Tag Archives: Jim Forest

Fidelity to conscience

Today is the feast of Saint Joan of Arc, the French peasant girl who led the troops of France against the English. She was captured, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake – at the age of nineteen.

There is much about Jean D’Arc, the Maid of Orleans, that is troubling. The saints whose voices urged her on – Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret – may never have existed. She also led troops in battle.

But, surprisingly, she was one of Dorothy Day’s favorite saints – and Dorothy Day was a firm opponent of war.

As Jim Forest notes in All Is Grace, in response to his query about her devotion to this “military” saint, Dorothy Day told him that “Joan of Arc is a saint to the fidelity to conscience.”

Yet, there is another aspect of Saint Joan. In All Saints, Robert Ellsberg, who worked with Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker, writes (page 238):

An illiterate peasant girl, a shepherd, a “nobody.” she heeded a religious call to save her country when all the ”somebodies” of her time proved unable or unwilling to meet the challenge. She stood up before princes of the church and state and the most learned authorities of her world and refused to compromise her conscience or deny her special vocation. She paid the ultimate price for her stand. And in doing so she won a prize far more valuable than the gratitude of the Dauphin or the keys of Orleans.

Again, God chooses the poor of this world to confound the rich and powerful

Washing dishes

Today, in a Facebook note, Jim Forest wrote about an encounter he had with the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

Jim was left to wash the dishes and was a bit annoyed that he was missing a great conversation.

As Jim wrote:

 Somehow Nhat Hanh picked up on my irritation. Suddenly he was standing next to me. “Jim,” he asked, “what is the best way to wash the dishes?” I knew I was facing one of those very tricky Zen questions. I tried to think what would be a good Zen answer, but all I could come up with was, “You should wash the dishes to get them clean.” “No,” said Nhat Hanh. “You should wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” I’ve been mulling over that answer ever since — more than three decades of mulling. But what he said next was instantly helpful: “You should wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”

When I first read about this in the 1970s, I was deeply moved, partly because I liked to wash dishes. When I was living in New York City, this was one of the ways to get warm in a cold apartment.

But I remember the joy I had at Thanksgiving when my family went to dinner with the family of Uncle Ed and Aunt Bernie. After a big meal, I would take over washing dishes in the kitchen.

Nhat Hanh’s advice to Jim is, in one way, a call to attentiveness, to “mindfulness,” to being present to the moment. It is not far removed from Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God in a Paris Carmelite kitchen in the seventeenth century.

But it is also a reminder of the value of manual labor.

Today is the feast of Saint Benedict, the founder of Western Monasticism.

After a time in Subiaco, outside Rome, first as a hermit then as the leader of several groups of monk-hermits, Benedict moved to Monte Cassino, where he wrote his rule for monks. “Ora et labora” – Pray and Work – is at the center of his rule for monks, which is really quite practical.

In chapter 35, he writes specifically about kitchen duties:

 The brethren should serve one another. Consequently, none will be excused from kitchen service unless they are sick or engaged in some important business of the monastery, for such service increases reward and fosters love. . . . Let all the rest serve one another in love.

Serving one another in love – with our hands and our hearts – is central, not only to Benedictine monks and nuns, but to all who seek to follow God.

And so today, when I wash dishes – in cold water with very little water pressure – I will try to be attentive to what I do and remember that I should wash each dish “as if it were the baby Jesus.”


Saint Dorothy Day and our call to be saints

Thirty two years ago Dorothy Day died quietly in Mary House in Manhattan, one of the many Catholic Worker houses which her work inspired and which welcome the poor and challenge war-makers.

The best biography I have found is Jim Forest’s All Is Grace. I have found many of her writings moving, especially the Long Loneliness, her memoir of her life, her conversion, and the early years of the Catholic Worker.

This past month Dorothy Day has once again surfaced in the press when the US bishops endorsed her cause for canonization at their meeting.

Yet, would Dorothy Day be happy about this? She once said: “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” (Another reflection on this can be found in this chapter from Jim Forest’s biography.)

Why would she say this?

First of all, she believed that we are all called to be saints. If we put people on pedestals, we may think that all this is beyond us – and that we can never aspire to be saints. But, as she would acknowledge, sanctity is not something we can do by ourselves. But, with God’s grace, we can become the holy ones God wants us to be.

Secondly, calling someone a saint can be a way of smoothing over the rough edges of that person. No saint is without imperfections, which God uses to make us holy. If we fail to recognize the limitations of saints, we may close ourselves off to our call to sanctity, with all our limitations and imperfections.

Thirdly, calling people saints can blunt their challenge to our world and to our way of life. Saints offer us a call to conversion and transformation, not just a nice story to edify us.

But to look at saints as real persons can help us recognize our call to conversion.

I remember a case where Dorothy Day did that. A few years ago I taught the “Introduction to Catholicism” class at Iowa State University.  The last book the students were to read was Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness. I wanted them to see Catholicism practiced. One student later shared with me that that book led her to go to confession after many years of being away from the sacrament.

I think one of the best ways to let Dorothy Day help us to change – other than going to help out at a local Catholic Worker – would be to read Jim Forest’s All Is Grace, a biography of Dorothy Day, published in 2011 by Orbis Books. There we get a sense of the complexity of her character and a taste of her radical commitment to the poor and against war.

Day should challenge us, not only by her life with the poor but also with her radical critique of US economics and politics. But we should also let ourselves be moved by her deep piety – nurture with daily prayer and participation in the Eucharist.

We should not forget that she combined the prophetic with the contemplative.

I met her once at the Catholic Worker in New York City after one of the Friday Night Clarification of Thought sessions in the 1970s. I don’t remember what she said, since people were cleaning up. But what I most remember was her ordinariness. She came across to me as a gentle grandmother.

I also occasionally saw her when I went to Mass at Nativity Church on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, around the corner from Mary house. She and other Catholic Workers came and were nourished at the Table of the Lord so that they could serve and feed those in need.

And so, Dorothy Day, should challenge us, to make of our ordinary lives live of grace and holiness, to serve the poor, and to speak out forcefully against war.

That is the way that Dorothy Day can be canonized, not in Rome but in the lives of people of faith throughout the world.