Some Lenten Levity, Courtesy Dorothy Day

In honor of Laetare Sunday (“Rejoice Sunday,” marking roughly our halfway mark through Lent), I thought I’d share a story with quasi-Lenten undertones (that’s a stretch) that made me laugh out loud.

It’s from a wonderful book put together by Rosalie G. Riegle entitled Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her.  The book is full of impressions, stories and memories about the real Dorothy Day from a wide survey of people who knew her in all sorts of capacities throughout her life.  

A little background on this particular story – apparently Dorothy was known for disliking contemporary music!  Rosalie narrates with the help of longtime Catholic Worker Brian Terrell:

“Often the young [Catholic] Workers would ‘have a hard time understanding the grumbling of their elder leader as an expression of love,’ as Brian Terrell says. ‘For all its craziness, the Worker is a family, and in families it often happens that the elders complain about…the younger generation.’ Brian tells a generational story about Dorothy coming upon some young people at work in Maryhouse and listening to the Carly Simon song ‘I Haven’t Got Time for the Pain.’ Dorothy shook her cane at them and said, ‘You’ve always got to have time for the pain.’”

Dorothy Day! When I'm old enough to shake my cane at people, may God grant me your panache!

 I doubt Dorothy ever shook her cane at these four whipper-snappers: Ralph DiGia, Dan Berrigan, Chris Kearns, and Tom Cornell. Photo courtesy of  Jim Forest’s online photo album .  Click on the picture to visit Jim’s “Dorothy Day” album.

I doubt Dorothy ever shook her cane at these four whipper-snappers: Ralph DiGia, Dan Berrigan, Chris Kearns, and Tom Cornell. Photo courtesy of Jim Forest’s online photo album.  Click on the picture to visit Jim’s “Dorothy Day” album.

The Coffee Cup 2.0

Last week I was delighted to receive an email from author and peace activist Jim Forest.  You may recall that I turned to Jim’s insights to sort out a bit of hearsay when I was writing about Dorothy Day and the “coffee cup Mass” (a story about a priest celebrating Mass at the Catholic Worker House in New York using a coffee cup and sandwich plate instead of a chalice and paten).  Why did I look to Jim’s word on the matter?  Because he was there!  (It is considered very poor writing to use more than one exclamation mark; that’s the only thing restraining me right now.) 

Jim Forest is a peace legend who worked closely with Dorothy Day, enjoyed the friendship of Thomas Merton, and has shared their legacies and created his own through his work and writing.  Jim emailed me because he was writing up his recollections of “the coffee cup story” for the Dorothy Day Guild.  He appreciated my post from 2014 and offered to send me his memories of the event if I was interested.  Was I interested?  I had to breathe deeply and count to ten before attempting to respond to Jim with restraint and maturity.  Jim Forest!!!!

Below please find my original post republished, followed immediately by Jim’s recollections of Fr. Dan Berrigan’s “coffee cup Mass.”  Note that in the fuzzy version I originally heard, the cup was styrofoam (supposedly the cup of the people!), but Jim was clear that the Catholic Worker never would have used styrofoam or any kind of “throw-away” cups.  He remembered a solid white cup:  “It might have had a blue line near the lip on the cup’s outer surface.”  And to think that cup may lie buried somewhere in New York!

It’s funny that a story about such a seemingly minor incident has stirred up so much interest.  I think it has everything to do with the way Dorothy fascinates us.  She can’t be pigeonholed or placed into one of our neat Catholic categories.  She’s just the real deal.

Same goes for Jim Forest, by the way.

 

The Coffee Cup

by Amy Ekeh

Originally published August 21, 2014

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 time it reaches 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, it is the cup of workers, the cup of the poor.  It was perfectly fitting and even profound 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.

The fascinating thing about this story is that from what I know of Dorothy Day, either version could be true.  Dorothy 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.”

 

Dorothy Day and the Coffee Cup Mass

by Jim Forest

June 29, 2016

Question from the Dorothy Day Guild:  We are reviewing a story that I know you are familiar with—perhaps witnessed—Dan Berrigan or another priest used a coffee cup as a chalice, Dorothy buried it in the yard, and so on.  Our question is—did it really happen? And were you a witness? Have others said they witnessed this? Seems to be some disagreement among people we talk to.  Thanks for any light you can shine.

Aware that my memory is not always reliable and that these events occurred half-a-century ago, I’ll do my best…

Dan Berrigan was the celebrant, as happened from time to time at St Joseph’s House. His liturgical style was simple and not entirely by the book. He might on occasion choose readings according to what he judged appropriate to the day and the historic moment rather than the church calendar and do some of the prayers with a degree of improvisation, though always preserving the core elements….  At the Catholic Worker probably there was less improvisation – he knew Dorothy was made uncomfortable by liturgical innovation.

At least on one occasion he used a very plain ceramic coffee cup and a matching small plate as chalice and paten. I recall glancing at Dorothy and noting a grimace. But she made no complaint and indeed took part in communion and afterward, as far as I recall, only expressed her gratitude. But then, when nearly everyone had gone, she took the cup and plate and said it must be buried as, having held the body and blood of Christ, could not any longer be used for coffee. I don’t recall with certitude that I saw her actually bury the cup and plate. In my memory I have a snapshot image of her doing so but that may be my envisioning something I knew about but didn’t actually witness. The image I have is of her being in the small rectangle of land behind St Joseph’s House and placing cup and plate in a hole she had dug with a garden tool.

Soon afterward I was at Mount Saviour Benedictine monastery near Elmira in upstate New York. After telling their famous potter, Brother Thomas, what I had witnessed, he gave me one of the chalice sets he had made for sale in the monastery shop, entrusting me to give the set to Dan, which I did soon after, at which time I told him about what Dorothy’s response to the coffee cup Mass had been. I recall Dan was very touched with the gift chalice and paten and used them on many occasions afterward, and not only at the Catholic Worker….

When did the coffee cup Mass happen? I’m not sure. My best guess was late 1965 or January 1966, as Dorothy writes, in her February 1966 “On Pilgrimage” column, “I am afraid I am a traditionalist, in that I do not like to see Mass offered with a large coffee cup as a chalice.” However Dorothy makes no reference to a specific priest or Mass. The Mass that Francene Gray describes so vividly (Divine Disobedience, Knopf, 1970) occurred the day after Tom Cornell started serving his six-month sentence for draft card burning — that would put the Mass on June 27, 1968. Francene’s account makes no mention of Dan using a coffee cup as a chalice but it may be that he did.

For the most up-to-date revisions of Jim's recollections, visit:  http://jimandnancyforest.com/2016/07/dorothy-day-dan-berrigan-and-the-coffee-cup-mass/.

 Jim Forest now lives in Holland with his wife Nancy.  His latest book is entitled  Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment.   To be published soon:   The Root of War Is Fear: Thomas Merton's Advice to Peacemakers.   Visit Jim and Nancy at  jimandnancyforest.com .  

Jim Forest now lives in Holland with his wife Nancy.  His latest book is entitled Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment.  To be published soon:  The Root of War Is Fear: Thomas Merton's Advice to Peacemakers.  Visit Jim and Nancy at jimandnancyforest.com.  

  Cup 3  by Jim Forest.  Published with permission.

Cup 3 by Jim Forest.  Published with permission.

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.”

* * * * *

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."

Take a Pilgrimage...Into Your Past

In the last blog post, I wrote about the friendship between Catherine Doherty and Dorothy Day.  They prayed for one another and visited on occasion, but the “maintenance” of their friendship took place in the letters they exchanged throughout the years.

Below is an excerpt of a letter from Catherine to Dorothy.  In it Catherine describes a beautiful way of praying.  Catherine was known for bringing Russian Orthodox traditions to the west and “translating” them for Catholics in North America, who she felt were spiritually hungry but lacking in the deep spiritual practices she had experienced growing up in Russia.  In the passage below, Catherine writes about taking “pilgrimages” into her past and visiting the “shrines” she found there:  the graces, gifts, sorrows and joys that she had experienced throughout her life.  In her book Poustinia, Catherine wrote that Russians were serious about pilgrimage – they traipsed all over the huge country – pilgrimage was a way of life.  But even the most seasoned religious traveler discovered that in the end, to be a pilgrim means to journey within.

I invite you to reflect on Catherine’s words and consider praying this way, too.  Which shrines of your past should be revisited – what joys and sorrows?  Can you look back and recognize God’s presence in your life in the people, places and events that shaped you? 

“It has been now over a month that a great desire to write to you has come to my heart.  I have been making, as you know, ‘pilgrimages’ into my distant and not so distant yesterdays, stopping now here, now there, to render thanks to the Lord of Life, for this special grace or that, for this wonderful gift or sorrow and for that infinite moment of joy.  Short as my life is, as any human life is, there are, strange to say, many a shrine in it before which, as is the custom of my people, I can bow low from the waist, touching the earth with my hands, and singing alleluias in my heart for each….  Amongst the memories of my yesterdays is a shrine that I reached into today, at which, in a manner of speaking, I still worship.  Long ago and far away I arose in search of the Lord….  [O]ut of nowhere, you came, and hand in hand, we walked together.”

You can read the full text of Catherine’s letter to Dorothy in an article about the friendship between Catherine and Dorothy, written by Fr. Bob Wild, the postulator for Catherine’s cause for canonization. 

Fr. Wild has also written a book assembling the letters of Catherine and Dorothy entitled “Comrades Stumbling Along:  The Friendship of Catherine de Hueck Doherty and Dorothy Day as Revealed Through Their Letters.”

 Catherine Doherty and Dorothy Day, 1957

Catherine Doherty and Dorothy Day, 1957


Catherine Doherty & Dorothy Day: Friends, Servants of God

Some friendships were just meant to be.  Such was the friendship between Catherine Doherty and the better-known social activist Dorothy Day (click here for previous posts about Catherine).  Fr. Bob Wild, the postulator for Catherine’s cause for canonization, wrote of Catherine and Dorothy:  “They were almost mirror images of each other:  their apostolates covered roughly the same historical period, from 1930-1980, totally loyal Catholics, serving the poor, conditioned by the Great Depression, women of prayer, dedicated to the Church, founders of movements that continue to this day.” 

 

                  Dorothy and Catherine

                 Dorothy and Catherine

Although Catherine and Dorothy never had as much time together as they would have liked, they maintained a deep friendship through correspondence and an occasional visit.  They supported one another through thick and thin, experiencing many of the same challenges in their common work of serving the poor and marginalized.  At times they were discouraged by their work – Catherine writes of times they would meet together at Child’s in New York (“where you could get three coffee refills”) – and how they would sit together holding hands and crying into their coffee cups (“I mean honest, big tears….  We had had it!”).  But they prodded one another along the narrow path – and both are now honored by the Church with the title “Servant of God” as their causes for canonization are underway.  Both women had their share of bumps along the road, and there will certainly be bumps along the road to canonization, too.  And for them, of course, the title “saint” means nothing.  They ran the good race and fought the good fight; they served until the end and poured themselves out as libations for the little ones, the ones in need, the ones who are Christ in this world.  But for us, to call them “saint” would be a privilege.  It would allow us to speak the recognition, each time we say their names, that they did the single thing we are all supposed to do – the thing we want to do but don’t have the courage:  they followed the two great commandments until it hurt.

 

This is how Catherine described their last meeting in 1978:

 

“Well, this was quite a red letter day as far as I was concerned. It was the fact that I met Dorothy Day. She had her 81st birthday. She looks so thin, so thin. Life is sort of ebbing out of her. Only her eyes are still sparkly. For me this was a red letter day. To me there was really nobody there, only Dorothy. I looked at her, and I sort of took her in with my whole heart, my mind, my eyes, my body, my everything. And I said to myself, ‘Catherine, you are meeting a saint. Don’t you ever forget it, the saint of New York.”

 

The relationship between Catherine and Dorothy is a testament to friendship.  In this life, we either make the way smoother for each other, or we place obstacles in each other’s paths.  The mutual love between these women, grounded in the love of God, made the road ahead of both of them a bit less dark and dangerous.  It gave them both more courage to love. 

 

As Fr. Wild wrote:  “[It] will be a glorious and historically significant sight when Catherine’s and Dorothy’s huge beautiful portraits shine together in the brilliant Roman sunlight on the façade of St. Peter’s.”

 

Click here to read Fr. Bob’s article about Catherine Doherty and Dorothy Day.