My husband Tim and I met in an intentional Christian community in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We lived together in large households with other folks, pooled all of our resources together, worshiped, prayed, and shared our lives together. Tim and I were married in the community and the community surrounded us and held us up when our daughter Temma was born and had a cardiac arrest two days later. My identity and vocation is shaped by my experience of living in community. I learned of the writer, activist, and leader, Dorothy Day, while living in community. I devoured everything that Dorothy wrote; her books, her columns in the Catholic Worker newspaper, and books written about her. Dorothy’s life and experiences, her searching, her spiritual hunger, her joy in mystery, sacrament, and symbolism, and her starting and building the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, a physical manifestation of the mystical Body of Christ, all of it profoundly influenced my journey. Day was my heroine, my model for choosing life in community. Temma’s middle name comes from her, Temma Day Lowly.
I recently finished reading a new book about Dorothy Day and her daughter Tamar, written by Dorothy’s granddaughter, Kate Hennessey. No one else could have written so intimately of Dorothy Day’s inner life, the relationship between Dorothy and Tamar, and the relationship between Dorothy and the church. I became lost in the book, remembering and reliving my early community days, the excitement and the great joys of community life together with the difficulties and pitfalls of membership and leadership in such communities; the tension between independence and inter-dependence; the call to welcome all people and the difficulties of realizing a lifetime of caring for many; choosing voluntary poverty and the cost to families; the troubles of struggling for power and authority. Having her daughter Tamar, pushed Dorothy to enter the church. Yet she still loved Tamar’s father, Forster. Dorothy’s fierce and headlong dive into the church led to the dissolution of Dorothy and Forster’s life together and divided father and daughter.
Before starting the Catholic Worker, when Dorothy was still working as a newspaper reporter and writer, she went to cover the hunger march in Washington D.C., December, 1932. “In one of the most grace-filled moments of a life full of grace, Dorothy found herself praying to God. Here I am–what would you have me do?” It was soon after her return to New York city that Peter Maurin showed up on Dorothy’s doorstep teaching a program of roundtable discussions, houses of hospitality based on the bishop’s hospices for wayfaring strangers in the middle ages, and farming communes. Dorothy believed that the Blessed Mother sent her this teacher.
Life in those first Catholic Worker houses of hospitality was not easy. The lack of room, lack of peace and quiet, lack of beauty, lack of money led many in and right back out again. “Yet we sow…even though we seem to constantly fail,” wrote Dorothy. For a while Dorothy sought out extreme piety, harsh and intense spiritual retreats and she demanded that others in the community attend the retreats. Oppressive and cultish behaviors began. It took Dorothy a long time to realize her mistake, that she could not provide faith for another. “Community is sword grass in the hand,” she quoted. Yet, “the world will be saved by beauty” (Dostoyevsky) “and what is more beautiful than love?” she wrote.
My own spiritual hunger, my call and my intense desire to be like Dorothy Day led to my burn-out and illness while living in community. Like her, I struggled with my call to to live a life of compassion for the downtrodden while experiencing an overwhelming need for solitude and a desire to write. Like her, my own daughter pushed me into my vocation in the church, but at what cost for the two of us? That first community where Tim and I met each other also “failed” and yet he and I and so many others who experienced life in that community continue to sow in multiple ways and in multiple places. My calling remains; to build community, to welcome the downtrodden, those living on the margins, to protest war and abuse of power, and also to continue to seek out the mysterious and silent places of the heart to listen to the voice of God.