As though the poor and forgotten don't have hard enough times, now they are without Dorothy Day. She died last Saturday in Maryhouse, a Lower East Side shelter that she ran for homeless women. Miss Day had spent most of her 83 years in the simplest but rarest form of humane service: feeding, clothing and housing whoever of the earth's wretched came to her. "We confess to being fools," she said once about herself and her small band of pacifists and personalists, "and we wish we were more so."
For the tens of thousands of anonymous poor who have been comforted by Dorothy Day since she co-founded The Catholic Worker in 1933, the foolishness has been more than adequate. At her wake the other night, street people kneeled before her pine-box coffin and wept in prayers for a woman they had come to believe was a saint. These were the "underprivileged," a term used with mock laughter around her because none of the poor of the Lower East Side remembers when society's privileges were passed out in the first place.
In this Bowery area of Manhattan, the conscience of Dorothy Day has been institutionalized in her Catholic Worker "houses of hospitality." But the establishment of such facilities -- not only in New York but in about 40 other cities -- was about the only concession she made to organizational mercy. oIn a half-century's worth of books, columns, speeches and conversations, Dorothy Day argued that the problem of poverty was its being left too much to professional problem-solvers. People with empty bellies get turned into Profound Questions, with poverty brokers on the hunt for Profound Answers. In seminar after seminar and report after report, the poor are given the bum's rush. In the end, as Miss Day said, "there are all to few who will consider themselves servants, who will give up their lives to serve others."
As a religious person who prayed daily -- mass and communion, the Psalms, the rosary -- Dorothy Day used her faith as a buffer against burnout and despair. Fittingly, it will have to be taken on faith that her life of service made a difference. She issued no progress reports on neighborhood improvement, summoned no task forces on how to acheive greater efficiency on the daily soup line. Nor did she ever run "follow-up studies" on whether the derelicts of the Bowery renounced their drunken and quarrelsome ways. As her favorite saint, Theresa of Lisieux, taught, results don't matter to the Prayerful.
On the subject of results, Dorothy Day had a philosophy of divine patience: "We continue feeding our neighbors and clothing and sheltering them, and the more we do it the more we realize that the most important thing is to love. There are several families with us, destitute to an unbelievable extent, and there, too, is nothing to do but love. What I mean is that there is no chance of rehabilitation, no chance, so far as we see, of changing them; certainly no chance of adjusting them to this abominable world about them, and who wants them adjusted anyway?"
That was from the June 1946 issue of The Catholic Worker newspaper, a monthly that has been a voice of pacifism and justice since 1933. Yesterday, as her body was carrried along an impoverished block to a Catholic church for a requiem mass, the local destitution was as unbelievable as ever. The jobless and homeless are so thick in the streets that "Holy Mother City," as Miss Day called it, makes no pretense of even counting them.
It may be just as well. Counters get in the way when there is soup to be made. Even worse, getting too close to the government means a trade-off that Miss Day resisted mightily in bothe words and action. "The state believes in war," she said, "and as pacifists and philosophical anarchists, we don't."
Because she served the poor for so long and with such tireless intensity, Dorothy Day had a national constituency of remarkable breadth. She was more than merely the conscience of the left. Whether it was a young millionaire named John F. Kennedy who came to see her (in 1943) or one of the starving, she exuded authenticity. It was so well know that Dorothy Day loved among the poor -- shared their table, stood in their lines, endured the daily insecurity - that The Catholic Worker became known as the one charity in which the money truly did reach the poor.
"It is a strange vocation to love the destitute and dissolute," Miss Day wrote a few years ago. But it is one that keeps attracting the young who come to The Catholic Worker as a place to brew the soup and clean the toilets, which is also the work of peace-makers. They are against military wars for sure, but their pacifism resists the violence of the economic wars. "We refuse to fight for a materialistic system that cripples so many of its citizens," The Catholic Worker has been saying for half a century.
At the requiem mass, the prayers for the dead were sung joyously. A conviction was shared, just as surely as the Eucharist itself was shared, that here was one of Christ's faithful -- one who full-heartedly followed what she called "the strange upside-down teaching of the Gospel." The mourning poor best understood: this life of exquisite foolishness made absolute sense.