After the War Was Over: Seeing What You’d Rather Not See

My Lai massacre, 16 July 1968

by Jim Forest

It was in 1975 that the Vietnam War came to an end with the sudden collapse of the South Vietnamese regime. The iconic image of that event was a helicopter taking off from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon carrying diplomatic and military personnel to safety aboard an offshore aircraft carrier.

The Vietnam War was one of the main events of the Cold War — three decades of combat that began in 1946 with the French attempting to regain their colonies in Southeast Asia. That stage of the war ended in 1954 with French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. The result was the division of Vietnam into two zones, North and South. As French influence waned in South Vietnam, little by little the US took on the war the French had abandoned. You get a vivid glimpse of the early stage of American engagement in Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American” or the film version of the book in which Michael Caine plays a jaded British journalist trying to make sense of what a very quiet American (in fact a CIA agent) is up to.

The US objective was to prevent the Communist regime in North Vietnam from taking over the South. This meant not only taking sides in a civil war but covertly creating the Saigon government we were supporting. Does this sound a little like current events in, for example, Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya?

If you have ever been in Washington, DC, perhaps you visited the Vietnam Wall and walked the length of its 58,272 names, all the US service members who died in that war. How many Vietnamese were killed is unknown — estimates range from one-million to more than three-million. For years American bombs rained down on jungles, towns and villages. Many thousands of those bombs carried napalm, a jellified gasoline designed to stick like glue to the body of whoever happens to be nearby when the bomb explodes. Napalm was only one of many varieties of “anti-personnel” weapons that were developed for use in Vietnam — another type exploded thousands of fragments of razor-sharp blades. Every war is hellish, but few have shown less interest in protecting non-combatants. In fact non-combatants became targets. At a place called My Lai, US soldiers methodically killed each and every man, woman, child and infant in the village.

When the US engagement in Vietnam was gathering momentum in the late fifties and early sixties, most Americans thought of it as something necessary to halt the spread of Communism. Few did more than shrug their shoulders, paid little attention. Even if you offered a $20 bill as a reward, you wouldn’t easily have found people on the streets who, shown a map of Asia, could have pointed out the location of Vietnam.

At first it was only American military advisers who were sent, but then came combat troops, a few thousand at first, large numbers before the war ended. As troop levels rose and military conscription was imposed, public interest rose too. You pay a lot of attention to a war in which a family member has been forced to participate. The war became increasingly controversial. Small demonstrations eventually grew into mass events involving tens of thousands. In one 1969 demonstration, half-a-million protesters clogged the streets of Washington, DC.

Part of the shame and disgust that took hold of many Americans was due to the fact that this was the first war Americans were able to watch on television as it was happening. On the one hand there was nothing inspiring about the series of Saigon regimes on whose behalf we were fighting. On the other hand there was the sheer horror of seeing the casualties of the war. Most of the dead were women and children, the aged and sick — the people, that is, who were least able to protect themselves. About ninety percent of Vietnamese casualties were non-combatant.

As time passed and the war got worse, many protesters began to sympathize with the other side — the Vietcong, as they were called, the forces of the National Liberation Front, and North Vietnam as well, for what was a ground war in the South Vietnam was an air war in the North. Before the war ended, many anti-war American peace activists had been honored guests of the North Vietnamese. They were taken on tours, visited bomb victims in hospitals, met American prisoners of war who assured their visitors they were being well treated (in fact many suffered torture), and took shelter with their hosts when US bombs began to fall on the places they happened to be visiting. Many of them came back to the US with glowing reports of how warmly they had been treated by their hosts.

My own engagement in protest against the war began quite early, July 17, 1963. At lunchtime the day before, two members of the Catholic Worker community, Tom Cornell and Chris Kearns, had demonstrated outside the building in midtown Manhattan where the South Vietnamese Observer to the United Nations had his apartment. Their signs read, “The Catholic Worker Protests US Military Support of Diem Tyranny.” Diem was president of South Vietnam at the time. It was the first US protest of Vietnam War. Hearing from Tom that this small action would continue each lunch hour until the 25th, I joined the next day. By the last day, our number had swelled to several hundred and drawn TV news attention.

In 1964, less than a year later, I wrote an article meant to give readers some basic knowledge of Vietnam and its recent history. It wasn’t easy doing the research. At the time there were very few books about Vietnam in the New York Public Library. There were also no privately owned computers and there was no web.

Not many months later I left my newspaper job and began working full-time for the newly-established Catholic Peace Fellowship, an offshoot of the Catholic Worker. Our work focused mainly on assisting conscientious objectors who were refusing to fight in Vietnam and also making it better known to Catholics that conscientious objection as well as draft resistance was an option.

One of the events that brought Vietnam much closer to me at the personal level was a friendship that developed with a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and poet, Thich Nhat Hanh. In 1967, he asked me to accompany him on his lecture trips in the US. Vietnamese food, music, language and poetry became part of my daily life for weeks on end. I began to understand that the population of Vietnam was not tidily divided between Communists and anti-Communists. There were millions of South Vietnamese in the middle, mainly Buddhists. They identified with neither side and sought what they called a “third way” solution. They suffered a great deal of persecution from the Saigon government. A number of Buddhist monks and nuns gained international attention when they immolated themselves in acts of anti-war protest.

In 1968, I was part of a group of fourteen people, half of them Catholic priests, who filled sacks of key files from Milwaukee’s nine draft boards and burned them, using homemade napalm, in a little park in the center of the city. We were protesting both the war and military conscription. Following our trial, we began serving one-year prison sentences. I look back on it as a kind of sabbatical.

Released from prison in 1970, I renewed my efforts to end the Vietnam War. In 1973, I was appointed editor of Fellowship magazine, the monthly journal of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, America’s oldest and largest peace group. Two years later, it was my joy to edit an issue of the magazine celebrating the end of the war, at the same time raising the question: “And now what?” It wasn’t an easy question to answer. Years of our lives had been devoted to ending the war in Vietnam.

What I didn’t anticipate was that Vietnam would still hold a major place in my life and in the lives of many others who had celebrated the war’s end.

While I was in France the following summer staying with the small Vietnamese community led by Thich Nhat Hanh, letters smuggled out of Vietnam arrived with the news that the Hanoi government was arresting and jailing not only participants in the former Saigon administration but also Buddhist nuns, monks and lay people who had actively and courageously opposed the war. “My act [of self-immolation],” the monks Thich Hue Hien explained, “may be described as unusual both in the Dharma and in the world, but as wisdom shines, we should look at events in their own timing…. I do not act in foolishness. By my act I hope the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and living beings in the Six Realms will benefit from the light.”

Also at that time a left-leaning French journal, Nouvelle Observateur, was publishing a series of lengthy reports about post-war Vietnam. The author, Jean Lacouture, was the first western journalist invited into Vietnam by the Hanoi government. He was deeply jarred by some of what he saw, not least by his visits to prison camps. He estimated there were 300,000 prisoners, 100,000 more than Vietnam had admitted, but even 200,000 would have been an astonishing number. He asked why there were so many? After all, there had only been 35,000 army officers in the forces of the South, and thousands of them, along with nearly all important government officials had fled Vietnam after the northern victory.

It turned out that many of those imprisoned were people, including Buddhist monks and nuns, who had opposed the war, siding with neither North or South. Those whose lives were centered in their religion rather than in politics, whether Buddhist or Christian, were being singled out, temples and churches closed, publications suppressed, charitable and educational projects locked up. There was also news of the arrest and imprisonment of leaders of the Unified Buddhist Church.

Back in the US, I wrote an article about the reports that had reached Thich Nhat Hanh plus the reports by Jean Lacouture, a name respected in the anti-war movement in the US. Circulating the text in draft to peace movement leaders prior to its publication, I vividly recall a phone call from a colleague who urged me not to publish it. Should it appear in print, he warned me, “it will cost you your career in the peace movement.” My caller was a member of the national staff of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization. Our conversation ended abruptly when he slammed down the receiver at his office in Philadelphia. I was astonished. Why would a peace organization wish to ignore human rights violations, especially in a country in which they had contacts in the government?

The caller’s key word was “career.” Until he called, I had no idea I had a “career,” but I began to realize that even in peace groups one can embrace a careerist mentality.

My article — “Vietnam: Reunification Without Reconciliation” — was in fact published in the October 1975 issue of Fellowship, by which time I was one of several people  (the others included Tom Cornell and Robert Ellsberg) drafting an appeal to the government in Hanoi. Here are the main paragraphs:

“Beginning soon after the victory of North Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government in the Spring of 1975, and sharply increasing in recent months, reports have reached us indicating grievous and systematic violations of human rights by your government. The evidence is too specific and persuasive for us to ignore.

“Especially with regard to those imprisoned or otherwise detained, in May a Vietnamese official stated that 200,000 were being held in re-education camps. While some respected foreign journalists in Vietnam have estimated 300,000 detainees — the actions of your government constitute a great disappointment to all those who expected not the ‘bloodbath’ so eagerly predicted by the American White House but rather an example of reconciliation built on tolerance. We realize that those held include individuals responsible for aspects of the war and the repressive mechanisms of the former Saigon government. But, having believed your fervent past expressions of commitment to human rights, we are deeply saddened to hear of the arrest and detention of a wide range of persons, including religious, cultural and political figures who opposed the Thieu government despite considerable personal risks… [A list of names was included.]

“Differences among us on what could be hoped for in the revolution’s victory did not in the past hamper our solidarity in opposing America’s intervention. Our agreement, then and now, transcends difference in ideology and analysis, being firmly grounded in our concern for the lives of the Vietnamese people. We have recognized that the credibility of our witness is related to the candor with which we demonstrate our concerns and our commitment to certain ethical precepts regardless of politics…

“We therefore call upon you to honor the concern for human rights which you have expressed both in formal agreements and in countless conversations with peace activists. We call for a complete public accounting of those detained or imprisoned indicating as well, the charges for which they are held. We call on the government of Vietnam to facilitate on-the-spot inspection by the United Nations, Amnesty International or other independent international agencies in order to assure that those in the government’s charge are treated in accord with international covenants regarding human rights. We call on you to release any individuals who are held purely because of their religious or political convictions. We call for government recognition of the right to open and free communication.

“We recall the tragic self-immolation of twelve monks and nuns in Can Tho Province last November 2, protesting administrative orders redefining and drastically restricting their religious practice. We have noted reports that many service projects of the Unified Buddhist Church … including those assisting war orphans, have been closed, their funds frozen and properties confiscated.”

Quite a number of people quickly signed. Just as quickly passionate opposition arose.

Some of the appeal’s opponents were so outraged that they accused me of being a CIA agent. The author of an article in one peace movement publication proposed that I should to be sent to a re-education camp. Another accused me of being a white bourgeois American — which was true except for the adjective “bourgeois.” I was also charged with being a covert anti-Communist. (That reminded me of how, in the fifties, my father had often been accused of being a Communist, except in his case it was true.)

Rational opposition to the appeal largely fell into two categories. Some objected that the reports of human rights violations could not possibly be true. Another group said some of the reports, possibly many of them, might be true, but — given what America as a nation had done to Vietnam — no American, even those who had spent years of their lives opposing the war, had the right to protest what the Vietnamese government was doing.

There were some who regarded the reports as true but saw such actions as justifiable. One non-signer, professor of international law Richard Falk, explained in a letter to me that one need not be troubled by re-education camps in Vietnam: “What has been done is to remove temporarily from the political order some of those who seem obstructive in a period of national economic emergency.” In my response, I pointed out that these words could have been used word for word by Stalin and his apologists back in the 1930s to justify the creation of the Gulag.

On the positive side, the appeal was signed by a hundred well-known Americans who had struggled to end the war, many of whose names would have been known and respected by leaders of the Hanoi government. We could reasonably hope to be taken seriously.

One of the appeal signers was Joan Baez. She called me one morning to describe the intense pressure she was under to withdraw her signature. It had been exhausting. The night before she had endured a six-hour coast-to-coast phone call from one weighty opponent of the appeal. In addition Joan told me that a distinguished friend, recipient of several peace prizes, had made a personal visit to warn her of Jim Forest’s “possible CIA connections.” Her first response to her guest, she said, was laughter. She then told him, “Jim Forest is much too nice — and much too disorganized — to work for the CIA.” (In fact how does one prove he isn’t working for the CIA? Should you ask the director of the CIA to certify you weren’t an employee? Denial only adds fuel to the fire of suspicion. The only thing you can do is joke about it.)

Joan wanted to assure me that the pressure to withdraw her signature had only made her more determined not to. She said she could hardly imagine what the pressures were on me. Then, to cheer me along, she sang me a song over the phone. Would that I had recorded it.

She also issued a public statement in which she recalled Albert Camus’s comment that justice is the “eternal refugee from the camp of the victor.”

“I have,” she said, “a general expectation that grave injustices will be inflicted upon the defeated after almost any war, and almost certainly after one fought under the banner of revolution. That expectation may be dismissed as undue skepticism or cynicism, as insufficient faith in and reliance upon the goodness inherent in humankind. I would like to be persuaded that this were so and that Vietnam today could be the instrument of my conversion. But the melancholy history of wars and their aftermath, to which recent decades have contributed a possibly undue share, seems not to point in that direction. My own hope is that the injustices that occur will be limited, and finally brought under civilizing control. That is my hope concerning Vietnam.”

What did our controversial appeal achieve? We certainly failed in our main proposal — Vietnam’s camps and prisons were never opened to the Red Cross or Amnesty International. But did we do some degree of good? Governments never acknowledge that appeals or protests have any influence, though occasionally later on we learn that the impact was significant. Someone in the government writes a book, an insider makes secret papers public, revelations occur at a hearing or trial. But mainly we never know. Perhaps we made a positive difference for some of the prisoners in Vietnam, perhaps we totally failed. Perhaps we prevented worse from happening. All one can say with certainty is that it was a worthwhile effort.

What did I learn from this event? Here are five lessons:

* There is no peace where there is a systematic violation of basic human rights, beginning with the right to life itself. War of its nature involves a massive violation of human rights.

* Human rights issues can be divisive even in groups that one associates with the protection of human rights. Much of the opposition to the Vietnam War grew out of disgust with the systematic violation of human rights by the Saigon government — imprisonment and torture of dissidents had been commonplace.

* Attention to violations of human rights can severely strain relations not only between governments but between persons and organizations. Whenever we identify with the perpetrator of human rights violations, there is always a temptation to downplay, ignore or even justify violations of human rights. For example, in the 1930s, many on the left were rightly outraged by human rights violations carried out by Nazis and Fascists in Germany, Austria, Italy and Spain, but turned a blind eye to similar actions carried out under the red flag in the Soviet Union. The reverse was true of those on the right.

* Our way of seeing the world around us is often shaped by peer group pressure. Like certain kinds of fish, we humans tend to swim in schools. It happens even to dissidents, who band together in their own smaller schools. If I belong to a group that regards abortion as a human right, the chances are I will adopt that view. If I belong to a group that sees abortion as a violation of human rights, then it’s more than likely I will too. How little independent hard thinking we actually do!

* Last but not least, there is the problem of careerism. Careerism is possible even in idealistic movements. How easy it is for the bottom line in one’s life not to be the search for truth but the search for economic security. We say what our bosses or more powerful colleagues want to hear, and we say it with a smile. We even try to believe what we’re saying.

It’s only graying people who can recall the Vietnam War. It’s in a category of dusty past events that include the Punic Wars and the War of the Roses. Today Vietnam is a tourist destination and a country offering cheap labor to major corporations. But the issues raised both by that war as well as its aftermath remain all too timely. We continue fighting wars that bring us immense shame and cost immense treasure. We continue to pay lip service to human rights while ignoring them when it suits us.

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text as of 10 October 2011
* * *

For more on this topic, see Jim Finn’s essay, “Fighting Among the Doves”: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2011/08/08/fighting-among-the-doves/

Extracts from the writings of Dorothy Day

selected by Jim Forest

hospitality

“Every morning I break my fast with the men in the breadline. Some of them speak to me. Many of them do not. But they know me and I know them. And there is a sense of comradeship there. We know each other in the breaking of bread.” (Diary entry, February 27, 1939)

“We are the rich country of the world, like Dives at the feast. We must try hard, we must study to be poor like Lazarus at the gate, who was taken into Abraham’s bosom. The Gospel doesn’t tell us anything about Lazarus’s virtues. He just sat there and let the dogs lick his sores. He would be classed by any social worker of today as a mental case. But again, poverty, and in this case destitution, like hospitality, is so esteemed by God, it is something to be sought after, worked for, the pearl of great price.” (Catholic Worker, July-August 1953)

conversion

“The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us.” (Loaves and Fishes, the last chapter, p 210)

“I seemed to feel the faith of those about me and I longed for their faith. My own life was sordid and yet I had had occasional glimpses of the true and the beautiful. So I used to go in and kneel in a back pew of St. Joseph’s, and perhaps I asked even then, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’” (From Union Square to Rome)

“I had become convinced that I would become a Catholic, and yet I felt I was betraying the class to which I belonged, the workers, the poor of the world, the class which Christ most loved and spent His life with.” (From Union Square to Rome)

“Most Catholics speak of Communists with the bated breath of horror. And yet those poor unfortunate ones who have not the faith to guide them are apt to stand more chance in the eyes of God than those indifferent Catholics who sit by and do nothing for ‘the least of these’ of whom Christ spoke.” (Catholic Worker, June 1934)

“‘I have sinned exceedingly in my life,’ Tolstoy said to Maxim Gorki once. This phrase comes to mind when fulsome praise comes my way…. My loose life as a young woman was like that of so many young women today, only there was no ‘drug scene’ then. We drank; we were the flaming youth of the 20s, portrayed by Hemingway and Malcolm Cowley. In my book The Long Loneliness I tried to write only of those things which brought about my conversion to the faith—a happy love affair, a love of nature, a truly good life in the natural sense.” (Diary entry, November 1976)

voluntary poverty

“The only way to live in any true security is to live so close to the bottom that when you fall you do not have far to drop, you do not have much to lose.”

“But daily, hourly, to give up our own possessions and especially to subordinate our own impulses and wishes to others — these are hard, hard things; and I don’t think they ever get any easier. You can strip yourself, you can be stripped, but still you will reach out like an octopus to seek your own comfort, your untroubled time, your ease, your refreshment. It may mean books or music — the gratification of the inner sense — or it may mean food and drink, coffee and cigarettes. The one kind of giving up is no easier than the other.” (Loaves and Fishes, p. 84)

“Once we begin not to worry about what kind of a house we are living in, what kind of clothes we are wearing, we have time, which is priceless, to remember that we are our brother’s keeper, and that we must not only care for his needs as far as we are immediately able, but try to build a bridge to a better world.” (From an unpublished manuscript quoted by Mel Piehl in Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker and the Origin of Catholic Radicalism in America, pp 99-100)

“Voluntary poverty means a good deal of discomfort in these houses of ours…. I was so cold and damp and so unbelievably poverty-stricken that little children coming to see who were the young people meeting there exclaimed that this could not be a Catholic place; it was too poor. We must be Communists.” (The Long Loneliness)

“It is hard … to quote the Gospel to men with empty stomachs. It is hard to preach holy poverty to those who suffer perforce from poverty not only for themselves but for their loved ones. But we wish to assure our readers that most of the people who are writing for and putting out this paper have known poverty—hunger and heat and cold; some have slept in city lodging houses, in doorways, in public parks, have been in the wards of city hospitals; have walked the city with their feet upon the ground searching for work, or just walking because they had no shelter to go to.” (Catholic Worker, May 1934)

a nonviolent way of life

“Now the whole world is turning to ‘force’ to conquer. Fascist and Communist alike believe that only by the shedding of blood can they achieve victory. Catholics, too, believe that suffering and the shedding of blood ‘must needs be,’ as Our Lord said to the disciples at Emmaus. But their teaching, their hard saying, is that they must be willing to shed every drop of their own blood, and not take the blood of their brothers. They are willing to die for their faith, believing that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” (Catholic Worker, November 1936)

“I do not see why we must accept the inevitability of war. It was only in the last century that slavery was done away with here in this country, and I suppose that everybody thought it was inevitable, something to be accepted, before that time. If we are working toward peace, we must look with hope that in a future generation we will do away with war. You know with how great suffering and how great prayer we are trying to hold up these ideas.” (Letter to Bob Walsh, May 3, 1940)

“I will not register for conscription, if conscription comes for women…. I shall not register because I believe modern war to be murder, incompatible with a religion of love. I shall not register because registration is the first step toward conscription, and I agree with Cardinal Gasparri, that the only way to do away with war is to do away with conscription.” (Catholic Worker, January 1943)

community

“We will never stop having breadlines at Catholic Worker houses…. But I repeat: Breadlines are not enough, hospices are not enough. I know we will always have men on the road. But we need communities of work, land for the landless, true farming communes, cooperatives and credit unions. There is much that is wild, prophetic, and holy about our work—it is that which attracts the young who come to help us. But the heart hungers for that new social order wherein justice dwelleth.” )Catholic Worker, January 1972)

protest

“God meant things to be much easier than we have made them.”

“What we would like to do is change the world—make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And to a certain extent, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, of the poor, of the destitute … we can to a certain extent change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever-widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing that we can do but love, and dear God— please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as well as our friend.” (Catholic Worker, June 1946)

“We need to change the system. We need to overthrow, not the government, as the authorities are always accusing the Communists “of conspiring to teach to do,” but this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.” (On Pilgrimage, September 1956)

“So many in these days have taken violent steps to gain the things of this world—war to achieve peace; coercion to achieve freedom; striving to gain what slips through the fingers. We might as well give up our great desires, at least our hopes of doing great things toward achieving them, right at the beginning. In a way it is like the paradox of the Gospel, of giving up one’s life in order to save it. That, in effect, is what we did when we went to jail. It was part of it. We were setting our faces against the world, against things as they are, the terrible injustice of our capitalist industrial system which lives by war and by preparing for war…. We made our gesture; we disobeyed a law.” (Catholic Worker, September 1957)

“Next week we demonstrate again, stick our necks out, protest, say no, carry out into the street some of the Pope’s words … such as ‘War is murder and suicide.’ (It would naturally follow from that that it is forbidden us.) We will be arrested again, in jail again, maybe for a day, maybe for a month, or six months. It is not easy. I just have to remember that I am visiting the prisoner, the last work of mercy and the hardest to perform. Do pray for us.” (Letter to Donald Powell, April 9, 1959)

remaining in the Church

“I am afraid I am a traditionalist, in that I do not like to see Mass offered with a large coffee cup for a chalice.” (On Pilgrimage, March 1966)

“As a convert, I never expected much of the bishops. In all history popes and bishops and father abbots seem to have been blind and power-loving and greedy. I never expected leadership from them. It is the saints that keep appearing all through history who keep things going. What I do expect is the bread of life [the eucharist] and down thru the ages there is that continuity.” (Letter to Gordon Zahn, October 29, 1968)

“Of course the church is corrupt! ‘But this corruption must put on incorruption,’ St. Paul says, so I rejoice as I have in my short lifetime seen renewals going on, or read of them, and see the excitement, the joy of this sense of renewal. Certainly I knew when I became a Catholic that the church was a human institution and at first I had a sense of my betrayal of the working class, of the poor and oppressed for whom I had a romantic love and desire to serve. But just as I in my youth sought them out, lived in their slums and felt at home, so the Lord was seeking me out and I could not resist Him. And I found Him in the Church, in the Sacraments, life-giving and strength-giving, in spite of the American flag in the sanctuary, the boring sermons, the incomprehensible and mumbled Latin, the Sunday Catholic, the wide gulf between clergy and laity, even the contempt for the laity which I often felt, and even heard expressed.” (Diary entry, July 1969)

“What I feel about the institutional church…. For me it is the place in the slum, in our neighborhood, where it is possible to be alone, to be silent, to wait on the Lord…. No matter how corrupt the Church may become, it carries within it the seeds of its own regeneration.” (Letter to Karl Meyer, August 3, 1971)

“To embrace a faith is to ‘kiss a leper,’ to make a leap, as over a chasm, from one world into another, or to plunge into an abyss—‘underneath are the everlasting arms.'” (December 29, 1975)

patience and perseverance

“People say, “What good can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort?” They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time. We can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform all our individual actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes.”

[My] year in the hospital made me realize was that one of the hardest things in the world is to organize ourselves and discipline ourselves.” (From Union Square to Rome)

“Do what comes to hand. Whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. After all, God is with us. It shows too much conceit to trust to ourselves, to be discouraged at what we ourselves can accomplish. It is lacking in faith in God to be discouraged. After all, we are going to proceed with His help. We offer Him what we are going to do. If He wishes it to prosper, it will. We must depend solely on Him. Work as though everything depended on ourselves, and pray as though everything depended on God, as St. Ignatius says.” (House of Hospitality)

“We must contain ourselves in patience, remembering each morning that our main job is to love God, and to serve Him, and if we don’t get things done due to interruptions, well, it cannot be helped, and God will take care of what we leave undone. But a tranquil spirit is important. St. Teresa says that God cannot rest in an unquiet heart. I have to remember that many times during the day.” (Letter to Joe Zarrella, March 5, 1940)

“One of the greatest evils of the day is the sense of futility. Young people say, ‘What can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort?’ They cannot see that we can only lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time; we can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform these actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.” (Catholic Worker, September 1957)

“So often one is overcome with a tragic sense of the meaninglessness of our lives—patience, patience, and the very word means suffering. Endurance, perseverance, sacrament of the present moment, the sacrament of duty. One must keep on reassuring oneself of these things. And repeat acts of faith, ‘Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.’ We are placed here; why? To know Him, and so love Him, serve Him, by serving others and so attain to eternal life and joy, understanding, etc.” (Diary entry, July 2, 1962)

“You will know your vocation by the joy that it brings you.” (from an interview with Pat Jordan in Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her by Rosalie Riegle, p 146)

prayer / the value of a disciplined spiritual life

December 8 is a “holy day of obligation” for Catholics, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, celebrating Catholic belief that a special grace had touched Mary’s life from the moment of her conception in her mother’s womb. Before returning to her no-frills hotel room to write down her impressions of the day, Dorothy went to a church built to commemorate the event, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, adjacent to the campus of Catholic University in northeast Washington. As the upper church was still under construction, she went into the crypt beneath, with its low vaulted ceilings, mosaics and dark chapels lit with the flickering of vigil candles. “There I offered up a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.” (The Long Loneliness)

“I believe You are a personal God, and hear me when I speak, even my trivial petty speech. So I will tell You personally over and over I love You, I adore You, I worship You. Make me mean it in my life. Make me show it by my choices. Make me show it from my waking thought to my sleeping.” (Diary entry, August 21, 1952)

“I am surprised that I am beginning to pray daily. I began because I had to. I just found myself praying. I can’t get down on my knees, but I can pray while I am walking.” (From Union Square to Rome)

“I’m praying very hard for you this morning, because I myself have been through much of what you have been through. Twice I tried to take my own life, and the dear Lord pulled me thru that darkness—I was rescued from that darkness. My sickness was physical too, since I had had an abortion with bad after-effects, and in a way my sickness of mind was a penance I had to endure. But God has been so good to me—I have known such joy in nature, and work—in fulfilling myself, using my God-given love of beauty and desire to express myself. He has given me over and over again, such joy and strength as He will surely give to you if you ask him.” (Letter to a young woman, February 6, 1973)

the Little Way / humility

“Martyrdom is not gallantly standing before a firing squad. Usually it is the losing of a job because of not taking a loyalty oath, or buying a war bond, or paying a tax. Martyrdom is small, hidden, misunderstood. Or if it is a bloody martyrdom, it is the cry in the dark, the terror, the shame, the loneliness, nobody to hear, nobody to suffer with, let alone to save. Oh, the loneliness of all of us in these days, in all the great moments of our lives, this dying which we do, by little and by little, over a short space of time or over the years.” (Catholic Worker, January 1951)

“Paper work, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens—these things, too, are the works of peace, and often seem like a very little way. (Catholic Worker, December 1965)

“I wrote the life of St. Therese because she exemplified the ‘little way.’ We know how powerless we are, all of us, against the power of wealth and government and industry and science. The powers of this world are overwhelming. Yet it is hoping against hope and believing, in spite of ‘unbelief,’ crying by prayer and by sacrifice, daily, small, constant sacrificing of one’s own comfort and cravings—these are the things that count…. I am convinced that prayer and austerity, prayer and self-sacrifice, prayer and fasting, prayer, vigils, and prayer and marches, are the indispensable means…. And love. All these means are useless unless animated by love.” (Letter to Mike Cullen, February 1970)

“We feel so powerless. We do so little, giving out soup. But at last we are facing problems daily. Hunger, homelessness, greed, loneliness. Greatest concern of the Bible is injustice, bloodshed. So we share what we have, we work for peace.” (Diary entry, June 19, 1973)

“How little I can do these days but suffer patiently the innumerable small difficulties of aging. And always Prayer which is a joy. Psalms are always the joyful ones on Thursday, in honor of the Last Supper. Where else would we have room save at Tivoli Farm for so much joy and suffering?” (Diary entry, September 2, 1976)

sanctity

We devour each other in love and in hate; we are cannibals. There are, of course, the lives of the saints, but they are too often written as though they were not in this world. We have seldom been given the saints as they really were, as they affected the lives of their times — unless it is in their own writings. But instead of that strong meat we are too generally given the pap of hagiography. Too little has been stressed the idea that all are called. (Catholic Worker, May 1948)

“We are all called to be saints, St. Paul says, and we might as well get over our bourgeois fear of the name. We might also get used to recognizing the fact that there is some of the saint in all of us. Inasmuch as we are growing, putting off the old man and putting on Christ, there is some of the saint, the holy, the divine right there…. We are all called to be saints. Sometimes we don’t see them around us, sometimes their sanctity is obscured by the human, but they are there nonetheless.” (The Third Hour, 1949)

beauty

“I am very glad to be home again, to be cultivating my own bit of soil, to be living in my own house and to feel, for the time at least, that I am never going to leave it again. There is beauty here too, a lovely, gentle beauty of cultivated gardens and woodlands and shore…. Along the road we gathered sweet clover to put in the hot attic, where its fragrance will be distilled and fill the house, and Teresa sighed happily, ‘Flowers and grass and things are so beautiful, they just hurt my feelings.’” (Commonweal, 1931)

“I owe great thanks to God that he gave me an appreciation of his beauty so young…. I have never gotten over my love for the sound of water, little waves lapping on the beach, retreating through the heaps of small stones and shells…. I am sure that it is because the Church is so alert to Man, as body and soul, because she believes in the resurrection of the body and life-ever-lasting, that I became strongly attracted to her when I began to catch glimpses of her later.” (Diary entry, November 3, 1970)

books

Turn off your radio. Put away your daily paper. Read one review of events a week and spend some time reading good books. They tell too of days of striving and of strife. They are of other centuries and also of our own. They make us realize that all times are perilous, that men live in a dangerous world, in peril constantly of losing or maiming soul and body. We get some sense of perspective reading such books. Renewed courage and faith and even joy to live. (Diary entry, 28 Sept 1940)

love

“Love is a matter of the will…. If you will to love someone (even the most repulsive and wicked), and try to serve him as an expression of that love—then you soon come to feel love. And God will hear your prayers. ‘Enlarge Thou my heart that Thou mayest enter in!’ You can pray the same way, that your heart may be enlarged to love again.” (Diary, August 6, 1937)

Sometimes it is hard to see Christ in his poor. Sometimes it is hard to see the Blessed Mother in women we come in contact with. But if we minister to each other, as we would want to serve the Holy Family, not judging the faults of others, but serving them with joy and with respect, then that is the true way of seeing Christ in our neighbor. If He thought them worth dying for, who are we to judge? … If you help people, you soon begin to love them. Just as gratitude makes you love people. (Diary entry, Jan 2, 1940)

Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up. If we love each other enough, we will bear with each other’s faults and burdens. If we love enough, we are going to light that fire in the hearts of others. And it is love that will burn out the sins and hatreds that sadden us. It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other. No sacrifice and no suffering will then seem too much. (from “House of Hospitality,” chapter 14; Sheed & Ward, 1939)

“When you love people, you see all the good in them, all the Christ in them.” (On Pilgrimage column, April 1948)

“If we could only learn that the only important thing is love, and that we will be judged on love—to keep on loving, and showing that love, and expressing that love, over and over, whether we feel it or not, seventy times seven, to mother-in-law, to husbands, to children—and to be oblivious of insult, or hurt, or injury. It is a hard, hard doctrine. Where there is no love, put love and you will take out love, St. John of the Cross says. I am preaching to myself too.” (Letter to Dorothy Gauchat, February 11, 1958)

“People talk so much about the meaning of life and the work is to grow in love, love of God our destination, and love of neighbor, our first step, our continuing step, our right road in that direction. Love means answering the mail that comes in—and there is a fearful amount of it. That person in the hospital, that person suffering a breakdown of nerves, the person lonely, far-off, watching for the mailman each day. It means loving attention to those around us, the youngest and the oldest, the drunk and the sober.” (Diary, January 6, 1967)

getting ready for death

“I had a mild heart attack in September, pains in my chest and arms and a gasping need of fresh air. It is certainly frightening not to be able to breathe. One line of a psalm is: ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ You hear things in your own silences. The beauty of nature, including the sound of waves, the sound of insects, the cicadas in the tress—all were part of my joy in nature that brought me to the Church.” (Catholic Worker, October-November 1976)

“My brain, my memory is like a rag bag. I reach in and pull out of it the scraps that make up these [Catholic Worker] columns.” (Diary entry, January 18, 1978)

“Woke up with two lines haunting me. ‘Duty of delight.’ And ‘Joyous I lay waste the day.” (Diary entry, January 6, 1979)

“Remember Julian of Norwich, ‘All will be well, all manner of things will be well!” I’m a feeble creature these days. Too much celebration here at the house. Our house is packed and I enjoy getting down to dinner at night and getting acquainted with all the women. What a variety… What a privileged life I’ve had, to meet so many great people.” (Letter to Nina Polcyn, May Day 1979)

“Mike Harank has planted morning glories in front of Maryhouse again. The strings for them to climb on go up to the third floor. Beauty!” (Diary entry, May 27, 1980)

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“Most of our life is unimportant, filled with trivial things from morning till night. But when it is transformed by love it is of interest even to the angels.” (The Long Loneliness)

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The last three paragraphs of The Long Loneliness:

“We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven in a banquet and life is a banquet too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.

“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.

“It all happened while we sat there talking and it is still going on.”

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note: much of Dorothy’s writing is on line — The Dorothy Day Library: www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/

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