Fr Billy Swan
There is a great energy in people in general and young people in particular for social justice. They see the problems of the world and want to be part of the solution, whether it be climate change, world hunger or the plight of people who are disadvantaged. However, many people believe that in order for their efforts to be effective, it is not necessary to be religious or even to believe in God. You don’t have to be religious to be good or to do good, or so it seems.
One person who believed this in the early stages of her life was the American social activist, Dorothy Day (1897-1980). She was a communist who worked vigorously for social rights. She was arrested on several occasions for public protests. On her own admission, her private life was unstable and unhappy. She was married twice and had an abortion. Despite her commitment to social justice, Dorothy Day realized that something was missing. She realized that she could no longer fight by her own powers or strengths. She also realized that her anger at all that was wrong in the world was exhausting her and depriving her of the joy that others needed to see.
After her conversion, she became a committed Catholic which meant that she retained her commitment to social justice but with a very significant difference. She concluded that “Throughout the world there is homelessness, famine, fear, war and the threat of war. We live in a time of gigantic evil. It is hopeless to think of combatting it by any means other than that of holiness” (The Long Loneliness: the Autobiography of Dorothy Day).
So then, who influenced this woman of social justice to be convinced that holiness and the spiritual are essential components in our response to a badly divided world? The answer? A young French Carmelite saint named Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897) who providentially died the year that Dorothy was born in 1897. Dorothy was greatly inspired by the life of St Therese and wrote a biography of the saint entitled Therese. In an article on how Therese influenced her, Dorothy says that what makes Therese appealing to people today is that she is the saint of the worker, of the everyday person. Most people don’t consider themselves to be saints or even aspire to be and yet Therese makes sainthood very appealing, because holiness is accessible to everyone.
The way of holiness is the way to God which gives hope. What use is all the work done in the world if it doesn’t give hope or point to God? Therese inspired Dorothy Day because she taught her how her life could be a mission of love. Dorothy recognized the applicability of Therese’s ‘Little Way’ to her own everyday life of serving meals, making beds and getting on with the ordinary and every day tasks that were part of her service of the poor and struggle for social justice. Dorothy noted how Therese repeatedly used the term ‘little’ to describe herself and her acts of love. For her, this focus on littleness recognizes the fact that God puts treasures of virtue into the hands of little children to make use of them in time of need. And despite that the things we do might be little and insignificant, what matters is the love with which we do them how that love changes us to become more loving people. Therese shows us that within our ordinary life – going to work in our cars, doing our taxes, getting our children ready for school, fixing meals – we can find the mysterious exchanges between ourselves and God in prayers and meditation, no matter how brief or hurried. She reveals the hidden works of love that go on daily, not in some special precious time, but in ordinary, everyday time.
The valuable lessons that Dorothy Day learned from St Therese, can be learned by us today. One of the great insights of Dorothy Day was that ‘we want to grow in love, but do not know how. Love is a science, a knowledge and we lack it’ (Therese). If this is true, that we need to learn how to love again, then certainly one of the teachers of this science must be St Therese. In his letter on the anniversary of her canonization, St John Paul II said that: “Therese of the Child Jesus possesses an extraordinary wisdom and with her doctrine helps so many men and women of every state in life to know and love Jesus Christ and his Gospel”. The title of John Paul’s letter is ‘The Science Divine Love’. God taught Therese her ‘Little Way’ which is nothing other than the Gospel way of holiness for all. If living the Gospel therefore seems complicated or its message unclear it is only because we have made it so. Therese presents the Gospel in all its simplicity and beauty.
Dorothy Day changed from being an angry social activist to being a passionate lover of God and the people she served. From Therese she realized and learned that she too was loved and cared for by a loving Father who created her. The ice that began to melt in Dorothy’s heart was caused by the warmth of God’s love for her as she began to believe that she was loved and lovable. We are loved by God infinitely and not depending on what we can do in return. There are no conditions. For Therese, if we are loved this much then we should be bold in asking for and expecting great things from the One who loves us beyond measure. With this insight, Therese helps connect through the chain of love our nearest neighbour and the person who might seem distant but is our brother or sister.
That was why Therese was conscious of her vocation to love her sisters living with her but also the people many miles from her around the world who needed her help and her prayers. Her vocation was to love them and pray for them wherever they were. For this reason, Therese is patron saint of the missions and patron saint of ‘The Hook of Faith’ that seeks to transmit and communicate the saving love of God across the World Wide Web. She emphasizes the love that is specifically divine in the midst of a specifically human reality. This is what transforms the world – the love of God lived out in love for our neighbour. The ‘Little Way’ of St Therese begins with welcoming the love of the Father for us and then extending that love to all. Today we must reclaim the dignity of every human being as a child of God and as a work of art created by God. This is what Therese helped Dorothy Day to do and can help us to do as well, helping us to become missionaries of divine love, transforming this world into a place of greater hope, mercy and compassion.
Friends, the story of Dorothy Day challenges modern presumptions that we don’t need to believe in God or be religious to be a good person. Dorothy helped to change the lives of many people in her lifetime but perhaps the greatest change occurred within herself as she began to know the love of Christ and discover the spiritual dimension to her life and work. For this she was indebted to St Therese of Lisieux and her ‘Little Way’ who taught her that the love with which we do things and serve people is of far greater importance that what we do, for it has greater power. May the prayers and intercession of the Little Flower continue for the mission of ‘The Hook of Faith’ and kindle the fire of God’s love in the hearts of all.
“In order to live in one single act of perfect love, I offer myself as a victim of holocaust to your merciful love. Asking you to consume me incessantly, allowing the waves of infinite tenderness shut up within you to overflow into my soul, and that thus I may become a martyr of your love, O my God!”
(St Therese of Lisieux)