Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"The Church Obeyed and Challenged"

"The church is a whore, but she is my mother." 
- attributed to St. Augustine

Just finished reading Robert Coles' autobiography of Dorothy Day before I embark upon reading Day's own account of her life, The Long Loneliness.  Coles transcribes tape recorded conversations he had with her before her death in 1980 along with historical information from other texts (including Loneliness and other works by and about Day) as well as his own observations about her life from a psychological perspective to provide the content for the book.  The result is an engaging introspection of Day as she reflects on her life and the impact that it made on the spiritual and political landscape of twentieth-century America.  

In the chapter entitled "The Church Obeyed and Challenged", Coles engages Day regarding her choice to become Catholic and the struggle between her own spirituality, sense of social justice, and the often dogmatic and hierarchical nature of the Roman Catholic Church that seemed, at times, to neglect the plight of the working class in America and in other countries.  Day shares candidly the cost of her decision to become a Catholic among the intellectual crowd that populated her early life and her struggle with the seeming disconnect between her strong sense of social justice and the actual interests and actions of the Catholic Church.  In this chapter and throughout the book, her stories and struggles remind me that the church (Catholic, Protestant, or otherwise) often falls short to hear the words of Christ and share God's love and grace with the those on the margins.  Throughout it all, Day reflects, she holds fast to the fact that the church of Jesus Christ is not infallible and perfect, that it is an institution in constant need of a healthy dose of encouragement and challenge, in need of sinners as well as saints to complete its work in service to the world.  In reading this chapter, I am reminded of the above quote attributed to St. Augustine but also of St. Augustine's life, especially his youth and younger years spent in search of an experience, relationship, ideology, philosophy, or theology to assist him in making meaning of the world around him.  Day spends most of her youth searching for some of the same meaning, with a smaller dose of the licentiousness of St. Augustine and a larger dose of Socialism, Marxism, and 1920s and 30s American East Coast intellectual humanism.    

Looking over this past year and my reading of Sara Miles Take This Bread, along with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's New Monasticism and School(s) of Conversion, along with my monastery experience and other formative experiences working within and alongside the church, it is fitting to be reading Day (an author whose life and actions certainly influence those writers, thinkers, theologians, and friends I have come in contact with over the last year) at this time.  I strongly recommend Coles' biography (whose official title is Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion) as well as The Long Loneliness  to any interested in reading about an inspirational and influential figure on the American twenty-first-century spiritual landscape.        

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