A Brief Reflection on “Revolution of the Heart”

My recent musings have been nearly entirely research related, but this past Thursday and Friday Loyola hosted the much-anticipated Revolution of the Heart: A Symposium on Dorothy Day. The plenary was delivered on Day 1 by Robert Ellsberg, publisher at Orbis Books and an author, while a full day of conversation on Day’s life followed on Friday with several talks (highlighted by the appearance of Day’s granddaughter Kate Hennessy, who recently published Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Her Beauty), panels, and a one-performer play named Haunted by God. I attended Ellsberg’s speech on Thursday evening and then portions of Saturday’s program.

Robert Ellsberg entered the St. Joseph house of hospitality at the age of 19 and was involved with Catholic Worker for the final five years of Dorothy Day’s life. In his talk, he stressed how retrospectively Day has been honored by the pope and by the American Catholic community for her service to the Catholic social tradition, but how in her day she oftentimes faced heavy criticism. In response to her detractors, Day would reply “We confess to being foolish and wish we were more so”. These small, “foolish” gestures were a product of Therese of Lisieux’s “Little Way”, which recognized the ripple effects that seemingly small actions have. Day’s life is more consistent with the church establishment of today– Ellsberg spoke at length of how Francis seems to be channeling Day’s spirit.He even, in fact, included her with reference to three other American heroes when he addressed Congress in 2015– Lincoln, MLK, and Thomas Merton. Both Day and Francis share a vision of living out the gospel, in stark contrast to a pervading culture of indifference that each has criticized.

Outside of considering Day in the context of the current pope, Ellsberg shared some of his personal memories of her with the audience.  One significant memory  that he shared was how an expensive ring was donated to the house. With strong incentive to sell it considering the always-worrying costs of running a house of hospitality, Day instead turned to a particularly troublesome woman who was a regular and gave it to her. This short anecdote, for Ellsberg, summed up Day perfectly.

I found Ellsberg’s speech particularly insightful given his own experiences with her, at a formative time in his life. Ellsberg described Day as giving him direction, and he made it sound like others had a similar experience with her.

My limited involvement on the second day leaves me with less to say. I heard the end of the panel of Catholic Workers discussing challenges and rewards of their work at Su Casa in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago. One striking feature of Catholic Worker theology is a seeming distrust of the state, which was addressed. The speakers noted that the Catholic Worker attempts to function in a self-sustaining way to the greatest extent possible, so the perception that the movement is suspect of the state, or unwilling to tap into state-provided resources such as social security, is not entirely true. It was interesting hear this perspective, as I consider the ways throughout history in which the state has shown its capacity to deliver social benefits. Dorothy Day’s choice to not exercise her right to vote (despite fighting for suffrage) is one of the more perplexing things about her for me and serves as an extension of this talking point.

The symposium expanded far beyond its original scope, as it originally was expected to feature Ellsberg alone. Thorough and thought-provoking, it offered a great opportunity for the class to reflect with a larger community on the focus of our course.

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