In the early 1970s, I was a social and political activist. I lived on East First Street in Manhattan, across from St. Joseph House, and one of my neighbors was Dorothy Day. At that time, I was involved in running a community-based "free school" for children, and I also was involved with many of the young volunteers at the Catholic Worker. In the evenings, I used to eat, serve meals and wash dishes at the St. Joseph "House of Hospitality," which the Catholic Workers ran for homeless people.
Dorothy was always available to us when she was at St. Joseph's, and I received two valuable teachings from her.
One summer afternoon, I walked up the stairs to the second floor of St. Joseph House expecting to talk with Dorothy about things in general. At the door, Frank gently told me that Dorothy was not available that day because she was having her monthly retreat in the House. No more explanation was given. My vanity was injured. That Dorothy was not available to see me! And the idea of retreat - something I had never heard of until that moment! As I gradually recovered from my shock, I began to think that there are times when solitude is needed and perhaps it is sometimes necessary not to answer telephone calls or knocks at the door. What was more important for me though, as I reflected, was the idea itself of retreat, of making time and space for silence, prayer and the awareness of process.
The second teaching that I received revolved around Julia, an elderly Irish woman, a regular at St. Joseph for meals, who complained bitterly that the Catholic Workers did not serve chicken for supper. Julia convinced some of the young volunteers that a whole chicken at least once a week was necessary for her health, and she cajoled some of us into giving her money to buy chicken. I was one of her victims, and every Thursday evening Julia came faithfully for her money. Then Dorothy found out and explained to me that Julia was exploiting my generosity and sense of guilt, that she had a home and that the Catholic Workers provided for her needs. Dorothy taught me not to idealize the poor. "Love them," she said, "but remember that they are human and have virtues and defects like all of us." She also taught me on this occasion that some people are materially poor, but that there are others who are "poor in spirit," who need a different kind of bread.
I love Dorothy and the Catholic Workers. They played an important part at a stage in my spiritual path and life. Dorothy's gift to me was to provide a spiritual dimension to my political and social commitment and to teach me that what is most important in the world, beyond ideas and institutions, are persons and their needs. To serve them is to serve God.
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