Prophet Dorothy Day, Doing the Works of Mercy

This Advent, we are preparing for the light of Christmas Day by examining the struggles of four American religious radicals who fought for social and political justice. They are our American prophets, through their words and lives we search for inspiration and hope in these dark and fearful days. More important, we look for hope.

As Harvey Milk reminded us, we have to give people hope: hope for a better tomorrow, hope for better times, hope for an end to this day’s fear and isolation. Prophet Dorothy Day’s example of ‘Doing the Works of Mercy’ is especially important to us in this search.

This search is in keeping with the spirit of Advent, for this is a season of expectation and preparation. Together we await the coming (or adventus) of Christ, both in his incarnation and as a judge at the end of time.

Our readings from scripture and our worship services, therefore, look forward not only to Christ’s birth, but also to his final Coming, and challenge the modern reluctance to confront the theme of divine judgment.

Our recollection of Dorothy Day draws heavily on Albert J. Raboteau’s book American Prophets. Day was an American journalist, social activist, and Catholic convert. She lived a bohemian lifestyle before converting to Catholicism and found fame as a social activist. She launched and led the Catholic Worker Movement. Today Day is recalled as a political radical, perhaps the most famous radical in American Catholic Church history.

In American Prophets, the author recalls the story of how as a teenager in the early 60s he met Day while on a religious retreat. One evening she gave an impassioned plea for an end to nuclear proliferation. Later Raboteau asked the retreat’s leader what he thought of her words. “Well, I am sure that one day Dorothy Day will be declared a saint but, where I President John F Kennedy, I wouldn’t take her advice,” the man said.

The irony, of course, is the Day didn’t want to be a saint. “Don’t call me a Saint,” she used to say. “I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” She recognized the inherent danger of being marginalized as just another impractical – if saintly – idealist. Today the Roman Catholic Church is continuing their process to canonize Day. Only you and I can save her from being written off as another inspiriting but impractical saint.

Day began her life in Brooklyn a few blocks from the bridge in 1897. The third of five children born to a journalist father, she also grew up in Oakland, CA and Chicago, IL. Like two of her brothers she became a journalist, but she always wrote for radical publications. Day was a 9-year-old living in Oakland when the 1906 earthquake decimated San Francisco. Perhaps she never forgot the feeling of community and shared sacrifice she experienced as her neighbors offered food clothes and shelters to the victim of that catastrophic event.

Day’s first encounter with organized religion came when she attended a nearby Episcopal Church. As she grew up, Day became a Bohemian, moving away from faith to embrace a more radical lifestyle. It was not until she was pregnant with her first child that Day resumed her search for a spiritual way. Her pregnancy with her first child sparked a renewed interest in Christianity.

Day’s emerging faith was shaped by her sacramental view of nature. She wrote: “I was born again by the word of the Spirit, contemplating the beauty of the sea and the shore, wind and waves, the tides. The mighty and the minute, the storms and peace, wave and the wavelets of receding tides, sea gulls, and seaweed, and shells, all gave testimony of a Creator.” She would later say human love helped her understand divine love. Day was baptized a Christian by the Roman Catholic Church in December 1927.

She continued to work in radical movements before establishing the Catholic Worker newspaper. The paper’s first issue covered word of the exploitation of black Americans in the South, abusive child labor practices, and contentious strikes by labor unions. Day served as editor and journalist. The newspaper was part of the Catholic Worker movement she started.

Voluntary poverty, personalism, and pacifism became known as the core principles of the Catholic Worker movement. The first lesson we need to learn stems from Day’s view of personalism. Yes, it referred to valuing of every individual. But personalism also described the responsibility of every individual to participate directly and works of mercy in a “hands-on” way.

Raboteau tells us she felt personalism requires us to “appreciate the needs of the poor through face-to-face contact instead of the institutional and depersonalize structures of charitable giving.” Think about that: instead of writing a check to the United Way or Episcopal Charities, Day says you and I are supposed to engage in justice work on a face-to-face basis. What did she mean?

Day felt the Catholic Worker would be successful “when we succeed in persuading our readers to take homeless people into their homes, having a Christ room in the house as St. Jerome said, then we will be known as Christian because of the way we love one another. We should have hospices in all poor parishes. We should have coffee lines to take care of the transients; we should have the help we give sweetened by mutual forbearance and Christian Charity. But we need more Christian homes for the poor are sheltered and taken care of…Too often we afraid of the poor or the worker. We do not realize we know him and Christ through him, in the breaking of the bread.” This is the first and great lesson from St. Dorothy: we need to do what needs to be done with our own hands, and while we look into the eyes and value those we help.

Day called her people to a “Works of Mercy” program. Drawn from the imperative of Matthew 25 verses 31-46, this passage ends with these words:

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’”

As Christians, Day felt we are called to feed the hungry, clothe those in need, shelter the homeless, tend the sick, and care for the prisoner. Were she standing here today, I have no doubt she would include defending the undocumented worker and embracing our LGBTQA brothers and sisters.

This second great lesson from St. Dorothy makes clear the context of our works or mercy and of our life together in community here at St. Cyprian’s. We need to understand that Day saw the church as the body of Christ. “I loved the church for a Christ made visible. Not for itself, because it was so often a scandal to me.” She also came to love the Mass and daily offices.

And this provides a key insight into her view of our individual responsibility for action, for it flows directly from St Paul’s image of the Christian church part of a body of which Christ is the head and we are the members. He is the head – or perhaps the heart – while we are his hands to care, arms to embrace, feet to move from one person to another.

This Pauline view that we are members incorporate in the mystical Body of Christ our Lord is what we mean when we say we are one in the spirit, we are one in the Lord. St Paul’s view is reflected in the promises we make when reaffirming our Baptismal Covenant as well as the Postcommunion Prayer we say together after each Mass.

Day wrote “[w]e think of all men as our brothers then, as members of the Mystical Body of Christ. ‘We are all members, one of another,’ and remembering this we can never be indifferent to the Social miseries and evils of the day. Of the mystical body has tremendous social implications.”

She also began to establish a series of Catholic Worker houses across America. At the heart of the houses was the virtue of hospitality Raboteau notes.

“The only answer in this life, to the loneliness we are all bound to feel, is community. The living together, working together, sharing together, loving God and loving our brother, and living close to him and community so we can show our love for Him.”

Even as Day dismissed the title of a saint, she took seriously the importance of living as one: she felt saintly people could bring the Kingdom of God closer to their time and place. To her, Jesus became human so we could see how to live: how to act justly, love fully, and walk humbly with our God.

Dorothy Day’s life and words challenge us to be personally and directly involved in doing works of mercy that bring the Kingdom of God just a bit closer. She basis this call to action on Sty. Paul’s view of our place in the mystical body of Christ.

And she suggests we can find both solace and strength and community in the worship life of churches like St. Cyprian’s. Let us remember her lessons and life as we continue to plan our next steps as this community of faith here at the corner of Turk and Lyon. Let us pray:

God of justice and peace, from the heavens you rain down mercy and kindness, that all on earth may stand in awe and wonder before your marvelous deeds. Raise our heads in expectation, that we may yearn for the coming day of the Lord and stand without blame before your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns for ever and ever. May the church say: Amen.


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