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Dorothy Day’s Wisdom on Describing Our “Accomplishments”

December 9, 2009

Last Supper by Fritz Eichenberg, Catholic Worker artist

Here’s one of the truest descriptions of Christian ministry I’ve ever encountered, from Dorothy Day. The Catholic Worker movement she co-founded with Peter Maurin in the 1930’s is known for its works of mercy with the poor through houses of hospitality and advocacy.  Day captures a profound sense of serendipity, of both knowing what we’re doing and not knowing, and how a movement begins both with the significance of the small and of being irresistibly drawn by and into a bigger drama than oneself. It is startling that Day’s description comes in a brief “P.S.” at the very end of her autobiography The Long Loneliness.  Here is how she sums up the decades of work–which she sees in far different and deeper ways than the usual approaches to describing accomplishments seen in fundraising materials, organizational brochures, and annual reports.

“We were just sitting there talking when Peter Maurin came in.

We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form, saying, “We need bread.” We could not say, “Go, be thou filled.” If there were six small loaves and a few fishes, we had to divide them. There was always bread.

We were just sitting there talking and people moved in on us. Let those who can take it, take it. Some moved out and that made room for more. And somehow the walls expanded.

We were just sitting there talking and someone said, “Let’s all go live on a farm.” It was as casual as all that, I often think. It just came about. It just happened.

I found myself, a barren woman, the joyful mother of children. It is not easy always to be joyful, to keep in mind the duty of delight.

The most significant thing about The Catholic Worker is poverty, some say.

The most significant thing is community, others say. We are not alone any more.

But the final word is love. At times it has been, in the words of Father Zossima, a harsh and dreadful thing, and our very faith in love has been tried through fire.

We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.

We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.

It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.”

“We were just sitting there talking.”  Perhaps our most important accomplishments flow out of the serendipity of paying attention to the gaps around us with crucial questions in mind:  Who is my “we”?  Where am I sitting?  Who am I sitting with?  What are we dreaming about together?  And what is the ultimate end of our life and work?  For Day, our works serve a larger mission:  becoming companions with God and others—that “we are not alone.”  Day’s somehows and justs are crucial: at the heart of it all is seeing ministry not primarily as acting, but paying attention to signs of the One with whom, somehow, there is always enough.  And then all we need to begin ministry is a crust—even and only with that, God can create a banquet.

About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.  He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. He writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers.

Related Reconcilers Posts: Beyond False Dichotomies

Also see: Watch the brief video Dorothy Day: Don’t Call Me Saint

Last 5 posts on the Reconcilers Blog:

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