The musings and meandering thoughts of a crotchety old man as he observes life in the world and in a small, rural town in South East Nebraska. My Pledge-Nulla dies sine linea-Not a day with out a line.
26 February 2019
The Saint of the City Goes Rural: Dorothy Day and the Life of the Land
In the Christian imagination, Dorothy Day looms as one of the 20th century’s great saints. A Communist convert to Christianity and co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, her work among the poor, her advocacy against war, and her commitment to the long and difficult work of community life only begin to explain why she remains an inspiration to millions. Leaving behind numerous articles, autobiographies, journals, and letters, Day left a rich, provocative, and daunting literary legacy. Though she is remembered as a saint for the city, we cannot forget another side of Day: her experiments with the farm and agrarian life. For it was in her experiments with farming that many of Day’s commitments became tested and refined, and it is here that we find a potent vision for how urbanites and agrarians might be allies.
The 19th and 20th centuries in American life saw an explosion of urban centers, with Chicago and New York City ascending to the modern metropolises they are today. Day, a San Francisco Bay native who grew up in the shadows of Chicago and New York, began her ministry not as an agrarian idealist, but as an urbanite in love with the rhythms of the cities, even as she consistently identified the dehumanizing effects city life can have on a person. It was her Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin who introduced her to the idea that, if urban life was to be renewed, it would mean being reconnected to the land.
What is a Farm For?
Day’s agrarian vision originated with Maurin, who had spent much of his youth in the farms of Southern France; for Day, an urbanite, the thought of working the soil was not repulsive so much as it was foreign. But for both, developing as a full human creature meant reconnecting city and farm, rooting our human bodies in the soil. “It is in fact impossible for any culture to be sound and healthy without a proper regard for the soil,” Maurin wrote, by which Maurin meant that any culture worth its salt could not forget that it was earthbound, built in slow, humanizing labor, and staked to a particular place.1
More modern agrarians such as Wendell Berry have been sounding this agrarian alarm in recent years, but what made Maurin’s perspective different was his desire not to leave the city for the farm, but to connect the farm to the city, to humanize urban life by its interconnection to farm life. At the beginning of their work together, Day and Maurin helped start a series of urban houses of hospitality, common living places built as schools of virtue in which Catholic social teaching, manual labor, and Christian devotion were intertwined. But as these houses developed, Day began to wonder if the urban houses were only part of Maurin’s overall vision.2
Maurin’s vision emerged publicly in 1936. In the audaciously entitled article “Back to Christ Back to the Land,” the Catholic Worker newspaper began to articulate what these “agronomic universities” would look like, to use Maurin’s phrase. The farms would not be industrial scale, but were intended to be subsistence level and diversified, growing as many kinds of crops as feasible by those living on the farm. The farms were, in a way, not intended to be successful. By Day’s recounting, the farms worked with whoever came to them, and with whatever materials they had on hand.
As we read Day’s reflections on this new experiment, teased out in newsletter columns and her memoirs, the agrarian experiments began to become more clear. The first farm, in Easton, PA, is described in idyllic terms: a father and son milking the cows, logs for the iron stoves cut first thing in the morning. But underneath this pastoral portrait, we find that Day articulates three intertwined reasons for the farms: ameliorating unemployment, restoring urban life, and cultivating virtue.3
Farming and Labor
Day’s roots, prior to her conversion, were in Marxist social organizing. In her first autobiography, From Union Square to Rome, she details the overlap she saw between Marxist ideals and Christian confessions, arguing that the life of the masses found their fullest validation in a Church which attended to the personalist needs of the masses. Accordingly, what it means for people to have humane employment which attended to the formation of a person in virtue and holiness was never far from her mind. This is where the farm offered an intriguing solution to a post-Depression country struggling to economically recover; the farms were not only a practical solution to unemployment, but attended to the human need for moral formation as well.
As “agronomic universities,” the farms were an immediate solution to questions of employment. Whereas in the city, people waited in breadlines, “on the land, there are untilled acres, there is room for every kind of unemployment where the single unemployed can pioneer and lead the way for the family, thus serving not only himself but the common good.”4 In contrast to modern urban life, the farm still had the pioneer possibility, where people could provide for themselves and could engage in meaningful labor.
In the context of 1938 America, this challenge needs to be seen in light of another challenge which Day saw: large scale government employment offered by the New Deal. If dehumanizing industrial labor was one problem, the mirror problem was a situation in which the government becomes the source of life and health for all of its citizens. Day’s criticism of government labor was not that it did not provide employment, but that it failed to make space for labor to be a source of cultivation: like modern factory work, it saw people as interchangeable parts which worked in service to the whole. Farm life, by contrast, required a deeply intimate care of one’s immediate circumstances, and it freed workers from the tyranny of efficiency. Rather than being dominated by the profit concerns of the factories or the bureaucracies of government, the farm offered labor which allowed a person to be human. By joining with the rhythms of the land, in the intimate and difficult work of cooking, growing, and cultivating, the farm married labor to attention. In a manner that is reminiscent of Simone Weil’s essay on schoolwork and prayer, farming requires one to labor in a way which cultivates attention to the land, to God, and to one’s fellow laborer.
Catholic Worker farms continue to carry on this vision, a vision which Day saw playing out in various other communities, such as those of the Hutterites.5 In various sustainable agriculture communities across the nation—from World Hunger Relief International in Waco, Texas to the Farminary based at Princeton Theological Seminary—opportunities abound for Christians to recover this relation of farming and labor in a way which reorients our imagination regarding what counts as good work, and what the nature of labor should be.6
Farming and Urban Life
According to Day’s granddaughter Kate Hennessy, the farm is perhaps the aspect of the Catholic Worker vision which Day most idealized. Day’s claim that the life of the farm helped one to have meaningful work and to cultivate a spirit of poverty ran squarely into a farming reality that could be grueling, back-breaking, and impoverished.7 Whereas Maurin was more invested in the farms for the sake of farming and connecting people to the land, Day saw the hardships which we endure in farming as ways in which we are made more able to navigate the difficulties of urban life.
As time went on, Day grew less invested in the farms as agronomic universities and began to emphasize their possibilities as retreat centers. Taking an extended sabbatical from the city, Day left the St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality in Rochester, and spent much of 1943 in retreat on one of the farms. And after returning to the Catholic Worker house in 1944, she turned part of the original Easton Farm into a retreat center, so that the farm might not just be an agronomic university, but a resting place from urban life. Those retreats, which became controversial among the Catholic Worker for their theological tone, also became vital, enabling Day to reengage life in the city.
These retreat centers were not simply places of escape, to get away from one’s life, but places to relearn the kinds of things which sustain persons burdened by the dehumanizing aspects of urban life. Retreats were not only places of intense prayer, but of manual labor, of silence, and of instruction in Catholic social teaching. In short, they were “shock treatment” for the soul, an opportunity to be shaken in the quiet of the farm out of the numbness caused by the busyness of the city.8
But even outside the retreat cottages at Easton Farm, farm life provided an occasion for training in how to bear with strangers and how to share one’s life. In her description of Peter Maurin Farm, on Staten Island, we find her candidly describing how books would disappear from the common library, or college students would casually drift in and out from the farms. These things were not reasons to abandon the experiments of the farm, but reasons to dig in more deeply, for in these difficulties, we find that we are training to react to loss of property and inconsistent relationships. When vices of greed or sloth emerged in farm work, it was for Day an occasion to pray, not to recoil from the imperfections of agrarian life.9
Farming and Virtue
But above all of the material benefits that agrarian life provided, Day most valued the ways in which the farms became not only schools of agriculture, but of charity and nonviolence. Her pacifism, which she consistently held through both World War II and Vietnam, differed from other more radical contemporaries, in that Day held that nonviolence was always connected to love. Nonviolence was not simply politically expedient; it was one of the ways in which we are trained to be lovers of our neighbors and of God. The slow training of the farm makes us more able to engage the busyness and violences of urban life well.
By attending to the land and to the strangers who gathered together to work the land, participants learn how to pay attention and to love urban strangers well. Simply going through the motions of being poor on the farm was worthless, Day thought, if “we clung to such comforts as the food we liked, the cigarettes we craved,” if in other words, our appetites and desires were not changed.10 In the early farms, both Maurin and Day emphasized that the practice of farm life must be married to the spiritual disciplines: prayer, communal living, times of discussion of church teaching. For apart from these practices, farming becomes an end unto itself, instead of a vehicle by which the land, the city, and our very selves might be changed.
The farms were never the great successes that Maruin and Day envisioned. After returning from her year away from the Catholic Worker, Day writes openly of the failures of the first Easton Farm. Because the virtues and spiritual disciplines were absent, she writes, the farm failed as an industrial venture. The fact that the early farm failed did not deter her from continuing to found other Catholic Worker farms, and to point to other examples that were bearing out this vision, from the Americus Farm founded by Clarence Jordan to the Hutterite farms across the Northeast.
Today, as climate change and ecological degradation have come more into view, the Catholic Worker farms have continued to thrive, and today there are 22 farms in operation in four countries. Contemporary Catholic Worker farms have taken a more ecological approach, emphasizing the role that the farms play in addressing environmental crises. This approach, though deviating from the original vision of both Day and Maurin for the farms, coheres well with the Catholic Worker emphasis on ministry among the poor. For as Rob Nixon has pointed out, the poor often bear the burdens of environmental collapse more acutely than the wealthy.11
Day’s vision of attending to the land was not about “returning to the land,” or abandoning the cities; urban population growth continues to outstrip rural population growth, a trend unlikely to be reversed. Rather, Day’s vision was one of learning from the land, that the cities might be more humane and sustainable as a result. By learning how to pay attention to the land, in the context of prayer and discipleship, we learn how to resist the shiny objects of the city which deform our desires and our lives. By engaging the land, whether in our backyard gardens or in sustainable agriculture farms, we learn how to engage the city, schooled in patience, love, and prayer. And so, the modern Catholic Worker farms continue Day’s vision in their own way, combining the repair of the soul with a new emphasis on the repair of the earth.
An extract from “Farming Commune,” Catholic Worker, October 1938:
We have had the farming commune at Easton for two and a half years now. We are trying to combine small holdings of one acre and the communal farm on which all work. And in this farming commune of seventy acres we are trying to apply the principles of the personalist and communitarian revolution. We are doing this with no picked group but with the human material which has come to hand. We are doing it though we are propagandists and editors, writers and lecturers, young and old, unemployed and the lame, the halt and the blind. We did not select each other; we somehow came together. And I come back after this week end, thinking how good God has been and how He has blessed the work of our hands.
In the cities there is unemployment and the breadline. There are municipal lodging houses and the parks where men sit all day and are either sunk in lethargy or are racking their brains for a way out. And on the land there are untilled acres, there is room for every kind of employment where the single unemployed can pioneer and lead the way for the family, thus serving not only himself but the common good.
While we work we pray that the farm at Easton and our writing about it will be so blessed that others will be led in this direction and do likewise. And in the many ways we fail, may they succeed, so that throughout the land there will grow up many communities within communities that will eventually save the nation from disaster.
1 “Regard for the Soil”, Peter Maurin. All of Maurin’s “Easy Essays,” as Day called them, as well as all articles from the Catholic Worker newspaper from Day’s life, can be found online at www.catholicworker.org
2 For Dorothy’s account of Peter Maurin, see Day’s Peter Maurin: Apostle to the World, with Francis J. Sicius (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 2004).
3 “Farming Commune,” Dorothy Day, The Catholic Worker, October 1938, 8.