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Center for Action and Contemplation
Contemplative Activists
Contemplative Activists

Peace and Advocacy for the Poor

Monday, July 13, 2020

Contemplative Activists

Peace and Advocacy for the Poor
Monday, July 13, 2020

Dorothy Day (18971980) gives us a clear example of a contemplative activist. In her case, she began with activism, converted to Catholicism around age 30, and eventually lived out her two callings in a powerful and effective way. My friend John Dear, himself a contemplative activist, writes this about Dorothy Day:

An activist and journalist living in New York City’s Greenwich Village, [Dorothy Day] fought for labor rights, women’s rights, and an end to World War I. In 1927, after her daughter Tamar was born, she was filled with gratitude and received the gift of faith. She decided that the two of them should be baptized in the [Catholic] Church. In response, her partner promptly left her.

It was 1932, and Dorothy didn’t know what to do or how to be a radical Catholic Christian. While attending a march against hunger in Washington, D.C., she prayed that God would open up a way for her to practice her radical politics as a devout Catholic. Her prayer was answered in the person of Peter Maurin, a French peasant intellectual who was waiting for her back in New York. Within a few months, they founded the Catholic Worker Movement [on May 1, 1933]. [1]

The Catholic Worker Movement is alive and well today, with over 200 active communities. Catholic Workers commit to voluntary poverty, prayer, nonviolence, and hospitality to those in need. They also protest and take action against systems of injustice, war, racism, and all forms of violence. [2] Robert Ellsberg, who worked with Dorothy Day in New York, continues:

[Dorothy Day’s] spirituality and her social witness were equally rooted in the radical implications of the Incarnation. In Christ God assumed our humanity. And we could not worship God without honoring God’s image in our fellow human beings. We should feed them when they were hungry; shelter them when they were homeless. We should not torture them; we should not kill them.

In the 1950s Day and the Catholic Worker took on a more activist profile. She was repeatedly jailed for refusing to take shelter during compulsory civil defense drills in New York City. In the 1960s her activities reflected the turbulence of the times—protesting the Vietnam War, fasting in Rome during the Second Vatican Council to advance the cause of peace. She was last arrested while picketing with the United Farm Workers in 1973 at the age of seventy-five.

By this time she was widely honored as the radical conscience of the American Catholic church. But her life was not primarily occupied by activism or protest. She was a woman of prayer, beginning each day with meditation on scripture, attending daily Mass, and reciting the breviary [daily psalms, scripture readings, and prayers]. By and large, her life was spent in very ordinary ways, her sanctity expressed not just in heroic deeds but in the mundane duties of everyday life. Her “spirituality” was rooted in a constant effort to be more charitable toward those closest at hand. [3]

[1] John Dear, “You Will Be My Witnesses”: Saints, Prophets, and Martyrs, icons by William Hart McNichols (Orbis Books: 2006), 125.


[3] Modern Spiritual Masters: Writings on Contemplation and Compassion, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Orbis Books: 2008), 163.

Image credit: Fannie Lou Hamer (detail), courtesy of artist Robert Shetterly and Americans Who Tell the Truth, c. 2007. The portrait is not for sale and travels with the collection. It is currently on exhibition in Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia. Used with permission of the artist.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Fannie Lou Hamer faced daunting odds, as she was not dealing with an abusive individual but instead the power of federal, state, and local governments and cultural traditions that deemed her to be a nonperson.  —Barbara Holmes
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