I’ve been interested for some time in the life of Dorothy Day, an American socialist and anarchist in the first decades of the 20th century, who converted to Catholicism, founded the Catholic Worker movement, and lived a life of voluntary poverty and social activism until her death in 1980.
Back at the beginning of my Lenten reading list when I read Shaine Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution, I remember being annoyed at his lack of a sense of history — he seemed to feel that he and his college friends were the first Christians who’d ever tried literally living Christ’s command to “sell all that you have and give to the poor.” I wondered had he heard of Dorothy Day, among countless others Christians throughout the ages who had chosen a path of poverty and service to the poor? (Actually, later in the book he did make reference to Day and the Catholic Worker movement, so I stopped being annoyed).
Day’s combination of socialism and Christianity was naturally intriguing to me, even though her writing style seems oddly formal and distant to someone (like me) who’s used to reading a lot of breezy twenty-first centry memoirs. Some of her political ideas were new to me — for example, I tend to associate libertarianism with right-wing views, as probably most people do today, but Day and the others who founded the Catholic Worker were very much left-wing libertarians — they believed in sharing everything for the common good, but without the involvement of the State. It was a very different point of view from what I’ve been exposed to before.
As with Claiborne’s book, I came away troubled by this idea of voluntary poverty, which Day seems to simply take for granted as the ideal for the Christian. I think my problem is that I am so attracted to it as an ideal, and so completely uninterested in it as something I might want to do in everyday life. And I don’t like the burden of guilt that it lays on the ordinary Christian — yet, what if that is rightly placed guilt? What if we actually should be selling everything and living among the poor? Certainly at a time in human history when it seems obvious that we rich Westerners are going to have to learn to get along with less so the planet and its people can all survive, we ought to be thinking more about what we can do without than what we can get, but any baby steps I make in that direction are pretty feeble compared with the kind of communal life Dorothy Day and her cohorts lived.
Here’s the other thing: living in community. This is always the ideal that goes along with the idea of voluntary poverty: Shaine Claiborne and others following that ideal today call it a “new monasticism.” Again, love the idea, but in reality? I am so not designed for living in community. I can just about handle living in community with the three people who share my house, and that’s because I gave birth to two of them and sleep with the other one. Hospitality, yes — come and go freely! But go, that’s a key part of it!! Even among my closest friends I cannot think of one person I’d serious want to live in a communal household with.
One thing I like about Dorothy Day’s autobiography is that she doesn’t sugar-coat the stories of starting, or living in, the Catholic Worker communities. She’s very honest about the disagreements, the abuse of the system, the conflicts that arose among people who were seriously trying to live as the early Christians did. Hey, even the Bible is honest (in Acts) about the difficulties the early Christians faced trying to live like that. Voluntary poverty and communal living may be the ideal, but nobody — least of all Dorothy Day — ever suggested it was easy.