Why We Need Spiritual “Radicals”

Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day attended her last protest, in support of farm workers, at the age of 75.
Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day protesting for farmworker rights at the age of 75. (Photo courtesy of Commonweal)

A friend of mine who is Jewish likes to engage in spiritual dialogue. He wanted to talk this week about Martin Gugino. Gugino is the elderly gentleman who suffered a fractured skull when a Buffalo officer apparently pushed him to the ground during a protest against police violence.

The 75-year-old has long been a fixture at marches for peace, climate change, and human rights. My friend pointed out that Gugino has been part of the Catholic Worker Movement, whose founder, Dorothy Day, is one of my heroines.

Gugino’s presence at the Buffalo protest appeared rooted in conviction and Catholic social teaching. Notwithstanding, President Trump retweeted a baseless report suggesting the septuagenarian was possibly an Antifa provocateur on a mission to provoke police in a “set up.”

In being labeled a provocateur, Gugino is in good company — part of a circle of of activists, like Day and numerous Catholic saints, whose “radical” beliefs motivated them to pursue personal and social transformation.

It’s ironic that we often label those who act out of ethical or religious conviction as radicals or extemists, even provocateurs. History, however, often judges these same individuals as agents of positive change and reconciliation. In short, heroes.

Buffalo police walk past Martin Gugino who lies bleeding. Additional video appears to show an officer pushing Gugino to the ground. (Photo courtesy of Reuters)

That is the case with Day, who was born at end of the 19th century and died in 1980. A convert to Catholicism, she was a devotee of contemplative prayer, a daily Mass attendee, and lay associate of a Benedictine monastery. She also had a substantial arrest record.

She was jailed for picketing the White House, advocating for worker’s rights, and refusing to participate in civil defense drills because of her anti-war beliefs. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover kept a detailed file on her.

Dorothy Day reading to children. (Photo courtesy of Marquette University)

Day’s Catholic Worker Movement established hundreds of “houses of hospitality” for the poor and homeless. Still, her opposition to World War II and the Vietnam War and her civil disobedience put her at odds with some Catholic bishops, and even some of her fellow parishioners.

Her final arrest was in 1973, for picketing with California farm workers. Day was 75 at the time.

Today, the Vatican is considering the case for Day’s sainthood.

St. John of the Cross was imprisoned for seeking to reform his religous order.

And there are others. In the late 1500s, legal arbiters within the church imprisoned a Carmelite priest known as John of the Cross for seeking to reform his order.

He endured public lashings, isolation in a tiny cell, and a penitential diet of water, bread and scraps of salted fish.

John of the Cross became one of the world’s most revered saints — the author of two spiritual classics, “Spiritual Canticle” and “Dark Night of the Soul.”

The the wonderful prayer guide, “Give Us This Day,” each day offers the personal story of a saint or other person considered “blessed among us.” It would be hard to imagine a greater collection of outcasts and outliers.

King encapsulated the struggle for equal rights in a letter he wrote in 1963 while in an Alabama Jail.

In the early days of his activism, Martin Luther King Jr. was accused of being a lawbreaker and a communist. Today, we read with shame his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” which exposed our moral failure to insure racial equality. We honor him with a federal holiday.

In 2005, church leaders sought to exclude from a Catholic encyclopedia the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, one of the most influential spirituality writers of the 20th century, for not holding traditional enough beliefs.

Ten years later, Pope Francis praised Merton as a “man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church.”

In an address to Congress, the Pope cited only three other Americans besides Merton as models of grace: Abraham Lincoln, King and Day.

This cartoon appeared in 2005 in National Catholic Reporter and lampoons efforts to exclude Thomas Merton from an offical Catholic encyclopedia. (Photo courtest of NCR).

It is often those who represent themselves as champions of “law and order” who end up refuted by history. By contrast, it is those who challenge the established order who stir our conscience and spark sorely needed change.

Consider St. Teresa of Avila, another church reformer; Franz Jagerstetter, who refused to serve in the Nazi military and became the champion of conscientious objectors; Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader whose death anniversary was this past week, and whose murder helped turn public opinion against segregation; Mahatma Gandhi, who advocated for non-violent political change.

These are just a few. All were in their day “radical.”

Arguably history’s greatest radical was one who also challenged the conventional culture, called for reform, was accused as a lawbreaker, was tried, condemned, and put to death: Jesus.

Day once was asked why she allowed the unruly and ungrateful to stay at her houses of hospitality. Her answer: they too are Jesus.

She wrote in her memoir “The Long Loneliness,” We cannot love God unless we love each other, “and to love, we must know each other.”

How much do we know of the people struggling for change in our society today? Can we look beyond the labels we hear? Are they radicals and provocateurs? Or, are they prophets in our midst?

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.