Giving Christians Permission to Live Radically; An Interview with Leia Smith
In this episode, Malcolm interviews Leia Smith from the Orange County Catholic Worker. They discuss the Catholic Worker way of life, the attractiveness of an authentic Christian life, the dangers of institutionalism, the importance of admitting one’s own weaknesses and limitations, and the need for a “Catholic Worker Third Order”.
At the beginning of this podcast, I asked for donations for the Simone Weil House. To donate or learn more about them, visit their website.
Leia wasn’t a practicing Catholic when she first encountered the Catholic Worker. When she was 5, her parents left the Catholic Church and started attending a Methodist Church instead. In 1993, however, she experienced a spiritual crisis, and stopped by the local Catholic church because it was the only church open that evening.
Shortly thereafter, she found a newsletter from the Orange County Catholic Worker; the paper advertised a regularly scheduled liturgy and potluck. She didn’t know what to expect, but showed up anyway. She was challenged and attracted by what she found; a communal way of life that only made sense in light of the Gospel. As Leia put it, this way of life had integrity; it was real. This introduction to Catholic practice gave her an unusual perspective on the Faith, leading her to see the sacramental and theological life of the Church from the perspective of radical hospitality and the communal sharing of life that she experienced at the Catholic Worker.
After a few years of participating in the life of the CW house as a volunteer, she and her husband Dwight were given the chance to take over the management of the house. They accepted, even though, as Leia put it, they had no idea what they were doing! They learned on the fly and have been running the house ever since.
Depending on God
The Catholic Worker lifestyle forces people to give up the pursuit of worldly security, which makes room for God to act. This can even be experienced in the small things of life. Leia described her chaotic attempt to cook her first community meal. At the last moment, she realized that she didn’t have any bread to serve—and just at that moment, a man showed up at the door with a bunch of bread to donate.
Part of this dependence on God is a realization that we have limits, that we don’t always know what to do, that we don’t always have what it takes and need help. And it is in those moments that God’s grace is poured out on us.
The Dangers of Imitation
One way to avoid this dependence on God is the attempt to imitate others. For instance, a Catholic Worker might try to imitate Dorothy Day. But each of us is called to be ourselves, with our own particularities; imitating others makes us artificial and keeps us from being truly authentic.
A key temptation of the modern world is seeking security by becoming an institution. We are obsessed with metrics and structures; many people feel that their attempts are worthless unless they are working on a grand scale. We want to have a “success story” that will justify our efforts. Ultimately, however, this is just another way of avoiding dependence on God. He does not need us to solve all the world’s problems; rather, he simply calls us to follow him and act lovingly in each individual situation.
The Catholic Worker Third Order
Leia talked about how the works of mercy can end up becoming “institutionalized” by being confined to those who are able to run a Catholic Worker House. For most Catholics, that’s not an option. In particular, it is not possible for those who have family obligations or who are disabled. But we are all called to live lives characterized by mercy, charity, voluntary poverty, and trust in God. Also, there is a danger that Catholic Workers will come to see themselves as the only “real” Christians and look down on those who aren’t living at a CW house.
To solve this problem, Leia suggested that what we need is something like a “Catholic Worker Third Order”. Many people would like to live more radically Christian lives, but they feel isolated and alone. They need a support network. Even more, they need to be given “permission” to live in this way; they need a framework that explains and validates their decision.
And this is consistent with the original vision of the Catholic Worker. In a sense, Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day were simply trying live out the Gospel in the modern world. They were trying to remind the world that the Gospel message is incompatible with material affluence and that the Gospel insists on personal charity toward the poor and marginalized. Their message is for every Christian, not just for Catholic Workers.
Cover Image: Mosaic of the 5 loaves and 2 fish from Tabgha near the Sea of Galilee. Image uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Grauesel, CC BY-SA 3.0