Friday, January 8, 2010

The Long Loneliness

This year, for the first time ever, I took my boyfriend home to Lafayette, Louisiana for Christmas week. Going home is like going back to the womb, coziness and comfort and ease. And, of course, indulgence. This year, gifts of luxury, like white satin pillowcases, leather-bound journal, and sugared body scrub. Practical gifts, too---stamps and manuscript mailers and patchouli soap. The living room carpet flooded with ribbons and shiny paper, half-eaten plates of ham and potato salad. A dozen different kinds of candies and cookies---sand tarts, pralines, pecan fudge, peanut butter balls.

At the center of it all is Maw-Maw---mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, the sun who keeps everyone in orbit. Her magnetism is polar: she is at once provincial (a born and bred Cajun who grew up in New Orleans and can understand that old bayou French) and cosmopolitan (not even a weakened heart can keep her from jet-setting to France in a few weeks).

Her suffering has become a joyful wisdom. Her burdens have bequeathed wit. She is religious, a devout Catholic, but so too is she spiritual. Last year, when she gave me the autobiography of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, I shelved it in favor of Dave Eggers' "What is the What." An old Catholic lady's mission, I thought, what's exciting about that?

I love when I'm wrong about a book. Dorothy Day's "The Long Loneliness" felt like it was written for me. Day was born in 1897, and came of age in Chicago during the height of the labor movement. The long bread lines and unsanitary working conditions moved and confused her. "I felt even at fifteen, that God meant man to be happy." Though her family was not religious, she was compelled to go to church, where she wondered: "Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?"

Her mission in life was to serve people, to uplift them from the drudgery of soul-bribing work, because she intimately understood "the initial agony of having to live." It was this spiritual connection with humanity that informed her political views---Day was an unabashed feminist and anti-capitalist. She not only espoused, but lived the concept of voluntary poverty, forgoing non-essential luxuries like cars, cosmetics, cigarettes, movie tickets, even privacy, so that other people might have access to the necessary food and shelter. (And here I thought my four dollar thrift store shoes and twice yearly haircuts were frugal.)

Having been raised Catholic, witnessing first hand the incongruities of the organized institution with the vision of the revolutionary Jesus---wealthy priests, segregated churches, its patriarchal subterfuge of women's rights---I read with trepidation about Day's conversion to the Catholic church. Why? But it was after her daughter was born (Day never married), so flooded with joy and love, that she felt "the need to worship, to adore." And, she wrote, "My very experience as a radical led me to want to associate myself with the masses in loving and praising God."

Never have I read such an eloquent synthesis of radicalism and spirituality. For Day, class consciousness and Christianity were inseparable. After all, she said, "Christ came to make the rich poor and the poor holy." She was not a missionary; in fact she felt uncomfortable with the idea of "preaching to empty stomachs." She did not try to convert the poor, sick, drunk, criminal people who sought refuge in the ever-multiplying community houses and farms that she helped set up all over the country---and world (and which are still in existence today). Instead, she lived to create community, the cure to "the long loneliness" that too many people experience. As St. John of the Cross, the Christian mystic said, "Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love."

Day is an inspiration to me---to the fiery feminist, anti-capitalist, and radical teacher, and to the spirit seeker. I realize that my spirituality and my revolutionary ideals need not be at odds. In fact, as long as I strive to emulate Jesus, who wanted to heal society's greed and oppression, then I am a Christian in the truest sense of the word. And my community are all of those people out there---my friends, co-workers, family members---who also try as best we can to do unto others as we would like them to do unto us.

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