Thérèse, by Dorothy Day

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The last couple of weeks I’ve been writing about books that inspired Dorothy Day, who devoted her life to working for peace and social justice. Always her focus was on ordinary people: working people held back by low wages and bad working conditions and those most vulnerable in our society such as people living in poverty. With Peter Maurin she founded the Catholic Worker Movement with the intention of actually living according to the precepts that the Catholic church and indeed all Christian sects preach.

While I am not a Catholic myself, I turned to this short biography because Day was deeply influenced by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower. Unlike the other Teresa, St. Teresa of Avila who was an activist and reformer as well as a mystic, Thérèse came from a humble background and lived what would seem to be an unremarkable life until her death from tuberculosis at 24.

Upon entering an enclosed Carmelite convent at the young age of 15, she spent her time in prayer and performing the hard work necessary to the community of 20 nuns, such as the back-breaking work of washing clothes by hand outdoors in winter. Near the end of her life, she was asked by the prioress to write an account of her life, an autobiography that has comforted and inspired many people

What sets her apart from other saints is her simple approach to spirituality. What she called her “little way” consists of practicing the presence of God and offering each moment to Him by making it an act of love. If another nun teased her by splashing her with dirty water, she responded with affection instead of anger. If she was assigned some hard task, she performed it without complaint, even when she was in great pain from her illness. Day says that Thérèse described these “irritations encountered in her life with twenty others under obedience . . . to show of what little things the practice of virtue is made up.”

Not all of us are broken on a wheel or shot full of arrows. The stories of most saints are dramatic and heroic. Thérèse’s everyday offering, though, is something we can all do. We can all strive to be a little bit better in everything we do.

In his Introduction, Robert Ellsberg says:

From Thérèse, Day learned that each sacrifice endured in love, each work of mercy might increase the balance of love in the world. She extended this principle to the social sphere. Each protest or witness for peace—though apparently foolish and ineffective, no more than a pebble in a pond—might send forth ripples that could transform the world . . .

Thérèse’s little way, in fact, offers an essential key to interpreting the message of Day. In a time when so many feel overwhelmed by the vast powers of this world, she bore witness to another power, one disguised in what is apparently small and weak. Certainly, life at the Catholic Worker offered daily, hourly, opportunities for self-mortification—the little decisions to sacrifice one’s time, privacy, comforts, and cravings for the sake of others. It was the practice of these small, daily choices . . . that equipped Day for the extraordinary and heroic actions she performed on a wider stage.

These days I often feel “overwhelmed by the vast powers of this world” and take comfort in the idea of small actions: a call, a postcard, a rally. I struggle to find the right balance between resisting being bullied and responding with love. This account of Thérèse’s life helps me look at these issues a different way. Complete and unquestioning obedience like hers is not right for me, but I could be more compassionate.

In a novel by Elizabeth Goudge, I read of an elderly woman in rural England during the Blitz. Unable to help those being bombed in London in any practical way due to poor health and fortune, she did the only thing she could: she prayed. My practical nature resists the idea that prayer and good intentions actually help others, but they can’t hurt, and I certainly know that some small action can have huge consequences later. We don’t know how another person may be influenced by what to us is a casual aside.

It is Thérèse’s parents whom I’ll remember from this book. Both wanted the religious life but were rejected by the holy communities they sought to enter. Day says of Thérèse’s father that “he made up his mind to live a holy life in the world.” This, to me, is the essential problem: how to live according to your ideals in this flawed world where temptations abound and compromises are the norm.

For Louis and Zélie Martin, their way was to work hard—he as a watch and clockmaker; she as a maker of fine Alençon lace—and raise their five daughters according to their beliefs. Day says of Louis “It was through marriage and the bringing up of a family that he was to play his great and saintly role in the world.” The same is true of Zélie. To the joy of both parents, all of their daughters became nuns. All are remembered for their goodness.

We can each of us play a “great and saintly role in the world” even when our lives are quite ordinary. Whatever we call our practice—compassion, mindfulness, or the presence of God—we can pursue it as our gift to the world.

What book has inspired you?

The Diary of a Country Priest, by Georges Bernanos

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Like Bread and Wine, this book was one that Dorothy Day reread frequently. It is a fictional diary of a young, unnamed priest assigned to his first parish: an isolated, rural village in 1930s France. As it opens, he stops on his rounds and looks out at the “miserable little houses huddled together under the desolate, ugly November sky” and is overwhelmed by his own inadequacy.

We can all of us manage to peel potatoes and feed pigs, provided we are given the orders to do so. But it is less easy to edify a whole parish with acts of obedience, than a mere community of monks. More especially since the parish would always be unaware of them, and the parish would never understand. [author’s emphasis]

This is, in fact, what happens to him. Mocked by the children, the target of gossip by the adults, he struggles with self-doubt and despair. He suffers from stomach pains that make it impossible to eat anything but bread dipped in wine, leading the village to think that he is a drunk. They take advantage of his unworldliness to cheat him and play pranks on him. From a peasant background, he feels awkward dealing with the inhabitants of the Château. He does find a few friends to confide in, particularly an older priest, the Curé de Torcy, but continues to feel like a failure. Even at the end of the book he calls himself “a very commonplace, very ordinary man.”

There are pros and cons to writing a novel in the form of a diary. Its main advantage is the reader’s intense immersion into the protagonist’s thoughts. However, this can become a liability if the protagonist does not hold our interest. I struggled with this novel for the first half of the book, bored by his endless complaints, his timidity, and the monotonous routine of his life.

What redeems the book is the second half, where we—or I at least—begin to understand that this is the story of a spiritual journey. He himself believes that he is becoming more and more incompetent; he cannot even pray anymore. Yet we see that he is actually beginning to have an effect on those around him.

Another problem with diaries is that we only told about events from the protagonist’s point of view and only what he chooses to share with his diary. Bernanos avoids this problem by having his priest copy down long speeches from other characters. While this could open the novel up to the dreaded “nothing is happening” accusation, in fact these voices are so individual and so forceful that I looked forward to these passages.

They are mainly extended conversations on the nature of God and other spiritual questions. While such questions are of little interest to me at this point in my life, I can see how they would be treasured by Dorothy Day, who converted to Catholicism in 1927. Also, in her Houses of Hospitality, I’m sure she sometimes had to deal with people as difficult as those in our priest’s parish. I expect she found strength in his humility and patience, and comfort in his experience of grace.

Have you read a book that has given you strength or comfort?

Bread and Wine, by Ignazio Silone

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I’ve been reading books by my great hero, Dorothy Day. Throughout her life she worked for peace and social justice. She truly lived by her ideals. With Peter Maurin, she started the Catholic Worker movement which, among other great works, has resulted in the founding of Houses of Hospitality across the U.S., which provide free housing for those in need. As Thomas Merton said in a letter to Alfonso Cortés, “the humble, the poor, and especially the disinherited are the ones who before all else deserve our attention and our compassion.”

I’m also reading books that influenced her, such as this 1936 novel by an Italian who worked underground against the fascists and was exiled. Ignazio Silone is a pseudonym adopted by Secundo Tranquilli because of threats by Mussolini’s government against his family.

The main character, Pietro Spina, much like the author, works against the fascists. Depending on who is talking, he is either a dangerous revolutionary or an admired freedom fighter. At the beginning of the story, Spina sneaks into Italy after thirteen years of exile. Although he is in ill health, he is determined to organise the peasants to rise against the fascists.

In Rome, he finds his former comrades in disarray. Two friends smuggle him into the countryside dressed as a priest. This disguise causes him much inner turmoil, since he faults the church for supporting the fascists and for not doing more to help the poor. It also causes him outer turmoil because the small village where he’s been sent has not had a priest for some time and the residents want him to hear confessions, confer blessings, and perform other holy duties.

The meat of the story, for me at least, is not his political work but his own inner transformation. He muses on his childhood “infatuation with the absolute, the . . . rejection of the compromises and pretenses of ordinary life, even the . . . readiness for self-sacrifice.” Later, still in disguise, a chemist in the village expresses compassion for Spina saying that “‘His revolt is illusory . . .’”

And Spina is becoming disillusioned. The same chemist knew Spina’s father when they were students and remembers him saying later, when life had changed him, “ ‘The poetry has finished and the prose has begun.’” For Spina, it is his failure to interest the peasants in politics. The conversations fascinated me with their insight into what it does to a person to toil endlessly on the land and still not make enough to feed your children. Spina tries to make them think “of the use to be made of our lives.”

How is one to live? That is the question I see threaded through all of these books I’ve been reading: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Georges Bernanos, Silone. I’m interested in alternatives to resignation when our youthful ideals meet the inevitable limitations of our society, our fellows, and ourselves.

How do we resist facism? Do we continue to give of ourselves? How much? It is said of one character that she “‘did not follow rules, but her heart.’” This idea gives me hope.

What book have you read that has influenced how you live your life?