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Remembering a remarkable American woman today

29 Nov

Today is the 30th anniversary of the death of Dorothy Day. She is a towering figure in the history of Christianity in America and also of the work for social justice. She’s also a personal hero of mine — and certainly part of the reason I’m here doing what I do at Christian Help of Mingo County.

To provide some food for thought, here’s a neat little introduction to Dorothy that I used to show my high school students when we talked about her. (It’s a sort of trailer to a much longer documentary about her.)

I’d also point out that just a few weeks ago her collected letters were published, under the title All the Way to Heaven. The editor of that book, Robert Ellsberg, also oversaw the publication of her diaries a couple of years ago as The Duty of Delight. That book is wonderful reading, and I’m looking forward to digging into her letters. (When my brother asked me last week what I want for Christmas, I named All the Way to Heaven.)

The feast days chosen by the Catholic Church for most saints are the anniversary of their death. So I (and surely most others familiar with her) fully expect this date to someday be the one on which the Church annually celebrates Dorothy’s extraordinary life, ministry, and message.

And there’s no reason she shouldn’t be celebrated as well by those who live their faith outside the Catholic tradition. She stands as a challenging model to any Christian who believes the words of Jesus in Matthew 25.

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“Your afflicted brother … is the most precious temple of all.”

13 Sep

Today is, in the Catholic tradition, the feast of St. John Chrysostom, who was a great leader of the Church in the late 300’s and early 400’s AD.  Chrysostom served as the archbishop of Constantinople (which is in present-day Turkey and was at the time one of the great centers of the Christian faith). 

He is most remembered for his eloquent and forceful sermons, many of which we still have record of today.  One of the things he was most eloquent, and most adamant, about was a Christian’s duty to help those who are poor — and that that duty comes before making sure we have altars and churches that are sufficiently beautiful.

Here is a clip from one of these, which I post here because it expresses so well the Gospel ideas on which Christian Help was founded:

Give Christ the honour prescribed in his law by giving your riches to the poor. For God does not want golden vessels but golden hearts.

Now, in saying this I am not forbidding you to make such gifts; I am only demanding that along with such gifts and before them you give alms. He accepts the former, but he is much more pleased with the latter. In the former, only the giver profits; in the latter, the recipient does too. A gift to the church may be taken as a form of ostentation, but an alms is pure kindness. Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs? What profit is there in that? Tell me: If you were to see him lacking the necessary food but were to leave him in that state and merely surround his table with gold would he be grateful to you or rather would he not be angry? What if you were to see him clad in worn-out rags and stiff from the cold, and were to forget about clothing him and instead were to set up golden columns for him, saying that you were doing it in his honour? Would he not think he was being mocked and greatly insulted?

Apply this also to Christ when he comes along the roads as a pilgrim, looking for shelter. You do not take him in as your guest, but you decorate floor and walls and the capitals of the pillars. You provide silver chains for the lamps, but you cannot bear even to look at him as he lies chained in prison. Once again, I am not forbidding you to supply these adornments; I am urging you to provide these other things as well, and indeed to provide them first. No one has ever been accused for not providing ornaments, but for those who neglect their neighbour a hell awaits with an inextinguishable fire and torment in the company of the demons. Do not, therefore, adorn the church and ignore your afflicted brother, for he is the most precious temple of all.