July 3, 2009

Faithful Lines / Shirley Vogler Meister

With the grace of God, sinners can become saints

Shirley Vogler MeisterFor many weeks, I have had the face of an old lady staring at me from the cover of a book near my computer.

She looks worn and tired, but her straggly white hair and braids resemble a small halo on her head. This belies the beauty that she once had as a young woman.

Her expression is intense, almost as though she is daring me to write a column about her.

She never asked to be in the limelight, but she was and still is—and now she is recommended for sainthood. I also see fatigue, disappointment and defiance in her eyes. She experienced all of that and so much more.

Many readers won’t recognize the name Dorothy Day. I didn’t know anything about her the first time that I heard about her.

Nor did I understand the tremendous impact she made as co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement.

One publication, Commonweal, edited by lay Catholics, declared that she is considered by many people to be “the most significant, interesting and influential person in the history of American Catholicism.”

Dorothy Day, who lived from 1897 to 1980, said, “What we do is very little, but it is like the little boy with a few loaves and fishes. Christ took that little and increased it. He will do the rest. What we do is so little we may seem to be constantly failing. But so did he fail. He met with apparent failure on the Cross. But unless the seed fall into the earth and die, there is no harvest. And why must we see results? Our work is to sow. Another generation will be reaping the harvest.”

I didn’t understand Dorothy Day’s impact until a resident of the St. Augustine Home for the Aged in Indianapolis—a ministry of the Little Sisters of the Poor with help from a remarkable lay staff—called my attention to her.

For years, Mary Etta Abernathy was part of a discussion group that I facilitate on most Mondays in St. Augustine’s library.

Not long before Mary Etta passed away in April at the age of 97, she gave me a 1982 book that she treasured titled Dorothy Day: A Biography, published by Harper and Row, and written by William D. Miller, a history professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

Dorothy readily shared her voluminous writings and her life with him. Marquette still houses that material.

After reading Miller’s book, my emotions ran rampant. I was shocked and edified—shocked because her checkered past included seriously sinful choices and edified by how her conversion to Catholicism unfolded in her life.

Like many holy people—including St. Augustine, whose mother, St. Monica, fervently prayed for his salvation—I won’t be surprised when Dorothy Day is canonized as a saint.

Ironically, in 2005, the Marquette University Archives sponsored a documentary premiere of a film by Claudia Larson titled Dorothy Day: Don’t Call Me a Saint.

(Shirley Vogler Meister, a member of Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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