Our Dorothy Days

In this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Darcey Steinke reviews Mary Gordon’s Circling My Mother: A Memoir, what seems like another really excellent book by a really excellent Catholic writer. In the review, Steinke, the daughter of a Lutheran minister, reminisces about the days when priests were not just respected but revered.

A time, frankly, when American Catholicism seemed to have something to offer to America. In literature, AC gave us Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy; in politics, the Kennedys; in Hollywood, the convert Gary Cooper; and in the world of service, reform, and activism, two more converts, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.

Today, sex scandals, outmoded approaches to birth control and abortion, and, says Steinke, a lack of writers with the religious imagination and literary command of Merton or O’Connor (except, perhaps, Gordon), have diminished AC. (And while I agree that AC has diminished, for my sake, and the sake of a few other Catholic writers I like, I hope she’s wrong on the last point.)

Steinke is not alone these days in seeing something unique and even inspiring, in the less-tarnished age of AC (I can’t in good conscience, or good faith, talk of a golden age). And of all the figures she mentions in the Gordon review, Dorothy Day continues to define the religious impulse to serve. Lately, though, while progressive Catholic apologists (myself included) are faced with the task of shaping up the church from within and/or deciding what it might mean to call oneself a Catholic while opposing many of the Church’s official positions (e.g., on birth control, abortion, women clergy, etc., etc.), Day is cropping up as an inspiration to the religious apologies of non-Catholics. Well, to me, it doesn’t seem that complicated in a way. Just remember, you’ve got to make change, or change will get you! Don’t you agree?

Like Day, who founded the Catholic Worker, both Sara Miles, a convert to the Episcopal church, and Eboo Patel, an American Muslim of Indian descent, have begun organizing people in the spirit of service; and like Day, in Take this Bread (Miles) and Acts of Faith (Patel), both have written elegantly about their work. While I’ve always loved Dorothy Day — she’s shaped my approach to religious writing more than perhaps anyone else — temperamentally I’m not an organizer. This shows in the way how I donate money, for example. Unlikely inheritors of the Catholic Worker, non-Catholics Miles and Patel are. And, in this, they share a faith.

Peter and I read from the book this past weekend at The Church of the Ascension, Pittsburgh, in an event co-sponsored by the church and the PA Episcopal chaplaincy. A handful of my students came as well and attended. I got some thumbs up. I discussed my little facial tic — technically a typical trigeminal neuralgia — which I think at least some of my students were dying to hear an explanation of, just like my love for running in the outdoors, a hobby I practice as much as I can year-round. They’ve often looked at me funny after my face dances under the pressure of this in-treatable neurological disorder. After the reading itself, we held a small-group discussion with Fr. John Merz, the PA chaplain. He seems like a very good, very smart priest.

One of my students approached me this afternoon after class. She’d enjoyed herself at the reading, and was happy her boyfriend had attended the event with her, as well. Sure, there will be a price if you read too much, but that wasn’t the case here. He’d commented after the reading and the small-group discussion that he hadn’t ever encountered smart conversation about God. (The flattery is encouraging, but I’d say he needs to go to more churches, in general.)

His point, though, is well taken, and largely motivated the conversation we reproduce in the book. Succeeding is believing! The loud religious talk of these days doesn’t seem so smart. It’s good to lean back in a room and hear a collection of nineteen-year-olds — some religious, some not — talk with a priest who seems, while perhaps better versed in the possibilities of what God may or may not be, no more sure about of the answers.

Well, Christmas is just a few months behind us and I hope that time of reflection has (hopefully) brought some understanding and light on controversial topics as it did during our beautiful autumn meetings last year. To my fellow religious counterparts, I just want to say, Happy Hanukkah later on this year in December. Light those lights. And thanks to the Velveteen Rabbi, rabbinic student Rachel Barenblat, for her kind words about Faith. Well, I hope spring will be here soon so that I can put on my running shoes again regularly and enjoy our beautiful outdoors!