Dorothy Day, Woes, Dante, and More

The Yale Institute of Sacred Music, an interdisciplinary graduate center at Yale University, has a journal devoted to the practice of sacred music and the arts. The winter issue of this journal, The Yale ISM Review (which I edit), just appeared today. It includes several articles that may be of interest to Pray Tell readers.

The theme of the issue is poverty.

One of our most beautiful articles is about Dorothy Day, liturgy, and the Catholic Worker, by Day biographer Patrick Jordan. If anyone is not already familiar with the Catholic Worker’s association with Dom Virgil Michel, St. John’s Abbey, and the Liturgical Movement, this article is a must-read.

From the beginning of their movement, both Maurin and Day were in contact with the Benedictines at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. At the time, both Abbot Alcuin Deutsch and Dom Virgil Michel were pioneers in the liturgical movement in the United States. Day wrote to Deutsch in 1934: “We have been trying from the start of our work to link up the liturgy with the Church’s social doctrine, realizing that the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ is at the root of both.” That same year, Virgil Michel requested that the abbot send copies of all the books published by the abbey’s Liturgical Press to the New York Catholic Worker, “to help you [as he wrote to Day] and to spread the work of the liturgical movement.”The abbot did so, and also instituted an exchange subscription between Orate Fratres (later Worship), the abbey’s heralded periodical on liturgical matters, and The Catholic Worker paper. Both Day and Maurin traveled to Collegeville in those early years, and Virgil Michel in turn visited the Catholic Worker in New York in 1935. His article in Orate Fratres that same November (“The Liturgy the Basis of Social Regeneration”) underscored the many concordances his analysis shared with themes in The Catholic Worker, particularly the emphasis on societal cooperation rather than competition, and on community rather than individualism—the latter, Michel noted, a hallmark of capitalist societies.To this, Day boldly added: “It is the present social ‘order’ that brings on wars today,” which is why “it is impossible save by heroic charity to live in the present social order and be Christians.”

But that’s not all. Jordan also describes Dorothy Day’s prayer life, and how it strengthened her to embrace voluntary poverty in service to the reign of God.

For Day, faith (and prayer) came first, which in turn led to an increase in knowledge and understanding. Her prayer was neither fuzzy nor ethereal, but concrete and sacramental: “Woke this morning with the feeling very strong—I belong to someone to whom I owe devotion. Recalled early love and that joyous sense of being not on my own, but belonging to someone who loved me completely.” Ten years after her conversion she had written that “one cannot properly be said to understand the love of God without understanding the deepest fleshly as well as spiritual love between man and woman. The two should go hand in hand. You cannot separate the soul from the body.” The following year she recounted that, “The other day at the Communion rail it was as though the Lord held my shoulder tightly in his clasp.” Similarly, writing in 1970 for the Third Hour, an ecumenical journal, she described prayer as “the clasp of the hand, the joy of keen delight in the consciousness of the Other. Indeed, it is like falling in love.”


Anyone interested in hymns will want to take a look at Adam Tice’s essay “What About the Woes?” in which he discusses what it means to sing with the poor — and the wealthy. Speaking of wealth, there is a wealth of supporting material here to further the discussion, both in the form of texts and music (some available only for a limited time before they go behind a paywall, so visit the article soon!) as well as two splendid video recordings made at a Mennonite music directors’ retreat. So we’ve got some challenging questions and issues in this article, plus concrete examples that help to lift the ideas off the page. I strongly recommend it.


There are also a couple of articles that introduce interesting projects that use arts and literature to empower people who are poor to tell their story. One that I particularly loved is about the Chiapas Photography Project. Carlota Duarte, a Religious of the Sacred Heart, herself a Latina artist, has been making a great contribution to the lives of the indigenous people of Chiapas since 1992 by teaching them how to use photography for their own purposes — much of it documenting their hidden lives. The New York Times called the fruit of the project “pictures of invisible people.” When you see the photographs, and read about the local situation, I guarantee you will be impressed.

The other is a must-read for anyone who is interested in Dante’s Divine Comedy. I don’t know about you, but I tend to forget that Dante was a convict and exile when he wrote this work. Well, dramatist and Wesleyan Professor Ron Jenkins did not forget, and he has brought Dante’s masterwork into current-day prisons, introducing the Divine Comedy to inmates, and inviting their creative engagement with the story of redemption Dante told. “Transformation Behind Bars” tells the story, and includes a video of a dramatic rendering of the prisoners’ responses, performed at Yale Divinity School.


There’s a lot more here too, including Don Saliers on the Psalms and God’s love for the poor, Ayla Lepine on church architecture and poverty, Sara Miles on what feeding the hungry has taught her about Eucharist, Ruth Meyers on clothing in the worship assembly and its relation to mission, and a translation of Roberto Sosa’s classic poem “Los Pobres” by contemporary poet Spencer Reece.


The last piece in each issue turns the theme upside down, so for this issue on poverty we closed with an essay by historian Helen Rhee, who discusses wealth and the shaping of liturgy in a time of transition in the early church.

Rhee’s excellent article provides a fine bookend to the cover of the issue, which features Basel artist Albert Schilling’s “Suffering Christ.” This altar cross stands in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Trier, Germany, which has the distinction of having been at one time the throne room of the Emperor Constantine.

The church was damaged heavily during the bombing in World War II. When the present congregation rebuilt it, it was important to them that the space remain stark rather than sumptuous. As they see it, their faith comes to focus in this image of the cross, which shows that the power of Jesus Christ and his resurrection is not the power of wealth and worldly success, but the power of self-emptying love that leads beyond death.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *