e-mail us


Change in culture is what’s needed, as Dorothy Day knew


Dorothy Day was a large part of why I first showed up 23 years ago to work at Amos House, a Catholic Worker-inspired house of hospitality in Providence, R.I. Following four years as an irregular volunteer, I moved into the house and joined the staff; three years later I became the director.

Soon after this transition, I discovered that a scattering of people here and there were calling me a saint. Maybe it had something to do with the privileged upbringing that I seemed to be renouncing, or perhaps it was my choice to work with the poor instead of some other population. Although I left Amos House five years ago and sense that my reputation as a saint -- or fool -- hasn’t followed me very closely, I am challenged to consider the ramifications of the now-official campaign to canonize Dorothy Day, my formative inspiration.

Dorothy herself was consistently and genuinely hostile to any association with sainthood, and her hostility expressed a general aversion to the concept beyond its official or unofficial application in her case. I won’t raise an objection if the Catholic church chooses to declare her saintliness, but I’m moved by her spirit to embellish her case for distrusting the idea of sainthood itself.

Dorothy insisted that the label amounted to a dismissal of the meaning of her life and words. When she becomes a saint, the rest of us become exempt from the call of her teachings and witness. The act of canonization displaces responsibility.

Going a bit deeper into the role of the saint in our culture, sainthood also promotes an individualistic worldview. The conflicting messages of sainthood are that the examples of saintly lives can be dismissed because they’re lived by unusually graced individuals and that the nasty world we live in can be transcended, as exemplified by these individual heroes.

Both messages subtly enable and support the oppressive status quo. It’s common for people to subscribe to both messages at once: “Because there are people -- the saints -- who made the grade, I’m accountable for my own failure, but since the saints are so extraordinary they’ve earned their own special label, there’s no way I can be expected to be so holy.”

Like the focus on celebrity in our culture, sainthood fixation promotes the cheerleading spectator rather than the active participant, and at the same time calms any worry that there is a systemic source of our social and spiritual ailments.

For those more committed to social transformation, sainthood takes on a different, but no less individualistic interpretation: “If only [some critical mass of] people followed the example of [name of saint], the world would be the place we want it to be.” The way to improve the world is to get people to be better than they are.

Intending to move society from the status quo, this understanding of sainthood has the opposite effect by promoting the moral behavior of the individual rather than a look at the systemic basis of our social problems. Our culture, by which I mean the global culture of civilization, fuels the social distress in our society. Neither the world’s troubled condition nor its salvation are a matter of how good, bad or saintly are the thoughts and behavior of individuals. It is much more a function of how we think and live collectively. No amount of pleading and whipping is going to snap ordinary people out of the habit of following the flow. This is true of people in our culture and any other.

Peter Maurin, Dorothy’s founding partner in the Catholic Worker initiative, insisted that we must create a society in which it is “easy to be good.” Instead of laboring to make ourselves and others into saints, we should help transform our culture so that average people will be compelled by the cultural flow to share, cooperate in community living and respect the earth. We contribute to this transformation by exposing and recanting the mythology that undergirds our culture and by experimenting with new ways of living. The goal is a new worldview and social habits that are held collectively by ordinary people bearing the usual variety of personal gifts and shortcomings.

A final dimension of our sainthood fascination can be illuminated by the absence of saint, prophet, savior, guru or avatar concepts (as we know them) in nature-based, tribal cultures that have survived in relative isolation for thousands of years.

Attempting what saintly people like Dorothy Day attempt can be understood as an effort to survive in a profoundly dysfunctional society without going crazy. Daniel Berrigan has defended his acts of civil disobedience by insisting that he is merely protecting his soul from being captured by the machine. While many of us seem to prosper in our troubled society, many try desperately to make sense of the world by “acting out” in one of a variety of ways. In this sense, the saint response is not so much a rising above the rest but a kind of coping mechanism: It is one defense strategy against a culture gone mad.

Functional, sustainable cultures would not -- and ordinarily do not -- produce saints. Contrary to the “noble savage” perception many people have of, say, Australia’s aboriginal people, you won’t find a saint (as we might recognize one) among them, only ordinary people with the usual individual idiosyncrasies living in the flow of a culture that works.

This cultural comparison suggests that we quit falling over ourselves to recognize and adore the lotus rising out of the muck and instead concentrate on the muck. So long as we choose to live in muck, a lotus will surely rise now and again -- as will 12-year-old boys who come to school and spray bullets at their schoolmates. We can get at the muck by recognizing that it grows from and is shaped by our culture, regardless of how virtuous or vicious are any one of our individual members. The culture has a life of its own and a strong will to sustain itself. Its sustenance is its mythology, which we collectively live out every day and accept as fact, without a thought given to it. The facts provided by this mythology, explaining who we are and how things came to be the way they are, apply only to one culture, our own, though we mistake them for explaining the human story in its entirety.

Shifting our attention from transcendence to the struggle of ordinary people to survive the system, we can transform the culture that has us all transfixed. With a revised understanding of who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re heading, we will create both a new cultural mythology and new way of living on the earth and with each other.

Like Clare and Francis of Assisi, Lao Tsu and some of the others we might call saints, Dorothy Day certainly challenged our culture in this radical manner as she also transcended it. And as I continue my own personal efforts to become a more mindful, compassionate and nonviolent presence in my home and in the world, I am not at all critical of individuals choosing a way of life that others may want to consider saintly. I also depend for guidance and inspiration on the examples of many whom others might call saints. I urge only a shift in perspective on what this means.

My own ministry has shifted, as my understanding has shifted. Though I continue to support worthy programs, campaigns and movements of the kind I contributed to for many years, I have become more committed to learning and teaching about our collective need to untie our cultural shackles and the process of how this might unfold. Raising these questions and experimenting with alternatives using the tools available to me, I hope to contribute to a change in the flow of our society that promises something better.

Since leaving Amos House in 1995, Jim Tull has taught courses in community service and social change, peace studies and philosophy at Providence College and the Community College of Rhode Island. His e-mail address is jtull@ccri.cc.ri.us

National Catholic Reporter, February 16, 2001