New York City, April 1953
Poverty is a strange and elusive thing. I have tried to write about it, its joys and its sorrows, for twenty years now; I could probably write about it for another twenty years without conveying what I feel about it as well as I would like. I condemn poverty and I advocate it; poverty is simple and complex at once; it is a social phenomenon and a personal matter. It is a paradox.
Saint Francis was “the little poor man” and none was more joyful than he; yet Francis began with tears, with fear and trembling, hiding in a cave from his irate father. He had expropriated some of his father’s goods (which he considered his rightful inheritance) in order to repair a church and rectory where he meant to live. It was only later that he came to love Lady Poverty. He took it little by little; it seemed to grow on him. Perhaps kissing the leper was the great step that freed him not only from fastidiousness and a fear of disease but from attachment to worldly goods as well.
Sometimes it takes but one step. We would like to think so. And yet the older I get, the more I see that life is made up of many steps, and they are very small affairs, not giant strides. I have “kissed a leper” not once but twice — consciously — and I cannot say I am much the better for it.
The first time was early one morning on the steps of Precious Blood Church. A woman with cancer of the face was begging (beggars are allowed only in the slums) and when I gave her money (no sacrifice on my part but merely passing on alms which someone had given me) she tried to kiss my hand. The only thing I could do was kiss her dirty old face with the gaping hole in it where an eye and a nose had been. It sounds like a heroic deed but it was not. One gets used to ugliness so quickly. What we avert our eyes from one day is easily borne the next when we have learned a little more about love. Nurses know this, and so do mothers.
Another time I was refusing a bed to a drunken prostitute with a huge, toothless, rouged mouth, a nightmare of a mouth. She had been raising a disturbance in the house. I kept remembering how Saint Thérèse said that when you had to refuse anyone anything, you could at least do it so that the person went away a bit happier. I had to deny her a bed but when that woman asked me to kiss her, I did, and it was a loathsome thing, the way she did it. It was scarcely a mark of normal human affection.
We suffer these things and they fade from memory. But daily, hourly, to give up our possessions and especially to subordinate our own impulses and wishes to others — these are hard, hard things; and I don’t think they ever get any easier.
You can strip yourself, you can be stripped, but still you will reach out like an octopus to seek your own comfort, your untroubled time, your ease, your refreshment. It may mean books or music — the gratification of the inner senses — or it may mean food and drink, coffee and cigarettes. The one kind of giving up is not easier than the other.
How does property fit in? people ask. It was [artist] Eric Gill who said that property is “proper” to man. And Saint Thomas Aquinas said that a certain amount of goods is necessary to lead a good life. Recent popes have written at length that justice, rather than charity, should be sought for the worker. Unions are still fighting for better wages and hours, and it is a futile fight with the price of living going up steadily. They are fighting for partial gains and every strike means sacrifice to make them, and still the situation in the long run is not bettered. There may be talk of better standards of living, every worker with his car and owning his own home, but still this comfort depends on a wage, a boss, a war. Our whole modern economy is based on preparations for war, and that is one of the great modern arguments for poverty. If the comfort one has gained has resulted in the death of thousands in Korea and other parts of the world, then that comfort will have to be atoned for. The argument now is that there is no civilian population, that all are involved in the war (misnamed “defense”) effort. If you work in a textile mill making cloth or in a factory making dungarees or blankets, your work is still tied up with war. If you raise food or irrigate the land to raise food, you may be feeding troops or liberating others to serve as troops. If you ride a bus, you are paying taxes. Whatever you buy is taxed, so that you are, in effect, helping to support the state’s preparations for war exactly to the extent of your attachment to worldly things of whatever kind.
The merchant counting his profit in pennies, the millionaire with his efficiency experts, have learned how to amass wealth. By following their example — and profiting by the war boom — there is no necessity for anyone to be poor nowadays. So they say.
But the fact remains that every House of Hospitality is full. There is a breadline outside our door every day, twice a day, two or three hundred strong. Families write us pitifully for help. This is not poverty; this is destitution.
In front of me as I write is [illustrator] Fritz Eichenberg’s picture of Saint Vincent de Paul. He holds a chubby child in his arms and a thin pale child is clinging to him. Yes, the poor are always going to be with us — our Lord told us that — and there will always be a need for our sharing, for stripping ourselves to help others. It always will be a lifetime job.
But I am sure that God did not intend that there be so many poor. The class structure is of our making and by our consent, not His, and we must do what we can to change it. So we are urging revolutionary change.
So many sins against the poor cry out to high heaven! One of the most deadly sins is to deprive the laborer of his hire. There is another: to instill in him paltry desires so compulsive that he is willing to sell his liberty and his honor to satisfy them. We are all guilty of concupiscence, but newspapers, radios, television, and battalions of advertising men (woe to that generation!) deliberately stimulate our desires, the satisfaction of which so often means the degradation of the family.
Because of these factors of modern life, the only way we can write about poverty is in terms of ourselves, our own personal responsibility. The message we have been given is the Cross.
We have seen the depths of the faithlessness and stubbornness of the human soul — we are surrounded by sin and failure — and it is a mark of our faith in Christ that we continue to hope, to write, to appeal and beg for help for our work. And we pray also for an increase in the love of poverty, which goes with love of our brothers and sisters.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher. From Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, edited by Robert Ellsberg. Copyright © 1983, 1992, 2005 by Robert Ellsberg and Tamar Hennessey. Published in 2005 by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York. All rights reserved.