Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Walking the Months: Dorothy Day's "On Pilgrimage"

Pilgrimage is not just about place; pilgrimage can also be about time. Instead of making their way to a sacred site, pilgrims chronicle their journey through the days, the months, the seasons. As with place, walking through time demands a focused attention to detail. For, as with place, pilgrimage through time yields its insights in the particulars.

In a luminous journal "On Pilgrimage," the founder of the Catholic Worker movement Dorothy Day chronicles a journey over the course of a year. She organizes by months -- technically, she keeps a "mensual" record, as opposed to one that is daily (diurnal) or yearly (annual). Her reflections mark the round of the seasons, as she observes them from the Catholic Worker House on Mott Street in Manhattan,in upstate New York, where the Catholic Worker had a retreat house and farm, or on her daughter's farm in West Virginia.

Like a true pilgrim, she notices details: the smell of poor neighborhoods (like dead rats), the thick mud of early spring, the fragrance of fresh-baked pies, the snap of wash on a clothesline in a windy day. Her description wraps the reader in places long gone and times long past.

Maybe for policy-makers, "the devil is in the details." But for pilgrims, insight lies in the details. As Lisa and I noted on the Camino, we set out with Great Thoughts to think and hard texts to ponder. As we made our way toward Santiago, however, we learned, not from our heads, but from our feet. Pilgrimage tutored us in everyday, embodied knowledge: we fed on it as our daily bread.

And for Dorothy Day, the harvest of finely wrought details from the streets of New York to the stables of West Virginia yields a single, central insight: love. She returns to love throughout the book, and it becomes the refrain that binds together the round of monthly reflections.

Love seems to be the special province of women, particularly women of Day's generation. As she waits with her daughter and son-in-law for the birth of their child, her days fill with washing and baking and housework. The rare empty hour is "found time" for reading, and the result is a pilgrim's journal that moves easily between reflection and description, between abstract and concrete, between theological musing -- and an account of what the family had for dinner, where it came from, and how much it cost. Doesn't love happen exactly at that interface? Love longs to be made. In order to be love, it needs to be put into words or gestures or images. Poets call it expression; painters call it art; theologicans call it incarnation.

One particular insight into love won't leave me. From a priest she doesn't even admire, Day extracts a truth: "It's too late for anything but love." Suddenly I understood that Day intends two things when she talks about love -- and the second is the more interesting.

1. First, Dorothy Day speaks prescriptively about love: it's a moral imperative. She fears the people around her have forgotten how to love, particularly as they sharpened the instruments of war. Dorothy Day exhorts her companions along the way to love.

2. But Day has a second insight into love. She speaks of love descriptively: it's a simple fact of the human condition. It survives direst poverty; it lights the darkest night; it pilots the lost. When therapies fail, when causes fail, when death does its cruel work, love remains.

For Day that simple fact is beyond dispute or explanation: love.

Maybe that's the point of every journey, whether through time or space, whether to a sacred site or through a calendar year. Love is the answer; love, the question; love, the destination.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you. I love both pilgrimages (to Santiago mainly) and Dorothy Day. This is a great post!