by Michael Baxter —
This is a remarkable gathering of friends and families and of communities new and old together with our hosts, the Agape Community. The place to begin to think about the future, as I see it, is to draw on the wisdom of the past, on tradition.
I live in a family, but the family is the fundamental cell of society in Catholic social teaching, so perhaps I have something to offer. Moreover, I have lived in communities in the past, twenty-five years in a religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross, four years at Andre House, a house of hospitality in Phoenix, six years at the Catholic Worker in South Bend. And my hope is to be a part of a community doing hospitality in Denver or starting a farm and ranch on the Front Range.
Tradition, from the Latin word traditio, means, to hand on. Young people want to know why we do what we do, why we live the way we live. We hand things on by telling stories. Jim Forest recalls that Dorothy Day would open the mail with people sitting around a table and tell stories about the people who had written. Dorothy Day extolled the importance of tradition early on in The Long Loneliness.
We scarcely know the word any more. … We cling to a bourgeois mediocrity which would make it appear we are all Americans, made in the image and likeness of George Washington…attitudes…all races begin to acquire in school. So they change their names, forget their birthplace, their language…They lose their cult and their culture and their skills, and try to be something which they call “an American.”
Writing in 1952, Dorothy put her finger on the losses involved in the process of assimilating into the middle class. In this mentality, all races, all ethnic groups get boiled down into one melting pot, like a stew that’s been overcooked. The advantage of Dorothy’s writing is that it avoids clichés about renewing America, building up the nation.
Community, in this traditional stance, is much more than a voluntary enterprise of people bonding together by individual choice, of individuals contracting with each other for mutual advantage. For Christians, Catholics, community is grounded in reality, in the way the universe is structured, in metaphysics, in who we are as people, how we are meant to live, belonging to each other, belonging to God.
Faith is, according to the Letter to the Hebrews, “the evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1). Moses is said to have “held to his purpose like someone who could see the invisible” (Hebrews 11:27). Aquinas says that it is faith that causes the intellect to “assent to what is non-apparent” (Summa Theologiae, II/2, 4, 1). The act of believing pertains to something about which we do not have concrete, provable knowledge; yet belief is marked certainty. We move beyond the realm of empirically demonstrable reason, or, as Pascal put it: “The heart has its reasons that reason cannot know.”
Some kind of faith is how communities get started. An impulse or intuition, a certain knowledge that cannot be proven or demonstrated; a vision, and a willingness to act on the vision. When Peter Maurin shared his vision with Dorothy Day, she said: “Where are we going to get the money?” And he replied: “In the history of the saints, capital was raised by prayer. God sends you what you need when you need it.” The idea was Peter’s and then had and put it into action. It seems to have worked out.
We had a similar experience in Phoenix at Andre House when John Fitzgerald sent out a letter of appeal to his 300-plus closest friends which brought in more than $13,000, Within a few weeks, we had four guests. A few weeks after that, we let some friends know we needed help, and they started coming to help with our soup line on Saturdays, and then other nights. A core of volunteers each evening served 100 people, then 250 people, then a few years later, 600 to 800 people a night. It is still going on.
I saw a similar thing happen at the Catholic Worker in South Bend. We went from one house to three—for men, women, and families. As we were beginning, people told us it would never work. Those people became our biggest supporters. Our faith tells us that people are attracted to the Incarnation. I had that experience in the fall of 1979, as a novice in Colorado Springs, working with people at the Weber Street community. I remember walking into the soup kitchen they coordinated on Thanksgiving with dozens of volunteers getting the noon meal ready. Looking at the scene as I walked through the door, I said to myself, this is it: the Kingdom. This is what I want to do.
Years later, in the fall of 1983, I decided to commit my first act of civil disobedience while a Holy Cross priest. My superior, Fr. Joe O’Neill, C.S.C., was fairly supportive. Other members in the community were apprehensive at best; at worst, they were firmly opposed and offended. I described my work at Notre Dame with students in ROTC, quoted from The Challenge of Peace, and noted that the apostles were often in trouble with the law. For me, I said, this act of civil disobedience is the next step—lo and behold, people understood: “Now I understand you.” So this act of faith had to be explained, had to be presented in a way that makes sense.
We live out of faith that is not reasonable in the way of the world, but explained in terms that make sense of the Gospel. This premise shapes the recent encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si. The argument is that the free market, which economists claim to be rational, is actually irrational. Humility, docility, integral ecology—these are where reason is to be found, but it is reason rooted in faith.
Question: What happens when our faith does not produce the intended results? What if our faithful and faith-filled actions seem to be ineffective? This is a particular problem for those witnessing for peace and working for non-violent social change. At one point or another, we can find ourselves asking what’s the point? This goes to the virtue of hope.
If faith affirms the narrative of Israel, Jesus, and the church as people who are returning to God, then hope is the virtue that empowers us to believe that we can and will complete our journey. The object of hope is eternal happiness, or beatitude, the beatific vision—the destiny of the pure of heart (Matthew 5:8). Paul refers to this destiny when he writes of seeing God face to face (I Cor 13:12). When we acknowledge the transitory and “not-yet” character of our lives, we practice the virtue of hope. When we fail to do so, we fall into one of the two vices opposed to hope; presumption and despair.
Presumption is an excess of hope, so much so that it turns into an assumption of self-sufficiency, as if to say I am fulfilled here and now. In contrast to living in a status viatoris, a state of being on the way, we live in a status comprehensoris, a state of having already arrived. This involves a lack of humility, overconfidence, overreaching oneself, a self-deceptive reliance on one’s own security when actually there is no such security.
George Zabelka, the priest and military chaplain who prayed with the crew of the Enola Gay before they dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima was tortured about his role in that atrocity, and dedicated his life in priestly retirement to speaking and acting for peace, involved in a pilgrimage from the city of Los Angeles, to New York, to Moscow, and ultimately to Bethlehem, in the Holy Land. I sat with him on the front porch of Bijou House in Colorado Springs and asked him: What if this pilgrimage doesn’t work? He replied, “well, then I don’t know; we may all be doomed.” I understood but I couldn’t help thinking that this was a form of despair, even though, of course, he was a good, good man.
In the peace movement, there is the tendency to judge others who are not with us, to count how many demonstrations one attends, how many arrests one has racked up, as if getting arrested will get you into heaven. Or we can harbor the judgmental attitude when we eye someone who is wearing a new pair of pants: “Oh, I see, you have store bought clothes on.” This more-radical-than-thou attitude militates against true hope by inflating our egos, filled with little more than ourselves.
My point is that this was a case of envisioning peace without eschatology. In our work for peace, we very much need eschatology, a sense that the kingdom is not yet come. Without it, we lose hope. Thomas Merton wrote to Jim Forest in “A Letter to a Young Activist” amid the turbulence of the Vietnam War: “Do not depend on the hope of results.” Our work, said Merton, is apostolic, educational, slow, and gradual. It is not that we expect no results. It is that the results emerge in unpredictable and unforeseen ways. A better way to think of our work is in terms, not of effectiveness, but fruitfulness. We plant the seeds; then come the sprouts, then the flowers, then the fruits.
Pope Francis addresses a full session of Congress during his visit to the United States, and lifts up Dorothy Day, leftist, anarchist, pacifist, tax resister, arrested many times, extolled before Congress and the U.S. citizenry. Here we are now, basking in the afterglow. History has a curve to it, and a twist. We need not be surprised. We believe that our efforts bear fruit, usually in some rather unpredicted and unpredictable way.
As Merton wrote to Jim Forest: “In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”
In the Gospel of John, Jesus at the Last Supper expresses the essence of love when he says to his disciples: “I no longer call you servants but my friends.” The only friendship that lasts is a friendship based on a common commitment to the good, a shared pursuit of the good life in union with Christ and with others.
There is an unavoidable political nature to community life, that this is not politics in the conventional US-American sense, but politics in the Aristotelian sense of trying to live out the “common good.” As Peter Maurin put it: What it is that makes it easier to do good? Discussions and debates are often held in community as to which is the most important—the work we do or the life we share—community or the apostolate. There are many kinds of community, and working out the particular shape or charism of a community is itself a work of community. It is a process of experimentation, judgment, and hard earned wisdom
This brings to mind the story of a young man, who, in the early 50s read The Long Loneliness in college. He made his way from Connecticut to the Catholic Worker in New York. At a Friday night meeting, he saw off to the side, sitting and knitting with her graying hair up in a braid, Dorothy Day. Her knitting needles clanged when a speaker was saying something she did not like; they became quiet when she agreed with what was being said. Eventually, though, she spoke up and said, “Security! Security! All we hear these days is concerns about security! Young people want to do great things with their lives, but how will they do them if all they think about is security? Look at the birds of the air, the lilies of the field. Worry not about the morrow.” This young man would later say, looking back, “Right then and there, she had me.”
In a few years, a part of the Catholic Worker in New York, he went to do heroic things. Handed a peeler and told to work on the carrots, he eventually edited the paper and later was one of the first to burn a draft card. Co-director of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, founded in 1965, with Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton on the original board, I met him in 1981 when he came to Notre Dame to speak on draft counseling for a campus ministry project we were starting. In 1990 we went to Germany together to counsel US soldiers who had come forward as COs amid the redeployments in the run up to the Gulf War. In 2001, he supported our effort at Notre Dame to revive the work of the Catholic Peace Fellowship and has done so at every step along the way. In December/January 2002-03, we journeyed to Iraq together in the run up to the US invasion of Iraq
I refer of course to Tom Cornell. As the story I just recounted is about working for peace, in line with our tradition, in faith, hope and love, so we know that love comes in community. It has all really happened, and yes indeed, as this gathering so vividly shows, “it is still going on.”
Michael Baxter currently teaches at Regis University in Denver, CO