Thinking about Dorothy Day...

When I sat down this morning with my tea to browse the NY Tiimes, I was stunned to find a full page ad entitled: BELIEVE.  Below the beautiful red script was the picture of four "personal grooming" products bearing the "Amazing Grace" label. Really? Amazing Grace firming body emulsion, fragrance, bath gel or whipped body creme brought to you by BELIEVE? Really?

Instantly my mind jumped to St. Lou Reed's blistering rant from his 1989 masterpiece, New York, where he sounds like a rock'n'roll prophet or even a plugged-in 21st century Pope Francis in "Strawman."

We who have so much to you who have so little
To you who don't have anything at all
We who have so much more than any one man does need
And you who don't have anything at all:

Does anybody need another million dollar movie?
Does anybody need another million dollar star?
Does anybody need to be told over and over
Spitting in the wind comes back at you twice as hard?

Let's be honest, the genius of marketing always contains its destructive shadow just as our own personal strengths embrace the seeds that can do us in, too.  Once when we were walking around Aberdeen, Scotland we came upon a shoe store ad at one of the local bus stops that showed a HUGE woman's spiked heel with the word REDEMPTION shining over the rest of the text. Now, I'm down with sexy shoes as much as the next man or woman, but I never quite grasped how a high heel evoked or advanced redemption.  Same with personal grooming products called Amazing Grace.
Grace is a gift - a sacred experience of forgiveness, love beyond all merit and joy - redemption is salvific, not a product to be worn or used by the highest bidder.  Sure, I know that marketing gurus are quick to jump upon a word or idea that has a "ping pong" effect - one thought leads to another and builds upon it to lead you to their desired product - and I'm not a religious prude.  In an aggressively capitalist culture such as our own, there really is nothing that is sacred:  stores are open 24/7, people WANT to go shopping on Thanksgiving and actually camp out in front of Wal-Mart to fight their way through the hordes in search of the cheapest flat screen TV.  I get all that (even if I find it distasteful and even corrupt.)

I also get that it is part of the calling of people of faith to offer an alternative.  We can't stop or change the culture's current obsession with greed and bottom line metrics.  But we can offer a loving alternative that both brings hope into the equation and offers a grace-filled critique, too.  Recently Pope Francis I did exactly that with his "Evangeli Guadium" wherein he noted many have become enslaved to the new idol of wealth.  "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?" His written and spoken words are the clear articulation of the values he embodies in his ministry - and in this he offers both alternative and critique.

In Robert Elsberg's All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets and Witnesses for Our Time, today is set aside to remember Dorothy Day. In 1933 she founded the Catholic Worker with Peter Maurin as an alternative to both political socialism and market capitalism. She said: "The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?"

Mostly I am not a big Dorothy Day fan. Like hard bop jazz, I celebrate her contribution to the world intellectually but find it hard to digest more than a small dose at any one sitting.  I once went to hear a guest theologian at the Catholic Worker house in NYC's Bowery.  It was an opportunity to reflect together with a writer and thinker I valued. But the whole lecture was filled with the howling and scuffling of people who had come in off the streets for a meal and a bed.  It was like a scene out of Marat/Sade with deep theology being shared in the midst of bedlam and chaos.  I skipped the Saturday session in disappointment.

But I've worked with Catholic Worker folk over the years and love their profound commitment to peace, justice, compassion and simplicity. I have also learned not to romanticize the poor from Day and her comrades in compassion.  So, on a day venerated by our culture of avarice as Black Friday, it is somehow fitting that Dorothy Day should be the honored saint for my reflection.


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