Beauty in Overlooked Places and Faces

The Catholic Worker (New York) / June-July 2011

All is Grace: a Biography of Dorothy Day
by Jim Forest
Orbis Books, 344 pages, 2011

review by Amanda Daloisio

Upon opening All is Grace, the new edition of the biography of Dorothy Day by Jim Forest, one is struck first by the sheer number of photographs. Dispersed throughout the book, often accompanied by quotes from Dorothy’s writing, they are a large part of what makes this book so engaging. The pictures are by turns striking, surprising, familiar and new. They span her entire life and introduce us to those Dorothy loved: from her sister Della to her daughter Tamar to her nine grandchildren. There are photos of people whose names are Catholic Worker legend: Ammon Hennessy, Stanley Vishnewski, and Ade Bethune, but also snapshots of the various houses and farms, of demonstrations and of life in the New York Catholic Worker.

From the first page you realize that Jim Forest is a skillful storyteller, brimming with enough detail to be gripping, lively enough never to drag. Alternating between the fascinating facts of Dorothy Day’s life, the world in which it enfolded and the arc of her inner life, we are treated to a story that is part history, part biography, and part philosophy. And this seems fitting for a woman who so desired to engage the world and all its suffering and beauty. Her focus was in equal measure about the life of the body as experienced in the suffering of the poor, the life of the spirit and one’s relationship to God. She felt called to do all this in a community fed on the conviction that to work for peace and serve the poor is, indeed, a “duty of delight”.

From a very young age, Dorothy Day nurtured the seeds that would later germinate and influence her conversion and religious yearnings as well as the creation of the Catholic Worker. Growing up in a nominally Episcopalian household, Dorothy remembered a neighbor in Chicago telling her the story of a saint as a young girl. “[I] almost burst with desire to take part in such high endeavor… I was filled with a natural striving, a thrilling recognition of the possibilities of spiritual adventure.” What came with that desire were experiments with piety, even convincing her younger sister Della to sleep on the hard floor as the saints did in their monastic cells.

Later, intoxicated by new found freedom at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, she willingly sacrificed comfort and worked at manual labor jobs to spend what money she had on books, wanting her education to be about the labor movement, socialism and Fyodor Dostoevsky and her time to be spent writing. This seed of precarity would only grow as she moved to New York City at the age of eighteen. With newspapers such as The Masses and The Call, she continuously worked for little wages, if it meant writing meaningful articles. There was already a firm connection between what she wrote and how she lived. Her heroes were those of all stripes, from saints to socialists, who struggled toward a goal at great personal sacrifice.

One ever present and astonishing aspect of Dorothy Day’s personality was her ability to see and experience beauty. An avid reader from a young age, she found inspiration in the way books and music could transform the drabness of daily life into a meaningful pursuit. As Jim Forest describes it, “Dorothy loved words, rejoiced in the way they could be sewn together to change seasons, leap across time and space, or simply describe the ordinary things around her that she found most captivating.” Often this reading pushed her out the door and into the world. After reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Dorothy spent time walking through the slums of Chicago. In these poor neighborhoods, she found “the odor of geranium leaves, tomato plants, marigolds; the smell of lumber, of tar, of roasting coffee; the smell of good bread and rolls and coffee cake coming from the small German bakeries. Here was enough beauty to satisfy me.”(19) She was then just a teenager.

This ability would stay with her and provide solace in the midst of chaos for the rest of her life. At the age of eighty-one, she wrote as she looked out of her window at Maryhouse, “At exactly 8:05 AM, the morning sun gilds the upper floors of the building across the street, creeping from the gray one to the red brick one. A lovely sight…The sycamore tree stirs in the cold, east wind. The sky is a cloudless blue. And now one side of the tree, reaching the third floor of those tenements, is all gilded, as the sun spreads rapidly around…’My’ tree is now radiant with sun!” Manual labor, beauty, books, and personal sacrifice- these are some of the elements of Dorothy’s story that begin in her as a child. It is the crafting of All is Grace that allows us to follow these elements as they snake through her life, becoming themes and philosophies that Catholic Worker communities continue to struggle with and strive for.

It could be said that this gift, as well as her sensitivity to the plight of the poor, led Dorothy to be very present in the world. In short, she was a woman who paid attention to the bigger picture as well as the slightest detail, to the sinful effects of war on entire countries as well as the sorrows the “filthy, rotten system” had on the person who comes to the door. Combined with courage and a headstrong nature, she took what she saw and heard and turned it into concrete work. She met Peter Maurin, heard his endless teaching and knew it to be truth. There are stories to be told and ideas to be discussed, let us start a newspaper to do just that. People need to be fed and housed, let us make soup and rent cold-water flats. And so the Catholic Worker began.

Rightly so, around the history of 1933 when the first issue of The Catholic Worker newspaper is handed out in Union Square, All is Grace ceases to be a book just about Dorothy Day and widens to include the growing community, as well as Dorothy’s own growing family. She saw the Works of Mercy, the nonviolent resistance of war and the struggle for justice as work that could not be done alone.

The gift of this book is the use made of recently published collections edited by Robert Ellsberg, The Duty of Delight, Dorothy Day’s diaries, and All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day. Jim Forest so carefully weaves in these resources and the result is a life’s story told with much depth. We are privy not only to the stories of arrests and jail time, of meeting Peter Maurin and the beginnings of a newspaper, and then a movement, but we are blessed with her thoughts on these events, the doubts that plagued her as she raised Tamar, separated from Forster; as she wrestled with a growing movement and changing times. We might be amazed and inspired by what she accomplished, and rightly so. But we should be even more amazed and inspired to learn along the way that there was much sorrow, loneliness and second-guessing. All is Grace is, at times, heart wrenching in its honesty, due largely to the candor and diligence with which Dorothy recorded and reflected on her own life and Jim Forest’s use of these writings.

All is Grace is clearly written by a friend, colleague and admirer of Dorothy Day and includes his own personal reflections as well as memories told to him by many of those who knew her. This adds an element of intimacy to the writing that seems fitting for a woman who, by all accounts, would sit and talk, with an “ability to focus on the person she was talking to, not to see just a young face but your face, not discerning just a vague, general promise, but your particular gifts.” While often in the public eye, the spotlight was never where she felt most comfortable. Perhaps she might have felt the same about a scholarly textbook analyzing her life. But this warm, engaging account matches tone with content, and like Dorothy did for many a volunteer, “you [can glimpse] exciting possibilities in yourself that you hadn’t seen before.”

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The Real Saint George

St George and the dragon (illustration by Vladislav Ardreyev)

by Jim Forest

True stories become streamlined into legends and legends become compressed into myths.

The real Saint George never saw a dragon nor did he rescue a princess in distress. We are not even sure he had a horse or possessed a lance or sword. It is even possible he was a farmer. The name “George” means tiller of the soil. For this reason Saint George is a patron saint of agriculture, herds, flocks and shepherds.

A Christian convert who was born late in the third century after Christ and died early in the fourth century, George was one among many martyrs of the early Church. The word “martyr” is Greek for witness. A martyr is someone who dies for Christ and whose death bears witness to his faith.

What made George a saint especially loved and remembered by the Church was the completely fearless manner in which he openly proclaimed his faith during a period of fierce persecution when many other Christians were hoping not to be noticed. According to one ancient account, George went to a public square and announced, “All the gentile gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.”

For this Saint George was arrested, cruelly tortured and finally beheaded in the town of Nicomedia (in the northwest of modern Turkey). The probable date of his martyrdom is April 23, 303. His body was later brought to his birthplace, Diospolis, later known as Lydda, and today as Lod in modern-day Israel. His courageous witness led to the conversion of many and gave renewed courage to others already baptized.

Saint George was one of the early victims of the anti-Christian persecution ordered by the Emperor Diocletian that began in February of the year 303. Churches were destroyed and biblical texts burned. All Roman subjects were ordered to make ritual sacrifices to Rome’s gods. Those who refused risked severe punishment. Many were sent into exile as slave laborers in quarries and mines in Egypt and Palestine. Thousands were tortured and many executed. Finally in 311 the attack ended. With Diocletian in retirement and the emperor Galerius critically ill and close to death, Galerius published an edict of toleration allowing Christians to restore their places of worship and to worship in their own way without interference, provided they did nothing to disturb the peace.

Persecution ended but the memory of those eight years of suffering would never be forgotten. George was one of the saints whose witness remained fresh. His icon hung in more and more churches. As centuries passed he became patron saint not only of many churches and monasteries but even of cities and whole countries.

In early icons, made in the centuries before the legend of the dragon became attached to his name, we see Saint George dressed as a soldier and holding the cross of martyrdom.

Perhaps George was in the army, but it may be that he is shown in military clothing because he so perfectly exemplifies the qualities that Saint Paul spoke of in his letter to the Ephesians in which he calls on Christ’s followers to wear the helmet of salvation and the armor of righteousness, to be girded with truth, to clad their feet in the Gospel of peace, to possess the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, and to protect themselves from the devil’s flaming arrows with the shield of faith. (Ephesians 6:10-17)

Such symbolic use of a Roman soldier’s equipment does not rule out the possibility that George was in fact a soldier. People from every class and profession were drawn to the Gospel, soldiers among them. George may have been one of these.

It was only in later centuries that the dragon legend emerged. It has been told in many variations, but in its most popular form, it concerns a dragon living in a lake who was worshiped by the unbaptized local people, who in their fear sacrificed their children to appease the creature. Finally it was the turn of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth. While going toward the dragon to meet her doom, Saint George appeared riding a white horse. He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then transfixed the dragon with his lance. Afterward Elizabeth led the defeated creature into the city.

According to the Golden Legend, a collection of saints’ lives written by Blessed James de Voragine about 1260 AD, the wounded monster followed Elizabeth “as if it had been a meek beast and debonair.” Refusing a reward of treasure, George called on the local people to be baptized. The king agreed, also promising to build and maintain churches, honor the clergy, faithfully attend religious services, and be generous to the poor.

From the point of view of history, the story is apocryphal. Yet when you think about it, what better way to symbolize the evil that George actually confronted and defeated than to portray it in the form of a fire-breathing dragon? George fought and was victorious over an adversary which terrified most of the people of his time. We can understand the dragon as representing anything that makes us afraid.

The white horse George rides in the icon, a graceful creature as light as air and as fearless as his rider, represents the courage God gave to George as he challenged evil. It is the courage God gives to any Christian facing martyrdom.

In many versions of the icon, the lance George holds is shown resting lightly in his open hand, meaning that it is the power of God, not the power of man, that overcomes evil.

Notice how thin the lance is and that in many Saint George icons there is a small cross at the top of the lance. The icon stresses that it is not with weapons of war that evil is overcome but with the power of the Cross, the life-giving Cross that opens the path to the resurrection.

Similarly, even in battle with the dragon, George’s face shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. His tranquil face reminds us of Christ’s commandment that his followers must love their enemies.

In many versions of the icon, the hand of the Savior is extended from heaven in a sign of blessing. This detail is a reminder that whatever we do bears good fruit only if it is God’s will and has God’s blessing.

In more detailed versions of the icon there are scenes before and after the battle with the dragon. Sometimes a castle is in the background from which Elizabeth’s parents watch all that happens.

Following George’s victory, we are sometimes shown Elizabeth leading the wounded dragon on a leash made of her belt or scarf — a victory of life over death similar to Christ’s resurrection.

Bringing a wounded but still living dragon back to the town in its new role of guardian provides us with a powerful image of the conversion rather than the destruction of enemies. The final fruit of George’s combat with the dragon is not victory over a monster nor financial reward for successful combat but bringing unbelieving people to conversion and baptism.

Finally, as is the case with any icon, the Saint George icon is not a decoration but is intended to be a place of prayer. It belongs in the icon corner of any home where courage is sought — courage to be a faithful disciple of Christ; courage to fight rather than flee from whatever dragons we meet in life; courage to live in such a way that others may be made more aware of Christ and the life he offers to us.

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This is an afterword written for Saint George and the Dragon, published by Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press. See this page for details:
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The Gospel According to John Wayne

[a work in progress — text as of August 2013]John Wayne

by Jim Forest

One of the unique aspects of being human is the role stories play in our lives and have played as far back as the human story is told. Stories inspire, enlighten, connect, delight, warn, admonish and surprise. We need them with an urgency that resembles hunger. Stories can save lives or turn us into killers.

In 1955, when I was thirteen, I went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to see a photo exhibition that has haunted me ever since. Its theme was “The Family of Man.” The curator, Edward Steichen, brought together a vast sequence of photos that not only asserted but demonstrated that, for all the diversity of culture, skin color, local economy and development, varieties of religion and differences of clothing, we are indeed one human family bound together in love, pain, labor, awe, anger, gratitude and death. I bought the exhibition book and have hung onto it through many moves, returning to it ever since as if it were a Bible without words. Taken as a whole, the collection has as its golden thread the radical us-ness of being. It helped me understand that beneath our separateness is our unity. It’s about the “our” in the Our Father.

story teller - Nat Farbman (small)Among the images that I especially love is one of an old African storyteller in a fire-illuminated hut. We see him at the top of a circle of young people, boys and girls, listening to the old man with absolute attention and wonder. The storyteller’s eyes are wide open, his mouth a perfect O, his eyebrows arched high into his forehead, his hands raised above his head, all ten fingers outstretched. If he were telling the story of Jesus’s life, this might be the moment when the disciples discover the empty tomb.

The photo is an icon of the power of story telling.

“In traditional African cultures, not even the chief or the healer is as important as the storyteller,” Joseph Donders, a Dutch priest who had spent much of his life in Africa, once told me. “The survival of the tribe from generation to generation depends on stories, only the stories have to reveal truth. With truth-revealing stories the storyteller becomes the guardian not only of his actual audience but of those not yet born. This is because, in times of crisis, people are guided not by theories or principles but by stories. True stories are life-saving, false stories lead toward disaster. Stories are proven true by the test of time. An old story that has been told for centuries and has been tested in many times of crisis can be regarded as true.”

“The testing of stories,” he added, “requires the passage of many generations. In fact two thousand years is about right.”

Our conversation led us to consider the question of what was the most basic story in the modern world. We quickly agreed that, in its purest form, it’s the western movie and decided to call it the Gospel According to John Wayne. (Not John Wayne the man, who may have been as nonviolent as Gandhi, but John Wayne the actor in the gunslinger roles he often played.)

At that the core of the Gospel According to John Wayne is a good man with a gun defeating bad men with guns.

The story needn’t be set in the Old West. The core elements adjust to any setting: rural or urban, past or present, or a Star Wars future set in other galaxies where distances are measured in light years. The Gospel According to John Wayne can also be the Gospel According to Luke Skywalker or the Gospel According to Batman. The moral is the same in any case: We are saved by deadly weapons and the courage of those community defenders who aim and shoot.

In the classic Western version, it’s the story of men who are evil to their core threatening decent people in a newly-settled town in the lawless West in which there is a battered saloon at one end of the street and a newly painted and school house at the other. Endangered by pathological killers, the wellbeing of the townspeople depends on the courage of one brave man and those, if any, that he is able to rally behind him. The iconic scene is the gunfight on Main Street — one man with a gun facing another man with a gun and both pulling the trigger. There is sometimes a prefatory scene before the shoot-out in which we see the reluctant hero open a drawer and grasp his revolver, a weapon he once put away with the hope of never using it again. He is not, such scenes make clear, a man of violence but now there is no alternative. He straps on his holster, inserts six bullets in the gun’s chambers and walks out the door knowing he may be dead within the hour. In fact he survives. Thanks to courage plus good aim, goodness triumphs. It’s the men who love killing whose day ends in coffins.

It’s far from an ignoble story. There is real courage in it — the readiness of an honorable man to risk his life to protect his defenseless neighbors from wicked men whose death we who watch the film cannot help but wish for and, once it happens, welcome. If only briefly, it seems the world has been made a safer place.

The big problem with the Gospel According to John Wayne is that it hides from us the troubling fact that there is no such thing as a completely evil person — also, apart from Christ, the uncomfortable fact that there is no such thing as a completely good person.

Few biblical texts have more profound implications than this passage in the first chapter of Genesis: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27)

If so, then there are no bad seeds. Our DNA does not oblige us to be murderers. No matter how damaged a person becomes in the process of growing up and entering adulthood, all of us are born bearing the divine image and can never entirely lose it.

For John of Kronstadt, one of the Russian saints of the nineteenth century, to become aware of this was one of the main challenges of Christian life. “Never confuse the person,” he said, “formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.” St. John’s insight was not developed at a comfortable distance from the rough side of life — he was parish priest in Kronstadt, a port city with thousands of sailors and more than its share of drunkenness, crime and violence of every kind.

In common with many ordinary Russians at the time, Saint John of Kronstadt avoided dehumanizing labels for men who had been convicted of criminal actions. They were instead commonly referred to as “unfortunates.” It was this attitude that helps explain why so few executions occurred in pre-revolutionary Russia. Those who committed murder and other grave crimes were instead sent to labor camps in Siberia.

The inability to see Christ in the other is the most common form of spiritual blindness, as one of the most prominent saints of the fourth century, John Chrysostom, often stressed. “If you fail to recognize Christ in the beggar outside the church door,” he said, “you will not find Christ in the chalice.” Or as Dorothy Day put it, “Those who do not see Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.”

Yet the Gospel According to John Wayne remains a compelling story — the lone man who puts himself in the line of fire and kills a human monster whose death is a blessing for every decent person. The story reminds us that that the community can only be protected by good guys — or good women — killing bad guys.

In the latter part of “Gone With the Wind,” a film that presents slavery as having been not so bad, the heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, returns to her family plantation, Tara, after Southern defeat. Though the Civil War has caused much death and devastation, Scarlett finds the mansion intact even though the crops have been burned, her mother has died of typhoid, her father is insane with grief, her two sisters are ill, and most of the (formerly happy) slaves have run off. Forced to take up work that in better days had been done by slaves, Scarlett’s life now centers on reviving the plantation through blood, sweat and tears, even if the paradise that the Tara plantation once had been is lost indeed. When a drunken Yankee soldier arrives and seems poised to rape Scarlett, she stands on the mansion’s grand curved staircase, revolver hidden behind her back, then, at the last moment raises the weapon and shoots him in the face. Afterward, in shock, she says to her sister-in-law, “I’ve done murder.” To her credit and the credit of the storytellers, Scarlett uses a razor-sharp word, murder, that doesn’t mask what she has done. After pulling the trigger and seeing at close range the death she has caused, perhaps Scarlett realizes she might have aimed at the man’s legs and protected herself without becoming a murderer.

How rare is the movie in which the hero is allowed to aim for the legs or, rarer still, find a bullet-free, nonviolent solution. Film after film, the implicit message is that, in confrontations with evil, there are no non-lethal — still less nonviolent — solutions. It’s a kill-or-be-killed world, period, next subject.

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