After one works on this show a while, you hear a particular statement or example given by one of Krista’s guests and can’t help but hear echoes from previous interviews. These connections make the world more intimate, smaller. These glimpses also give me a fresh angle of looking at that same memory or story and creating new meaning out of it.
This is exactly what happened in Krista’s conversation with Xavier Le Pichon.
Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa at the Maryhouse office in New York City on June 17, 1979. (photo: Bill Barrett)
Krista cited Dorothy Day’s experience of witnessing the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which immediately made me hearken back to Paul Elie’s conversation, as the impetus for her founding of the Catholic Worker:
Ms. Tippett: You identify with all of these people. I think in each of them there is one sort of vital religious question or yearning around which their pilgrimage hinged. What would you say that is in Dorothy Day?
Mr. Elie: Well, she’s the person who could always imagine society better than it is. It stemmed from her experience in the San Francisco earthquake. She was an eight-year-old girl. She lived in Oakland. She stood on the street watching for the next few days as the people of Oakland helped each other and helped the people of San Francisco who were coming across the bay in boats. And for the rest of her life, she just thought, ‘People helped each other. Why can’t we just keep doing that? Why can’t society be organized so that we can help each other a little more, so that that stranger who asks for food, that I actually recognize that that person is a brother or sister to me in a way?’ So she had a reformer’s imagination of how the world might be other than it is.
Ms. Tippett: You know, what’s so interesting to me about that image of her standing before the San Francisco earthquake, seeing how people could love each other and help one another, you can dismiss that, you can say, ‘Well, that’s one of those extreme moments in life, we’ve all seen that. There’s crisis and then it passes.’ But then what she went on to do is to create communities of that same kind of crisis and intensity on a day-to-day basis with the poor.
Mr. Elie: Well, that’s right, and it’s partly out of the recognition that it doesn’t have to be merely the crisis moments that call forth that love in us, and also the recognition that, at some moment, everyone is having a crisis of that magnitude.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, that the crisis is among us all the time.
Mr. Elie: Yeah. And that you have to be there when the person is having his or her crisis, and not wait for the city to burn down.
Ms. Tippett: So here’s this reading from the postscript. She says: “We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form, saying, ‘We need bread.’ We could not say, ‘Go, be thou filled.’ If there were six small loaves and a few fishes, we had to divide them. There was always bread. We were just sitting there talking and people moved in on us. Let those who can take it, take it. Some moved out and that made room for more. And somehow the walls expanded. We were just sitting there talking and someone said, ‘Let’s all go live on a farm.’ It was as casual as all that, I often think. It just came about. It just happened. I found myself, a barren woman, the joyful mother of children. It is not easy always to be joyful, to keep in mind the duty of delight. The most significant thing about the Catholic Worker is poverty, some say. The most significant thing is community, others say. We are not alone any more. But the final word is love. We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.”
Why did you send me that piece of hers?
Mr. Elie: Well, it’s one of the most powerfully written things that she did, and as the postscript to her autobiography, it’s one that obviously she considered important and representative. But what it really gets at is something that I think you were pointing toward in all the remarks of the past few minutes. She thought it possible for society to be different than it is because she thought that we’re naturally oriented toward love, we’re made to love one another. That’s natural, and strife and war are a deformity of that. But what we’re created for is to love one another, and to love one another in community. So she was trying to make clear in that passage that though she was a radical and formidable organizer, it was not a programmatic effort that got the Catholic Worker going. It was people doing what came naturally, which was loving one another in community and talking about it.
That was reward in itself, but Le Pichon carried the thought of immersing oneself in the suffering of others — living and understanding the others’ joy and sorrow — and, as you’ll hear in the audio clip, ended with “the heart gets progressively more educated.” That helps me think about empathy and caring in a whole new light.
The learning process is a growth curve; we have that ability to acquire knowledge, but it’s incremental and it needs to be fostered. That same potentiality applies to caring for others even if we can’t relate deeply at first. I need to grow that part of myself and not judge myself too harshly when I fail to act as compassionately as I would like.
My capacity for love and forgiveness is not fully mature, and I like that thought — that I just might be slightly wiser and kinder as I grow older even as my ability to remember and acquire new knowledge is on the decline.