Loaves and Fishes

Dorothy Day

Book cover

My dad once gave a sermon that included the following passage:

Jesus was often called on to explain what God’s realm would be like. People assumed it would have to be something lofty and impressive-after all it was God’s realm. Jesus made a number of comparisons, but my favorite is this (Mark 4:30-32):

What can we say the kingdom is like? It is like a mustard seed which, at the time of its sowing, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth. Yet once it is sown it grows into the biggest

Now, what do you think he says here? Tree? It’s got to be big and glorious, doesn’t it? After all, it’s the kingdom of God. But no:

it grows into the biggest shrub of them all and puts out big branches so that the birds of the air can shelter in its shade.

A shrub! A big shrub, but still, shrubbery. Nothing lofty.

That’s the version in Mark-probably the original version. It’s funny-I think-because it catches us, expecting one thing, and offering another. And it’s not only funny, it’s profound. The kingdom of God is not something that’s going to overwhelm us. It’s not going to overpower, contrary to the expectations of the disciples, and us. It’s a rag-tag kind of thing. It’s insistent and insidious-more like a weed.

“Loaves and Fishes” to me is the perfect encapsulation of the Kingdom of God as a really great shrub. The Catholic Worker movement as Day describes it is a beautiful mess, a jerry-rigged, shambolic social service organization that is usually one missed bill payment away from being thrown out on the street itself, whose leaders went through occasional periods of homelessness, whose activists bought and attempted to operate a farm despite barely knowing anything about agriculture; and yet, a deeply mission-driven group that gave food, shelter, and comfort to thousands during the Depression who had nowhere else to turn, and which spawned hundreds of affiliates throughout the world.

As a brief overview, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker movement in New York City in the 1930s, and LF is Day’s account of that experience. The CW was and is a social service organization primarily focused on performing the “works of mercy”: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, ransoming the prisoner, and burying the dead.

The most obvious comparison to make is to one of my great role models, Jane Addams, who founded Hull-House in Chicago earlier in the century. Both Addams and Day were concerned with serving the poor, and emphasized the importance of living and working in community with them. Both were motivated by Christian faith. On paper they sound quite similar, but in reading them, I come away feeling that they are extremely different people. I see Addams as more of a kindred spirit to me, which I think is why she so captivated me, but at the same time I think that Day’s difference from me in a sense makes her even more of an inspiration to try to “leave my comfort zone” (to reference another of my dad’s sermons). To put it succinctly, while both women accomplished great things, Addams is more of a “thinker” and Day more of a “doer”. If they took Myers-Briggs tests, I am sure that Addams would be a “J” (like me) and Day a “P”–Addams valued having a mental framework and a plan of action; Day just put her shoulder to the wheel and pushed like hell. Addams was an intellectual who visited Tolstoy and taught at universities; Day went to prison for civil disobedience. And while religious faith was important for both of them, it was the heart and soul of the Catholic Worker, but at Hull-House it operated in the background only as Addams’ personal motivation.

Despite Day not coming across as an intellectual, this book is filled with powerful reflections and food for thought. To mention a few:

-It is fascinating to read her writing about two of her co-leaders in the movement, Peter Maurin and Ammon Hennacy. This is not an original observation of mine (I owe it I believe to Hauerwas), but their relationships are a striking example of the Aristotelian ideal of the “friendship of virtue.” It is not clear that either Maurin or Hennacy was particularly pleasant to be around–Maurin, the vagrant theorizer; Hennacy, the astringent activist–and it is clear that at times Day got little or negative utility or pleasure out of the relationships. But she is clearly ferociously loyal to both of them, based on their meeting of the minds on ideals of virtue and the meaning of life.

-Day’s attitude toward poverty: “I condemn poverty and I advocate it,” she writes. In particular, the distinction she draws between Franciscan voluntary poverty (which Day calls “poverty”) and involuntary poverty (which Day calls “destitution”). She discusses the heterogeneous nature of poverty, the key role played by “precarity” (lack of any kind of guaranteed cushion), the fundamental need for those working to fight poverty to be in constant contact with the poor.

-The nature of Day’s saintliness (well, she is up for canonization at any rate). She is not at all sentimental and does not sugarcoat anything–neither the nature of destitution nor her own internal feelings. She does not cloak herself in sanctimony but writes very openly about times when she felt disgust or utter frustration towards those she claimed to serve. This to me is the attainable ideal of Christianity–love for neighbor not meaning affection for them (necessarily), but care and support–just as one does not always feel affection or approval for oneself, but is always on one’s own side.

-The mindset, advocated by Peter Maurin, of “personalism”, a loosely defined philosophical movement that rejects both materialist individualism and materialist collectivism (e.g. Marxism). Instead, it focuses on the dignity and fulfillment of each unique individual. One example of this perspective in practice is Maurin’s uneasiness with labor unions that fight only over wages, and his emphasis of the importance of useful work as a higher priority than material well-being. A personalist such as Maurin would be a strong critic of what Freddie de Boer calls the “globalize-grow-give” or what Mike Konczal calls the “pity-charity” model of capitalist society (and indeed I think it would be fair to call both of those bloggers personalists). I am interested in learning more about personalism, and just checked out from the library Emanuel Mounier’s book of the same name, which Day says Maurin often carried around.

-Day’s narrative of her own brief experience in prison. A powerful first-hand indictment of the crushing and corrupting effect on people of the prison system and its methods.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars