Category Archives: Dorothy Day

Eileen Egan, artisan of peace

“My life has had a single strain: to see Jesus in every human being,
to realize that each one is inviolable and sacred in the eyes of God,
and then to translate that into everything I do.
This is the heart of anything I’ve done,
the heart of my peace work.”
Eileen Egan

Eileen Egan died on October 7, 2000, twenty years ago today.

Photo copyright by Bill Barrett. used with permission.

She was a peacemaker, an advocate of nonviolence, a friend of the world’s poor, a project coordinator with Catholic Relief Services for more than 40 years, and a co-founder of Pax Christi USA. She was a prolific writer – including books and pamphlets on nonviolence, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, refugees, and more.

In this photo she is with two great holy women of the twentieth century. She met Mother Teresa when she was working with Catholic Relief Services in India. She knew Dorothy Day, working for peace and the poor in New York City at the Catholic Worker.

But her commitment for peace was connected with her commitment to the refugee, the poor, the suffering. As she once wrote, noting that the works of war are in total contradition to the works of mercy:

“Instead of feeding the hungry, we destroy the fields that produce the food; instead of clothing the naked, we bomb factories that produce clothing; instead of giving drink to the thirsty, we bomb reservoirs. In war, the enemy is dehumanized and is no longer seen as a child of God. As Christians, we must penetrate the disguise and see Jesus in the enemy. Then, we would not kill and destroy.”

She seems to be the first US Catholic to use the term “The Seamless Garment of Life,” which was later made famous by Cardinal Joseph Bernadin. In a 1981 publication of Pax Christi USA, she wrote:

“We view the protection of all life, from its conception to its end, as a seamless garment…. Such protection, credible in its consistency, extends to opposition to the taking of life by the state in capital punishment and to opposition to the taking of life by euthanasia and warfare.”

She took her peacemaking seriously – based in a life of prayer, fasting, and serv ice with the poor.

In particular, she took seriously the US bishops’ invitation to fast on Fridays in their 1983 pastoral The Challenge of Peace, ¶ 298:

As a tangible sign of our need and desire to do penance we, for the cause of peace, commit ourselves to fast and abstinence on each Friday of the year. We call upon our people voluntarily to do penance on Friday by eating less food and by abstaining from meat. This return to a traditional practice of penance, once well observed in the U.S. Church, should be accompanied by works of charity and service toward our neighbors. Every Friday should be a day significantly devoted to prayer, penance, and almsgiving for peace.

A friend who worked with the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, recalled that when she came to receive the diocese’ Pacem in Terris award, she did not eat meat on the Friday. She took fasting and prayer seriously.

I saw her a few times at peace meetings. She was as, noted by Jean Kelly, “The peace activist often cropped out.”  Her simple but effective presence was one of the ways that many women have shown us the works of mercy and the works of peace.

In his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, ¶ 225, Pope Francis noted the need for peacemakers:

In many parts of the world, there is a need for paths of peace to heal open wounds. There is also a need for peacemakers, men and women prepared to work boldly and creatively to initiate processes of healing and renewed encounter.

Eileen Egan is one of those who forged the path of peace and the works of justice. She is a great example for us as we try to live out our calling to be instruments of God’s peace in a strife-torn and unjust world where many suffer.

For more photos of Dorothy Day (some with Eileen Egan, Mother Teresa, and Cesar Chavez), see the web page of Bill Barrett.

Dorothy Day and the disarmed kingdom

Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
Isaiah 11

The peaceable kingdom, where wolf and lamb lie die together and a little child leads them, is one of the most poignant readings for Advent.

In the midst of violence and upheaval all around us, in the midst of concerns about the future of the US and the world, in the midst of a deep sadness in the face of so many deaths here in our parish in Honduras in the last month or so, God offers us a vision of hope, a vision of peace.

So today’s readings help console me and move me to action. How can I help the lions and the lambs live together in peace? How can I help the lions disarm their hearts – as I seek to disarm my heart?

Also, today is the anniversary of the death of the Servant of God Dorothy Day on November 29, 1980. Her life among the poor, her advocacy of peace and nonviolence, and her deep love of God continue to inspire me and give me hope.

Dorothy Day wrote in 1938 of the disarmament of the heart.

“Today the whole world is in the midst of a revolution. We are living through it now – all of us. History will record this time as a time of world revolution. And frankly, we are calling for Saints…. We must prepare now for martyrdom — otherwise we will not be ready. Who of us if … attacked now would not react quickly and humanly against such attack? Would we love our brother [or sister] who strikes us? Of all at The Catholic Worker how many would not instinctively defend [themselves] with any forceful means in [their] power? We must prepare. We must prepare now. There must be a disarmament of the heart.”

this disarmament of the heart makes sense only in light of the Lordship of Jesus, the Word made flesh among the poor. The infant born in a stable is the source of our salvation and our safety.

As Dorothy Day write in 1966, she wrote in one of her Advent Meditations for The Ave Maria Magazine:

“When I go to the crib this year I will think, as I always do, that we are not dependent on the governments of this world for our safety, but “the government will be upon His shoulder.”

Disarming my heart, can I find safety and security in God this Advent?

Mission and the Little FLower

Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, died at the age of 24 in a cloistered Carmelite monastery in northwest France. She had entered at the age of 15. Yet this cloistered nun is one of the patronesses of the missions.

It is true that she had a great admiration of Catholic missionaries in Viet Nam and had hoped to be transferred to a new Carmelite convent there.

But I think there is something more about her life and spirituality that speaks to mission.

She is known for her advocacy of “The Little Way,” the way of living out one’s love of God and neighbor in the quiet deeds of everyday life.

“I applied myself above all to practice quite hidden little acts of virtue; thus I liked to fold the mantles forgotten by the Sisters, and sought a thousand opportunities of rendering them service.”

It may come as a surprise to many that one of her most ardent devotees in the twentieth century was Dorothy Day, the US Catholic advocate of the poor, the cofounder of the Catholic Worker, and advocate of justice and peace. Day even wrote a book on her life, Therese,  in which she noted:

The significance of our smallest acts! The significance of the little things we leave undone! The protests we do not make, the stands we do not take, we who are living in the world.

The work of being a missionary, even being a missionary in our homes and home towns, begins with faithfulness and love in the little things and in deep love and respect for others.

It is so easy, especially for me, to be caught up in the large schemes of mission or in the desire to get things done that I am not always attentive to the people around me or get annoyed when things do not go as I wanted.

In such cases I need to recall the witness of the Little Flower who, loving God and her neighbor, filled with a sense of mission, did not neglect to be lovingly attentive to those around her, even when they inadvertently splashed water on her as she washed clothes.

God wants us to love in the little things – so that from them our loving God can spread love to all God’s creatures.

Dorothy Day on joy

The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives
of all who encounter Jesus.
Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, ¶1

 On November 29, 1980, Dorothy Day died in Mary House, a Catholic Worker house in lower Manhattan. Since 1933 she had lived with the poor, served them, and been an advocate of nonviolence and voluntary poverty.

Her life was not easy. Living with the poor can be very difficult. She liked to quote Dostoevsky who wrote the “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

Her journals, published in The Duty of Delight, reveal that, even though she struggled both with personal “demons” and with those who came to the Catholic Worker, she found great joy, nourished by her faith.

As she wrote on December 25, 1961:

It is joy that brought me to the faith, joy at the birth of my child 35 years ago, and that joy is constantly renewed as I daily receive our Lord at Mass.

The scriptures lived among the poor helped her uncover the sources of her joy and faith, as she wrote on September 24, 1968:

People need to be rediscovering the Gospel. They have to find them [the Gospels?] thru people who find their joy in them, and who accept the crosses of this life as preparation, as the inevitable in the way.

The spirituality which sustained her was incarnational. On March 26, 1972, she wrote:

We had a wayfarer who accepted our hospitality for a few years who used to kneel down and kiss the earth on that day (March 25 [the feast of the Annunciation]) each year, because Christ in putting on our human flesh which came from the earth, had made the earth holy.

God has become flesh and so holiness surrounds us.

But I find one short remark of hers, on December 19, 1976, particularly helpful to sustain joy:

Find beauty everywhere.

To find beauty everywhere, because God has lived among us, and gives us joy.

Dorothy Day thus reminds us to keep our hearts open to God, to the beauty of everyday life, to the sufferings of the poor. That’s one way to be raptured by joy.


The Duty of Delight

On November 8, 1897, Dorothy Day was born.

Her life, her conversion, and her founding with Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker have moved many to devote themselves to the poor.

A few nights ago I finished the collection of her diaries, The Duty of Delight, which provide a glimpse of the complexities of this woman.

She was not a plaster saint. In fact, she regrets her impatience and reveals how difficult it was for her to live with some of the Catholic Worker guests – and staff.

She was fairly critical of some of the staff and guests, especially in sexual matters. But this came not from a puritanism but from a deep sense of the marriage act as sacramental – to the surprise of some people.

She was also remarkably open to young people, though not in an uncritical way.

But what comes through in her diaries is her delight.

“Find beauty everywhere,” she wrote on December 29, 1976.

She found it in nature: “Nothing is more beautiful than the soft sound of waves on the beach.” (December 12, 1953)

She rejoiced in music, listening to operas on the radio.

She loved to read. The works of Dostoevsky especially appealed to her.

She loved to pray – especially the Psalms, which nourished her daily life.

She loved to travel – visiting the Catholic Worker houses and speaking across the US. as well as visiting Rome, Cuba, India, and other parts of the world.

And she wrote. The Long Loneliness is a classic, in which she writes of her conversion. (She, however, was rather insistent that it was not an autobiography.) She also wrote a regular column in The Catholic Worker, until the last months of her life.

Hers was not an easy life. But she found a joy in it that opened her to God, and a relation to God that opened her to joy. As she wrote on December 25, 1961,

It is joy that brought me to the faith, joy at the birth of my child 35 years ago, and that joy is constantly renewed as I daily receive our Lord at Mass.

And in a long meditation on June 26, 1971, she reiterated the source of her joy:

If it were not for Scripture on one hand and Communion on the other, I could not bear my daily life, but daily it brings me joy in this sorrow which is part of our human condition, and a real, very real and vital sense of the meaning and the fruitfulness of these sufferings.

She found joy amid suffering, living among the poor. Robert Ellsberg very fittingly chose The Duty of Delight as the title of this compilation. It reflects the spirit and spirituality of Dorothy Day. In fact, she had thought of this phrase from John Ruskin for the title of a sequel to The Long Loneliness.

This duty of delight is indeed a challenge, but a challenge that brings joy. It was a challenge for her, too. Her February 24, 1961, diary entry notes:

I was thinking, how as one gets older, we are tempted to sadness, knowing life as it is here on earth, the suffering, the Cross. And how we must overcome it daily, growing in love, and the joy which goes with loving.

May we learn to live the duty of delight, the joy of love, the holiness of sharing in the suffering of all God’s people.

Make real friends with the poor

I believe it is not enough to give to the poor, to share our goods with the poor. I believe it is essential for a follower of Christ to know the poor as persons.

It is all too easy to “love” from afar – and I have been guilty of this. But when we really look at what Jesus did and what he calls us to do, we are reminded of the need to break down barriers and to share with each other.

And so I am moved by today’s first reading from St. Paul to the Romans (12: 5-16). In fact I think the whole chapter 12 might be a good guide for a personal or community examination of conscience.

These words of verse 16 especially touch me

Do not be haughty but associate with the lowly.

or, as the Jerusalem Bible  puts it:

never be condescending
but make real friends with the poor.

That is not easy but it can bring great joy.

Last night I finished reading The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, edited by Robert Ellsberg. Dorothy struggled with the hospitality that the Catholic Worker offered and, though she found many things to delight in, it is quite clear that she often had a hard time dealing with some of the Catholic Worker guests and staff members.

Yet in a column in The Catholic Worker July-August 1948 issue she wrote:

Well, now at fifty, I cannot say that I have been disillusioned. But I cannot say either that I yet share the poverty and the suffering of the poor No matter how much I may live in a slum, I can never be poor as the mother of three, six, ten children is poor (or rich either). I can never give up enough. I have always to struggle against self. I am not disillusioned with myself either. I know my talents and abilities as well as failures. But I have done woefully little. I am fifty, and more than half of my adult life is past. Who knows hoe much time is left after fifty? Newman says the tragedy is never to have begun.

If Dorothy Day can lament that she has not shared the poverty of the poor, can we not take small steps to “associate with the lowly,” to “ make real friends with the poor.”

“The tragedy is never to have begun.”

The Catholic Worker at 80

On May Day, 1933, a group of Catholics gathered at the Union Square May Day rally with a mission. They had come to sell The Catholic Worker, at “a penny a copy.”

Dorothy Day had connected with Peter Maurin a few months previously and this was one of their joint ventures. Dorothy Day wanted the workers to know that the Catholic Church had not abandoned them.

For those who are sitting on park benches in the warm spring sunlight.
For those who are huddling in shelters trying to escape the rain.
For those who are walking the streets in the all but futile search for work.
For those who think that there is no hope for the future, no recognition of their plight – this little paper is addressed.
It is printed to call their attention to the fact that the Catholic Church has a social program – to let them know that there are men of God who are working not only for their spiritual, but for their material welfare.

For eighty years the New York City Catholic Worker and the many Catholic Worker houses throughout the US and the world have been a thorn in the side of the powerful elites in the world.

Who knows how many have been fed at these houses?

Who knows how many hours Catholic Workers have been on picket lines, protesting war and nuclear weapons, supporting farm workers and conscientious objectors, being signs of contradiction to the world?

Dorothy Day – a radical who lived among the poor – may one day be canonized, but her radical critiques of war and capitalism as well as her deep love for Christ and the Catholic Church are a challenge for all of us.

May the example of Catholic Workers – from Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin to the Des Moines Catholic Worker and the Mustard Seed Farm outside of Ames, Iowa – continue to challenge us and the church to be true followers of the Prince of Peace who appears among us as the poor and outcast.

For more on the Catholic Worker, you can check the Catholic Worker webpage here or visit your local Catholic Worker. A great introduction to Dorothy Day is Jim Forest’s All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day.  Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness is an inspiring read.




Gandhi and the courage we need

On October 2, 1869, Mohandas Karamchad Gandhi was born in India. He is now known as Mohandas – the Great Souled One.

In the late 1960s I read Thomas Merton’s Gandhi on Non-violence which has a marvelous essay by Merton, “Gandhi and the One-Eyed Giant,”  followed by quotations from Gandhi.

What I most remember is Gandhi’s insistence on courage.

Gandhi had more respect for a soldier who risked his life in battle than for a supposedly nonviolent person who fled in the face of violence and conflict. He would rather a person fight with a weapon than flee, especially in the face of injustice.

A coward cannot be trained as a satyagrahi, a nonviolent activist, but a soldier could.

 It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence. Violence is any day preferable to impotence. There is hope for a violent man to become nonviolent. There is no such hope for the impotent.

But how to train to become a non-violent person? Gandhi’s response is simple, though not all that easy:

Nonviolent persons will get all their training through nursing the sick, saving those in danger at the risk of their own life, patrolling places which may be in fear of thieves and rioters, and in laying down their lives, in necessary, in dissuading them from their purpose. The first and last shield and buckler of nonviolent persons will be their unwavering faith in God.

This Hindu man may have been one of the few persons in the twentieth century who really knew what the sermon on the mount was about and then lived it – without becoming a Christian.

He, like Dorothy Day, put his life on the line and lived for and with the poor and in the process preached a sermon on nonviolence that we need to hear today.

The Little Way of St. Theresa

St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, a cloistered Carmelite nun in Lisieux, France, died of tuberculosis in 1897 at the age of twenty-four. She became known as the Little Flower.

Yet this unlikely young woman is a doctor of the church and the patron of missionaries. She was a favorite of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker, a radical woman of action (and of prayer), who wrote a book on St. Theresa.

She entered the cloister at fifteen and, instead of taking on great mortifications, she sought to live her life concentrating on the “little way,” doing the ordinary work of everyday with great love.

She had a great desire to be a missionary and to join a new Carmelite convent in Hanoi, but her heath prevented this. She prayed for missionaries and even corresponded with several.

What does she have to say to us today, especially to us who are missionaries in strange lands?

I think it is the message of today’s Gospel (Luke 9: 46-50)

“Whoever receives this child in my name receives me,
and whoever receives me
receives the one who sent me.
For the one who is least among all of you
is the one who is the greatest.”

Being one with the lowly of the earth is our mission, whether it is in Honduras or in Ames, Iowa.

It is all about love – of God and of others. As St. Theresa once wrote:

Love offered me the key word to my vocation… I understood that a single love urges all the members of the Church to act, and that is this love dies out, there will be no apostles to preach the Gospel, no martyrs to shed their blood….
At least I have found my vocation. My vocation is love!


Love even your enemies

Twice in today’s Gospel (Luke 6: 27-38) Jesus tells us to “love your enemies.”

In light of the anniversary of the events of September 11 and the killings in Libya, some may say this is unrealistic. But Jesus says this – and St. Paul calls us to “bless those who persecute you” (Romans 12: 14).

This is not easy, especially since we often reduce loving to sentimentality.

But love is not mere sentimentality. Love means, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, willing the good of the other person. We want the other person’s welfare. We seek the others’ conversion to the good.

Blessed John Duns Scotus says that love is wishing the other person to be. Recognizing the other as a person we wish that person be, exist.

Such philosophic definitions are useful in helping us see that God wants life for all, wants us to seek the good of the other, even the enemy – which means, respecting that person’s life.

This does not mean that we overlook the evil actions of other but that we recognize that all of us humans are connected as children of God, with all our faults. At times we must speak the truth, as did today’s saint, John Chrysostom, who did not stop castigating the empress and others for their luxurious life styles and their neglect of the poor. But we must learn to do it with love.

And so today, I ask God to help me love all, to do good to all, even those who oppose me.

It’s not easy. Dorothy Day knew this as she often quoted this line from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov:

Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing, compared to love in dreams.