Sunday, March 5, 2017

Spirituality: “Penance” by Dorothy Day

The Boston meeting was held on Ash Wednesday, and I spoke of penance. I said that I could understand a Kateri Tekakwitha taking on the severest of penances to atone for the cruelty of her people to the Europeans and for white cruelty to the Indians. Or the penances of a St. Rose of Lima, in a time when Indians were systematically being killed off, and African slave labor was being imported to supply the labor which the Indians could not stand up under.

Penance seems to be ruled out today. One hears of the Mass described as Sacrament, not Sacrifice. But how are we to keep our courage unless the Cross, that mighty failure, is kept in view? Is the follower greater than the Master? A man is a man, and to hear him crying out in pain and anguish, whether he is friend or enemy, is to have one’s heart torn out in unutterable sorrow. The impulse to stand out against the State and go to jail rather than serve is an instinct for penance, to take on some of the suffering of the world, to share in it ….

The thing is to recognize that not all are called, not all have the vocation, to demonstrate in this way, to fast, to endure the pain and long drawn out nerve-racking suffering of prison life. We do what we can, and the whole field of all the works of mercy is open to us. There is a saying, “Do what you are doing.” If you are a student, study, prepare, in order to give to others, and keep alive in yourselves, the vision of a new social order. All work, whether building, increasing food production, running credit unions, working in factories which produce for true human needs, working in the smallest of industries, the handcrafts – all these things can come under the heading of the works of mercy, which are the opposite of the works of war.

It is penance to work, to give oneself to others, to endure the pinpricks of community living …. So let us rejoice in our own petty sufferings and thank God we have a little penance to offer.

Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage: The Sixties, in the chapter entitled, “February, 1969,” pp. 360-361.