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REFLECTION: David Brooks commencement speech in which he speaks of Dorothy Day

The following is from the baccalaureate speech given at Sewanee, the University of the South, by David Brooks last week. In it, he references one of his heroes, Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker. We thought folks might enjoy this.


Columnist David Brooks

… One of my heroes is a woman named Dorothy Day.

When she was a young woman, Day thought she wanted to be a writer and a bohemian. She moved to Greenwich Village in New York. She hung out in bars, listened to jazz and had a lot of boyfriends. She read Dostoyevsky as if her life depended upon it, and sometimes seemed to live like a character in a Dostoyevsky novel. But something about the disorganized nature of that life bothered her.

One night she was wrongly arrested and put in jail. She had done nothing wrong, but to her the arrest seemed to indict her entire style of life.

She wrote: “It was as ugly an experience as I ever wish to pass through. I do not think that ever again, no matter of what I am accused, can I suffer more than I did then of shame and regret, and self-contempt. Not only because I had been caught, found out, branded, publicly humiliated, but because of my own consciousness that I deserved it.”

Then a few years later, she had a very different experience. She gave birth to a child. She wrote that when her child emerged she felt like the greatest artist or the greatest poet:

“No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.”

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day

Her need to worship turned her toward God. And with that came a passion, to be among the poor. She started a newspaper called The Catholic Worker. She started soup kitchens and homeless shelters and rural communes. She didn’t serve the way we often serve today, as affluent people going down to give the needy a hand. She embraced poverty and lived in the shelters herself. For her the service was not about the meals. It was a form of worship and way to honor God.

Day wasn’t one of these people who could separate public behavior from private morality. Day couldn’t just do good, she had to be good…

Click here to read the entire address (the Dorothy Day section starts on page 3.)

OPINION: “Dorothy Day’s Day”

Here’s a great article that win this week’s copy of The Nation. It’s by Coleman McCarthy:

At Dorothy Day’s death in November 1980, at 83, talk was heard that
the Catholic Worker, the movement she co-founded in 1933, would vanish
without her. She was its Earth Mother–or better, its Reverend Mother,
a convert to Catholicism who took literally the call of the Gospels to
practice personally the works of mercy and rescue. She would do it
with full-risk commitments to pacifism and nonviolent anarchism.

The talk was unfounded. With scant eyeing from the media, and far from
the rites of soft-core religion that sanction coziness with Caesar and
his court clerics, nearly 185 Catholic Worker houses of hospitality
are currently operating in thirty-seven states and ten countries. From
July 9 to 12, several hundred practitioners of Day’s methods are
expected to gather in Worcester, Massachusetts, hosted by two local
Worker houses: Sts. Francis and Therese and The Mustard Seed. The
occasion is a celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the
Catholic Worker, going back to May Day 1933, when Day, then a
35-year-old journalist who had written about class conflict, strikes
and war resistance for The Masses and The Liberator, handed out the
first copies of her monthly newspaper at a Communist rally in
Manhattan’s Union Square.

Through thick and thick–there is no thin in poverty’s
underworld–Worker houses have been models of stamina, going extra
miles beyond counting. The Ammon Hennacy House in Los Angeles offers
shelter and meals for homeless people and publishes The Catholic
Agitator. Viva House in Baltimore runs a food pantry and family soup
kitchen. St. Peter Claver House in Philadelphia gleans for food and
clothing and has it on hand for all comers. Washington’s Dorothy Day
House shelters five families, distributes food and stages weekly
antiwar demonstrations at the White House and the Pentagon. Scott
Schaeffer-Duffy, who with his wife, Claire, started Sts. Francis and
Therese House in 1986, echoes Day’s line–“we confess to being fools
and wish that we were more so”–by saying that Catholic Worker houses
seek “an irrational and personalist way of doing things that trusts in
the miraculous power of God…. Without government aid, salaries,
grants or institutional help from the Church, and often without many
volunteers, we feed and house people, deliver aid in war zones,
confront local and national injustices, and still manage to have happy
personal and family lives. That’s pretty miraculous to me.”

In the years before Day embraced Catholicism, in 1927 at 30, she lived
on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She bibbed with Eugene O’Neill and
Malcolm Cowley, interviewed Trotsky, went to jail with Alice Paul, was
on the barricades with the Socialists, read Peter Kropotkin, Tolstoy
and Jack Reed, reveled with Greenwich Village bohemians, had an
abortion, gave birth to a daughter and left a common-law marriage. In
The Long Loneliness, Day’s 1952 autobiography, she tells of
transferring all that fury and fire to living out Christ’s message of
siding with the scorned.

Like today’s followers, Day worked her own side of the street with no
official ties to the Church. A pacifist, she had contempt for
churchmen who duped the faithful into accepting the “just war” theory.
She struck matches to burn down the hierarchy’s chumminess with power.
In the late 1960s, when a war-supporting Catholic cardinal was in
Vietnam blessing US warplanes and another cardinal went to the White
House for a prayer service with Richard Nixon, Day unloaded: “What a
confusion we have gotten into when Christian prelates sprinkle holy
water on scrap metal to be used for obliteration bombing and name
bombers for the Holy Innocents, for Our Lady of Mercy; who bless a man
about to press a button which releases death to 50,000 human beings,
including little babies, children, the sick, the aged….”

Day’s fifty-year ministry included war tax resistance, commingling
with society’s broke and broken, imprisonment–she was arrested so
often for civil disobedience that a New York City jail had a “Dorothy
Day suite”–and getting out a newspaper that still sells at the same
penny-a-copy price and holds the same pacifist line as when it
started. Day’s biographers in books and magazines include Robert
Coles, Garry Wills, Daniel Berrigan, Abigail McCarthy, Dwight
Macdonald, Dan Wakefield, Michael Harrington and David O’Brien–the
last writing in Commonweal that Day was “the most significant,
interesting and influential person in the history of American

Few writers have been closer to Day than Robert Ellsberg. He took a
five-year student sabbatical from Harvard in the mid-1970s to join Day
at the New York Worker, washing dishes, unclogging the toilets and
editing the newspaper. This summer Ellsberg, now the editor and
publisher of Orbis Books, comes forward with The Duty of Delight: The
Diaries of Dorothy Day. It is 669 pages of sere and flexuous prose,
virtuosic in its candor. A diary entry from June 16, 1951, begins: “I
have a hard enough job to curb the anger in my own heart which I
sometimes even wake up with, go to sleep with–a giant to strive with,
an ugliness, a sorrow to me–a mighty struggle to love. As long as
there is any resentment, bitterness, lack of love in my own heart I am
powerless. God must help me.”

From the evidence in Day’s life and what endures daily in the Worker
houses, help kept–and keeps–

UPDATE: Anniversary Week

It was seven years ago that we christened our first home “Jeremiah House” (named so because it was like the pit I imagined that Jeremiah’s fellow Israelites threw him into). Out of that small, 2 bedroom house, we started the Gainesville Catholic Worker in October 2000. During those early months, we started the Breakfast Brigade (with lots of strange looks at the labor pools when we showed up with homemade bread and eggs, and folks were both suspicious and thankful); we formalized the Sunday dinners at St. Francis House, which Kelli had started while working at St. Augustine’s Church; and we shared our home with a few guests in need of a place to stay. The house was too small and falling apart so we opted out of our lease in June and started looking for a better, bigger place in the same neighborhood, Pleasant Street.

For the next three years, Kelli kept it all going: The Breakfast Brigade was run out of her home (with her, some Pax Christi students, her kids and their friends handling it all); the dinners at St. Francis House kept on going with help from Diedre and the youth program out at the blueberry farm; Kelli started community gardens at numerous schools thru the Neighborhood Nutrition Network and a group of us, on behalf of the GCW, ”adopted” the garden at the Sidney Lanier School/Anchor Center, working with the kids there; and Kelli shared her home on occasion with young women in need of shelter. And we kept looking for a new house where we could have a live-in, intentional community, host dinners, do alternative theological education, etc.

In March 2004, we started negotiations to buy our current home, “the Blue House,” at 218 NW 2nd Ave (formerly The Birth Center). We closed the deal in July 2004, took several months moving in and getting started, and we “formally” opened in October 2004, making this also our 3rd anniversary at our current location. The last few years have been both a challenge and a blessing as we have thrived and struggled, made mistakes and seen many of our dreams for this Catholic Worker community come to fruition.

So, this is our ”Anniversary Week,” culminating on Sunday with an anniversary party and open house from 1-4pm, and we are SO hopeful that many of you–friends, supporters, volunteers, EVERYONE–will join us!

Please come and celebrate with us if you can, or join us anytime this week for any of our regular activities which will include an ”anniversary” theme!


Join us for a simple vegetarian dinner Tuesday thru Friday, 6pm.

TUESDAY – Breakfast Brigade, 4:15-7am. If you’ve always wanted to, but just couldn’t quite get out of bed, this is the week we know you can do it! Join us in preparing a homemade breakfast of fresh-baked cinnamon-raisin bread, hard-boiled eggs, and fresh fruit, which we share with our friends at three area labor pools. AND you get to eat some of the bread–with honey butter–too!Scripture Study, 6-7:30pm. We’re studying the book of Exodus, and last week we looked at the birth narrative about Moses, where all the women–even Pharaoh’s own daughter–are breaking the law on behalf of the vulnerable and oppressed. (Click here to read more about last week’s study.) We share a simple meal just before we study so feel free to come hungry or even bring something to share.

WEDNESDAY – Morning prayer at the GCW, 7:15-45am. Join us for a simple, reflective morning prayer each Wednesday at the house. Jake leads this week’s reflection.At 11:30am, on the Plaza of the Americas at UF, our good friends from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) will be staging a march and rally to address justice issues they have with Burger King. The CIW folks will be staying at the GCW on Tuesday night before the rally and also speaking in town at several locations, including the Civic Media Center on Tuesday evening. Please join us in supporting the workers by coming out for the rally!Wednesday Night Live, 6-9pm. Students and graduates from UF and Santa Fe provide an evening of fun–a meal and a movie–for our friends, visitors and guests at the house. Join them at 6pm to help prepare this week’s meal, with serving beginning at 7pm.

THURSDAY – Roundtable discussion and dinner. Being our anniversary week, Johnny will share about the Catholic Worker movement, the Gainesville Catholic Worker’s projects and philosophy, and answer all your questions. We discuss and converse while sharing a delicious meal at 6pm. We’ve been getting great turnouts for roundtables this semester, and we’ve had to stretch the food to feed everyone (a good dilemma to have). SO, please bring a dish–salad, bread, some fruit, anything–to share if you can. If you can’t, no worries; just show up!

FRIDAY – Breakfast Brigade, 4:15-7am. A second chance (!) to join us in preparing a homemade breakfast of fresh-baked cinnamon-raisin bread, hard-boiled eggs, and fresh fruit, which we share with our friends at three area labor pools.

SUNDAY – GCW anniversary celebration, 1-4pm. It will be a potluck event, so please bring drinks or food to share (finger foods, et al) with the Servants of Christ Anglican Church providing food as well! We’ll have music, ongoing tours of the house, and at 2pm, Dr. David Hackett, chair of the Department of Religion at UF and a regular volunteer at the house (with his two kids), will give a short talk about the Catholic Worker movement, take questions, etc. Everyone is invited and you can drop by anytime between 1-4pm.