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  • Writer's pictureMartha Hennessy

Martha Hennessy is a prominent US peace activist, Catholic Worker and granddaughter of Dorothy Day. Here she talks to Tom Dennehy-Caddick ahead of a 90th anniversary Catholic Worker talk late last year.

So, 90 years on from its founding, what is the message that the Catholic Worker movement has for today?


I believe the message remains the same. We work with the Catholic social teachings, providing the works of mercy, houses of hospitality. Also, the parts of Peter's programme. You know, agronomic universities, where scholars can come to work and workers can become scholars and study. A method of breaking down the class structure of the United States. So, I think that the mission is always the same. The gospel teachings of Christ. How do we work as disciples of Christ in the 21st century.


Immense technological changes have occurred, especially since the 1930s, but Dorothy and Peter spoke to the immediate needs of the person in front of you. Dorothy was very practical. Peter had the theoretical underpinnings and the Gospel teachings. You know what I always remind myself of? To keep it very simple: to love God with all your mind, heart and soul, and to love your neighbour as yourself. That's the basic Christian teaching. And so, we do hope that the Catholic Worker continues to display and further that message in the movement.


If your grandmother, Dorothy Day, and her co-founder, Peter Maurin, were to see the movement today, what do you think would strike them? What would make them be joyous? What would they want to call us back to?


I think they would be very grateful to see the soup lines. You know, feeding the people who can't fit into the houses. The soup lines, I think are very important. And also the hospitality that is provided in the houses, you know, to the best of everyone's abilities. I mean, they would recognise the scene in the kitchen of cooking a big pot of soup to be distributed. So, I think that that hospitality aspect is still quite obvious and intact.


I think they might wonder what's going on with some of the houses that may not be doing in-house hospitality and speaking truth to power. Though there are houses and communities who definitely hold on to that message. And, you know, we have to evolve. Things change over the decades and over the generations.


You have spoken before about how your peace work with Kings Bay Ploughshares - being imprisoned for entering a US nuclear military base - differed from Dorothy's more restricted view of direct action. Is there something about today which you think requires us to act differently?


She recognised the horror of the bomb. She witnessed it in her lifetime, unlike us. But I think the two principles that she had concerns about with her dear friends, Phil and Dan Berrigan, were the question of secrecy and destruction of property. So, I had to discern in my own heart and mind what that meant. This question of the nuclear weapons being right in front of us, hidden in plain sight. The secrecy behind the whole programme just was unbearable to me. And Dan Berrigan spoke to the question of property. What is proper to the common good? Nuclear weapons are not proper to the common good. So, that answered my question of the so-called destruction of property. And, you know, for our situation with the US military, you're not going to get onto those bases if you announce that you want to go onto those bases. So that was it. What will resistance to nuclear weapons require? It may look different in my grandchildren's time. We're praying to God that they'll be abolished within my lifetime.


Catholic Worker communities are very beautiful but also very challenging places to be. What was it like to grow up within the Catholic Worker movement?


The Catholic Worker movement is not an NGO. It's not an agency. It's a family. And I certainly grew up with the definition of family being beyond biological. So, I think it's very important to keep that spirit within the houses of making people feel comfortable and welcomed and that you're willing to share, you know, all that you have with them, including yourself, and your time, and your space.


A real challenge is growing up in a large city. Tamar, my mother, loved the countryside. And so her first two children were born at the Eastern Catholic Worker Farm, and the next two were born on their own farm. And then my sister was born on the Peter Maurin farm. So we had a variety of experiences of being a family unit within the community, but also having our own space. But, you know, there are issues. There's a lot of mental illness in the Catholic Worker houses due to the situation of those who are left behind, who fall through the cracks. But my mother had wonderful memories of her childhood. Just the warmth, the camaraderie, the family style that Dorothy managed to evoke, for everyone. Now, how beautiful is that compared to state institutional approaches.


When you grew up, you moved away for a time from both the Catholic faith and the Worker movement. How did you find yourself journeying back to faith and back to the Catholic Worker movement?


It's hard to explain conversions. Conversions are mysterious things. My father left the family when I was six. My mother kind of left the church. She had all kinds of questions of how the Church treated women and children. My grandmother was heartbroken to see us just drift away from the Church. But later I just found myself returning. I really can't explain it. Dorothy was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2002, and I had to give a little acceptance speech, and my life changed drastically after that. I was just hit over the head. I was living in Vermont, working as an occupational therapist, raising my children, getting them through college, living a normal life, paying my war taxes. And then I had to give this little speech, and I realised what this legacy meant... the kind of soapbox I was given and how I should start using it. So that was kind of the beginning.


Later, I struck up a correspondence with Daniel Berrigan, and he really did help me in very mysterious ways to return to fundamental questions. What does your baptism mean to you? What are you going to do with this? The answer was: you're a Catholic, and you're within the Catholic Worker. Still, I was totally terrified of going back to Maryhouse. I hadn't set foot in the house for 24 years after Granny's funeral, but now I can see that all of these little seeds were planted to bring me back somehow.


This article was published by Independent Catholic News, 15/12/23, and featured in the Easter 2024 London Catholic Worker newsletter.

Jacques Maritain, speaking at a Catholic Worker meeting a few years ago, urged us to read the Gospels. Therese of Lisieux, the little saint of our day, carried it next to her heart. Even if we read only the Gospel for Sunday, several times, God sends us a special message for our need.


I thought of that a few Sundays ago as I read the parable about the lost sheep. Certainly the men around the Bowery are lost sheep. They are our brothers in Jesus; He died for each of them. What respect we should feel for them!


When we began the Catholic Worker, we first thought of it as a headquarters for the paper, a place for round-table discussions, for learning crafts, for studying ways of building up a new social order. But God has made it much more than all this. He has made it a place for the poor. They come early in the morning from their beds in cheap flophouses, from the benches in the park across the street, from the holes and corners of the city. They are the most destitute, the most abandoned.


It is easy for people to see Jesus in the children of the slums, and institutions and schools are built to help them. That is a vocation in itself. But these abandoned men are looked upon as hopeless. “No good will come of it.” We are contributing to laziness. We are feeding people who won’t work. These are the accusations made. God help us, we give them so little: bread and coffee in the morning, soup and bread at noon. Two scant meals.


We are a family of forty or fifty at the Catholic Worker. We keep emphasizing that. But we are also a House of Hospitality. So many come that it is impossible to give personal attention to each one; we can only give what we have, in the name of Jesus. Thank God for directing our vocation. We did not choose this work. He sent it to us. We will always, please God, be clambering around the rocks and briars, the barrenness, the fruitlessness of city life, in search of lost sheep.


We are told to put on Christ and we think of Him in His private life, His life of work, His public life, His teaching and His suffering life. But we do not think enough of His life as a little child, as a baby. His helplessness. His powerlessness. We have to be content to be in that state too. Not to be able to do anything, to accomplish anything.


One thing children certainly accomplish, and that is that they love and wonder at the people and the universe around them. They live in the midst of squalor and confusion and see it not. They see people at the moment and love them and admire them. They forgive and they go on loving. They may look on the most vicious person, and if he is at that moment good and kind and doing something which they can be interested in or admire, there they are, pouring out their hearts to him.


Oh yes, I can write with authority. I have my own little grandchildren with me right now, and they see only the beauty and the joy of the Catholic Worker and its activities. There is no criticism in their minds and hearts of others around them.


My daughter, too, was raised among the poor and the most abandoned of human beings. She was only seven when the Catholic Worker started, and now she has a daughter of seven and four others besides.


It is good to be able to write with authority about the family, about poverty in our day – the involuntary poverty which all families must endure – about insecurity and unemployment. A few years ago, visiting my daughter, I was lying awake at 2 a.m., worrying because David had just lost his job and Tamar was about to have her fifth child. The former boss, who also owned the house they lived in, had come bearing oranges for the children and to tell them to move at once. What a strange juxtaposition of gestures! And I was torn between wrath and the necessity to train oneself in loving one’s enemies, hating the sin but loving the sinner.


But then I though, “Thank God I have this suffering of joblessness and insecurity and homelessness together with others. This day, for the sake of the family, there are so many compromises. But we must learn to accept the hardest of all sufferings, the suffering of those nearest and dearest to us. Thank God for this training in suffering.” Accepting this made it easier at the time to go back to sleep. Since then there has been more of the same. Thank God for everything.


The fundamental means of the Catholic Worker are voluntary poverty and manual labor, a spirit of detachment from all things, a sense of the primacy of the spiritual, which makes the rest easy. “His praise should be ever in our mouth.”


The reason for our existence is to praise God, to love Him and serve Him, and we can do this only by loving our brothers. “All men are brothers.” This is the great truth that makes us realize God. Great crimes, it is true, have been committed in the name of human brotherhood; that may serve to obscure the truth, but we must keep on saying it. We must keep on saying it because Love is the reason for our existence. It is what we all live for, whether we are a hanger-on in Times Square or the most pious member of a community. We are seeking what we think to be the good for us. If we don’t know any better, often it is because radio, newspapers, press and pulpit have neglected so to inform us. We love what is presented to us to love, and God is not much presented. It is as hard to see Jesus in the respectable Christian today as in the man on the Bowery. And so “the masses have been lost to the Church.”


We who live in this country cannot be as poor as those who go out to other countries. This is so rich a country that luxury has developed at the expense of necessities, and even the destitute partake of the luxury. We are the rich country of the world, like Dives at the feast. We must try hard, we must study to be poor like Lazarus at the gate, who was taken into Abraham’s bosom. The Gospel doesn’t tell us anything about Lazarus’ virtues. He just sat there and let the dogs lick his sores. He would be classed by any social worker of today as a mental case. But again, poverty, and in this case destitution, like hospitality, is so esteemed by God, it is something to be sought after, worked for, the pearl of great price.

  • Tom Bennett

In a Christian context, the question of suffering has always been difficult. How does one reconcile the idea that ‘suffering and death - considered in themselves -have no true meaning or purpose at all’, as David Bentley Hart puts it, with the contention that there is ‘nothing, not even suffering or death, that cannot be providentially turned toward God’s good ends’? Does the latter not mean all suffering will be somehow balanced out or justified in the end?


Ivan’s Dream, Alice Neel, 1938

When David Bentley Hart speaks of suffering and death ‘providentially turned’, he does not completely align himself with Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, who inveighs against a God whose ultimate vision is predicated on the torture of infants. Hart is in fact, rather strangely, endorsing Ivan’s views. Ivan is right to resist any call to rationalise evil or suffering. But that resistance, as Hart argues, is not incompatible with the belief that forces of ill will never thwart the will of God in the end. Where does this leave us? Hart’s argument is a rather neat and intellectually satisfying one. But the shadows of suffering haunt us still. Ivan’s horrific stories, which Dostoevsky lifted from contemporary newspaper articles, would perhaps struggle to make our front pages today, competing for a place with unprecedented acts of destruction and terror across the world. What can we do as a community when faced with a world shot through with suffering? Perhaps it is a category mistake to speak of doing something with a concept devoid of meaning, a nothing. We may, like Hart, render it theologically coherent, but that does not seem enough.

 

Beyond more concrete efforts to alleviate suffering, like volunteering one’s time to help the less fortunate or donating to charity, there remains the challenge of existing with suffering. At this juncture, Theodor Adorno offers a potentially useful interpretive avenue in Negative Dialectics. In one particularly excoriating passage, reflecting on life for mankind after the Holocaust, Adorno speaks of the way in which ‘our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of experience as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims’. Any attempt to position those deaths within a broader framework of sense or meaning would fall woefully flat. Like Ivan, Adorno rails against any attempt, secular or religious, to justify horrific suffering in relation to the rewarding ends.

 

But there is some hope. In light of what Adorno refers to as ‘the new imperative’—‘that Auschwitz will not repeat itself’—we are left with a ‘bodily sensation of the moral addendum’. In other words, we can no longer place at ourselves at a remove from the horror; it strikes us at a physical level. In this sense, Adorno is imploring us to feel the wrongness of suffering, not to try and explain it away. As Lear demands of us all: ‘expose thyself to feel what wretches feel’.

 

The brilliance of Adorno’s thought lies not merely in his ethics, but his delicate approach to the metaphysical. Alongside his call for a bodily proximity to suffering, he insists that we find a means of discussing suffering that neither denies nor affirms the transcendent world beyond. In denying this world beyond, we risk ignoring the suffering around us crying out for change; in affirming such a utopia we render null and void the current efforts being made to effect this change. With the latter, Adorno poses his challenge to thinkers like Hart. Is it tempting to turn a blind eye to present suffering with the knowledge that God rescues and redeems creation from a fallen world? Perhaps. Though it is Adorno himself, not Hart, who argues that ‘no light falls on people and things in which transcendence would not appear’. For all of his concerns, Adorno appears to cling to a radical hope.

 

As an antidote to Adorno’s reservations about a potential utopia, there is, of course, a rather straightforward, Christian solution. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who dedicated a great portion of his life to both relieving suffering and writing about it, puts it most clearly: ‘in itself suffering is not redemptive –it is only redemptive if it is connected with love’. This is not offered up as an easy way out of dealing with the crisis of our ‘post-Auschwitz’ state, but rather a natural extension of Adorno’s call for greater approximation to those in agony.

 

Suffering should not be explained or justified. Though if we are to co-exist with it, we must do so in a spirit of divine love. Yet in seeking the right words for such a call to loving proximity, words can quickly turn glib. They can wither into what the poet Paul Celan would call ‘maxims that never reached anyone’s heart’. But it is Celan himself who offers us the best alternative to empty clichés, as he reflects on his relationship with those murdered in the camps.

 

Count up the almonds,
Count what was bitter,
what kept you wakeful,
Count me in with them all.


This article was originally published in the Easter 2024 issue of the London Catholic Worker newsletter.
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