How to start a Catholic Worker House and why you should contemplate doing so.
An essay and some poetry on the Feasts of Saints Isidore and Maria, May 15, 2003.
Today is the Feast of Saints Isidore and Maria, patrons of farm workers and gardeners. It is a wonderful day to feast on the bounty of the earth and pray blessings on your garden and all farm crops growing so bravely and with great beauty this spring.
Gardening is a true blessing, and even though it takes a certain amount of time and effort, which is to say, manual labor, it is not at all an onerous burden. The rewards are so tangible. Our gardens this year are more beautiful than ever. We have had a steady flow of color since March, the yellows of the dandelions, bright reds of the crimson clover, deep purple of the vetch, a yellow so bright it is almost metallic on the wild geraniums. (Some people think that they are weeds!!!!! They are so beautiful, have been blooming now for longer than a month, and are showing no signs of fading. It's also a plant created by God to provide medicine and dyes.)
There was pink on the peach trees and white on the apple trees, and now there is a bright lavender purple on the rose bushes and a light lavender on the comfrey. The wild volunteer sunflowers are already blooming, and the maximilien sunflowers and confection sunflowers we've planted are growing tall and are promising abundant blossoms to come, as are the day lilies. Yellow and purple have bloomed the iris, and white elder flowers are just now opening. Yellow shone from the clove currants, and presently shines from the tomato plants and lingers on the turnips, while white blossoms covered the plum trees and bushes. The onions and chives are about to open round globes of white and purple flowers, standing tall in the garden like slender skyscrapers with futuristic globes on top.
And of course everywhere there is green, a myriad of shades. silver green on the horehound, bright green on the horseradish, forest green on the garlic, onions, shallots, and walking onions. Am abundance of textures are woven into the tapestry with the leaves of the plants, the paths of wood chips and borders of logs of various sizes and stages of weathering, and the occasional brick or fieldstone.
Besides the color we have been blest to feast on a constant yield of food from this garden since April, crisp salads with ten and more ingredients, impossibly sweet and perfectly ripe strawberries. sweet tart purple mulberries. mints and sorrels and docks and lettuces and herbs, oregano, sage, thyme, winter savory, rosemary, tarragon, chocolate, lemon, apple and pepper mints.
And to think that some people look down on the manual labor that produces beauty and wisdom such as this. Our holy Father St. Benedict was right. Ora et Labora. Prayer and Work. I like to do them both at the same time and recommend that to everyone. Practice the presence of God and your work will never be quite the same, whatever it is you are doing.
These sacred anchors help us find balance in our busy and sometimes chaotic lives. Go here, do this, drive there, do that, there is no end to the things we all have to do.
For many, it is an increasing struggle to just survive as jobs disappear and economies crash.
For the last few years, farmers have been receiving at times historically low prices for their produce. Yet, has anyone noticed any real decline in prices in the grocery stores? I sure haven't, and even though we get most of our household food from farmers these days, we buy a lot of groceries to give to the poor, as much as seven or eight hundred dollars each and every month. I can tell you for a fact that five hundred dollars does not go as far as it used to when it comes to buying basic staple foods like flour, oil, rice, sugar, beans, corn meal, and etc. to give to the poor.
People talk about unemployment not being all that high, but can someone give me a reason to trust the government's unemployment figures? Like their CPI calculations, or the USGS estimates of world oil reserves, the unemployment rate is a highly politicized statistic. It only counts people "actively looking for work," and if you look for work for X number of months, and still don't have a job, "poof" you disappear from the official labor statistics, you are no longer a worker, you are "long term unemployed".
The minimum wage is certainly not a living wage, and while the government reports claim that inflation is low, that is not what people are experiencing with the things they have to buy with cash out of their pocket, like energy, medical care, and food.
Things are worse for more people than the government's statistics suggest. Empires always rig their statistics to make themselves look better than they really are. Washington is no different in that regard from the old Soviet Union.
I despair of a solution to these huge nearly incomprehensible mega trends going on out there in the worldwide imperial culture of death.
Fortunately, dealing with that whole situation out there isn't my job. And there is no solution "out there" anyway that proceeds from the top down in human terms. That's what we're all looking for, a cavalry to come to the rescue, a Great Man that will ride in wearing a white hat and set everything aright. We might as well stop doing that because we aren't going to find what we are looking for out there anywhere anyway. We might as well learn right now that we are the ones we are waiting for to rescue us. To paraphrase Pogo, "We have seen de Cavalry, and it be us!"
Meditate carefully about this. look at the world as it in fact is, and try to understand and even visualize the spiritual forces that are at work for good and and the demonic forces working for bad in the present situation. And then think of this wisdom: "I fall before the overwhelming strength of my adversary, but in the act of my collapse, his defeat is made certain." Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, nothing happens. With God, humility and meekness overcome power and violence.
Saints Isidore and Maria never went to Washington. Yet today there is a feast in the Church calendar that remembers them and the holiness of their vocation of tending the land as farmers and gardeners. They remain powerful in their work for justice and peace even to this very day.
And the situation these days is increasingly grave. The old Republic is near death; for the time being in Washington DC the Empire has won and will have its day in the sun, but it will pass away as all empires have before it. Given the velocity of world events these days, the quality of the empire's bipartisan political leadership, the mendacity and venality of our media, and the behavior of our cultural and economic elites, it is not likely to be a long reign.
These days, It is better to be friends and companions with earth worms and lady bugs, than it is to have the ear of Congress. And the earthworms and lady bugs are also likely to be a more fruitful relationship. I will continue to write letters and sign petitions, and watch the signs of these times unfold before us. But no one should mistake where my effort is going. Ora et labora, where you are, wherever it is that you live, that is the place to build the civilization of life and love. I certainly have more trust in my earthworms and lady bugs than I do in Congress, and advise others to do the same.
The Wizard of Oz said to Dorothy and her companions, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." Indeed, what are all those who are "behind the curtains" manipulating the affairs of this world to God? The psalmist sung, many centuries ago, "The Lord knows human plans, they are only puffs of air."
The promise of the Gospels is that the meek will inherit the earth, and they will do this by the grace, power, wisdom, splendor, and beauty of God, not by themselves becoming sharks able to navigate and manipulate the imperial system.
The peasants will receive this inheritance because those who account themselves as powerful and mighty in human terms are on the road to collapse due to the inherent contradictions and unsustainabilty of their imperial system, which has become so complex that increasing investments in more complexity are yielding increasingly small and marginal and often negative returns. Our leaders are like teenagers with whiskey and car keys. Already, in just the last three years, there has been a lot of water under that bridge; many who were rich, powerful, arrogant, high and mighty have been brought down low and humbled.
These are classic historical signs of a civilization heading towards collapse, and if you open your eyes and really look at that imperial system out there, you will see it is full of so many cracks and fissures and contradictions that every moment that it does not come crashing down is a wonder in and of itself. It looks so scary and magnificent and brave and bold, bolts of lightening flying around and clouds of smoke going up from impressive art deco statuary, but in reality its just a bunch of guys manipulating levers hiding behind a curtain, afraid that we are going to notice them and see them for what they really are, and thus they will lose their power over us. So they try to keep us scared, on edge, worried, afraid. Don't go there and play that game.
The American Empire is a naked emperor that stands astride there across the world, one foot on Washington, DC, the other on the oil fields of the Middle East, Supreme Lord so it thinks of all it can see. Alas for the imperialists, it is indeed triumphalistic pride, arrogance, and hubris that go before a fall. We will not be an exception to this historical truth.
We will find salvation from all this not by our own clever manipulation of inside the beltway politics, but rather by learning how to do small beautiful things for God at the grassroots, where even as we speak a civilization of life and love is growing in a myriad of hidden places everywhere in the world. There are some who shine brightly and beckon others to follow, others are quiet, hidden, secret; they are what by the grace of God stand between us and chaos.
This Kingdom of God, which even now is upon us, can be found in the secret bags of groceries left on porches at night, good deeds done, prayers said, masses celebrated, chants sung, meditations contemplated, gardens planted, devotions practiced, flowers growing, trees towering, kind words said and repeated often. The Kingdom of God is here and there, then and now. You find it in choirs, singing Exultate Justi at rehearsal preparing for Ascension Sunday. It is where priests and peoples celebrate mass, and with Benedictine monks in the eastern Oklahoma mountains chanting the liturgical hours. And then there are the people who come to our house three Saturdays a month to deliver food to people in need who don't have transportation to get to a regular food bank.
From the beginning, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin taught that we Catholic Workers should be busy building a new society in the midst of the collapsing ruins of the old, through Ora et Labora, prayer and work. If we can protect the poor and the innocent, save them, deflect or mitigate harshness of the impact upon them of what is happening, this ongoing slow motion economic, social, and moral collapse, we should certainly act to do so; we resist and overcome evil by doing good.
If we want to see a sustainable and just civilization of life and love in our lifetimes, we can only start where we are, at the grassroots, to create these new structures in tangible ways. We start small or we don't start at all.
Everyone reading this has something they are called to do to build the sustainable and just civilization of life and love which is our rightful inheritance. And I believe that there are many people out there with vocations to start Catholic Worker houses, hundreds certainly, maybe thousands. To them I say, Procrastination is a deadly demonic enemy; let this meditation, the comfort of the Holy Spirit, and the example of the holy saints Isidore and Maria, Dorothy and Peter, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Joseph the Worker, and all the Holy Helpers of the Poor, be a grace for you that liberates you from the fears and worries that are holding you back from being bold and good, wise and full of beauty, love and mercy. We are all wounded, we all have feet of clay, none of us are worthy. Our wisdom is really foolishness, but when one sees what the world accounts as wise, it is better to be a fool, and in such foolishness of the cross is true wisdom. "Only say the word, and we shall be healed."
There is no end to the possibilities of what can happen with God. Never think that you are alone, because you aren't. You are surrounded by the love and grace of God and the protection and intercession of the Communion of Saints. All of those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith are still here for us, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin and Ade Bethune and Ammon Hennacy, Stanley Rother and Oscar Romero, they all walk with us every day, through every valley and over every mountain. They do not forget us in this and any other hour of our great need.
Should you be in a boat, on a stormy sea, and you see Jesus standing out there walking on the water beckoning for you to come to him, and you decide against all human reason to leap out of that comfortable and safe boat and walk towards the Lamb who was Slain, all of these holy people will be with you at every step of the way. When you are discouraged, they will hold you up and comfort you and help the fears and the tears to go away and give you peace in the midst of chaos. And just at the time you think you are going to sink and perish in the storm, reach out your hand and Jesus will grab you and pull you to safety. I can't even count the number of times this has happened to me in the four years since we started our own Catholic Worker journey adventure. When I talk with other Catholic Workers, they tell me the same thing. Don't think we do this all in our own strength because we are such strong yadda yadda yadda people. No, we do it in our very great weakness and ignorance, hardly being able to know what to do tomorrow, utterly and completely dependent upon God, not trusting at all in our mortal strength, because if we do that, the fact is our mortal strength is just not enough, however lofty the intentions, human effort will not win the day. Supernatural grace, faith, hope, and love is a necessity. And fortunately for us, a living reality. All the way to heaven is heaven, so said St. Catherine of Sienna as often quoted by Dorothy Day.
It is easy to get frozen to inaction by the thought that there is so much to do. Not to mention, there are no "Catholic Workerism for Dummies" books. But if you have a problem that is so big you can't see an answer, the thing to do is, well, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time of course. So here again the answer is found in prayer and work that is rooted in a life and heart that is open to the entire situation in which he or she lives, moves, and has their being.
If you can't think of an extemporaneous prayer, then delve into the rich tradition of devotional prayers, and pray a lot of them. By the hour. Yes, you can do other things at the same time, praying while working is good for the soul, and for the work.
If you don't know what work you should do, then open your eyes, ears, and heart and see what needs to be done that is at hand, and then begin to do it, whatever it may be. Invite others to help. Feed the hungry, visit the sick, start a Catholic Worker house, plant a garden, pick up trash in a public place, just get up out of your comfort and do something beautiful for God wherever it is you are. Often. As in habitually. If you don't know any poor people, don't worry, if you start a Catholic Worker house, the poor will find you, and you will find the poor. You don't have to live in a poor neighborhood to be a Catholic Worker house; Dorothy and Peter taught that the Catholic Worker charism is also to bring the poor and the non poor together; the rich are God's children too, they need salvation; often, they need help and knowledge to help the poor. There are spiritual despairs even when economic want is not present.
Keep doing goodness, beauty, wisdom, joy, justice and love, and eventually you will get good at all of them, and in the meantime you'll be getting better all the time and that helps. And every time you do goodness, beauty, wisdom, joy, justice, and love, you plant, nurture, cultivate, and propagate the just and sustainable civilization of love with which we shall replace this imperial culture of death that afflicts the world so sorrowfully and is creating so many tragedies and so much evil.
Know from the very beginning that you are here to learn from the poor. The poor are not an other or stranger, the poor are companions in the journey, we are all in this together, drawn together by solidarity and love.
That's what Catholic Workers do. Every house is different and yet we are the same. We're all doing the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, justice, and peace, creating new structures of goodness, beauty, and wisdom in the midst of the collapsing ruins of the culture of death, living in solidarity, companionship, and accompaniment with and of the poor. We are frugal with our resources, just in our dealings with others, conscious of the need for people to joyfully model the civilization of life and love so that others can learn to do likewise. We are personalists, we believe in taking personal responsibility for these things. We are communities, that is to say, voluntary extended families, typically with a rather variegated tapestry.
Take no thought about how much money it is going to cost, and where the money and other resources will come from, or how much hassle it will be (the answer to that last is: "a lot" so just expect that from the beginning and you'll do fine.). It doesn't cost anything to begin doing good, and you should never hesitate from doing something good like opening a Catholic Worker house because you think you don't or won't have enough money. Evangelical poverty is a Catholic Worker virtue, and I think the experience of all the houses has generally been that God and St. Joseph and St. Therese the Little Flower and often St. Jude do provide, albeit not necessarily on our schedule, and sometimes in surprising and unexpected ways.
Don't think you have to do everything, and don't try. Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. If you have food for five people, give it to five people and thank God for the grace and blessing. If you have food for fifty people, give it to fifty people and thank God for the grace and blessing. If you have food for five, and fifty ask for food, feed the five, pray with the 45, and then work to create a situation where there will be food for fifty.
Be opportunists for God. Don't go around with blinders and earphones, be spiritually open to and aware of what is going on around you and willing to accept responsibility in the situations that God will certainly send your way. Bur don't spread yourself so thin that you aren't doing anybody any good. You can't do everything and you shouldn't try, but everybody can do something.
Start small or you won't start at all. By yourself, your household and family, or in community with several others in your area, whatever your situation is, select a name for your house and begin to pray and work and discern the path you should follow. If you don't have a plan other than, "We are the St. Augustine of God Catholic Worker House," that's a fine plan. Make a sign with your computer printer and put it on your front door, send a letter to your pastor and tell him that on such and such a day you opened the St. Augustine of God Catholic Worker House and see what happens. Dorothy and Peter started with a newspaper, their example is good for all of us. So if you right away start a newsletter or newspaper, which you could do very inexpensively using word processing/desktop publishing, then you have not only a Catholic Worker House, but also a Catholic Worker newspaper. Show your priest your first newsletter and ask him to let you use the church's copier to print the first edition of your Catholic Worker publication. Then ask him for stamps. And as Paul advised, "Let no one despise your youth."
Send a copy to all the religious sisters, brothers, monasteries, convents, priests, and Catholic organizations in your area, and if possible to other Catholic Worker houses and put them in the literature racks at churches. We always like to hear about new houses and you'll get all kinds of unlikely and interesting responses. Plus, people will start to send you their publications and reading them will help you learn more about the Catholic Worker movement.
This is important, because as already noted we believe in observing the signs of these times. Dorothy and Peter called this "clarification of thought." Catholic Worker communities get together and talk about whatever is going on at the time, examining important issues, big and small, either on a regular schedule or on some other more casual schedule, and they pray together. We try to communicate these ideas and proposals in our own media, and in other media as may come our way, on the internet or wherever.
Learn all you can about the Catholic Worker charism, read the works of Dorothy Day and the Easy Essays of Peter Maurin. There are several books around that are helpful; the Winona Catholic Worker maintains an excellent website, http://www.catholicworker.org , which has an extensive online library of the columns of Dorothy Day in the NY Catholic Worker newspaper. Study the social justice teachings of the church, in particular the encyclicals of our John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and the writings of the Second Vatican Council. Preach the gospel by deed and by word. Pray without ceasing.
Send a copy of everything you publish to the Catholic Worker archive at Marquette University, attention Phil Runkel, and any other documents, writings, journals, letters, photos, etc about your house's journey.
No, you don't have to ask anybody's permission to start a Catholic Worker house, and I think that's the way it has been from the beginning. Dorothy and Peter didn't ask anybody, they just started. Discern God's will, and if this is your vocation, then don't be afraid to do what needs to be done. Accept personal responsibility for it, it is an unbelievably liberating experience. You don't have to ask anybody's permission to stop either, if circumstances change, you decide you made a mistake, whatever the case may be. I don't know the statistics for sure, but there's probably been as many Catholic Worker houses and farms over the years that have opened and closed as there are presently open.
And yes, I did say "Farm". There are Catholic Worker houses, and there are Catholic Worker farms (and some of us with "houses" are turning them into "Farms" even though they are in the middle of a city). So you could be the St. Augustine of God Catholic Worker Farm.
I am not at all sure why I decided to write this essay tonight, I guess now was its time. I originally was only going to send the poem below with a few comments, but this subject has been on my mind and heart for an extended period.
+ Through the intercession of the holy saints Isidore and Maria, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, Oscar Romero of El Salvador and Stanley Rother of Guatamala, may all those who are called by God to embrace the Catholic Worker charism of Dorothy and Peter, Isidore and Maria, Rother and Romero, open their ears and hearts to the cry of the poor and take their place among those who publicly stand for life against the culture of death, in defense of and in solidarity and companionship with the poor, and in the sure and certain hope of a sustainable and just civilization of life and love.
May this garden of love and beauty which you plant grow bright with flowers of hope and joy. The Kingdom of God is upon us. Worthy indeed is the Lamb that was slain, to receive glory, honor, and power.
O Christ our God, Lord of Glory, who gave us joy and blessing from your mother's womb, have mercy on us and save us.
On this remembrance of holy saints, I remain,
From the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker house
PS. The Poetry which kicked off this extended meditation on Catholic Worker house building. A friend sent me this today. God's ways are indeed mysterious. (Read it out loud, not silently, please.)
The Lake Isle Of Innisfree
by William Butler Yeats
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the mourning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.