Sunday, February 11, 2007

Dorothy Day is One of My References

How many sinners does it take to make one saint? Is Dorothy Day one? Should she be? Does it matter?
Having recently come to know about her through reading Rosalie Riegle’s book of interviews, I was thrilled to have history and theology come together in this very human, human being. Perhaps it says too much about my inner workings, but I am always pleased to find out that very good people have some not so good characteristics. I guess it makes me feel like I have a chance and in fact, the not-so-goodness of good people encourages me more than the, well, sanctified, goodness of so-called saints.
Perhaps that’s why I hope she doesn’t get canonized, and why I’ve always thought it a mistake to throw Mother Teresa in the Saint bin. Rather than help the more-bad-than-good rest of us, it discourages. I mean, if she’s a saint then she had more good to begin with and maybe more celestial pull along the way. But if she was just a vain, cranky, complex, idealistic, but falling-from-ideal-daily, kind of gal, then I can struggle forward inspired by what another well-intentioned but poorly performing woman might accomplish.
Related to this question of how good do you have to be to be good, is the question about Dorothy Day that I saw emerge in the last few chapters of Riegle’s book, and that I gathered from the other readings that I gobbled up this week: The Long Loneliness and Loaves and Fishes. That is: How do you integrate the person with their work? This question is on two levels: First, how do we, as readers of stories about Dorothy Day or other spiritual leaders, balance what they did versus who they were. And, second, maybe from that, how do we, in our own lives, balance doing good work with being flawed people. I find I am living this question daily as I work in human services, aspire to Christian ideals and love clothes, shoes, books, music and art. Can a committed Christian wear an Hermes scarf knowing how many people it would feed? Yes, you can be sure I was underlining every mention of the feminine in Dorothy Day’s life!
And there were many: The handkerchiefs and the hair, the perfume, the photos by Richard Avedon and the “good” tweed suit. Reading about her and asking these questions made me recall reading of another woman who has been an inspiration for many American women: Katherine Hepburn. So often she was described as strong, independent, her singleness and trousers taken as symbols of a kind of strength women tortured themselves with by comparison. After Hepburn’s death we learned that she was in a deeply codependent relationship with a married Spencer Tracy, collapsing under his criticism, changing her every appointment, hairstyle and opinion to please him, enduring his emotional abuse and cold distance. It turns out that even Katherine Hepburn wasn’t like “Katherine Hepburn”. Ditto for Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and others.
I think of this as I read about Day because I wonder about the challenge of allowing a good and famous person to be revealed in their humanity. We say that the personal is political, but are there also times when the personal is irrelevant, and is there an in-between?
I know that I am asking myself a very personal question when I raise this issue. There are three paragraphs in this book I have underlined and copied: page 171: Dorothy describing The Catholic Worker as a kind of school. She wanted people “to have that formation, that experience to take into other things: We also need editors, journalists, we need teachers. These are all potentially religious vocations.” Something in me relaxes when I read this. Similarly, on page 146: “Dorothy always called it a school. She stressed everybody’s individual vocation…You will know your vocation by the joy that it brings you. You will know. You will know when it is right.” So thinking and study and writing could be a religious vocation?
And then this powerful idea on page 139: “Instead of rules she had these deep references. She read a lot and prayed a lot, so that kept her focus…When you make choices all the time with that constant inner reference to something like the gospel or the way Dostoevsky sees the world, you’re going to land in the same place over and over again. So it’s not rules exactly but something deeper.”
That quote raises a wonderful question to think about and ask each other: “What are your references?” What if we asked people that in a job interview? What if our references were not people who knew us, but rather people we carried inside us hoping to know? I think that Dorothy Day can now be one of mine.

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