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/.