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
Interview with Simone Weil House
In this episode I interview Bert Fitzgerald and Emma Coley from the Simone Weil House, a new Catholic Worker in Portland, Oregon. They explain the ministry and vision of their house of hospitality and outline an exciting new pilot project: demonstrating how an existing faith community can become a community of mutuality within a credit union, able to provide interest free loans to one another.
Bert founded Simone Weil House almost three years ago. Prior to moving to Portland, Bert served as a live-in volunteer at the South Bend Catholic Worker and experimented with a number of alternative economic projects. In Portland, he hoped to start a project that would model some of the less emphasized aspects of the movement. As well as hospitality, he hoped to develop an alternative model of Christian economics.
Emma had volunteered for a Catholic Worker house while she was in high school, and when she was in college she got to know a self organized community for the homeless called Second Chance Village. On a visit to Portland she encountered the newly formed Simone Weil House, and eventually came back to join the project a little over a year ago.
The French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil was chosen as the patron of the new Catholic Worker House. Bert described her as the Christian answer to Nietzsche. She wrestled with basic questions with the same exacting honesty, but found truth rather than dissimulation in the mystery of Christ.
Simone Weil’s thought can also help us to overcome the “right/left” dichotomy and the compartmentalization of life in general. I recently wrote an article that draws on Weil’s spirituality of attention.
The project started out in a simple and humble way. Bert stressed that he wanted it to provide an example of “Christ Room Hospitality”, something that any home could participate in. By working with a local provider of services for the homeless, Bert had got to know several individuals who were in need of housing. So with his landlord’s permission he invited them to share his house.
Over time, the number of people being housed increased. Simone Weil house acquired tiny houses and converted storage units to provide more living space. Eventually they were able to clean up and use the “Hell House”, a trashed drug house across the street. After a thorough cleaning and two exorcisms, this became “Dorothy Day House”. On any given day, there are now between 11 and 14 people living in the two houses.
Interest free loans
As well as providing hospitality and other services such as free laundry facilities, the Simone Weil house has started a community of economic mutuality that has partnered with Notre Dame Federal Credit Union to make interest free loans available to its members..
This project is grounded in Christian spirituality. We all tend to treat members of our families in one way, and members of the wider public in a different way. But what if we broadened the circle of people we treated as family? Isn’t that part of a truly Christian outlook on the world? We are all part of God’s family now, and should treat one another accordingly.
This attitude can even be found in the Old Testament. Much of the Old Testament law was concerned with social justice. The people of God were supposed to make sure that individuals or families didn’t fall “through the cracks” due to inter-generational poverty. The Jubilee years were designed to prevent this from happening. Similarly, there was an obligation to redeem the debts of relatives so that they did not fall into debt bondage.
Under the New Covenant, we have an even deeper obligation to redeem debts for one another. Christ died to redeem us from our spiritual bondage. Having received such a great grace, how could we begrudge the effort to redeem others from their earthly debts?
This was actually the origin of Credit Unions. Today they operate in much the same way as other banks, but originally they were founded by religious communities as a way of looking out for one another. The Simone Weil house is trying to recover this tradition.
Simone Weil House has a bank account with the Notre Dame Federal Credit Union called the “redemption fund”. Individuals who who join the mutual community open an account with NDFCU and can choose to have $150 sent to the fund. Simone Weil house identifies local recipients who are in need of loans. They then work to find a “guarantor”, someone who will provide a security for the loan.
In particular, they try to make the whole process serve the building of local community. The guarantor and recipient know one another and build a relationship. In this way, their project is trying to reverse the way that money tends to tear down and atomize community.
An example can help to illustrate how this process works. The following quote comes from a Simone Weil House newsletter reporting on the past year of the project.
The loan recipient, an older man on a fixed income, was in a car accident last year that left him with high medical bills. Unable to access a reputable bank due to his lack of credit, he accepted a high interest credit card offer he received in the mail. He quickly became buried in debt at an incredible 38% interest. He heard about our community while volunteering his time at a local parish food bank, where one of our steering committee members happens to also volunteer. We were able to refinance his debt at 0% interest, and this steering committee member ultimately served as this borrower’s guarantor. Since getting connected with our community through this program, the borrower now comes by our Catholic Worker house multiple times per week with food for our community and to stock our community free fridge.
Different Kinds of Security
The various projects of Simone Weil house highlight something this podcast has discussed before: the different kinds of security. One the one hand, there is the individual attempt at personal security through possessions. This is condemned by the Gospel, but is a defining characteristic of our time. On the other hand, there is the Christian kind of security which is based on mutual self-giving within a loving community. For more on this topic, see our episode on voluntary poverty.
For more information on the many projects of Simone Weil House, visit their website!
The Maurin House
In this episode, I interview Tyler Hambley from the Maurin House, a new Catholic Worker House in the suburbs of Minneapolis.
The Hope of the Poor
Tyler’s first experience of Catholic Worker-style life came when he was a divinity student in Durham, North Carolina. He started gathering with a small group to pray vespers every evening at a local Episcopalian church, and over time the group started meeting after vespers for meals. The church grounds had become a sort of hangout for the local homeless population.
One of the intercession at vespers is “let the hope of the poor not be in vain”. As Tyler explained, we have to let our prayers become a lived reality, not just words. In this case, the embodiment of the prayer started by inviting some of the homeless to their community meals. Over time, friendships developed, and eventually, some members of this group started renting housing together and taking in the homeless. Things developed organically until there were three houses with around 20 people living in them as a community.
Over time, however, Tyler and some of the other members of the community began to feel attracted to the Catholic Church. Eventually, Tyler’s family joined another family from the Durham community to start the Maurin House in Columbia Heights, a suburb of Minneapolis.
The writers Stanley Hauerwas and Alasdair MacIntyre had a big influence on Tyler. They taught him the importance of shared practices in community life, of becoming a certain kind of person rather than making certain decisions. Hauerwas says that if one has to make a decision, all may have been lost. If we have to decide whether to act in a virtuous manner, it shows that we are not yet virtuous people. Becoming virtuous means acquiring certain virtuous habits of thought and action.
We can only live as Christians by following a certain tradition as a community. As individuals, the best we can do is try to make good decisions, but as a community we can build a way of life within the Christian tradition.
The Living Tradition
Traditionalism, however, is dangerous, since traditionalists have a flawed understanding of the tradition. They think of it as if it were a static thing that stays unchanged. In reality, however, the tradition is a living thing, a story that we continue. A tradition or culture which is closed off from further experience and further development dies.
The Benedict Option
Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is, at least in theory, inspired by MacIntyre’s book After Virtue. There is a lot of good in the Benedict Option idea, but the motivation is flawed. The Benedict Option is presented as an answer to the growing hostility of the surrounding culture. This is the wrong motivation for building community. Fear of the surrounding culture will not produce the kind of practices that will form persons in virtue. (In a recent podcast episode, I discussed the Benedict Option at length with Dr. Cameron Thompson.)
The anger of “culture warrior” Catholics stems from a fear that they will lose access to the comforts and prestige of suburban American culture. The culture warriors are often seen as the opposites of the so-called “liberals”, who are willing to compromise their values to maintain the world’s favor. These two ideologies seem opposed to one another, and yet they are actually the same. Both are unwilling to reject the comfort of our consumer society, embrace voluntary poverty, and follow Christ through self-sacrificing service to the poor.
Radical or Superficial
The real division is not between progressives and conservatives, but between radical Christians and superficial ones. Christianity isn’t compatible with consumerism and the comfortable security obtained through insurance and high-paying jobs. This sort of comfort and security will inevitably undermine the Faith. In contrast, radical communities can provide their members with a different kind of support and security, based on mutual self-sacrifice and trust. For more on this topic, see our blog post about preppers and suburbanites.
The Hospitable Family
Christian parents are called to raise their children, of course. This does not, however, mean that they can ignore the needs of the wider community. In fact, as Tyler mentioned, the Catechism says that Catholic families “should live in such a way that its members learn to care and take responsibility for the young, the old, the sick, the handicapped, and the poor.”
In some ways, care for children and care for the poor are very similar and reinforce one another. Just as Christian couples are called to be open to life and the inconvenient demands it puts on them, we’re all called to be open to aiding the poor in a sacrificial manner. Both kinds of openness are part of building a “culture of life.” In both cases, those who give generously “receive back a hundred fold”. We shouldn’t see the poor or children merely as those we help. Rather, children, the poor, and all the weak and vulnerable mediate Christ for us. That’s a very different perspective than the standard social justice one!
Families living in community can experience a certain amount of tension between the demands of family life and the demands of community. On the other hand, Tyler explained that as a father he feels he needs community. Too much emphasis on the family unit can leave parents as isolated individuals accountable to no one. Accountability and obedience aren’t just for children; parents also need support, guidance, and correction from others.
Advice on Starting a Community
In closing, Tyler gave some advice to those who want to build community. It is best not to start with grand expectations or plans. Instead, it is better to find a few others with similar interests, and start engaging in shared practices: particularly in shared prayer, but also in shared meals and recreation. Out of the friendships that develop a community can grow over time.
Learn more about the Maurin House at their website.
Holy Family House: A New Catholic Worker House
In this episode, I interview Sean Domencic, director of Tradistae, about his experience as founder of Holy Family House in Lancaster, PA.
Holy Family House
When Sean and his now-wife Monica were engaged, they came to realize how important Christian community was to living out the Faith. They started to discuss this idea with a few friends. One of them had a lot of experience with the Catholic Worker, a movement started by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. The Catholic Worker movement is best known for providing personal hospitality to those in need in houses where the workers live with their guests. The Catholic Worker’s emphasis on social justice was very appealing to Sean.
Sean and Monica begin discerning opening a house of hospitality. They committed to the idea while attending a retreat for Catholic couples and families interested in community. After that, everything fell into place. They rented a house with two other friends, and named it the Holy Family Catholic Worker House. The local parish helped them to find people who needed assistance with housing, and they quickly filled the available space. They’ve just bought a second house to expand their ministry.
Community Life at Holy Family House
The members of Holy Family House have weekly community meals and round table discussions, and pray vespers together. They still have outside jobs, so they can’t do as much outreach to the wider community as they would like.
The Future of Holy Family House
Although Sean emphasized that those starting community shouldn’t expect too much right away, he also emphasized that they should be open to wider visions of what might be possible in the future. In addition to their houses of hospitality, he hopes that his community can eventually start a Catholic Worker farm. They are also interested in helping to turn their local parish into a real community, with members living near the Church and building up a vibrant local economy of mutual aid.
As well as talking about the development of Holy Family House, we discussed Christian community in general.
Expectations and Vision
Sean talked about how important it is to have everyone involved in a new community “on the same page”. People can easily come into a project with incompatible visions, which only crop up later. They can cause a lot of heartache and trouble down the road. A clear vision gives a community something to coalesce around.
Friendship and Intentionality
In earlier podcasts, we’ve discussed the importance of starting out organically, starting with friendship instead of a blueprint. Sean agreed with that, but pointed out that such a group of friends does need to move on to something more structured. The ability to commit to a shared project is a test of friendship, and can help to deepen it. Even once this happens, however, the community can’t stop valuing the friendships; the friendship and the vision are the two poles between which the community has to keep going back and forth.
Catholic Social Teaching
It is vital that Catholic Communities have an emphasis on Catholic Social Teaching and on service to the poor. As Peter Maurin said, such communities need to be clear about what the world currently is, what it should be, and how to get from here to there. Without this clarity, Christian community can easily deteriorate into a sort of Christian suburb. Sean also pointed out how important it is that a community embrace voluntary poverty. Sometimes those who desire community want to wait until they can do so from a position of economic strength, but this may compromise the community’s integrity.
Consumerism can easily seep into a Christian community that is focused on providing a “good life” for its members. This can sometimes happen due to the seemingly harmless desire of parents to provide a good education and cultural environment for their children. As Sean said, there’s nothing wrong with education and cultural enrichment; he hopes he can provide these things for his future children. More importantly, however, children need to see that their parents are trying to live out the Gospel. Without this, any cultural environment is likely to become hypocritical, and children are quick to pick up on this.
Avoid Division, Embrace Discussion!
Sean and I discussed the fact that we have various disagreements on ideological points, but that we still see one another as allies. We can see one another’s projects as valuable, due to our shared commitments to the Church and our shared interest in social justice. This is in line with the Catholic Worker tradition of the Round Table Discussion. We need to be committed to seeking the truth, but we need to do so in unity with others who may differ from us. As Tim Keller said in a past interview, there will be political and ideological differences in any community, but these differences can’t be allowed to tear the community apart. Without a commitment to unity, the quest for truth will falter as different perspectives are isolated in their own ghettos.
Sean’s Tradistae project attempts to present the tradition of the Church; in particular, it attempts to show that Catholic Social Teaching is a vital aspect of the Church’s tradition. Too often those interested in Catholic Tradition are only interested in relatively superficial aspects of it. The Tradistae project seeks to change this; it includes a podcast, easy essays, and social media outreach.
Dorothy Day: Radical Dissident or Faithful Catholic? Podcast Episode 9
Malcolm interviews Dr. Terrence Wright, who is an associate professor of philosophy at Denver’s St. John Vianney Theological Seminary. Dr. Wright is also the author of “Dorothy Day, An Introduction to her Life and Thought,” published by Ignatius Press.
Dorothy Day spent her life working for the promotion and implementation of Catholic Social Teaching. She is the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement and the author of numerous books and articles. Her cause for canonization has been opened by the Catholic Church.
Dorothy Day is a controversial figure; many on the right and left see her as a dissident Catholic. Conservatives reject her due to this perceived dissent, while liberals applaud her for it.
Professor Wright explains that both perspectives are mistaken. Rather than a dissident Catholic, she is better seen as a loyal, if challenging, daughter of the Church; a prophetic figure who calls us to fully live out the message of the Gospel. She was ardently pro-life, but she championed a consistent ethic of life, refusing to pit the defense of the unborn against the defense of the born.
We discussed how dissent from Church teaching and criticism of Church leaders who fail to live up to those teachings are very different. To illustrate this we discussed the familiar story of St. Peter and St. Paul. St. Paul enthusiastically supported St. Peter’s teaching on the unity of Jews and Gentiles in the Church but called Peter out for hypocrisy when he failed to live up to that teaching.
The Social Teachings
Dorothy Day’s work was bound up with the Social Teachings of the Catholic Church. Professor Wright talked briefly about the four major points of this teaching, which are: the dignity of the human person; the importance of the common good; subsidiarity, which entails the rejection of undue interference by higher levels of society with lower levels; and solidarity, the principle of universal human fraternity.
Saintly Role Models
Many Saints influenced Dorothy Day’s outlook and mission, and we mentioned three of them. Day was a Benedictine Oblate, and St. Benedict inspired her vision of hospitality. Her emphasis on the connection between work and prayer is also rooted in Benedictine Spirituality. Another influence was St. Francis of Assisi. Day’s pacifism and voluntary poverty are very Franciscan, and she stressed that St. Francis was a radical, not just a lover of animals. Yet another Saint Day admired was St. Therese of Lisieux. Initially, she thought Therese was overly pious and disliked her style. But over time, she came to realize the importance of the Little Way, of doing everyday actions with great love. For example, Dorothy Day was frustrated by those who talked a lot about high ideals but refused to chop vegetables for the soup line.
The Catholic Worker and the Works of Mercy
The Catholic Worker’s mission was centered on the works of mercy. In this mission, Dorothy Day realized that one can’t separate the spiritual and corporal aspects. On the one hand, the poor could be fed or clothed in a cold, mechanical way that would demean them. (Famously, Dorothy Day said that “our love will make the poor forgive us for the bread we give them.”) On the other hand, we might say we love the poor, but not actually aid them. As St. James tells us, this is not the Christian way. Consequently, the Catholic Worker strives to create a warm, personal environment when sheltering or feeding the poor.
The Challenge of Peace
In one area, Dorothy Day does seem to challenge Church teaching. Just War Theory is the Church’s response to the problem of conflict. It lays out principles that constrain the use and the violence of war, but still allows for the waging of war to protect the innocent. Dorothy Day was a committed pacifist, opposed to all wars and violence, even in self-defense.
Although the Church does not require this level of pacifism of us, we can still find inspiration in it. Just as monastic celibacy provides a profound witness of Christian totality even to those who are married, the pacifism of figures such as Dorothy Day can help us to remember that we are all called to be “peacemakers.”
All transcripts are edited for clarity and readability.
Header image: Book cover: https://www.ignatius.com/