Dorothy Day and the Darkness that Accompanies Glory

We have been celebrating the return of doxa or divine light and blessing in this time of Christmas and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.  But we don’t want to paint an unrealistic picture of glory everywhere.  It is everywhere and in every being but it can be covered up by wounds and oppression of many kinds, some self-made and some society-made. 

“Behind the pain/fear/Etched on the faces/Something is shining/Like gold but better/Rumours of glory…” Bruce Cockburn performs on eTown.

A 20th century mystic who speaks solidly to that reality is Dorothy Day, founder of the catholic worker movement and magazine that served the down and out and preached a gospel of love and justice.  Day states explicitly that every person is “another Christ.”  But Christ has wounds after all and human history overflows with them and doxa/glory can become covered up.

Day went to jail numerous times for protesting violence and injustice in society.  Here she writes about what she learned 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.

Imprisoned. Photo by Tamirlan Maratov on Unsplash

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 Day describes 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 via negativa of prison helped to empty her of ego so that she learned compassion in a deep way.

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.

A reading of Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem, “Please Call Me by My True Names, from Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh. Read by Georgi Y. Johnson in Juneau, AK, 8/2014.

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. This is where divine compassion ultimately leads, to our identification with all aspects of humanity.

Thich Naht Hahn talks in very similar language about his experiences among the refugees and boat people of Vietnam.  Deep loss can often lead to deep breakthroughs.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations, pp. 303f.

Banner Image: “Works of Mercy.” Linotype by Ada Bethune, from The Catholic Worker. Photo by Jim Forest on Flickr.

Have you had similar experiences as Dorothy Day and Thich Naht Hanh when deep losses lead to deep breakthroughs?  Might that happen as a result of our coronavirus losses and the “darkness of hell” is all around you?

Responses are welcomed. To add your comment, please click HERE or scroll to the bottom of the page.

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8 thoughts on “Dorothy Day and the Darkness that Accompanies Glory”

  1. Avatar

    I have heard and read Thich Nhat Hahn’s poem “Please Call Me by My True Names” many times and it always reminds me of the realization we are asked to come to. May I do so. I found this response to it from a reader today on Plum Village’s webpage. I hope the writer does not mind me passing it on here.
    “It took me years to understand this poem. How could I be the pirate? I live in Minneapolis and our community, like so many in the US have been affected by police shootings of black men. My heart breaks for George Floyd and his family. And I know the young, black man who was one of the police officers holding him down. My heart breaks for him too.” This poem resonates so much for me now. Thank you, Thay. Hearing you read it brings tears to my eyes. Source:

  2. Avatar

    Hi dear folks,
    Matthew’s commentary was missing this morning and midday. Such a loss!!
    I’m not techy so maybe it’s my machine. Will not lose hope……

      1. Phila Hoopes

        Apologies to both of you! The video is in the post on the website now – it was a matter of an earlier version of the post overwriting a newer version. My sincerest apologies!
        Phila Hoopes
        Blog Coordinator

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