In late May of 2012, I hopped into a small, sweaty car with three New York Catholic Workers, Bud, Loren, and Megan, to head upstate for the Atlantic Life Community Retreat. I’d been “let go” a week earlier—in a most unfriendly way—from my administrative assistant job at a non-profit charity, just after I overheard my boss telling a neighbor outside that he’d wished I was more militaristic—for I’d spent too much time trying listening to the fears of a woman, with little knowledge of English, who would soon lose her home. What I became most certain of during my four months there was that I am not made to hush a cry; I am made to illuminate it; I am made to cherish it, hold it in my hand, and offer it up.
My relationship with the Catholic Worker Movement, and its two New York City (elderly) children, St. Joe’s and Maryhouse, began in August of 2011—or, rather, in May when I began reading A Long Loneliness. But I spent the summer passing, only for a moment considering the soft red wood doors of the women’s hospitality house. Sometimes stopping, staring up at the tin sign above, “The Catholic Worker.” Waiting for someone to coincidentally come outside, invite me in. Waiting. Hurrying away before anyone could come out and invite me in.
I carried the book in my bag for three months. Before and after work—then as a retail salesperson at a high end Soho boutique—I highlighted sentences. Some became prayers I’d repeat to friends, to myself in silence. I started speaking of Dorothy to anyone who’d listen, learning who she was as I fumbled through her life. I spoke about voluntary poverty, a strangely glamorous creed I didn’t understand, a language much too foreign. Reading it was a stripping of my own Self, the seemingly natural progression of thoughts we have—I began to itch within the luxurious layers of privilege that I wear as a twenty-five year old white woman. I moped, dragging that robe of privilege, until I learned that humility is a practice, that it would take time. I read until I was malleable, bent, shaking when, in August, I knocked on those doors.
After one year of volunteering, the moments of gnawing desire to move into a Worker House have congealed and acquired a steady pulse, as a consistent hunger. I’ve also acquired family, at both the men’s house and the women’s house. To many after mass one Thursday, I’d mentioned I was considering moving into a Worker House—that I, however, was looking to experience the inner workings of another House. I received different responses. “Why wouldn’t you just stay here?”; “You must go to the Hamburg house!”; “How exciting! I’ve always wanted to do that!”
Following an afternoon at St. Joe’s and Mary House, Loren stopped me on the street as I walked home. He held a cardboard pole. “I pick one up whenever I see one. For signs.” And a few hours later, we were climbing into the car, soon settling into the hum of the engine. Speeding around the East Village in such a confined space with three Catholic Workers was both comforting and maddening. Even in silence I felt I could hear their thoughts. Personalism, as I’ve come to unintelligibly understand it, is the practice of excoriating that rough film atop each of our senses (and then acting on what we believe is just, taking injustices into our own feeble hands). I believe that most Catholic Workers came-a-knocking as I did because they see and feel in a way that can become overwhelming, isolating, if not supported by others with similar empathies. As we slipped through the village I’d lived in for three years, thrice I noticed that person strewn across a sidewalk, heavier with new heat, sun brimming along his body limp as a wet rag, the summer coming from the ground up, that pedal beneath Bud’s foot cold, sharp, hot as coal from fire.
Quickly, most of the ALC attendees became aware that I was “between work,” though, more and more, this phrase felt untrue, for work, to me, had come to mean silent prayer or prayer in action, and it felt as if I were just beginning. I spoke openly of my longing to visit other Worker houses. I was honest about my hesitations in leaving. Was I abandoning NYC CW? I shared hesitations in staying. In response to what became my Catholic Worker “story”—where I came from and where I might be going—many offered thanks for my presence and prayers for my “discernment.” In their eyes and in their hand on my hand, was encouragement, excitement for they called my “pilgrimage.”
From the convention I took with me a bewildered understanding of ploughshares, a deeper fear of bed bugs (certainly, I thought, they were in my hair, in between toes and sifting through eyebrows. Must. Not. Sleep!), an almost painful respect for my new and old friends—and that word: Pilgrimage.
Crammed into that car, pulling away from the beige building the Dominican Sisters had so generously lent us, I was closer to those three. I’d sung Guthrie’s “I Aint Got No Home” with the driver, who’d sung protest songs months earlier that year in Iraq, where innocents had fallen, where a mother pressed Rose petals into the ground as if attempting to give life to the dead. I knew his slight limp better than before, his long hair and face, his nature, more mercifully swayed than I could’ve dreamt. Recently, in an email, he wrote to me, “Come back to us.” I’d confessed to Megan my fears, the twenty-nine year-old so sure of her duty, she forces you to recognize yours. “I am so curious about the lives of every Catholic Worker—where do they come from? Why are they here?” I’d said, once, while chopping vegetables. “God,” she replied, and laughed—this buoyant, fearless certainty of hers has made her an invaluable member of the community, and also at odds with a society, a traditional family within that society, which might gawk at the young woman’s wishes to wash the feet of the poor. “If only an orthopedic doctor would teach me for free.” She’d showed me, motioning, the positions this procedure would require, drawing a beautiful picture, a Renaissance painting. And she confessed, too: “I would have never imagined myself here. New York. At St. Joe’s. But I know it is where I am supposed to be.” Loren, who came to NYC when Occupy Wall Street began bubbling from a small Catholic Worker House in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, sighed, smiling, after we were outstretched in our borrowed sleeping bags, sighed at the failings, the gossip which happens inside St. Joe’s, in a city where the sharpness of concrete, glass, and hard, narrow looks reverberate around him. “The crosses we bear,” he smiled, gently.
I want to write this book for selfish purposes—this I know. I discover many things in reflecting, in writing. I find beauty in imperfect conversations, imperfect embraces, cracked walls and smiles. In houses of hospitality, where we are trying to love another person, sometimes many people at once, sometimes, we fail. But the trying to love—how beautiful that is.
I think often of what a friend wrote me in a letter after I’d invited him and his novice brother, on pilgrimage from Kentucky, to stay at my apartment for the weekend. I met the two at St. Joe’s; they were thankful to have been invited to sleep on the St. Joe’s floor on the early March evening.
“I can’t thank you enough for all of your hospitality and generosity. Most of all thank you for having the courage to be vulnerable, to share your heart with us. This is what I think of when I think of Christ: He was vulnerable, and he knew that was the only way to be fully human. He identified with that, which is, perhaps, the most essential part of being a creature. I think of words like ambiguity, paradox. Jesus is comfortable with these realities and so must we be.”
In the past month I’ve contacted several Catholic Worker houses around the world; I’ve received several responses, welcoming my presence. While it is still, today on June 11th, uncertain where I will go, it’s been more than encouraging to hear from so many, doing the works of mercy everyday. One email from the Germany Catholic Worker assured my hope to visit many houses, as many as I can, and reflect on them, offer these moments up (to these houses themselves, to houses across seas, to Dorothy, to God).
“I have to smile when I read that you have heard only wonderful things about our house,” she wrote. “From inside, as you may know, life shows itself with the full range of happenings and emotions and failures and successes. Therefore, we are always interested in the outside point of view.”
This, then, is my attempt to show that outside--temporarily inside--point of view, of the many atmospheres of hospitality, the ways in which we are practicing humility—for, after all, it is but a practice.