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:
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.