perhaps the best-known and most influential political radical among American Catholics in the last century. Some twenty years after her death, America Magazine, the Jesuit Review, assessed her significance, “Without dismissing the importance of other leaders in the history of Roman Catholic Church in the United States, it is fair to say that Dorothy Day remains, at the dawn of the new millennium, the radical conscience of American Catholicism. [Her life was] a unique combination of social activism and deep religious feeling. The dual passion of social justice and intimacy with God was present in her life from early childhood.”

Something that struck me, as I read her autobiography, was that she was on the same path many of us are following, and to get to a similar place, but taking a very different route. This is what I mean by that: while many of us either didn’t grow up going to church or we grew up in a more conventional faith tradition, neither did she grow up going to church. But instead of gravitating toward a covenantal, less rigid faith tradition like ours, it was the structure and tradition of Catholicism that resonated with her. Some of us felt we had to leave such traditions to infuse our social activism with a sense of spirituality, but she didn’t.

Rather than a focus on atonement through Jesus or a focus on the afterlife, we have gravitated toward a tradition that emphasizes salvation by character, the idea that the focus of religious life is in the here and now.

Dorothy Day’s service in order to realize social justice was modeled on what are called the Works of Mercy. Works of Mercy refers to meritorious practices in Christian ethics. I know some of you grew up Catholic, so you may be familiar with corporal works of mercy and spiritual works of mercy.

Corporal works of mercy tend to the physical needs of others. References to these are found not only in a sermon by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, which I referenced in our first reading, but in the Hebrew Bible in the Book of Isaiah.

The works are listed as “To feed the hungry; To give water to the thirsty; To clothe the naked; To shelter the homeless; To visit the sick; To visit the imprisoned or ransom the captive.”

According to author Albert Raboteau, the core Catholic Worker principles were three: voluntary poverty, personalism, and pacifism. These strike me as both a crystallization and expansion of the Works of Mercy, and I plan to talk about each of these three in detail throughout the next hour. [I was seeing if you were paying attention.]

Raboteau wrote the book we’re using as one of our guides for this Lives of the Spirit series, American Prophets; Seven Religious Radicals & Their Struggle For Social and Political Justice. Our second reading was from that book. This month, the other book we’re reading is Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness.

Another thing I noticed while reading The Long Loneliness was that Dorothy Day proved to be both mentor and mentee. Her life inspired many, and she drew inspiration from many, both those she met in person, and those she read about.

Although her parents didn’t take her family to church as a child, a local pastor persuaded her parents to send four of their children to Sunday services. There she fell in love with the Psalms and prayers. Later, her voracious reading led her to become suspicious of religion, even agreeing with a professor who remarked that religion is ‘for the weak.’

But she warmed to the concept and years later, with a birth of a daughter, accepted it. One of her biographers shared her words:

“When one has a child, life is different. Certainly I did not want my child to flounder as I had often floundered, ‘without a rule of life, an instruction.’ [Day] had no doubts that it would be the Catholic Church in which she wanted her daughter to be raised, in large part because it “held the allegiance of the masses of people in all the cities where [she] had lived.” It was the immigrant church of the laboring class that appealed deeply to Day, the socially concerned activist, devoted to the poor, the laborer, and the immigrant since her youth.”

While reporting on a hunger march in Washington, DC in 1932, she became dismayed at the lack of Catholic participation by clergy or laypeople. Afterwards, she prayed that a way would open for her to use her talents for her fellow workers and the poor. Shortly thereafter, she met Peter Maurin. Several mutual acquaintances had told him to seek her out, as they ‘thought alike.’

She said “his spirit and ideas would dominate the rest of my life.” According to Raboteau, “her experience in journalism, socialist concern for the poor, love of literature, omnivorous reading, familiarity with protest techniques, and critical perspectives on society’s injustice had fitted her – thanks to the unlikely catalyst of Maurin – to lead a movement.”

He encouraged her to look at history in a new way, by looking at it through the lens of the lives of the saints, because, he believed, sanctity and community really mattered.

The saints weren’t the only mentors they found on paper. They both had been influenced by the works of Kropotkin, the Russian proponent of cooperative forms of labor, with workers sharing fairly in profits and ownership of means of capital. By the age of fifteen, Day was absorbing Jack London and Upton Sinclair.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say Day and Maurin served as spiritual directors for one another: listening to one another and commenting to cause the other to reflect and grow spiritually, and as life coaches: helping the other develop skills and attitudes to achieve their goals. We often think of mentors as someone more experienced who guides and directs a less experienced person in the business world. The goal of such guidance is typically career and financial success.

But because Day was more interested in emulating the lives of the saints, not business entrepreneurs, she came to embrace a radically different life plan, voluntary poverty. She said, “One who has accepted hardship and poverty . . . lays himself open to this susceptibility to the sufferings of others.” Maurin had previously found work digging ditches, quarrying stone, harvesting wheat, cutting lumber, and laying track. Through his years of reflection and hard labor, he came to embrace poverty as a gift from God. According to scholar Mel Piehl, “Since the movement believed that the vows of poverty of many Catholic religious [orders] had been rendered meaningless by the collective wealth of their orders, the Workers took care that the group as a whole should not accumulate assets beyond the bare minimum.”

The Catholic Worker’s houses of hospitality proved to be the epicenters for Day’s life of voluntary poverty and living out the works of mercy: “To feed the hungry; To give water to the thirsty; To clothe the naked; To shelter the homeless; To visit the sick; To visit the imprisoned.” Today, there are scores of Catholic Worker communities across the world, including Casa Juan Diego in Houston.

These houses of hospitality were not only places to practice voluntary poverty, but also the principle of personalism. There were two sides to this coin for Day, not only was each and every individual valued, but each had a responsibility to do the works of mercy in “a hands-on way” as well. She believed the needs of the poor would be best appreciated in community through face-to-face contact. In fact, she believed community was vital.

And to harken back, for a moment, to a thought from Howard Thurman, the mystic is in search of an aspect of human experience that is simultaneously “an element, an aspect, a quality that is God in [humanity].

I did an internship at the First Street Mission in Fort Worth while I was in seminary. Volunteers from the nearby Methodist Church made lunches for unsheltered folks and ran food and clothing banks for the indigent.
It became clear to me that it becomes far less easy to ignore or even to generalize about people who are oppressed, underserved, or down on their luck if you are looking them in the face. To be honest, it’s why I find it so difficult to acknowledge those at the train station trying to get my attention. If I look them in the face, I have to acknowledge their need, their suffering, their humanity.

I imagine you’ve heard the phrase, “You will never look into the eyes of someone God does not love,” but I’ll take it a bit further, “You will never look into the face of someone who does not bear the image of God.”

When I avoid catching the eye of someone walking through Midtown because I don’t want to be asked for money, I am avoiding acknowledging not only the spark of the divine in that individual, but I am avoiding acknowledging that I live in a country that shows little care for its most vulnerable people.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, of 1.7 trillion dollars in discretionary outlays, 751 million dollars – 45% – is spent on defense, while 910 million is spent on all other nondefense, including social services.

Which transitions nicely to the third principle of the Catholic Worker movement, pacifism. The first two principles, voluntary poverty and personalism, would be difficult enough to adopt or adhere to. Like the man who questioned Jesus and was advised to sell his possessions and give to the poor, many of us don’t want to even consider voluntary poverty. We like our stuff, and we’ve worked hard for it. Sometimes we rent storage facilities for our extra stuff. And personalism? We have to value every individual? Even those I don’t like, or those who vote differently? Then I have help folks I wouldn’t even want to hang out with? Can’t I just write a check and not have to look them in the eye? [I’ll explain to the young people later what a check is.]

So those are difficult enough, then we add something difficult and controversial –pacifism! Do we really want Putin rolling through River Oaks in a surplus Soviet tank? We have to protect ourselves. Pacifism may be the hardest of all to wrap our mind around.

I imagine some of you are familiar with just war theory. It’s a tradition, going back centuries, of military ethics whose goal is to ensure that a particular war is morally justifiable. A list of criteria must be met in order for that war to be considered just. One such checklist specifies that “only duly constituted public authorities may wage war; there must be good grounds for concluding that aims of the just war are achievable; that all non-violent options must first be exhausted before the use of force can be justified; and the reason for going to war needs to be just and cannot, therefore, be solely for recapturing things taken or punishing people who have done wrong; innocent life must be in imminent danger and intervention must be to protect life.”

I’m sure you see the problem with this. This checklist isn’t universally accepted or agreed upon, and even if it was, those desperate to go to war will claim the criteria has been met, whether or not it has been.

But Rev. John Haynes Holmes said it better than I, on the eve of World War I,
“But I must go further – I must speak not only of war in general, but of this war in particular. Most persons are quite ready to agree, especially in the piping times of peace, that war is wrong. But let a war cloud no bigger than a man’s hand, appear on the horizon of the nation’s life, and they straightway begin to qualify their judgment, and if the war cloud grow until it covers all the heavens, they finally reverse it. This brings the curious situation of all war being wrong in general, and each war being right in particular.”

And it was the British philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell who pointed out that “War does not determine who is right only who is left.”

I know this weekend we observed Veteran’s Day, and while I didn’t intend to spend more time quoting Rev. Holmes, I felt I needed to add this excerpt from his same sermon:

“If any man or boy in this church answers the call to arms, I shall bless him as he marches to the front. When he lies in the trenches, or watches on the lonely sentinel-post, or fights in the charge, I shall follow him with my prayers. If he is brought back dead from hospital or battlefield, I shall bury him with all the honors not of war but of religion. He will have obeyed his conscience and thus performed his whole duty as a man. But I also have a conscience I also must obey.”

These excerpts are from his sermon when he affirmed his pacifist commitment to his congregation, the Church of the Messiah in New York City. While most of his congregants disagreed with his position on the war, as did the majority of lay and ordained Unitarians and Universalists, the congregation supported his freedom of the pulpit. He resigned his fellowship with the American Unitarian Association due to its policy requiring minsters to pledge their support for the United States participation in World War I. His church became non-denominational, and was renamed Community Church of New York, and remains so-named today.

Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker met at least as much criticism as Holmes. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, although most American Catholics supported Francisco Franco, the newspaper declared itself neutral. She wrote, “We are not praying for victory for Franco. Nor are we praying for victory for the loyalists whose leaders are trying to destroy religion. We are praying for the Spanish people.”

Both the Catholic hierarchy and laity were troubled by the neutrality, and bulk subscriptions to the newspaper were canceled. The pacificist stance held firm through the second world war, which led to further drops in subscriptions, dissension in the hospitality houses, and a mountain of angry letters. Even Maurin suggested she just say nothing, but she refused to give in.

Pacifism, personalism, voluntary poverty. Incredibly difficult. Even controversial. But Dorothy Day’s character was such that she not only chose these but refused to abandon them. Might this devoted Catholic be a model for us for our salvation by character? To what degree are we willing to do the same for those things we believe in?

The religious life–spirituality–meaning, call it what you will, is found here, now, in this life that we lead, among the company we keep, and expressed most fully in our actions. Her actions were surely “experiences that open up into the infinite.” She took personally her obligation to perform the works of mercy.

I close with the words of Dorothy Day, “As we come to know the seriousness of the situation, the war, the racism, the poverty in our world, we come to realize that things will not be changed simply by words or demonstrations. Rather, it’s a question of living one’s life in a drastically different way.”

Amen and so be it.

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