In the Dec. 20 issue of The Christian Century
, there’s a review by Richard Lischer of a book just out titled Dorothy Day: The World Will be Saved by Beauty
written by Day’s granddaughter, Kate Hennessy. (See lead photo.) Lischer begins his review by noting that Day “has been called ‘the most significant, interesting and influential person in the history of American Catholicism.’” She has been considered as a candidate for sainthood for some years now.
Day is also considered, in some quarters, a somewhat controversial figure. She was a convert to Catholicism who had numerous lovers, lived a bohemian lifestyle, had a child (her one daughter Tamar) out of wedlock, was a prolific writer, and founded the Catholic Worker Movement
. Living by her oft-repeated mantra, “love is the measure by which we will be judged,” she gave herself unstintingly to the poor and neglected of society. She established tenement houses of hospitality in Lower Manhattan and rural cooperatives in Pennsylvania, upstate New York and Staten Island. And she died penniless.
As I read Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness
, some years back, it brought to mind my first discovery of her saintly work when I was in graduate school. In my most recent book, The Fiction of Our Lives: Creating Our Stories Over a Lifetime
, I described that early memory.
The image I have in my memory about Day’s writing is sitting with a bunch of fellow Catholics – “underground” free thinkers in my Bloomington years – discussing a long biographical sketch and interview of her in some issue of The Catholic Reporter – a liberal Catholic newspaper then as well as now. We were all inspired by her life and sat around our living room talking about what it would be like to embrace poverty in such a radical way. We never did, of course. But Day’s living out of her solidarity with those who had little or nothing had an impact on us just the same. (p. 149)
A saint indeed. But then there are other saints in our lives right now ... or at least in mine. And one candidate that you may or may not share with me, depending on your political persuasion I guess, is former Vice President Joe Biden. I’m about a third of the way through his new book and memoir, Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose
. (See photo below.) It’s a wonderful look inside the White House years and especially his friendship and working relationship with President Obama. But most touching – and bringing tears to my eyes now and then – is his devotion to his family and, of course, the telling of his son Beau’s failing health and final death from brain cancer.
Early on in the book Biden makes much of the 40 years of family Thanksgivings in a house in Nantucket, Massachusetts. From his earliest Washington years as a young senator in 1975 to the final days of his vice presidency, his family tradition was to travel to Nantucket and stay in the same place and eat in the same places and visit the same stores, and make out a family Christmas wish list every year. The family, of course, grew over the years. His children grew up, they married, they had kids of their own. And yet, year after year, up they all went by car and finally on Air Force Two to observe the family ritual another year in their lives.
By 2014, Joe’s son Beau began to be quite disabled by the effects of his brain tumor and also of course from side effects of the aggressive treatments that he underwent to fight the terrible growth of glioblastoma
– the most aggressive and invasive of brain tumors to be diagnosed and treated. One of the family rituals observed in Nantucket that year, like every year, was revisiting an old beach house where they took an annual family photo. Joe writes: “And we went over to the little saltbox house for our annual photo, but the lot was ringed with yellow police tape. The house was gone, a victim of rising ocean tides that had been washing away three or four feet of the ‘Sconset bluff every year for the past twenty.” It occurred to me when I read Biden's words that the devastation they found that year was a metaphor for what lay ahead of them in terms of Beau’s downward trajectory. When they returned to Washington that year, Joe wrote: “Just home from Nantucket. I pray we have another year together in 2015. Beau. Beau. Beau. Beau.” (p. 23)
Well as I said, I’m only partway into Biden’s book, but of course, we know how that chapter ends ... sadly ... but not without hope. In my last blog
written after Thanksgiving, my whole topic really was about hope. And family. And friendship. In fact, as I grow older, I find that my friends have become even more precious to me as the years pass. In terms of my family, I have always treasured my sons and other family members, but if possible, even now more than ever. In my Thanksgiving blog, I talked about visiting my oldest son in Florida and presiding at his and Michele’s wedding. And now I have just returned from a Christmas visit with my youngest son, Kevin, and his lovely family in California. (See photos below.)
Perhaps this is also your experience as the years pass. Time passes and I think we do treasure the saints in our lives, the gift of others on our journey through life. Life is short, my friends, and uncertain – no matter how you cut it. And in the end, very few things really matter. Returning to Lischer’s discussion of Dorothy Day’s life, he writes, “Day ... conceived her life as the achievement of the group. Her autobiography [The Long Loneliness
] ... ends in a communal kitchen, with a cup of coffee and the famous lines, ‘We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.’” (p. 32)
And so it is. A New Year’s blessing to one and all. May 2018 be a year of loving each other as very best we can. Because again, in the end, that is all that really matters.