Advent: Dorothy Day and the Holiness of the Mundane
BY ALYSSA PASTERNAK POST | November 30, 2015
As we enter Advent, I am reminded of Wheeling Jesuit University’s motto: Luceat Lux Vestra, or “Let your light shine” (cf. Matthew 5:16). In my youthful idealism I found inspiration in my alma mater’s motto and in those whose light shines so brightly. We tend to recognize them as saints, or holy people. So, with St. Ignatius I stood ready to be a contemplative-in-action, with one foot on the ground and one foot in the air, ready to go wherever there was greatest need, while Pedro Arrupe’s words of finding God and falling in love captured my heart and imagination. In concrete actions this led me to the School of Americas protest, to missions deep in Appalachia and in Haiti, and to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.
Fast forward a little more than a decade to my present life as a spouse and a mother of young children, which feels quite different from those college and post-college days. I reinterpret now what it means to let my light shine. And I seek to recover the complex memory of those whose lives and testimonies were voices crying out in the desert, and who gave a substantial part of themselves to the raising of children.
Prayer with Holy Women
On retreat earlier this month with a few mothers of young children, I created a prayer space for a candlelit night prayer that included icons and images of holy women throughout Christian history who were also mothers. Let it be known that finding icons of virgins is way easier than finding icons of mamas! Yet several holy women emerged in my study and prayer, including Mary of Nazareth, Perpetua of Carthage and Emmelia of Caesarea from the early church, and Elizabeth Ann Seton, Zelie Martin and Dorothy Day from the last couple hundred of years. To this “great cloud of witnesses,” we added our personal photos of ourselves with our children, lit candles, and let our light shine among the chorus of saints throughout the ages.
While each of these holy women is amazing in her own right, the Catholic Worker Movement founder Dorothy Day, who died 35 years ago this past Sunday (just a few months after my birth), is one of my personal heroes. Like many holy people we remembered this November – including all Jesuit saints on November 5, Pedro Arrupe on November 14, and the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador on November 16 – I was introduced to Dorothy Day’s writing and life while in college at Wheeling Jesuit University. Her commitment to justice for the poor, her faith, her simplicity, and her intelligence have been a source of inspiration for many. Letting her light shine in such ways afforded her Pope Francis’ affirmation his recent address to the U.S. Congress.
Finding Consolation in the Musings of Dorothy Day
For me these days, however, I find great consolation in her life as a mother and grandmother, which I discovered in her musings about daily life on a visit to West Virginia to help her daughter Tamar with her young children in 1948.
Here’s her description of her normal day:
Sue is at the age when food goes in her ears, her hair, all over the floor. She will not be fed. Fortunately, there are the chickens to eat all that she tosses riotously around. Becky, aged two-and-a-half, is neat and tidy in her eating, but her toys, papers, books, anything she can lay her hands on is also flung here and there. My back aches with constant bending. We are trying to buy one of these wonderful dustpans with long handles.
Lunch next, and dishes and hanging up the wash, and today to the doctor, which meant a bath and all clean clothes for the children. Then on the way to town Becky got sick and vomited all over herself and me and the car, which means more washing and cleaning. She had insisted on helping with the bread-baking and eaten large hunks of whole-wheat dough, apples, topped by milk, potatoes, and baked cabbage for lunch.
Home just in time for supper, and more dishes and bottles and undressings and so on.
Not to speak of their innumerable rescues from imminent danger all through the day from the time they wake until the time they sleep.
How to lift the heart to God, our first beginning and last end, except to say with the soldier about to go into battle – “Lord, I’ll have no time to think of Thee but do Thou think of me.” Of course, there is grace at meals, a hasty grace, what with Sue trying to climb out of her high chair on the table. Becky used to fold her hands and look holy at the age of eighteen months, but now she does nothing. If you invite her participation, she says, “I won’t.” If you catch Sue in a quiet, un-hungry mood, she will be docile and fold her hands. But rarely. She is usually hungry, and when she starts to eat she starts to hum, which is thanks, too…
Meditations for women [and men], these notes should be called, jumping as I do from the profane to the sacred over and over. But then, living in the country, with little children, with growing things, one has the sacramental view of life. All things are God’s, and all are holy (On Pilgrimage 78-79, 110).
Sound familiar to anyone? Sweeping with those luxury long-handled brooms, wiping food out of kids’ hair, cleaning vomit out of cars, trying to model prayer. To me, this is messy light shining.
As I live in West Virginia and give myself to this space and time raising young children, I find consolation that Dorothy Day – the great Catholic Worker who received a papal shout out a couple of months ago – gave herself to the very mundane tasks of caring for a family. This space and time are God’s; this space and time are holy.
Advent is beginning. The darkness of night is winning. As we await the true Light, let us add our light in whatever context we find ourselves. Luceat Lux Vestra, Let your light shine.
Alyssa Pasternak Post lives in Pennsylvania with her husband Jeff and their two young daughters. Both are graduates of Wheeling Jesuit University (2002) and of the University of Dayton (2011), and Alyssa is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Jersey City, NJ – ’02 – ’03). She credits her Appalachian roots, along with experiences of rural poverty in Appalachia and Haiti during college and of urban poverty in Jersey City, as formative in her hopes to parent with justice. She has ministered in Catholic high schools and in parishes, seeking in each locale to live the magis. At present Alyssa is filled with gratitude for a few years of stay-at-home parenting (including a one-year adventure in homeschooling) and now works in full-time ministry among children, youth, and families at an urban Episcopal church.
This meant a lot to me as I left a career to raise children. I too spent time volunteering in Appalachia and I hope to go back. I am looking for a service opportunity, when there are two right in my own house. Lovely.