Afflicting the Comfortable


Dorothy Day

Pope Francis’s shout-out to Dorothy Day in his speech before Congress yesterday gives me an excuse to share my favorite Dorothy Day story.

Day, of course, was the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement in the 1930s, which still publishes its newspaper (of the same name) and maintains over 200 houses of hospitality in cities across the country. The movement espouses non-violence and a “personalist” Christianity centered on the works of mercy—feeding, clothing, and sheltering people who need help.

My story comes from the writer and psychiatrist Robert Coles. (Here’s to you, Jamie Kaplan!) In his book Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion (at least I think that’s where I read this), he describes coming to a Catholic Worker house as a young medical student, hoping to volunteer. He found Day sitting at the kitchen table talking at length with a street person staying there. The person was poorly dressed, and maybe drunk and mentally ill. (I haven’t reread the story and probably have the details wrong.) Coles describes waiting patiently while Day devoted all her attention to the person in front of her.

At last she turned to Coles and asked mildly, “Which one of us were you waiting to talk to?”

I can see myself in this story up to a certain point. I could be Robert Coles volunteering. I could even be, like Dorothy Day, sitting with a homeless, mentally ill person listening to what he or she has to say. It’s that final turn that startles. Paying attention to that homeless person, I would be self-consciously aware I was doing a nice thing. I would be aware there was some other person—subliminally aware it was a “person like me”–waiting to talk, no doubt, to me. Day’s radical response takes us to the roots of Christianity and her profound commitment to them. For Dorothy Day, as for Jesus, the three people in that story are all exactly equivalent and deserving of equal attention and respect.

I love this story because it shows me a way beyond conventional goodness, beyond even extraordinary kindness. It reminds me of a story about Dr. Paul Farmer in Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains. (Thanks to my friend Michael Whitely for the reminder.) At a Boston hospital, he describes Farmer visiting a “non-compliant” AIDS patient, called Joe. On his way through the hospital, Farmer pauses to chat with aides, nurses, and janitors. He asks them about their blood pressure or their mother’s diabetes. When he arrives in Joe’s room, he sits on the bed and strokes Joe’s shoulder as they talk.

Finally, Joe has said his piece, and Farmer has shared some advice. Kidder senses the visit is coming to an end, because, in the normal course of things, the specialist “makes some small talk with the patient, then departs.” But Farmer, he writes, “was still sitting on Joe’s bed, and he seemed to like it there. They talked on and on.” Joe gradually opens up.

Farmer asks Joe “a heavy question.” What would Joe really like? What would work for him and prevent his continually bouncing back and forth between the hospital and the street? Joe says he’d like a home where he could stay out of trouble and have a beer now and then. Farmer listens carefully. “He leaned over Joe,” Kidder writes, “gazing down at him, pale blue eyes behind little round lenses.” He acknowledges that Joe’s plan makes a lot of sense.

A few days later, this message appeared on the hospital’s social work department’s bulletin board:



OUT                                                                                        IN

cold                                                                                         warm

their drugs                                                                             our drugs

½ gal. vodka                                                                          6 pack Bud


A nice doctor would visit Joe. An extraordinarily attentive doctor would spend some time and listen closely and pat him on the shoulder. But it’s all the extra stuff that gets to me and humbles me. It’s the sitting on the bed, the eye contact, the joking. It’s the challenging, radical, funny note on the bulletin board.

It’s not that we don’t have “time” to do these things. It’s that we—that is, I—don’t even think of them. I give myself a lot of credit just for basic decency and politeness. The Pope, in his personal attentiveness, and Dorothy Day and Paul Farmer, like my friend Father Dan Begin, shake up my complacency.




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7 Responses to Afflicting the Comfortable

  1. Kathy says:

    Yes, I thought of using that example instead. I remember the quandary in the book about transporting a Haitian to the US at great expense. Well-intentioned people point out that that money could be used to help a lot more people. But Farmer says, as you do, every individual deserves all we can do. It’s counter-cultural.

  2. Sarah Becker says:

    In Paul Farmer’s book, he describes making extraordinary efforts to get treatment for a poor Haitian boy, treatment that, in the wealthy world, would be limited to the very rich. But what is the difference between the rich and the poor? Don’t we all deserve the very best?

  3. Kathy says:

    Yes, exactly. Although I have to say in respect to our Roxy/Roxies, the particular message of love they’ve heard very clearly!

  4. Kathy says:

    I fixed the spelling! My niece Frances has forever embedded the -es spelling in my head!

  5. Michael Whitely says:

    It’s so good you wrote about Pope Frances. She will be pleased. You just advanced the cause of sisterhood.

    These stories are a worry. When our dog Roxy comes up to the table, she puts her head on one side with bright, intelligent eyes and insists on joining in the conversation, but in fact, in terms of the conversation, she doesn’t actually exist. In the same way, these stories say I don’t even know what’s going on. I may hear the Pope’s universal message, to love God and love your neighbour, but I understand it from my point of view, whereas these people have heard the ‘with your whole heart and your whole soul’ bit and see things from God’s point of view. Like dust free rooms with perfectly clean windows, they let the light of God pass through unhindered for the benefit of others. And there’s the worry (I should say: And there’s the rub. Conscience does make cowards of us all). To get rid of all limitations implies the way of Cross, which makes me wonder if I will ever know what this business of God and love are all about, and whether I really want to.

  6. Jamie Kaplan says:

    P.S. I too was thrilled to see the pope expose so many, many people, many of whom, I suspect will look into her life and work.

  7. Jamie Kaplan says:

    I’m so glad that you read the Dorothy Day bio. I’m sure you know that he also wrote books about Simone Weil and Anna Freud. Wouldn’t the Dorothy Day make a wonderful book for your book club??

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