The Scandal of the Works of Mercy

To reach a man in the street you must go to the street, where Christianity itself may be a sign of contradiction
This story is included in these collections

The spiritual works of mercy are: to admonish the sinner, to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to comfort the sorrowful, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive all injuries, and to pray for the living and the dead.

The corporal works are to feed the hungry to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked: to ransom the captive, to harbor the harborless to visit the sick, and to bury the dead.

When Peter Maurin talked about the necessity of practicing the works of mercy, he meant all of them, and he envisioned houses of hospitality in poor parishes in every city of the country, where these precepts of Our Lord could be put into effect. He pointed out that we have turned to State responsibility through home relief, social legislation and social security, and we no longer practice personal responsibility for our brother, but are repeating the words of the first murderer, “Am I my brother's keeper?" Not that our passing the buck is as crude as all that. It was a matter of social enlightenment, Holy Mother the City taking over, Holy Mother the State taking the poor to herself , gathering them to her capacious bosom studded with the jewels of the taxation of the rich and the poor alike, the subtle war between Church and State meanwhile going on at all times, in the field of education, charity, the family. In the last fifteen years the all-encroaching State, as the Bishops of the United States have called it, has gained the upper hand.

In our fight against such a concept of Christian charity, we have been accused of lining up with Wall Street and private enterprise, and the rich opponents of state control and taxation. But, anarchists that we are, we want to decentralize everything and delegate to smaller bodies and groups what can be done far more humanly and responsibly through mutual aid, as well as charity, through Blue Cross, Red Cross, union cooperation, parish cooperation.

Peter Maurin, the founder of The Catholic Worker, was very much an apostle to the world today, not only to the poor. He was a prophet with a social message and he wanted to reach the people with it. To get to the people, he pointed out it was necessary to embrace voluntary poverty, to strip yourself, which would give you the means to practice the works of mercy. To reach the man in the street you must go to the street. To reach the workers, you begin to study a philosophy of labor, and take up manual labor, useful labor, instead of white collar work. To be the least, to be the worker, to be poor, to take the lowest place and thus be the spark which would set afire the love of men towards each other and to God (and we can only show our love for God by our love for our fellows). These were Peter's ideas, and they are indispensable for the performing of the works of mercy.

When Father Lombardi spoke a few weeks ago in St. Patrick's Cathedral and on the Fordham campus, he spoke of the need to make a new social order. He was making no anti-communist speech, he said. He was making no nationalist speech. He was speaking a gospel of love, and that meant here and now a redistribution of this world's goods, so that a man could have as many children as God sent him, and support them, have a home for them and work for them to do. This world’s goods do not belong to any one nation, any few men, he pointed out.


WE ARE ALL devoured by a passion for social justice today, and seeking an alternative to Communism and capitalism. We like to discuss capitalism, industrialism, distributism, decentralization—all the work that is being done by the National Catholic Welfare Conference in Washington and by the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, but with this tremendous work of indoctrination, with all this work which goes on in conference, convention, classroom, and through periodicals, much of it comes to words and not very vital words at that.

Peter liked to talk of making a message dynamic, and that meant with him putting it into practice. There was simple common sense in his argument that if you wanted to reach the man in the street, you go out on a park bench with him, you go out to sell your paper on the street just as the Jehovah's Witnesses do, just as the communists do.

Publishing a paper and reaching the man in the street, was to Peter, performing the first four of the spiritual works of mercy. To go on picket lines, was to perform spiritual works of mercy. It was to dramatize by a supplicatory procession the needs of the worker, the injustice perpetrated against him. To bear wrongs patiently, yes, but not to let the bosses continue in the sin of exploiting you. To forgive the injury, yes, but to try to do away with the injury.

I remember one time when we were all picketing in the National Biscuit Company strike on West Fourteenth Street. There was a mass picket line which extended around the block, and the police began to break it up, and then the scabs arrived in taxi cabs and the mob started to boo, and the whole affair began to look ugly. As we gave out our literature, Frank O'Donnell, who is now one of the members of the farming community at St. Benedict's Farm at Upton, Mass., turned to us all and said mildly, winking at Peter, "Don't forget we are all gentle personalities!"

It reminded me of the Communist who shouted at me as we were dispersed by the police at another demonstration, and there was a brutal show of force by the police: "What about a little brotherly love, sister?"

Yes, such works of mercy, such spiritual works of mercy, can be dangerous, and can smack of class war attitudes. And of that we are often accused, because the performance of the works of mercy finds us on the side of the poor, the exploited, whether with literature, picketing, soup kitchen, etc. As Evelyn Waugh said to us plaintively last spring, "Don't you think the rich suffer too?" And there is indeed plenty of room for the works of mercy there. Perhaps we are also carrying out that apostolate too. Perhaps some of the rich are reading The Catholic Worker. After all, The Commonweal must have readers who are able to afford the things advertised in its columns, such as jewels, laces and fur coats, which puts them definitely out of the class of the Fourteenth Street reader and shopper whom we cater to.


WE ARE ALWAYS accused of going to extremes and perhaps it does seem like an extreme to be talking of the street apostolate and the retreat apostolate in the same breath. Yet they go together. In the attempt to perform these works of mercy, which are far more difficult than the immediate physical ones of feeding and clothing and sheltering, we came to the decision after ten years of work in city and country throughout the land that we needed a retreat house for the work. We had colloquiums for the clarification of thought, and tired of wrangling, we had tried an annual retreat for all the leaders of The Catholic Worker Houses in the United States; so many came, and the response was so great, that we decided to have a year-round retreat house where we could raise what we needed as much as possible, where we could build up our very good library, where we could have a house of studies for those who wanted to stay longer than the week's retreat on the farm.

The first project was at Easton, and never was there such a retreat house. Generous priests gave us their time, and came and slept in unheated rooms and dormitories. At first there was no running water, but one valiant priest, Father Pacifique Roy, S.S.J., who had been a missionary, both in Quebec and Louisiana and accustomed to working with his hands, directed the work by example as well as by precept, and we dug ditches and laid pipe and soon had running water on every floor of the barn and the house. We had electricity in every room, and the electrical work was done by Father Roy and our men. During the war, when it was all but impossible to get men or materia1s, we had the genius of this priest who knew how to use all odds and ends of pipe and wire and make up gadgets to take the place of those we could not get. If Father Roy could have been spared to us (he is invalided in Canada right now) we would have had a lumber mill, a cement block plant and a grist mill and electricity from our own windmill, and all such contrivances of human ingenuity for our farm retreat house.

As it is, we have become more bourgeois and comfortable, but not more self-sufficient. We have a long way to go to exemplify the poverty of a St. Francis or a Peter Maurin.

People out of jails and out of hospitals, men from the breadline and from the road, readers of the paper from all walks of life, students, priests too, come to make retreats with us. We have a chapel in which the stations of the cross, the statues of the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph are made by our own artists. Adé de Bethune carved the crucifix over the altar, and the altar and the benches were made by one of the men who came in from the Bowery, an old carpenter with a bitter tongue, who so despised the unskilled poor that whenever anyone gave any evidence of any skill, he would say sourly, "And what jail did you learn that in?"

This old man nearing eighty had his little shop and house right at the entrance to our farm at Easton where we first had retreats, and unlike the porter at the gate described by St. Benedict, old Maurice had quite a different tongue. I used to feel sad that instead of seeing Christ in each guest who came, he saw the bum, and so treated us, one and all. He was a good example of "The Friend of the Family," "The Man Who Came to Dinner." And also a fitting member of our community, which is country-wide by now, and which Stanley Vishnewsky has come to call "the contemptibles." "It is a new order I started," he is going around saying. But it is really Peter Maurin who started it. Stanley just named it.


OUR RETREAT HOUSE now is at Newburgh, New York, sixty-five miles up the Hudson River and although we are not permanent there, I wish to write about it in some detail, because I have written two other articles for The Commonweal on the Houses of Hospitality where works of mercy are performed.

We are intending to sell the place at Newburgh and buy one on some bay near New York where we can fish and so cut down our expenses. Fishing and clamming and beachcombing are occupations more agreeable to man than farming. We want a twenty acre place so that we can have a large garden and orchard. We do not need the ninety-six acres we have now at Newburgh. We had offered the opportunity to three couples to build there on our acreage, but the offer was not taken up because of the cost of building materials and the lack of skills among the men. Also, because most of those who are contemplating the land movement are still thinking in terms of farms that "pay," whereas we are thinking of a village and town economy and a combination of land and crafts, and the use of the machine only insofar as it is the extension of the hand of man and so under his control, making things of use to others; in other words, a political economy based on the consumers' needs rather than the producers' profits.

It will be seen that our concept of the works of mercy, including as it does making the kind of society where the "rich man becomes poor, and the poor holy," a society where there is no unemployment, and where each can "work according to his ability and receive according to his need," is a foretaste of heaven indeed.

We have had retreats every other week these past two years at Maryfarm, Newburgh, and in the winter when we are limited to the house alone and have to give up the barns and the carriage house and the tents, then the house becomes a rest house as well as a house of studies, and there are always those out of hospitals who need rest and care, sicknesses of mind and body that need to be nursed.

We have daily Mass at the Farm, and we are permitted by the Chancery Office to have the Blessed Sacrament at all times while a priest is with us and we are blessed in having an invalided priest visiting us these past fifteen months or so. We have Prime and Compline, we have sung Masses for all the big feast days, we have reading at the table during retreats, and sometimes when there is no retreat but a feast day to be celebrated. There are many visitors, and it is very much a crowded inn and hospice during all the months of the year. Jane O'Donnell is in charge of the House, and John Fillinger of the Farm, and Hans Tunnesen takes care of cooking and carpentry alternately. Both the latter are seamen and have been with us for years. I remember the gibe (a friendly one) of one of our friends once who was combatting our idea of farming communes where the family could enjoy a combination of private and communal proper ty. "Instead of a family commune," he said, "they are running a home for celibate seamen." This was at the time of the first seamen's strike and many were staying with us.

There are families among us who do not have much time for many of the works of mercy any longer outside their own families, though they are always contributors of food and clothing to our community of contemptibles. And it is indeed true that there are many celibates, willing and unwilling ones, among us. Converts come to work with us who might have preferred family life but are barred from it by a previous bad marriage. There will always be, in a way, the willing and the reluctant celibates, and for these, the community life of The Catholic Worker, with its men and women working together, dedicated to the common effort, affords the comfort of a home, of contacts with friends, the normal, happy relationships of men and women working together. (The men become more gentle and the women try harder to please, and in spite of the war of sexes which goes on and always will, there is a growth of the good love of friendship so sadly needed in the world today.)


THE WORKS OF mercy are a wonderful stimulus to our growth in faith as well as in love. Our faith is taxed to the utmost and so grows through this strain put upon it. It is pruned again and again, and springs up bearing much fruit. For anyone starting to live literally the words of the Fathers of the Church, "the bread you retain belongs to the hungry, the dress you lock up is the property of the naked," "what is superfluous for one's need is to be regarded as plunder if one retains it for one's self ," there is always a trial ahead. "Our faith, more precious than gold, must be tried as though by fire." Here is a letter we received today. "I took a gentleman seemingly in need of spiritual and temporal guidance into my home on a Sunday afternoon. Let him have a nap on my bed, went through the want ads with him, made coffee and sandwiches for him, and when he left, I found my wallet had gone also."

I can only say that the Saints would only bow their heads and not try to understand or judge. They received no thanks—well then, God had to repay them. They forebore to judge, and it was as though they took off their cloak besides their coat to give away. This is expecting heroic charity of course. But these things happen for our discouragement, for our testing. We are sowing the seed of love, and we are not living in the harvest time so that we can expect a crop. We must love to the point of folly, and we are indeed fools, as our Lord Himself was who died for such a one as this. We lay down our lives too when we have performed so painfully thankless an act, because this correspondent of ours is poor in this world's goods. It is agony to go through such bitter experiences, because we all want to love, we desire with a great longing to love our fellows, and our hearts are often crushed at such rejections. But a Carmelite nun said to me last week, "It is the crushed heart which is the soft heart, the tender heart," and maybe it is one way to become meek and humble of heart like Jesus.

Such an experience is crueller than that of our young men in Baltimore who were arrested for running a disorderly house, i.e., our St. Anthony's House of Hospitality, and who spent a few nights in jail. Such an experience is dramatic to say the l east. Such an experience is crueller than that which happened to one of our men here in New York who was attacked (for his pacifism) by a maniac with a knife in our kitchen. Actually to shed one's blood is a less bitter experience.

Well, our friend has suffered from his experience and it is part of the bitterness of the poor, who cheat each other, who exploit each other, even as they are exploited. Who despise each other even as they are the despised.

And is it to be expected that virtue and destitution should go together? No, as John Cogley has written, they are the destitute in every way destitute of this world's goods, destitute of honor, of gratitude, of love, and they need so much, that we cannot take the works of mercy apart, and say I will do this one, or that one work of mercy. We find they all go together.

Some years ago there was an article in The Commonweal by Georges Bernanos. He ended his article as I shall end mine, paraphrasing his words, and it is a warning note for these apocalyptic times: "Every particle of Christ's divine charity is today more precious for your security—for your security, I say—than all the atom bombs in all the stockpiles." It is by the works of mercy that we shall be judged.

[For more of Dorothy Day's writings from Commonweal, see our full collection.]

Dorothy Day is a cofounder of the Catholic Worker, the author of The Long Loneliness and hundreds of newspaper articles and essays. Her cause is currently being considered for beatification.

Also by this author
The House on Mott Street
This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads