Ro: Now, do you know Russian?
Jim: No, not at all. Just the most basic words and phrases.
Ro: How can you talk…
Jim: I’ve been very lucky. I’ve always had at least one good translator working with me, somebody who was both excellent and interesting. If it’s somebody who is on the same beam, then you can really do something.
You know, earlier this evening, we were talking about this novel, Time and Again, by Jack Finney, an American wrier. I recently read it and enjoyed it quite a bit. I thought it was a special book. One of the things that I found most interesting about it was that, having managed to get back into the 1880’s from the 1970’s, the hero becomes immediately aware there is something different about people. And it’s not just because of clothes or other superficial differences. But there is something attitudinal. Something in their eyes. Something in their manner which is different. He’s able to go back and forth from the 1970’s and 1880’s so he goes back a second time. And he is now looking more attentively, contrasting these familiar faces of the 1970’s with these newly discovered faces of the 1880’s. I don’t even want to try and paraphrase what he says, but it boils down to the idea that there’s a sense of purpose in their lives. And that’s missing in our culture. We have drifted into… we can’t even imagine what it would be like to have a sense of purpose. Our purpose… of course, we have minor purposes, but they are so minor and they are so transitory and so rootless. Those people …and a lot of their purposes were ridiculous. But there was a sense of um… deep roots and also of something bursting out of the ground from those roots. And I think… I have a feeling that that’s not nearly as common now as it was. And that one of the main purposes people like… well, people in any kind of communicating vocation, whether it be a priest or writer or homemaker or whatever, um… teacher, is to give people the courage. Because it’s there. I mean it’s not as if we have to invent anything. There is nothing we have to invent. Nothing. But to just give people that courage to not be embarrassed about this purpose being in their lives. To let it work. Not to sit on it, and not to try to destroy it.
Ro: So apply that to your writing the book, the journey you are on.
Jim: Well, of course, this book was a chance to… I mean writing the book on Dorothy Day, I was able to try to open some doors. I’m not interested in biography as an end in itself. I was interested in Dorothy’s life for the same reason Dorothy was interested in living her life. You know. And I wanted to do the book in a way that would make Dorothy accessible and make her values burning questions without pointing a finger at the reader. Just to try to create a space in which the reader could say, “Oh yes! Oh yes! That’s not just for her. That has something for me, too.”
To write a book about the Russian Orthodox Church is to be dealing also with a very interesting subject and writing a kind of biography based on people that you meet and experiences that you have.
Ro: What did the process do to you?
Jim: You know, it gave me permission to open up more spaces inside of myself that I had been embarrassed about. You know, some people talk about our coming out of the closet as gay people, but I think most of us are far more embarrassed to come out of the closet as spiritual people. As praying people. As believing people. To let that happen in our lives is far more embarrassing than anything else we can think of. It’s so out of tune with the segment of society we happen to be in … That’s what I mean when I say to experience the Catholic Worker as a commitment.
An analogy: We would go up once a week to the Civil Defense Headquarters on Lexington Avenue and hand out leaflets criticizing civil defense. This was one of the little hobbies of the Catholic Worker community for awhile. And as you know, it had quite some significance finally. We were totally unaware that it might ever have any significance at all. To us it just seemed like something that was… you know, it was like going to Mass on Sunday for a lot of Catholics. We just did it.
Ro: Now they go up to the Riverside Defense Research Center.
Jim: Yes. You do this. It’s just part of the life you lead. And that’s great. Just to have certain things you do, no matter how unpromising they may seem.
Ro: So that’s how a lot of people think of the liturgy.
Jim: Right. It’s a completely ridiculous activity. From the point of view of a lot of people, you couldn’t do anything that’s more useless than that. It’s the ultimate absurd activity.
Well, we would go up and hand out these leaflets and because we were on, let’s say, Lexington Avenue, people would come in waves because of the light system. So you wouldn’t get a constant flow of people or people that were more or less even. Anybody who hands out leaflets under those circumstances quickly notices after a while that what that particular wave now coming your way is going to do will depend almost always on what the first person in that group does. Now these are a bunch of strangers. They have absolutely no connection with each other. They are simply walking down the street, grouped together by the traffic lights. But their response will depend on whoever happens to be near the front. The response of the man in front — it’s almost always a man — becomes the response of those who happen to be following him.
Ever since that leafleting experience, I’ve been very attentive to seeing how people behave in group situations. It’s something basic in us. We are basically social beings, and there are lots of proofs of it. Some of the proofs are delightful, and some are humiliating. But we are very much connected to each other. We really are. Our behavior is connected. And what we do, even spontaneously and with complete strangers, has to do with this truth about ourselves.
To make the analogy to the spiritual life… Here we are living in a time where in front of every bunch of people we have leaders who are not getting down on their knees, in any sense of the word. To be a believing person is to be exceptional in our world.
I remember being distressed by a phrase Merton used as the title of a book of his that was never published, Peace in the Post-Christian Era. In fact it was a very realistic title. And it’s an important thing to realize. We live in a post-Christian world. That’s where we live. We might as well own up to that reality and that Christian activity and Christian belief are not normal. It’s not even normal among Christians, not to say among everybody else. And we are, in many ways, constantly trying to conform ourselves to the people at the front of the crowd — at least so that our religious activities aren’t too ridiculous and too embarrassing and too isolating.
I think the amazing thing about somebody like Dorothy Day is that she simply wasn’t impressed by that at all. She worked through that and found the place where she would be free to be a believer. And when you are with one of those people, then, you know, it kind of hits you pretty hard. You know the story about the criminal who escaped from some prison in Tennessee, and happened to make his way to this home of this elderly couple. He had a gun, and he was coming into the house and threatening this elderly couple. And the old woman, a woman in her seventies, said, “Now you put that gun right down. Take off those socks.” His feet were soaked. “And sit down, and we will have some breakfast.”
When I heard it, I thought right away, “This is a Dorothy Day type.” Dorothy would do that. And it wouldn’t be any kind of play acting. She would be free to do that. She wouldn’t be so busy being afraid that she wouldn’t be unable to receive somebody or concern herself with their hunger or their wet socks. Then , to continue the story, as breakfast is put on the table, the lady says, “Let us pray. Do you want to lead the prayer?” she says to this guy.
“I don’t know what to say, ma’am.”
“Oh,” she said, “Just say, Jesus wept.”
Afterward a reporter asked her, “Why did you say that?”
“Well,” she said, “It was a short prayer.”
You have to start somewhere.
Ro: Well, if we’re not a spiritual people and we’re lemmings, that seems to call for a leader. Dorothy was such a leader for you, and Thomas Merton, too. Do you see a leader now that could possibly make these connections? That could get the…
Jim: In a way I guess they are non-leaders or anti-leaders. They are important figures in a way partly because they don’t try to take over the direction of anybody’s life.
Now right now, because of my interest in the Russian Orthodox people and the church and it’s tradition, I’m very interested in their tradition of staretz or startsi. Staretz literally means “elder.” But it has a very special use. It mean essentially somebody who is able to give spiritual direction. Almost always, it’s some elderly man or woman. One of them was a woman who lived in Leningrad in the twenties or thirties and probably will be canonized this summer at the Church Council at Holy Trinity Monastery. The Russian Orthodox Church has it’s first council in many years this summer at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, north of Moscow.
Father Zosima in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov is modeled on a particular monk, Fr. Amvrosy, who lived in the 19th century at the Optima Pustin Monastery. We see him as a staretz. They are people who are able to give you permission to do something. To make you feel you have that capacity to do something, whatever it is. And who also are able to make you see your purpose, maybe, or to cut some knots that are holding you back. There may be something, which they can see very quickly, which you would never see or perhaps would take many years to discover.
Ro: Well, now spiritual direction used to be just sort of an “in thing.” If you were going to be advancing in your spiritual life in the fifties, that’s what you did.
Jim: Right. And it was still around when I came to the Catholic Worker.
Ro: Do you know many people that are in spiritual direction now?
Jim: Very few. I had the experience of going with Henri Nouwen one time to a little village in the southeastern part of the Netherlands. An old priest lives there who did the translation into Dutch of John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila. Henry is a great admirer of this priest. He went to him for confession. When he got back, he said, “I’m the first man who has been to him in seven years for confession.” You know, that’s where we are. It’s like you have these people who are living oases. And…and nobody’s using them. That’s sad. That’s the problem.
Ro: But you don’t see this happening in the Russian Orthodox…
Jim: No. I was staggered last week when a priest I know, Father Georgi, told me that far from being rare, these startsi are still around.
Ro: And people take advantage of them and go to them?
Jim: Yes! Oh heavens, yes.
Ro: And aren’t afraid?
Jim: Not at all. He said you can go into many parishes and ask who is the staretz and you will be told. Some are famous, and people will travel long distances to see them. I’m not saying that they are all famous. But then, who cares?
The great saints in the Russian Orthodox Church are usually local saints. I mean the saints that you will hear about, that are most interesting in a particular household.
Ro: That certainly used to be true in continental Europe.
Jim: The local feast would be very important. Well, I guess one of the things that I see happening in the spiritual life of the world is that from Vatican II we are going, as Catholics, into a new and much more profound ecumenism than we ever imagined. And it’s going to mean the discovery of Orthodoxy. We have, for a thousand years, forgotten we have brothers and sisters who are Christians in the Orthodox church. They have been taking care of something for us that we desperately need. And we have the privilege to live at that time where we can discover and bring something of it into us. It’s not a question of abandoning, but the question of rejoining something that has been a broken connection.
Ro: Rediscovering maybe?
Jim: There’s a story told about one of the senior dons a college at Oxford or Cambridge deciding that they would have to replace the oak beams in the dining hall. It’s this ancient magnificent hall with these big oak beams that go up far into the sky above their heads… gorgeous things. But they are five hundred years old, and will not last much longer. They discover, after doing some research, that the college owns a forest where there are ancient oak trees. It’s hard to find oak trees that would be tall enough to cut the beams needed. They send somebody up to talk to the warden of the forest. And he said, “Well, yes. We have been wondering. My father and my father’s father always were expecting somebody to come to ask. Because for five hundred years we’ve been taking care of certain oak trees precisely for this purpose. They’re here. And they’re ready.”
I think the Orthodox church is a bit like that. It’s been taking care of certain oak trees for two thousand years.
Ro: And yet, to throw the cold light of church history on it, obviously, the parting of the ways was very political. They didn’t just say, “Well, we’ll take care of everything for you until you decide to get back together.
Jim: Oh, no, no. But I think one just has to see something of God’s providence at work. And of course one of the great ironies of the whole thing is that the largest the Orthodox churches in the world, is the Russian Orthodox Church — which we in the West hardly know exists, and don’t even want to know exists, because it complicates our view of the Soviet Union. It gets in the way of the enmity that we are involved with — perceiving these people as fellow Christians.
Ro: The words my Dad always used were “Godless Russians.”
Ro: Well, can you relate what you’re doing in this journey with the Russian Orthodox Church and show what this means?
Jim: I think… the funny thing is that we’ve spoken for years about a peace movement but it… in many ways it wasn’t a peace movement…
To quite some extent we’re complacent. We’re not dealing very effectively with the forces in our society which push us to go forth. We don’t know what those forces are. We haven’t been contemplative enough to discover them. We know that something is rotten. We know that. We know that what our governments are doing is absolutely wretched. That’s clear enough to see. We know that selfishness is the driving force in our society. We know that we don’t want to have the live our lives that way. We’ve got plenty of things to complain about. And we’re absolutely right.
Ro: But you’re not seeing capitalism per se as the evoker?
Jim: Well, it’s certainly one of the most magnificent structures of selfishness that’s ever been created. The Pope has just published what sounds, from all reports, like a very good encyclical in which it’s hard to tell which he criticizes more, capitalism or communism. We each have systems which have for various reasons, and each of them with some good consequences, done awful things to people.
I think the communist system is by definition more idealistic, but idealism by itself can be just as dangerous as any nuclear weapon. God knows many people have died of the results of idealistic movements … more people have died in concentration camps and labor camps in the Soviet Union than ever died in a nuclear explosion. But at least communism has attempted to wrestle with selfishness. It regards selfishness as a moral problem. I think the tragedy about capitalism is it doesn’t. It considers selfishness a virtue. Capitalism becomes a glorification of one of the cardinal sins.
This is one of the reasons so many people are dying in the streets in America today. Think of all those nameless people who have been lining up at the Catholic Worker houses for decades. It gets worse and worse, and we don’t want to see it. We haven’t seen it. We still are struggling not to see it.
Ro: But now… I don’t know anything about Holland as far as their social system. I know Germany has a system that people say is taking care of a lot of the immediate social problems. In other words, they don’t have the tremendous number of destitute people that we do. They don’t have these great gaps we see in America in society.
Jim: The problems are getting worse, not better at the moment. This is true even of Holland, which has been one of the most socially responsible societies in Europe. But the pressures… I mean we’re experiencing the same cultural and psychological things. And we’ve got a lot of greedy people here, too. There are people who would much rather spend it on themselves than anybody else in the world.
Ro: Okay, so you’re saying that to be a real peace movement, instead of a complaint movement, we’ve got to do something to get rid of the selfishness?
Jim: That’s part of it. And the Catholic Worker, of course, is continuously interested because that’s very much the driving force, the center. That’s one of the main questions the Catholic Worker insists that we ask, that we have the duty to ask. But another part of the Catholic Worker movement… what gives you… I mean it’s not a job to be selfish or unselfish. It comes out of a healthy spiritual life. You just discover there are other things that are far more interesting than that. It’s not some awful burden that we are shouldering like a courageous Marine who is marching into the gun fire.
Ro: Well, almost everybody that I talk to says, you know, the reason that they are living the life is because it’s fun. Because it’s wonderful. It’s not boring. But then they don’t stay. They end up getting their VCR’s and cassette recorders… what do you call those things?
Jim: Well, you said at the beginning that Michael Harrington told you, “I’m still part of the Catholic Worker movement.”
Ro: He said, “I’ve always been a Catholic Worker, but in my own way.”
Jim: And I really think that Dorothy never was trying to mass produce a certain kind of Christian, or to give the correct list of possessions to people. “This you can have and this you shouldn’t have.” Rather, she was asking you to keep living with certain questions.
Dorothy felt that she personally had much too much. I can remember going out to a Jewish dairy restaurant with Dorothy for lunch one day and her lamenting how selfish she was, how she felt that she had much too much. And what were we doing? We were sitting there having a ten cent glass of Borscht with a little spoonful of sour cream, at the counter of a little delicatessen. But for her at that moment, thinking of people who had nothing, she felt as if she were dining at the Russian Tea Room. What was the difference? And she’s right. There is no difference. If you have that possibility to have this or that.
Ro: Well, but to be the gadfly, I think… probably the reason that Father Hugo was silenced was his tendency to scrupulosity.
Jim: Yes, there was a Jansenistic aspect to Hugo. I’m no theologian, and don’t want to pass judgement on him. I never knew him. I’ve only read him. But I think there was a tendency to idealize a certain kind of radical detachment from the material world.
Ro: If something is good, you have to give it up.
Ro: See, you never really saw… I don’t see that in the writings of Dorothy Day. But you’re saying…
Jim: I think we don’t like to live with tensions. We want to have either the Dorothy Day that rolls up in the newspapers or Dorothy Day says it’s okay not to roll up in the newspapers. But we don’t want the Dorothy Day that has both of these messages because, rationally speaking, they cannot be simultaneously combined. In the actual experience of living, though, they have to be combined.
Ro: Well, obviously then, it forces you to make every decision.
Ro: I used to say that mature Christianity meant being comfortable in the grey. But then I decided grey sounded pretty bad. Sounds boring and I don’t mean that. But you have to live in the tensions. It’s not grey there. It’s just flickering black and white.
Jim: None of us — certainly I would a fine example of this — are converted enough. And there’s a lot of things that I’m able to do or have done or own or plan to own that I probably shouldn’t. What would be worse would be for me to be comfortable about that.
Ro: In other words… as long as someone or you, yourself, can prick you…
Jim: Over the years I have spent a great deal of money on books. And I felt very bad about that.
I’ve often thought about the desert father who sold his one book, a Bible, because he read in it that you should sell everything and give it to the poor. I thought that was incredible. At the time a Bible was extremely valuable — a completely handwritten book. It’s a stunning story. I have felt haunted by it because I had more than the Bible. I have hundreds and hundreds of books. Though I had very little money, I spent most of it on books. I still spend a fair amount on books. But in the last two or three years I’ve spent a lot of money on music. We sold our car and got central heating. That’s fine. Everybody accepts that. We got a drying machine. It was a border line case for the Dutch. Everybody in Holland probably should have a clothes dryer, though, because of the weather. We got a transcribing machine and a tape recorder. And we have a compact disc player. That was an alarming acquisition for everybody that I know.
Ro: But that’s other people thinking of it…
Jim: But other people are also me. You know I’m watching myself and saying, “Oh my God ! I’m jumping into consumer addiction with a passion.”
Ro: The thing that I’m treasuring now is the computer, because it’s helping me as a writer. If you take this whole giving-up-your-Bible track like that monk, then I should give up that. I shouldn’t particularly give up the pair of shoes I just bought, because that’s really not what I love. I love the computer and the books.
Jim: Well, anyway, I think that all those kinds of things have a tendency to go in totally the wrong direction. Because it gets into a kind of shopping list approach to salvation.
As if Jesus on the last day is going to say, “All those who didn’t have this, you know, raise your hand. All those who didn’t have this, raise your hand. All those who didn’t have this, raise your hand. All those who didn’t have this…” after a while he’s going to find some people who didn’t have all the things that he has mentioned, and they are going to go to heaven. But that’s not the Bible. It’s not Christianity. That kind of thinking has nothing to do with Jesus. Thank God, it has nothing to do with our spiritual life. It does have to do with reducing the Gospel to a kind of fascistic system of domination where we are going to dominate ourselves, if nobody else, with a whole bunch of rules which have absolutely nothing to do with loving anybody. Nothing to do with caring.
I think, again, that’s one of the messages of the Catholic Worker. It never preached a Book of Rules version of the Gospel. It was, however, a bit vulnerable to scrupulosity because of it terrific passion for the poor. Inevitably we would attract people, and sometimes be very inspired by them, who made material dispossession their Gospel. But it’s not the Gospel. And in fact, I think one of the marvelous things about Orthodoxy and one of the reasons that Western church needs this encounter with Orthodoxy is because the connection between the spiritual and the material is so solid. So much more solid than it is in our Church, whether it be the Catholic Church or any of the other churches that have grown out of the Catholic Church. All of the Protestant churches have grown out of the Catholic Church.
Over and over again, we’ve had heresies of this kind — in fact, into modern times. It’s one of the things we’ve never sorted out. We’re still trying to figure this thing out. And I think, of course, the Orthodox are, too. But they have much less trouble with the connection between the spiritual and the material than we do.
Ro: Of course Merton figured the whole thing out by going east… even farther east than Orthodoxy. Now has that ever…
Jim: Well, that was a big thing for me, too. Buddhism. Getting to know Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk. I was very close to him.
Ro: Talk about that part. You traveled with him. This was through Thomas Merton.
Jim: Actually it was through the Fellowship of Reconciliation that Nhat Hanh came to know Merton. Both Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh were members of the FOR. And the FOR managed to introduce them to each other, and it became a very significant meeting for them, for both of them.
I traveled a great deal with Thich Nhat Hanh. He had much in common with Dorothy and Merton.
It’s an awful tyranny when other people decide who you will be. I remember Nhat Hanh giving me a question at some point, a sort of Zen question which says, “Jim Forest is a little bit like Dorothy Day. Jim Forest is a little bit like Thomas Merton. Jim Forest is not Dorothy Day. Jim Forest is not Thomas Merton.” And there were a couple of other people listed. “Jim Forest is not one of those people. Who is Jim Forest?”
It was a very important question to ask me because up to that point a lot of my life had to do with trying to adapt myself to be something like a combination of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan and several other people I admired. I came to realize that sanctity is not being somebody else. You have to pass through a lot of other people to find yourself, maybe. That’s one way of putting it. But in the end, you have to break away.
One of the saying in Buddhism that Thich Nhat Hanh emphasized was, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him” — because for you to become a Buddha, you have to kill the Buddha. I’m not going to go into a big explanation of it. It’s just… I understand now. I’ve had to, at one point or another, break with Dorothy Day, break with Dan Berrigan, break with Thomas Merton. In order to come back to me. But no longer with my tongue hanging out looking up at them, but just as people God has given me and us. Not to dominate my life but to grace it. And not to judge me but to encourage me. You know, there is an element of judgement in that encouragement, but it is first of all encouragement.
I’m not going to be saved by that. And I cannot be who God wants me to be until I can come to that. (Long pause)
Certainly Dorothy never wanted to be anybody’s cult figure. You know that. I think she nonetheless has to… just as she accepted the community of the saints, so do I. I think she has to be in that, too.
Ro: Okay, we were talking about that earlier. The icon of Dorothy. The Claretian movement.
Jim: As she said, “Don’t make a saint out of me. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”
Ro: How do you feel about this whole sainthood thing?
Jim: Well, first of all I think that Dorothy felt that she was a fraud, that people admired her and saw her as a saint because she had hidden from them the truth about herself.
Ro: Okay, is that part of why you wrote the book?
Jim: No, not really. I mean, I think you can’t write a biography of somebody without writing about things that were extremely important to their life. Dorothy felt very ashamed that she had not been able in The Long Loneliness to reveal certain important moments in her life… just as Merton didn’t write about the child he fathered at Cambridge in The Seven Story Mountain. Both of them had hidden very important facts, probably both for the same reasons — out of shame, but also partly because it was clear at the time that, had they written about those things, those aspects of their past would have dominated the perceptions of others in such a way that people would have just said, “Look, this is Dorothy Day who had an abortion” — not Dorothy Day, who is involved with houses of hospitality. Whatever the reasons were, she certainly felt ashamed and guilty about that.
Perhaps she felt that she was hardly different than Madison Avenue. She had created an image of herself which was misleading. Very few people knew about her abortion. If they did know, perhaps they wouldn’t be so quick to throw a halo on her.
And also it is a way of dismissing living people to call them saints — because then I don’t have to be like them. You can go to the zoo and admire the giraffes, and you don’t have to become a giraffe.
Ro: But yet it would seem to me if we’re all to be about being saints, it’s helpful to know that Dorothy did not spring fully good into being in 1933.
Jim: Right. I don’t think the biographies of people who…
Ro: Augustine’s Confessions. That’s the best one.
Jim: So far as one can tell, Augustine doesn’t hide anything. I think it’s very helpful information to know that. It’s a pity, though, that he was so upset about his past that his sexual theology was a bit obscure.
Ro: So was Dorothy’s.
Jim: Hers was very much the same. She was very much an Augustinian in that way. I guess because both of them had gone through such a cesspool that they just…
Ro: Well, if you want to get philosophical, that’s probably why the Western world has so much trouble with materialism or with the mix of the material and spiritual.
Jim: Right. Yes, yes, yes. I think that’s right. But somehow the Eastern Orthodox tradition, which grew out of some of the same issues, didn’t quite buy that whole thing. Maybe it’s the celibate priesthood that was the problem. That in the West the holiness and celibacy have gotten mixed up in our idea of faithfulness.
Ro: Well, all the women will tell you that.
Jim: I’ve played pope so many times in my life that I hope that I can never do that again. I don’t really know what is behind our problems. I have some guesses, and I just don’t know if they are true or not. But I very much admire the married priesthood in the Orthodox church. And, as Nancy was saying recently, it’s one thing to hear the spiritual life being talked about by a married priest and another thing to hear it being talked about by somebody who is not. It’s so different from your own experience that you just don’t know. I mean, you just don’t know how many bridges there are between you and this guy. But if somebody is married and starts talking to you about fasting or talks to you about anything, somehow you know that that’s a question in his life, too. He has a wife, and he has kids. He’s dealing with the same stuff that I am. So that’s different.
I hope and pray for that the Catholic Church to recover the married priesthood. This is one of the treasures of the Orthodox Church that we desperately need. And it has a lot to do with spirituality, too.
Ro: A lot of it makes sense. You know, as a woman that really makes sense. I think that’s may be the root. But I interrupted you with that flash on Augustine. We were talking about Dorothy’s biography. Why do you think you wrote the book about her? I think you’ve explained why you wrote the book… the process of writing the book about the Russian Orthodox Church. Why did you write the book about Dorothy?
Jim: I’m reading, at the moment, a book on iconography — Doors of Perception, I think it’s called.
Ro: Doors of Perception by Huxley?
Jim: This is not Huxley’s book. It’s the same title, but it’s an entirely different book. It has nothing to do with drugs. Oh, Huxley’s book is quite an interesting one as a matter of fact. The author is John Bagley. He quotes one of the letters of St. Paul where he talks about us more and more becoming… if we live in the presence of the image of Christ and we become like that image. As we live in that presence, the image converts us.
Ro: Which is the idea behind icons…
Jim: To write a book is a kind of iconography. And the only question is, you know, to do that or not. I think Dorothy is a saint. I wouldn’t be interested in writing about her otherwise. But it’s precisely because she makes sanctity accessible to people, to me, that I wanted to contribute to changing our idea of what we understand by the word “saint.” So that we aren’t thinking about a saint as some kind of giraffe — a perfectly admirable creature but nothing that’s part of our future.
If Dorothy can be a saint, probably anybody can be a saint. You know? She wasn’t copying anybody. She just, little by little, became free to be Dorothy Day. And she did that out of a lot of wreckage. She never felt good about herself, in some ways, but she did it. And anybody who’s been part of the Catholic Worker movement and thinks of sticking with it for quite some time knows what an accomplishment that is. It’s very hard to last for more than a week in many houses. Certainly hard to last more than a year. Dorothy was in a privileged position, some would say, in that she could travel about, and she had a lot of recognition and so on and so forth. But in other ways she was in a worse position than anybody else.
Ro: Yes, because she was…
Jim: All the expectations! And she had to deal with all this chaos and hatred and dissent and so forth.
Ro: And she had to feel responsible for it, in some ways, that I don’t think other… Well, let me qualify that. I see some of the heads of houses… Jeff Dietrich, in particular, has this… this sense of responsibility. And it’s got to be hard because they do feel responsible for souls, kind of.
Jim: It’s a huge spiritual responsibility. Nancy and I saw this very often in the priests that we met last summer when we traveled together in the Soviet Union. We had never seen priests like that before. It gave Nancy a whole different idea of the word “patriarch.” Previously it had always been an extremely negative word.
Ro: Well, it’s bandied around a bit these days.
Jim: But people who are able to give leadership spiritually, and to encourage people in the spiritual life, as Dorothy did, carry an enormous responsibility. They are founts of encouragement. But really, sometimes they’re not at all impressive. Sometimes the very opposite. Sometimes there’s nothing less impressive in the whole world than this kind of patriarch or matriarch. Of course there are matriarchs, too.
Ro: There are?
Jim: Like Dorothy. Dorothy was something like the powerful abbesses of medieval times.
Nancy: There are the Matuskas.
Jim: Yes, the Matuskas. The wife of priest is a very important person in the Russian Orthodox Church. Priest and priest’s wife — it’s a dual vocation.
Ro: To get back to the book on Dorothy for one last thing. There are people that say that to use a novel, even if it’s very thinly disguised autobiography, isn’t exactly…
Jim: The best historical method? No, I wouldn’t claim that it’s a work of scholarship. I hope it’s a true book. I think it’s a true book. And everybody that has known Dorothy well, and has commented on the book in manuscript or since it’s published, has made me believe that it is actually the best introduction to her life. I say that with complete modesty because so many people were involved in the writing of the book.
Ro: Well, I use it as that because it’s accessible. I mean it’s an accessible book. Whereas most… for the Coles book, for instance, you have to know Dorothy… you have to have read everything else before you can understand him.
Jim: People who knew Dorothy much more intimately than I did have said that, really, it’s right. These things happened to her, and the balance is rightly struck. I’m amazed at that because it was written all here at this table where we’re sitting, here in Holland across the ocean.
Ro: But it isn’t terribly balanced. It’s definitely oriented towards peace. Not towards… if oh, Ed Marciniak or some of those Chicago folks or some of the people who worked so much in labor, (would have written it.) I mean, you hardly mention labor until you get up to Caesar Chavez. You have to admit your perspective.
Jim: True. I suppose…
Ro: Which happens to be mine, too, because that’s how I came to become interested in the Catholic Worker. And you did too, really. When you think of it.
Jim: The thing about any biography (and I feel it’s especially true of my attempts at biography) is… um… it’s a forest compared to the life. No matter what. I’ve just read two excellent biographies of Peter the Great (who is not one of my very favorite historical people but a fascinating character.) But you have to realize how much the biographers figure in their books. And that’s certainly true of my attempt…
Ro: I think that’s what makes a good biography. The dynamic between author and subject.
Jim: I don’t know if it does or not, but it’s certainly a true… and to the extent that the writer tries to hide that. I suppose it’s a deceptive sort of thing. I didn’t try to hide it. I simply didn’t talk about it.
Ro: I don’t think you hid it. I think you did it very well with the afterward. I just think that anyone who tries to say that a biography doesn’t have the writer in it is crazy. Just like this book is going to have a lot of me in it. Even though I’ll cut out most of my words, it’s still me.
Jim: I don’t know how much of the labor thing I should have gotten into the book, actually. One of the principals for me was that the book should be short. And that means that an enormous amount of editing is… it’s a bit like the film on Gandhi. Even if it’s a three-hour film, it’s three hours about a life that was about eighty years long. What are you going to put in those three hours that will reveal that life?
Ro: Well, aren’t you also thinking of who’s going to read book?
Jim: I’m thinking very much of students I have known.
Ro: And they think of the labor movement a whole lot differently than someone who is sixty-five years old.
Jim: Well, I grew out of the labor movement. My father was an organizer. A communist party organizer.
Ro: But that really (wasn’t brought out in the book.)
Jim: When I came to the Catholic Worker, it wasn’t much of a stress, that would have to be said. Dorothy was never talking about it.
Ro: When Ed Marciniak came to the Catholic Worker, it was the scene. In the thirties, it was the scene.
Jim: That’s true. They had the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists.
Ro: If they would write it, they would concentrate on that and not on…
Jim: And Michael Harrington and that sort of thing.
Ro: Ed Marciniak thinks the whole peace thing… he kept calling it a cult. He doesn’t see it the way we see it.
Jim: I know he doesn’t see it. And there were a whole bunch of people who broke off from the movement over that issue, but I think it was central to Dorothy Day’s thinking from the very beginning. Even in the first six months, you see it emerging as one of the principal themes in the paper.
Dorothy took a huge beating over the Spanish Civil War. If I remember what Dorothy said correctly (I’ve never had the chance to do the research on this), the Catholic Worker was expelled from the Catholic Press Association for its failure to support Franco. In fact the paper supported neither side. And Dorothy never would rejoin, according… if I remember correctly what she said. I think I one time proposed it to her and she said no. She hadn’t forgiven them. She was very… that had hurt. She had gone through a lot over that. And I’m sure that there were many people in the Catholic Worker movement who didn’t agree.
And this was before Marciniak was thinking about joining the Catholic Worker. It was the Second World War which become the big issue in Chicago. They had people like… I’m trying to think of his name. He who was a bomber during the Second World War. He later became a Trappist priest. Jack English. And the Chicago folks. They were closer to mainstream Catholic Church thinking about this than Dorothy was by ten thousand miles. Pacifism was nothing new for her. They had just never taken her views on this too seriously. And precisely because she was a matriarch, she wasn’t ashamed to be out of step with practically everybody in the Catholic Worker movement. And to fight like a mother for her kids. She did the right thing. I think everybody knows that. But it was a very peculiar idea at the time.
Again, I would just say sanctity makes it possible to be free. And that she was free to do anything, and she never felt that she was out of step with the tradition by doing it. She knew that she was out of step with most people. But she felt they were out of step with the authentic tradition. Whether they were bishops or whether they were running a Catholic Worker community.
Ro: Do you think that the Roman Catholic Church in America will ever become a peace church?
Jim: I don’t know. I just don’t know what’s going to happen in the Church, how it’s going to develop. It’s obviously going through a big change. The peace pastoral of the American Catholic Bishops is far from the perfect document, but it’s a wonderful letter. It’s a treasure of the church. There are inconsistencies in it, but it’s still a wonderful thing. I think what’s most remarkable about it is what it has to say about Jesus and the New Testament and the whole biblical tradition. This is a recovery of something that was lost and footnoted to death in the Catholic Church. And I think the Catholic Worker’s contribution to that was essential, really. I don’t think it would have happened if it hadn’t been for the Catholic Worker. And it wasn’t just an American phenomena.
Dorothy’s impact and the Catholic Worker’s impact on the church internationally has been quite significant. I think that’s growing, actually. It’s quite a remarkable thing when you think about it. That Dorothy was invited to receive communion from the Pope when she was in Rome for that big conference. I don’t think people realize how unusual it is for something like that to happen to anybody. And that she and an astronaut should be the two Americans chosen. Also that Cardinal Cooke should be asked by the Pope to bring Dorothy a birthday message when she was very ill. The Cardinal doesn’t usually deliver birthday messages from the Pope to anybody.
She touched the Church. They felt her presence. She mattered in her lifetime to people who didn’t even think they agreed with her. That they could not resist that sense of the presence of God in her life.
I can remember opening an envelope from Cardinal MacIntrye in Los Angeles with a check and a note to Dorothy: “This is to thicken the soup.” Well, we didn’t have a “thicken the soup” fund at the Catholic Worker. It was just one bank account. Everything went into it and everything we did came out of it. And he knew that. Dorothy never made any pretense to the contrary. It was all one thing. If you sent fifty dollars to the Catholic Worker, it got used. Period. The Cardinal sent the money anyway.
I remember people would be very critical of Cardinal Spellman, and I was not least among them. And Dorothy could on occasion be critical of Cardinal Spellman. But if you were critical about Cardinal Spellman, she would always speak up for him. And it wouldn’t be in generalities. She would talk about something he had done. I think it was Dorothy who told me that Spellman had priests who didn’t like to receive night calls to go down to the Bowery to administer the last rites. Spellman told the person answering the phone, “If any of those calls come through, give them to me personally”. And she knew things like that about people, and she would tell them to show their good side.
I think one of the unusual things about Dorothy was quite different than most of us. If we decided we didn’t like somebody, we’d make it a kind of hobby to collect reasons not to like that person. We could develop quite a number of reasons to justify our irritation. Dorothy had a lot of reasons to dislike Cardinal Spellman, but it was more her hobby to find out things to admire about him. That’s very unusual. And I think it’s important. Somehow it should open some doors for all of us.
Ro: Ummm hmmm… Now if the canonization, the whole process–devil’s advocate and all of that stuff. If it actually gets going, how do you think that’s going to affect the Catholic Worker movement?
Jim: Well, it seems that all the religious orders have survived the canonization of their founders. Maybe the Catholic Worker can, too. The Catholic Worker is better defended against the problems of institutionalization than most movements.
It’s important for the Catholic Worker not to treat Dorothy as private property. And that this is basically an issue here. She belongs to the human race. She is a member of the community of believers. If the community of believers has the right from time to time to recognize some people as particular models of society, then they have the right to consider her. It’s not for us to say yes or no. I think we only have to be truthful about who she was and not attached to the consequences of it, really. Not try to be the policeman of this process one way or the other. I just don’t think that is the way Dorothy would want us to do. I personally think that she should be, and probably will be, canonized.