Where we were on 9/11 remains etched in our consciousness — meeting with an elderly woman named Hildegard. Those of my generation remember where we were when Kennedy was shot — Sr Monique’s 8th grade math class. My dad recalled spontaneous parades down main street in Hartington, Nebraska on Armistice Day, 1919.
Today, November 30, I vividly remember where I was thirty-five ago on this day — St. Francis Xavier Church on the St Louis University campus. I was a graduate student. It was Sunday. John Kavanaugh SJ was presiding at the popular campus liturgy.
In his welcome, John announced that Dorothy Day had died the previous evening. Like other moments indelibly etched in our consciousness, there was an audible gasp. We recognized the world would never be the same, grieving our collective loss.
Day was more than the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, she was the moral conscience of a nation. She spoke truth to power, not only regarding Viet Nam, but in the way our culture denigrates the poor and dismisses those on our peripheries. Visiting the U.S. these thirty-five years after her death, Pope Francis cited Dorothy Day (along with Thomas Merton) as exemplars of the very best American Catholicism has to offer.
We too easily assume those we want to call “saints” live with some super-human grace, operating on a different spiritual plain than the rest of us. Not only is that bad theology, it’s simply wrong! As David Brooks has pointed out in his current best-seller, “often enough they live in an even less ethereal way that the rest of us. They are more fully of this earth , more fully engaged in the dirty practical problems of the people around them.” (emphasis mine)
That was certainly the case with Dorothy Day. Brooks is only the latest to observe that “Day and her colleagues slept in cold rooms. They wore donated clothes. They did not receive salaries. Day’s mind was not engaged by theology most of the time, but by how to avoid this or that financial crisis, or arrange for this person to receive that treatment.”
Again, nothing super-human. Nothing ethereal, just down and dirty living the ordinary stuff of life with others. Brooks makes this point by quoting a 1934 journal entry in which she describes a typical day: woke up, went to Mass, made breakfast for the community, answered correspondence, did some bookkeeping, read a book, wrote an inspirational message to others.
Included in that day’s routine activity Day records that someone came looking for a special outfit for a 12 y/o girl, a recent convert came to share some spiritual writings, a Fascist appeared trying to incite discontent among the residents, an aspiring art student arrived with some drawing of Catherine of Siena, and on and on.
This sounds a lot like an ordinary day that passes with no special note, polar opposites of 9/11, the day Kennedy was killed, or the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month! Yes, there are the iconic images of an elderly Dorothy Day placing a single white daisy in the barrel of a heavily equipped police officer’s gun. Mostly, invariably, she just lived everyday as it came, doing whatever needed doing, attending to whomever she was with.
To emphasize the point, David Brooks cites the German medical missionary, Albert Schweitzer. He did not hire idealists for his medical mission in Africa. Nor did he want anyone with a righteous sense of how much they were giving to others, or those intent on doing something heroic for the world.
Brooks emphasizes that Schweitzer “wanted people who would perform constant acts of service with the no-nonsense attitude that they will simply do what needs doing.” Isn’t that the way it is for most of us, most of the time? Take it as it comes! Do what you can do, especially for those who need it most.
Thirty-five years later I am reminded to make this my routine, day by day.
I enthusiastically recommend David Brook’s The Road to Character, New York: Random House, 2015 from which I took inspiration for this reflection. My quotes are from Chapter 4, locations 1855 and 1866 of the Kindle edition.