A great mystic and prophet of twentieth century America was Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement which hosts communities around the country dedicated to working with the poor both directly and indirectly.
Many of its participants take strong stands against injustice of many kinds and many have protested non-violently and gone to jail for it. As Dorothy did on numerous occasions.
Here is one testimony from her time in jail:
All through those weary first days in jail when I was in solitary confinement, the only thoughts that brought comfort to my soul were those lines in the Psalms that expressed the terror and misery of man suddenly stricken and abandoned. Solitude and hunger and weariness of spirit — these sharpened my perceptions so that I suffered not only my own sorrow but the sorrows of those about me. I was no longer myself. I was man. I was no longer a young girl, part of a radical movement seeking justice for those oppressed. I was the oppressed. I was that drug addict, screaming and tossing in her cell, beating her head against the wall. I was that shoplifter who for rebellion was sentenced to solitary. I was that woman who had killed her children, who had murdered her lover.
Dorothy is describing the deep meaning of compassion. In prison, her consciousness expanded beyond her literal self; she identified with everyone around her, each sorrowing and in need.
The blackness of hell was all about me. The sorrows of the world encompassed me. I was like one gone down into the pit. Hope had forsaken me. I was the mother whose child had been raped and slain. I was the mother who had borne the monster who had done it. I was even that monster, feeling in my own heart every abomination.”
Dorothy Day’s experiences of the via negativa in solitary confinement in jail led her into what felt like “the blackness of hell.” Her sense of self disintegrated such that she became one with every victim and every victimizer.
Is this where divine compassion ultimately leads, to our identification with all aspects of humanity? Is this what Meister Eckhart had in mind when he said “what happens to another, whether it be a joy or a sorrow, happens to me?”
Thich Naht Hahn uses very similar language to Dorothy’s when he writes:
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
And I am the arms merchant, selling deadly
weapons in Uganda.
Adapted from: Matthew Fox, Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations, pp. 302, 303
And Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, p. 232.
Banner Image: Dorothy Day Catholic Workers of Washington DC and Jonah House of Baltimore, Maryland FAITH RESISTANCE against the Iraq War in front of the White House, December 2004. Article on Indymedia; Photo by Elvert Barnes Protest Photography on Flickr
Queries For Contemplation
The via negativa of prison helped empty Dorothy of ego so that she learned compassion in a deep way. Have you undergone similar experiences? What ways have you learned compassion?
Have you had similar experiences to Dorothy Day and Thich Naht Hanh of identifying with both the oppressed and the oppressor? What do we learn from such unitive experiences of compassion? How does it get translated into action?
The 365 writings in Christian Mystics represent a wide-ranging sampling of these readings for modern-day seekers of all faiths — or no faith. The visionaries quoted range from Julian of Norwich to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Thomas Merton to Dorothee Soelle and Thomas Berry.