On Not Being Dorothy Day

I have never liked New York til now. I hate standing close to people I don’t know. Or, I thought I did. During this visit, I loved the feeling of being a ghost, floating through the busy streets unnoticed and blurred, a swift blue brush stroke among many with no real definition. 

I love the importance given to art and architecture and beauty in a place of crowds and terrible smells—the feeling of beauty belonging to all, beauty meant to lighten and lift our heavy earth, beauty as respite. 

We live in a fairly rural Florida town, very typically suburban. Our parish church could not be arrived at on foot by anyone other than the priest; it’s not near any homes. Life doesn’t circle around it. We show up by white SUVs and park in a lot five times the size of the building. I haven’t spent a lot of time in cities. I had not noticed before how in a city, the parish is in the middle of the people, and the people of the neighborhood belong to the parish, Catholic or not, members or not. The parish in the city is a halfway house of hospitality and a help for the area and neighborhood. Where I live, in suburbia, a parish is a choice made by the upscale based on the relevance of the music and the children’s programming offered. In the city, it seems less of a choice and more a place that belongs to all, like a local urgent care for the soul or a community center for those near. 

I don’t often see the homeless or the poor where I live, but here in the city, I am stepping around them on every block and wondering if I ought to make eye contact or look away. I have recently discovered the writings and work of Dorothy Day, an odd-ball of a Catholic woman, a single mother who had a bold and half-hatched idea to create houses of hospitality for the poor in New York City after seeing a homeless woman living under a bridge with her children. She was bold and moved quickly, and her half-hatched idea became The Catholic Worker Movement. I admire her boldness, how she moved to meet God without planning things out perfectly first. She said, “The good is the enemy of the best,” and I, who want things to be the best, love the freedom and the allowance that is made for just doing the best I can, which is only just good enough. 

On the plane to New York with my daughters and sisters, I noted that I was arriving in the city on the very day Dorothy Day died, thirty-eight years after her death. We Catholics call the day of a saint’s death their Feast Day, so I was arriving in her town on her Feast Day, and this felt significant.

I very much wanted to visit some of the sites where Dorothy Day lived and worked, but I would not have made my family go out of the way to accommodate this. The evening before our flight home, my sister wanted to take us to a Filipino restaurant far from our hotel. It was near, I noticed, to Mary House, where Dorothy Day lived her later years and died. After dinner, we walked the few blocks to see it. It was unspectacular in appearance—a functioning charity in an old, uninteresting brick building. I wanted to touch the door, and when I did, a grumpy man swung it open with a “What.” I apologized, took a quick picture of the sign outside, and left. I know a house for the homeless is not a tourist spot, a place for my curiosity. As we walked on, I thought, I am not Dorothy Day. I could not do what she did. I am not like her. I am uncomfortable in a city, uncomfortable with the poor, but then, I am uncomfortable at the parish picnic, too, standing next to people who are just like me. So maybe it doesn’t matter. 

The idea of serving my neighbor has shot through me, once again, like a thousand volts. The idea of a firm sticking and staying in place, despite feeling like an outsider. I think of the saint as someone who is fully accepted by a place and depended upon. I find myself outside of the inner circle, no matter what I try—home and reading, and not elbow to elbow at a long table, sharing deeply. This not-fitting is particular to me and God-ordained, somehow. It makes me broaden out and include, but not often to feel at ease and included. 

The thousand-volt reminder to love the poor has pulsed through me a thousand times. I think I must, often, stumble into an invisible current that is always running. The words Serve the Poor pulse hard through me, and then I go home, and text people I know to check on them, and read of the lives of the saints. I read silly books to my children, take baths while praying fragmented and forgotten rosaries, and go to bed. I had thought, as teen, that I would be a missionary, serving the poor in Mexico. When I turn that over as a grown-up, a mama of many, I don’t know how to tell where the current is running and how I am to stay inside of the flow. 

I don’t even know the poor. I feel so strongly that Jesus meant very seriously that we are to have them into our homes, but I do not know them and I am afraid to embarrass anyone with an unasked-for invitation. I am not useful when I volunteer at charities. I help as much as I can, which is never as much as a bolder person can help, and then I stand and chat with someone with my hands in my pockets. 

At Mass a few weeks ago, the story of Moses and the Spirit falling in the tent was read. The part that stuck out to me was that the Spirit fell on those who were outside of the tent, too, and I thought, “That’s me.” That’s us, my husband and children and myself. While the insiders knew we were gathering inside of the tent at ten a.m., my family couldn’t find the info email, or was late, or had to run back for something, or take the kids to the bathroom, and we were outside of the tent when the Spirit fell. And the story tells us that the Spirit fell on them, just the same. We often feel our outsider-ness. We are not included in Catholic music circles. We are not a part of the inner circle of parish life. Our bishop doesn’t know we exist. We feel a frustrated outside-ness that I don’t quite understand. I wonder if it’s a real thing, even, or maybe a mis-perception that we’ve stuck on ourselves. 

But God always includes, and I think He never wants His church to be an insider club. I wonder if the people I perceive as having an “in” feel outside, too. I lead the music at church, and surely to some I must look like I have a voice or a say or some importance that I do not in fact have. Perhaps others that I perceive as “inside” feel rather as outside as I do. 

Stephen and I began leading music for Mass just recently. This means we sit through multiple services on the weekends now, and I’m able to catch so much more of the Scripture than I ever did before. A few weeks ago, this reading that I always thought was a little silly (talking body parts are stupid) came into focus as I heard it read for the fourth time in a day:

If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body.

Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body.

The fact that I am—or that I feel I am—less, different, other, is totally inconsequential to my actual belonging. I belong to the body, whether I think I do or not. My teen daughter, she belongs to the body of Christ, and how she feels about this does not make her less a part of the body. You, also. You belong to the body. 

There is so much for the outsider in God. I am Medad and Eidad—they had been left outside in the tent. But the Spirit fell. Because God knows where I am, and He comes to me in that place. Because, truly, I wanted to come, but I got left outside. I am Thomas, who maybe was asked to run out for food for everyone, and missed the Resurrected Lord in His Glorified Body.

I remember a wedding feast where the invited guests were rude and did not show, and the host went into the streets and invited others. I am the one on the street, the one who didn’t even know there was a wedding feast. Or the one who knew the bride, and wondered if I might be invited, and was not. But now I am let in, even so. And what does the one who prepared the feast feel, looking at the set table she could not fill with friends? Alone, outside, rejected. She invites those who are the same as she, rejected and alone, like Christ, who finds us forgetful and distracted and unprepared and calls us to sit down right next to Him. Even so.  

When I think of Dorothy Day or of Therese or Mother Teresa or of many of the saints I love, I feel the vastness of the difference between us. I think there could be something of a grasping or a striving to live just like them, to be them, and I know the striving is wrong in that way. I think that they must have had a firm sense of purpose, and I feel like I am rambling along, unsure of what I am doing, and mostly doing nothing. Maybe the call to serve the poor is something I ought to flip upside down—serving those around me through friendship and hospitality—but all that sounds safe and easy and more like a cop-out, because it is. If Saint Therese had the Little Way, I have a teeny tiny way, the imperceptible way, the way which is no way. I have heard it said that the saints of a certain era are the antidotes to the darkest poisons of that time. What are those darknesses in my time, and how can I be medicine and remedy?

I know we are called to live very low, close to the ground, to welcome those who feel “other,” and to come up under others, to be unnoticed, to disappear. What this means in action, I have no idea, but I feel the current running and I can hear the faint hum of it, and it stirs me to want to do the hard work of service. 

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