Dorothy Day was a Benedictine oblate. What most attracted Dorothy Day to the Benedictine way was the coming together of deep Christian faith with the tradition of hospitality. That tradition is written into the very rule of St. Benedict, which teaches us to treat the stranger as Christ himself, when he comes to our door.
Neither Dorothy’s faith nor the Benedictine mould of it is incidental here. She would most likely have remained a Communist agitator had she not converted to Catholicism. The chief difference between the two approaches, in her eyes, resides precisely in this conviction that faith is the absolutely indispensable motivator for, and shaper of, hospitality, as well as being our only hedge against “revolution” becoming its own self-cannibalizing idolatry. Dorothy’s focus in her own life and in the movement she founded was nonetheless never on the Benedictine model of “withdrawal” from the world.
The laity exist, precisely as laity, in the world.
Theirs is the path of direct engagement with the “worldly world” and not that of the desert or of wilderness hermeticism. To be sure, the laity need to retreat into a “desert place” in order to pray, center, focus, and renew the soul. But that is all in service to their vocational commitment to active participation in, and engagement with, the world.
What Dorothy Day was about, therefore, was more than a retreat into monastic prayer and hospitality – a hospitality that is “passive” in the monastic setting, the sense that the monk waits for the poor to come to him or her – so that she came to see the universal call to holiness for the laity through the lens of St Francis of Assisi’s simplicity of life and radical charity. She proposed, in short, a unique approach that combined the prayerful hospitality of the cloistered monk with an active engagement in and with the world.
What is unique about Dorothy, in other words, isn’t her anarchism or her pacifism or even her call for all of us, laity included, to live lives of voluntary poverty. Not even her own idiosyncratic approach to this call to holiness in the houses of hospitality or the farms is what is most unique. These were personal iterations of her own vocational response to the call to live the evangelical counsels. She never claimed that everyone had to embrace them, whether in whole or in part.
If a thinker is best characterized by what they fear the most, then Dorothy feared the modern spirit of compromise with the Church of Laodicea. – Larry Chapp
Thus, what is truly unique in Dorothy’s vision isn’t the usual list of “issues” on which people who come into some cursory familiarity with her often get caught, and to which some of her sincere devotees often mistake as the radical core of her vision.
What then was her truly unique contribution to the modern life of the Church?
In bringing together Benedictine and Franciscan approaches, combined with the recovery of the traditional idea that the laity too are called to radical holiness, what was unique was her blurring of the traditional distinction between counsels and commandments.
A faithful Catholic, she adhered to the ultimate truth of this distinction.
What left her uneasy, however, was the use of this distinction to dispense the laity from the pursuit of holiness in the first place, and to then locate this pursuit almost solely within the clerical caste of professionalized holiness-seekers. This dynamic is healthy for neither the laity nor the clergy since the latter are not immune to the very spirit of worldly compromise that is supposedly the proper lot of the laity. There is one Church of the baptized, and despite sacramental differences in our participation in the priesthood of Christ, there is no hard wall that separates the two.
What was unique, therefore, in Dorothy’s vision was her staunch Kingdom ethic rooted the Sermon on the Mount: She took it literally, not just “seriously” – and her rejection of the modern Catholic habit of adulterating the universal call to holiness with a thousand measures of compromise with the spirit of bourgeois comfort.
If a thinker is best characterized by what they fear the most, then Dorothy feared the modern spirit of compromise with the Church of Laodicea. In her mind, if Christianity is to survive as a viable social force then it must be a viable social force. Not in the way of worldly power but in the way of the power of powerlessness.
The path of St. Francis, even to the point of our crucifixion through blunt rejection from the world we seek to serve, must be ours as well.
Larry Chapp, PhD taught theology at DeSales University for 19 years. He now runs the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm with his wife, Carrie, near Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
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