The Coffee Cup

See the updated version of this post: The Coffee Cup 2.0 published in July 2016.

There’s an old story about Dorothy Day and a coffee cup.  It’s a story that’s gone around a bunch of times, told by many people, all representing Dorothy in their own way.  Like the game of “telephone,” in which the message spoken by the first player at the beginning of the game is completely warped by the last player at the end of the game, the coffee cup story has actually morphed into two distinct versions of what most certainly was one actual event.

In both versions of the story, a Mass was celebrated at Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker House in New York City.  Apparently, instead of a chalice, the priest chose to use a styrofoam coffee cup.  The two versions of the story developed around Dorothy’s reaction.  One account says that Dorothy was perturbed, even horrified, by the idea of using a coffee cup in the celebration of the Mass.  It wasn’t fitting; it dishonored the Lord.  This version of events says that after Mass, Dorothy found the coffee cup and carefully buried it in the earth behind the house, bringing some closure to what Dorothy felt was an error in judgment and a bit of scandal in her House.

The other version of the story says that Dorothy was profoundly touched by the use of the coffee cup.  A small, white, styrofoam coffee cup is the cup of the people, the cup of the poor.  It was perfectly fitting to use it in the sacrifice of the Mass; it honored the Lord.  Whether or not Dorothy buried the cup in this version of events is unclear.  But what is clear is the idea that this Eucharistic cup embraced the plight of the poor.  The coffee cup brought together the suffering of Christ and the very real situation of human poverty.

One interesting thing about this story is that from what I know of Dorothy Day, either version could be true.  She was what you might call authentically Catholic.  She embraced the liturgy in all of its meaning and symbolism.  She understood it; she lived it.  But she also embraced the poor – their marginalization, their pain, her own responsibility toward them.  She understood and lived that as well.  Dorothy Day was not predictable or classifiable.   She was just Catholic.  She was just faithful. 

In our contemporary American Church, where would Dorothy Day fit in?  Would her reaction to the coffee cup place her in a certain “camp”?  I doubt that either side of our polarized Church would be 100% comfortable with Dorothy.  And I doubt Dorothy would spend one minute worrying about it.

After writing this, I did some digging (not literally) and it seems that the most likely “true story” is somewhere in the middle (as usual).  Jim Forest, a close associate and biographer of Dorothy Day, writes that after the “coffee cup Mass”, Dorothy said nothing but simply buried the coffee cup (and the sandwich plate that was used as a paten!) in the back yard.  She was always happy to have a Mass and did not criticize the way the priest chose to celebrate it.  But as in all things, she wanted things to be right.  I also found this striking commentary about Dorothy, also by Jim Forest:

“We live in a post-Christian world.  Christian activity and Christian belief are not normal, even among Christians.  Most of us are constantly trying to conform ourselves to the people at the front of the crowd, so that our religious activities aren’t too ridiculous and too embarrassing and too isolating.  Dorothy Day was able to work through that and to find the place where she would be free to be a believer.  And when you are with one of those people, it hits you pretty hard.”

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For an updated version of this blog post, with memories by Jim Forest, click here.

Portrait from Robert Shetterly's "Americans Who Tell the Truth."

Portrait from Robert Shetterly's "Americans Who Tell the Truth."