Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Dorothy Day, the Child

Unsurprisingly, Dorothy Day began life as a child. Equally unsurprisingly, when she looked back on her childhood she found both profound truths and glimpses of her future self. This is perhaps a great act of anachronism--one which would be by no means unique to her--in which we project back onto a past of infinite possibilities the notion of fate which comes from hindsight and the wisdom which comes from distance. Even if that is true, even if to the smallest degree, it does not thereby negate the value of this self-reflection, this turning to the past to explain the present and to extract from its eventualities eternal truths. After all, Christ pointed often to children for just such a reason, either to validate this human instinct or because he knew that through it we might more easily grasp that which he taught us. It was to those like "little children" that truth had been revealed, not the wise, whom Jesus must rebuke and remind that out of the mouths of babes came true praise. To the those who would become children, the kingdom of heaven belongs. So when Day looks back on her childhood in search of kernels of truth, she may indulge a human impulse but she also practices a Christian virtue.

What she finds is both the seeds of simple faith and the onset of our most basic sins:

We did not search for God when we were children. We took Him for granted. We were at some time taught to say our evening prayers, “Now I lay me,” and “Bless my father and mother.” This done, we prayed no more unless a thunderstorm made us hide our heads under the covers and propitiate the Deity by promising to be good.

Very early we had a sense of right and wrong, good and evil. My conscience was very active. There were ethical concepts and religious concepts. To steal cucumbers from Miss Lynch’s garden on Cropsey Avenue was wrong. It was also wrong to take money from my mother, without her knowledge, for a soda. What a sense of property rights we had as children! Mine and yours! It begins in us as infants. “This is mine.” When we are very young just taking makes it mine. Possession is nine points of the law. As infants squabbling in the nursery we were strong in that possessive sense. In the nursery might made right. We had not reached the age of reason. But at the age of four I knew it was wrong to steal.

She also remember with what innocence and clarity she first learned about poverty and became disillusioned with the way it is approached in supposedly Christian society. Her words are both a testament to the obviousness of our shortcomings and to the wisdom and impressionability of our youth:

Children look at things very directly and simply. I did not see anyone taking off his coat and giving it to the poor. I didn’t see anyone having a banquet and calling in the lame, the halt and the blind. And those who were doing it, like the Salvation Army, did not appeal to me. I wanted, though I did not know it then, a synthesis. I wanted life and I wanted the abundant life. I wanted it for others too. I did not want just the few, the missionary-minded people like the Salvation Army, to be kind to the poor, as the poor. I wanted everyone to be kind. I wanted every home to be open to the lame, the halt and the blind, the way it had been after the San Francisco earthquake. Only then did people really live, really love their brothers. In such love was the abundant life and I did not have the slightest idea how to find it.

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