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Driven By Love: A sermon by Fr. John Hugo following the death of Dorothy Day

By
Fr. John Hugo


Dt 6: 2-6; 1 Cor 13: 1-13; Lk 10: 25-37

Editor's note: This homily was originally presented at the memorial Mass for Dorothy Day at the "The Catholic Worker and History" conference/gathering at Marquette University on November 5, 1981. I am grateful to Jim Forest for bringing this transcript to my attention.

This celebration, I am told, is intended to bring together those especially who have had a historic relationship with the Catholic Worker. I have known Dorothy Day since 1940, and I look forward to meeting others who will admit to having known her that long or longer—realizing that we thereby remove ourselves forever from the youth group!

I met Dorothy when she came to Pittsburgh to make a retreat that I was conducting at St. Anthony Village, Oakmont, then an orphanage under the direction of a colleague, Father Louis Farina. These retreats had been planned, during the summer vacation, for small groups including some local Catholic Workers. This was some time after Dorothy had become a Catholic and was looking for a deepening of her Christian faith. She came to Oakmont at the suggestion of Sister Peter Claver, one of her first Catholic friends, who remained her lifetime friend. She is with us today. At that time she told Dorothy about the retreats we were offering and provided some notes. Dorothy read these promptly and came back asking: "This is what I want, where do I find these men?" She was directed to Oakmont. After the retreat she said, "This is what I have been looking for in the Church!"

Subsequently, Dorothy came to the retreat many times, first at Oakmont, then at the Worker farms in Easton, Newburgh, and Tivoli, inviting the Workers and friends to share in them with her. She called the retreat "the bread of the strong," said that it was "like hearing the Gospel for the first time. . . a foretaste of heaven." It has "influenced my life and gave me courage to persevere," she declared " and so filled my heart with you that this joy no man can take from me." This proved to be prophetic, for she was in fact looking for refreshment from the printed conferences as she approached death.

Said Sister Peter Claver: "The retreat is what made the wheels go round in the Worker movement. It is what led Dorothy to holiness." The last time that Dorothy participated in the retreat was at Pittsburgh in 1976, when she also asked me to give the homily at her funeral. I promised that I would, although realizing that it would scarcely be possible. Therefore I am grateful to our hosts, especially Dr. William Miller, for providing this happy occasion.

You understand, therefore, that I cannot speak of Dorothy without recalling the retreat. It was my usual line of communication with her all those years. Even our private visits were concerned with it.

Let me also explain that the retreats I have conducted, from then until now, have followed a pattern originating with a Canadian Jesuit, Father Onesimus Lacouture (+1951), who preached a series of remarkable retreats for priests both in Canada and the United States. Some 5400 priests voluntarily made Father Lacouture's retreat within ten years. The Society of Jesus has been identified with many of the important works of the Church, and I welcome the opportunity, in this Jesuit institution, to acknowledge one of their outstanding members, a truly great teacher, who, although unwittingly, helped to lay the foundation of one of the great Catholic movements of our time.

Perhaps I can most simply describe the effects of Father Lacouture's retreat by saying that it opened up to its participants the long, beautiful perspective of the Christian life. The prophet Habbakuk, indeed, spoke of faith as a vision, like the view of a magnificent landscape from a high tower. The experience of the retreat is climbing to the top of this tower and seeing through the eyes of faith the whole glorious panorama of the—Christian way of life until it fades in the heavenly Jerusalem. Those who are just, says the prophet—and it is a word taken up by St. Paul—live by faith; and faith is not a mere list of beliefs or propositions but truly a new vision of life and the cosmos, a vision radiant with God's own truth and beauty. Father Farina and I desired to bring others to climb that tower and let them also enjoy the glorious outlook.

Dorothy Day invariably spoke of the retreat as "the famous retreat." I like to think of it, if it must have a name, as the "folly of the cross" retreat. It would be impossible to summarize here its unique perspective, or to explain why Dorothy Day found the vision it offered so compelling. Let me describe just one of its most prominent ideas, which I nevertheless think will tell much of the spirituality which gave Dorothy the motivation to carry out so courageously and perseveringly what she deemed to be her mission.

The idea I propose to consider is contained in those words, spoken by Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount, calling all his followers, without exception, to holiness of life: "Blessed are those that hunger and thirst after holiness." (Mt 5:6) We are to desire ardently and seek tirelessly a goal that had hitherto seemed remote and cold. These words, already so challenging, so thrilling, are repeated even more forcefully when, a little further on, Jesus transforms the very notion of holiness as He addresses the simple hill folk of Galilee with that all but incredible command: "You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." (5:48)

While many have brushed off as impossible this command to seek perfection, the words were spoken by Jesus. And no less than St. Thomas Aquinas, as simple as he was wise, argues that it is possible. He says: a thing is perfect when it achieves the end for which it was made. A knife, for example is perfect when it cuts sharp and clean. Since God Himself is the end of His human creatures, they are made perfect by that which unites them to God. Now it is charity—love—that unites them to God, according to the words of St. John, "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him." (l Jn 4:16)

Therefore, Christian perfection consists, above all, in love: first in the love of God, then derivatively in the love of neighbor, who is the image and likeness of God. Holiness, and perfection, which at first glimpse may seem distant and forbidding, are in fact as near and intimate and inviting as that most desirable of gifts, love. "Love the Lord your God with your whole heart . . . Love your neighbor as yourself." This, the law of love, is also the precept of holiness and perfection. We grow in holiness and perfection as we grow in love. The whole context of the passage is an exhortation to seek the very perfection of God's own love. Only the saints are mature Christians. The rest of us are dwarfs.

Although the universal call to holiness has thus been a teaching of scripture and theology, it was by no means accepted by all Catholics in the 1940's. Perhaps not in 1981! It had been obscured and forgotten and was by some called extreme, even heretical; although St. Francis de Sales, another Doctor of the Church, who preached universal holiness explicitly to the laity, described its denial as a kind of heresy. Happily, should any Catholics still entertain doubts, the matter has been resolved by Vatican II in what is surely its most important pronouncement on the Christian life, establishing the goal of that life.

The statement appears in the Constitution on the Church, and the very title of the Chapter in which it is given, "The Universal Call of Holiness," reveals its meaning as it declares that "all are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity." (Ch. V) Surely if this teaching were attended to, it would hasten the renewal of Christian life hoped for from the Council, but still so sadly delayed. It is an affirmation that stands out like a great mountain peak, dominating the whole panorama of life opened up by faith.

This peak has always towered over the perspective of life offered in our retreat. Dorothy Day heard it described in this way many times. She gave herself wholeheartedly to the scaling of this mount of perfection, the perfection of love. She has been in our time a luminous example of the twofold love of God and neighbor fused into one in the furnace of divine love.

Dorothy herself tells us that, despite the unlikely circumstances of her early life, she was almost from the beginning "haunted by God." The Hound of Heaven was breathing on her in hot pursuit from early childhood. She delighted in pronouncing the very name of God. She became enamored of the Psalms, those matchless prayers panting with hunger for God. She was fascinated by the Church and reports every contact she had with Catholics. She began to pray the Rosary and loved to visit churches. She formed an early and lifelong predilection for St. Teresa of Avila, one of the Church's great teachers of prayer. In time she became attached to St. Therese of Lisieux, another contemplative, who taught her the secret of consecrating, with love, the humblest details of daily life. Meanwhile, as she liked to recall, from her radical associates she was already learning compassion for the downtrodden.

True, she did go through a period of disenchantment with religion, largely because she met no Catholics concerned about the injustices which our society heaps on the poor. Nevertheless, her intoxication with God continued. A decisive influence at this time was reading the Confessions of St. Augustine, at the urging of Eugene O'Neill. Here she heard the unforgettable words which summarize the whole burden of the saint's story: "You have made our hearts for yourself, 0 God, and they will never rest until they rest in you." She now determined to have her child baptized and become a Catholic herself. In leaving her radical associates, to whom she was greatly attached, and giving up her husband, whom she poignantly describes as the man she loved, Dorothy was already at this early stage of her religious life making a supreme act of preferential love for God above every created good.

When Peter Maurin came into her life, she had at last met a Catholic passionately concerned with the plight of the poor, and one who like another St. Francis of Assisi, was even willing to share their poverty, unto utter destitution, in the slums of a modern city.

From Peter she also learned that Catholicism is truly radical, in the original sense of that word, getting to the roots. Peter translated into action G. K. Chesterton's saying, "Christianity, even when watered down, is still hot enough to boil all modern society to rags." Peter also, introducing Dorothy to the papal social encyclicals, gave her, with his marvelous clarity of mind, a carefully thought out social program for helping the little ones of the world. And he taught her that the most immediate and direct way of social action is through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Dorothy now had almost all that she desired—a program of action that would merge her concern for the neediest with her hunger for God. "Almost," because she had traveled to Oakmont looking for something more. Even after her newly founded movement was already flourishing, she yearned for the fullness of love, an all encompassing love, still to be brought to her by the Church she had chosen and entered.

Two sayings from the retreat, which Dorothy quoted many times in her column, On Pilgrimage, (the last time in November, 1978) provide a clue to how its ideas influenced her thinking.

The first, which paraphrases a saying of Jesus, states "you love God just as much as the one you love least." It tells of the perfection of love that Dorothy was seeking. Her whole life was a testimony of her unwavering faith that no one is to be excluded from love.

The lowest acceptable measure of love, already a high goal, is to love one's neighbor as oneself. We are thereby committed to seek for all others the goods that we desire for ourselves, in order that they may enjoy lives of human dignity and exercise all human rights. Hence the bishops could say at their Synod on justice (1971) that love involves an absolute demand for justice, which thus becomes a constitutive part of the Gospel. Even this lowest degree of love involved Dorothy Day, not only in a great effort to alleviate the misery of the very poor, but also in a continuous radical struggle, inaugurated by Pope Leo XIII in 1890, against the social abuses and economic injustices of our capitalistic society. Moreover, justice attains its inner fullness only in love, the Bishops said. And the justice that Dorothy and Peter labored so hard to attain found its motive and fulfillment in love. You love God only as much as the neighbor you love least. Justice within love—that is formed and impelled by love—this is the bequest that Dorothy and Peter have left to the movement they founded.

Never enough! The other saying frequently quoted by Dorothy I had borrowed from St. Augustine: "He who says he has done enough has already perished." The fullness of love is not attainable all at once, but is rather a life-time goal requiring continual growth. The saint's words are a reminder that one may not falter in the ascent of the mount of love. And Dorothy was not satisfied with the lowest degree of love. She desired to follow her Master, who had said, "Love one another as I have loved you." That is, unto death.

Dorothy herself tells how she was inspired by the retreat in her long pilgrimage:

It is not only for others that I must have these retreats. It is because I too am hungry for the bread of the strong. I must nourish myself to do the work I have undertaken; I too must drink of these good springs that I may not be an empty cistern and unable to help others.

In a unique way Dorothy Day combined the active and the contemplative life; she lived out, at once and with great intensity, the roles of both Martha and Mary. Haunted by God, she searched for His image tirelessly in her neighbor, then served Him with utmost devotion no matter how distorted she found Him in that image. Activist and radical, it is my deeply held conviction that she was also a mystic. And by a mystic I mean one who is driven by love, determined to follow love to its limit, refusing to leave the beloved even in suffering and death. Romeo and Juliet, as Dorothy herself once said when we were talking about this, are the human type of mystical love. It is not without significance that Shakespeare, in his two great love stories, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, wrote tragedies in which the lovers would not allow even death to separate them.

Such loves are excessive and idolatrous; but St. Paul's love was not idolatrous when he wrote, "I die daily, with Christ I am nailed to the cross, I live, no not I but Christ lives in me." The apostle also wrote, for us, "The love of Christ compels us to realize that, since one died, then all are dead; and Christ died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and rose again." (1 Co 15:31; Gal 2:19, 2 Cor 5:15) And Dorothy Day surely "died" through-out the days of the life which she herself described as "a long loneliness," the willing victim of what she clearly recognized as a "harsh and dreadful love."

A stanza of great beauty, written by St. Teresa's partner, St. John of the Cross, whom Dorothy also admired, describes activist Dorothy's life (in the Poem the bride is seeking for the Bridegroom):

Forever at his door
I gave my heart and soul. My fortune too.
I've no flock any more,
no other work in view.
My occupation: love. It's all I do

Dorothy, too, had given up her heart and soul, given up all she possessed for the Beloved; for Him and His mystical body she relinquished all human ambitions and joy. Driven by love, she could make her own the words,

Dorothy Day's culminating expression of love, at once for God and all her neighbors, was her utter abhorrence and rejection of war, the matrix of most of all other evils that disfigure our society. Dorothy was not simply a political pacifist. Her love of peace came of fidelity to the Beatitude, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God." Peace, a gift of the Holy Spirit, is the fruit of the divine love working in the hearts of God's children.

While some are still prattling about the conditions for just war, bishops are now saying that even the possession of nuclear arms is a crime against humanity. Dorothy realized the danger long before the present insane proliferation of nuclear arms. Here she emerges as a truly prophetic leader who brings us at last to understand what is meant by the kingdom of God. At this point she joins the company of those great saints whom she so admired, contemplative activists, Catherine of Sienna and Teresa of Avila, who brought light and leadership into the darkness of their times. Dorothy has at times been compared to St. Joan of Arc. But Joan rode a war horse and carried a sword. Dorothy, however, followed her Master in riding the absurd donkey of non-violence; and on her standard were emblazoned the words, "God is love!" She could not accept an image of God that would ally Him in any way with the unspeakable horrors of modern war.

Time is running out. Do we really desire—and will—the kingdom of God—" a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace"? (Preface, Feast of Christ the King).

In her book, Loaves and Fishes, Dorothy reproduced a card she had received from Peter Maurin while he was on one of his "missionary journeys." He tells happily of the "good contacts" he made, especially among priests. He signs himself, "Your fellow worker in the Kingdom."

The impact of the lives of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin on all who have known and admired and loved them can be nothing less than laboring with them with all our hearts, even at this late day, as fellow workers in the Kingdom. The world may be destroyed by fire, from nuclear bombs, or it can be saved by the fire of divine love. WE MUST CHOOSE THE WAY. Let us abide in love!

* * *

Postscript: I suggested that the donkey ridden by Jesus may also stand as a symbol of Dorothy Day's stubborn effort to change the world and extend Christ's glorious kingdom. In his poem, "The Donkey," Chesterton hints at that glory, with which we will end. The donkey, forlornly listing the traits that draw ridicule upon him, nevertheless exults:

Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.



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