I’m reading the autobiography of Dorothy Day (1897-1980), something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Day was one of the founders of the Catholic Worker movement. A journalist, bohemian, and social activist who loved literary giants like Dickens and Tolstoy, she converted to Catholicism as an adult, after rather eventful and heartbreak-filled young life, and drastically and radically gave her life to the poor. She was a fierce pacifist, even through the WWII when it was a seriously unpopular conviction, to say the least. Day’s story is, certainly, a fascinating one.
Day’s life, especially her work among the Catholic Worker Houses of Hospitality, is often referenced by the new monastics, and anyone thinking seriously about community should learn more about her. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that a lot of the thoughts being considered and words being written these days on the topic of community and hospitality are not new ones.
In his introduction to Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist, Robert Coles tells the story of taking a group of his undergraduate students to meet with Dorothy Day late in her life, at the hospitality house where she lived and served the poor (among other things, this house offered free hot lunches). The students asked her many frank questions, including what she hoped to be remembered for. Her response was stunning to me, so I’m including it today as a Sabbath meditation:
You ask me what I’d like to be remembered for–well, I hope for some of the talks here [a gesture of her hand toward the kitchen tables, now empty] with our guests; and I hope they will remember that I tried to make good coffee for them, and good soup! I’ve enjoyed getting to know them–they have been good teachers. You listen to them, hear of the troubles they’ve faced, and you realize how much courage they have needed, to go from one week to the next. I’ve met some truly remarkable people, sipping soup or coffee here–and I hope I have earned their respect! (p. 4)
What’s stunning is that by this time in her life Dorothy Day was famously known as a social activist. We’re talking famous enough that buildings are now named in her honor. As the back of The Long Loneliness reminds readers, when she died in 1980, she was eulogized on the pages of the New York Times. That’s how big of a deal she was.
And yet she speaks of the courage of the poor and the homeless.
She wants to be remembered for making a good cup of coffee.
Is that convicting, or what?