We Plead Guilty

We were, frankly, hoping for jail
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The most important contribution to thought made by the Catholic Worker, John Cort once said, was our emphasis on voluntary poverty. Whenever I am invited to speak at schools around the country and talk about the problems of destitution in this rich country, and in the name of the Catholic Worker receive praise, I feel guilty. When our readers and listeners say that I make them feel guilty, I can only say I feel more guilty. We live in the midst of destitution in a rich country, and when we sit down to eat, we know that there is a line waiting at the door so long that the house could not hold them. When we pass men lying on the streets at night, and see men huddled around a fire built against the old theater building next door, and we go into our St. Joseph's House of Hospitality, into a house where men are sleeping on the floor (because all the beds are taken) and we go to our own warm and comfortable bed, once again we cannot help but feel guilty.

It is hard to comfort ourselves with the reflection that if we did not get rest and food we would not be able to do the work we do. We can reflect that some of the poverty we profess comes from lack of privacy, lack of time to ourselves. We can list instances of sights and sounds, smells and feelings that one can never get used to nor fail to cringe from. Yet God has blessed us so abundantly, has provided for us so constantly over these twenty-five years that we are always in the paradoxical position of rejoicing and saying to ourselves, "our lines are fallen in goodly places." "It is good, Lord, to be here." We feel overwhelmed with graces, and yet we know we fail to correspond to them. We fail far more than seven times daily, failing in our vocation of poverty especially. As we think of all this, our feeling of guilt persists.

For this reason, as well as for the reason that we are pacifists, we refused to take part in the war maneuvers, if you can call them that, of the compulsory civil defense drills of the past three years. We were, frankly, hoping for jail. Ammon Hennacy, one of our editors, frankly says he wants to be a martyr. And as for me, I feel of course that the servant is not above the master, that we must take up our cross and follow our Master. Perhaps jail, we thought, would put another compulsion on us, of being more truly poor. Then we would not be running a house of hospitality, we would not be dispensing food and clothing, we would not be ministering to the destitute, but would be truly one with them. We would be truly among the least of God's children, sharing with them their misery. Then we could truly say in the prayers at the foot of the altar, "poor banished children of Eve, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears." How hard it is to say it, surrounded by material and spiritual benefits as we are!

And so on three occasions we have been imprisoned. Each time we have gone through the grueling experience of torturous rides in the police van, sitting for long hours in prison cells awaiting booking or trial. In the first year, we had only an overnight experience of jail (which necessitated, however, the examinations for drugs, the humiliations of being stripped and showered and deprived of clothing and belongings). The second year the sentence was five days, and this last summer it was thirty days (with five days off for good behavior).

When we were locked in that first night in a narrow cell meant for one but holding two cots, we had just passed through an experience which was as ugly and horrifying as any I may ever experience. I know that St. Paul said, "Let these things not so much as be mentioned among you," and it is not as a litterateur I speak, but as a Christian, who shares the guilt of all. We had been processed, we clutched our wrappers around us, and as we got off the elevators on the seventh floor to be assigned our cells, we were surrounded by a group of young women, colored and white, Puerto Rican and American, who first surveyed us boldly and then started making ribald comments. Deane Mowrer and I were older women though Deane was younger than I, and Judith Beck was young and beautiful. She was an actress which means that she carries herself consciously, alert to the gaze of others, responding to it. Her black hair hung down around her shoulders, her face was very pale, but she had managed to get some lipstick on before the officers took all her things away from her.

"Put her in my cell," one of the roughest of the Puerto Rican girls shouted, clutching at Judith. "Let me have her," another one called out. It was a real hubbub, ugly and distracting, coming as it did on top of hours of contact with prison officials, officers, nurses and so on.

I had a great sinking of the heart, a great sense of terror for Judith. Was this what jail meant? We had not expected this type of assault—and on the part of women. With the idea of protecting Judith, I demanded , and I used that term too for the only time during my imprisonment, that she be put in my cell or Deane's cell if we had to be doubled up because of crowding. "I will make complaints," I said very firmly, "if you do not do this."

The jeering and controversy continued, but the officer took us to our respective cells, putting Judith and me in one, and Deane in another at the opposite corridor. Later, Joan Moses, a young Protestant demonstrator, who had gone alone with her husband to Times Square and made a public refusal to take shelter, and who was tried three days after we were, joined us, and she and Deane, and Judith and I, were put into adjoining cells.

 

WE FELT THIS sense of separation from the other prisoners, and as we were locked in that first night, I thought of a recent story by J. D. Salinger which I had read in the New Yorker, "Zooie." It is about the impact of the Prayer of Jesus, famous among pilgrims in Russia, on a young girl from an actor's family. The prayer is, "My Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner." Sometimes the prayer is shortened: "My Lord Jesus, have mercy on me a sinner." Sometimes it is accompanied by prostrations, sometimes by a way of breathing, "my Lord Jesus" being said as one inhales, and the rest of the prayer as one exhales. Eastern theologians warn against using this prayer without spiritual direction. Dr. Bulgakoff states that according to the theology of the Eastern Church, at the very mention of the Holy Name, there He is in the midst of us.

The girl Frannie in Salinger's story has become entangled in this prayer and is in such a state that her mother is about to get the advice of a psychiatrist. But the brother, who has been educated with his sister by an older brother who is something of a mystic, accomplishes her release from the hysteria into which she had plunged through a ceaseless repetition of the Jesus prayer, in a long conversation which makes the story more than a short story. He convinces her finally that she is trying to use a short cut to religious experience, that fundamentally she scorns others and, is turning to God to escape from contact with humankind; and he reminds her of a piece of advice given her by an older brother. When she was acting in a radio play, as she had been the summer before, she was to remember the fat lady sitting on her porch rocking and listening to the radio. In other words, "Jesus Christ is the fat lady.”

Part of the impact of the story is the contrast between the reverence (the Russians would have rejected "My Jesus, mercy!" as being too intimate) and, not only the last line, the punch line, but the irreverent language which leads up to it, the compulsive use of the Holy Name. The rest of its power lies in the profound Christian truth said over and over again by the saints, after our Lord Himself said it: He has left Himself in the midst of us, and what we can no longer do for Him we can do for them.

We were locked in our cells, and all the other five hundred women in the House of Detention were locked in theirs. The lights would go out at nine-thirty. The noise, the singing, the storytelling, the wildly vile language would go on until then. We were stunned by the impact of our reception, and the wild, manic spirits of all those young women about us. The week's work was finished, it was Friday night, and here were two days of leisure ahead.

I thought of this story of Salinger's and I found it hard to excuse myself for my own immediate harsh reaction. It is all very well to hate the sin and love the sinner in theory but it is hard to convey that idea in practice. By my peremptory rejection of the kind of welcome we received, I had of course protected Judith, but there was no expression of loving friendship in it towards the others. Lying there on my hard bed, I mourned to myself, "Jesus is the fat lady. Jesus is this unfortunate girl."

Jackie was released the next day; she had spent her six months, or her year or her two years, or whatever it was. One of the horrors of the House of Detention is that it is not just a place for the women awaiting trial as it was planned to be, but that it is used as a workhouse and penitentiary too, situated unsuitably though it is in the center of the city. A week later, we saw in the Daily News, which can be purchased by the inmates, that Jackie had attempted suicide and had been taken to Bellevue psychiatric prison ward. And a week after that she was back in the House of Detention, but on another floor.

 

THE OTHER PRISONERS certainly did not harbor any hostility to us nor take offense at the openness of my judgment. It was my interior fear and harshness that I was judging in myself. We had not been issued clothing, and the officers were not going to allow us to go to the chapel in our wrappers. So our kind fellow prisoners, sensing our keen disappointment, gathered together clothing, underwear, socks and shoes and dresses, so that we could go to Mass and receive Communion. Prostitutes, drug addicts, forgers and thieves had more loving kindness toward us than our jailers, who had no sense of the practice of religion being a necessity to us, but acted as though it were a privilege which they could withhold.

Of all the five hundred women in the Woman's House of Detention only about fifteen got to Mass. By being importunate, I got to see the priest, to ask that my Bible, missal and breviary be permitted me. He was most reserved, withdrawn, and I had the impression that besides being aloof with women in general, he was most especially aloof with women prisoners. The chaplain was a man who might have been able to show a little warmth and human kindness and sympathy, but in addition to the jail, he also tended St. Vincent's Hospital and St. Joseph's Church. So we could not see much of him. On that day we obtained a small pamphlet Mass book and a diocesan paper to read.

Later, on the window sill in the dining room, I came across a copy of an old New Yorker, and in it a poem by W. H. Auden. He had come to my rescue the year before when I had been convicted of being a slum landlord. At that time he brought me the money to pay my $250 fine, a sentence which was afterwards suspended. It was like a visit from a friend to find this poem of Auden's. There was a refrain, "Thousands have lived without love, but none, without water." This may not be exact—I am quoting from memory—but I know Judith sang it as she: rejoiced in the one truly sensual enjoyment of the day, the shower. It was ninety-five degrees outside, and our cell was most oppressive. We indeed felt that we could not live without water.

Within a few days we were able to go to the library which is situated on the second floor of the House of Detention. It is a very good library and one can take out five books a week. Not that there is time to read five books, what with the work schedule each day. I borrowed Resurrection, by Tolstoy, that great story of a trek to Siberia of a concourse of prisoners, the royalties from which book were donated by Tolstoy to pay for the emigration of the Doukhobors to Canada to escape the persecution they were undergoing in Russia for their pacifism. I had read the work before and had been especially impressed by the picture of the separation of the political prisoners and the ordinary criminals in the line. There was no such separation in our case.

I read Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen and was charmed by her defense of the novel form. I read Embezzled Heaven and travelled on pilgrimage with the old servant woman. Kon Tiki was a joy indeed and one could feel the spray of the open ocean on one's face and wonder at the great daring of these modern explorers. I was rather afraid to read Mann's Doctor Faustus, which my cell mate had taken out of the library—there was already enough emphasis on evil everywhere—but was happy to have my attention called to the beautiful descriptions of music which are in it.

The most startling thing I read in jail was a series of essays, entitled Lenin, by Trotsky, published back in 1926 or thereabouts. How had this book found its way into the library of one of our city prisons? But I read it with interest. Trotsky described the moments he spent with Lenin when the revolution had become an accomplished fact, and Kerensky was driven out and Lenin and Trotsky had become the acknowledged leaders. "Lenin made the sign of the cross before his face," Trotsky wrote.

 

BUT IT WAS remembering Salinger, and Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima, and Alyosha and the honest Thief, and reading Tolstoy's short stories, that made me feel that again we had failed. We had the luxury of books—our horizons were widened though we were imprisoned. We could not certainly consider ourselves poor. Each day I read the prayers and the lessons from my daily missal and breviary to Judith, and when I told her stories of the fathers of the desert, she told me tales of the Hassidim. On the feast of St. Mary Magdalene I read:

"On my bed at night I sought him

Whom my heart loves—

I sought him but I did not find him.

 

I will rise then and go about the city;

  in the streets and crossings I will seek

Him whom my heart loves.

I sought him but I did not find him . . .

 

Oh, that you were my brother,

  nursed at my mother's breasts!

If I met you out of doors,I would kiss you

  and none would taunt me.

I would lead you, bring you in

  to the home of my mother . . . .

 

Rejoice with me, all you who love the Lord, for I sought him and he appeared to me. And while I was weeping at the tomb, I saw my Lord,

Alleluia.

Yes, we fail in love, we make our judgments and we fail to see that we are all brothers, we all are seeking love, seeking God, seeking the beatific vision. All sin is a perversion, a turning from God and a turning to creatures.

If only our love had been stronger and truer, casting out fear, I would not have taken a stand, I would have seen Christ in Jackie. Suppose Judith had been her cell mate for the night and had been able to convey a little of the love the pacifists feel is the force which will overcome war. Perhaps, perhaps. . . . But this is the kind of analyzing and introspection and examination of conscience the narrator in The Fall indulged in after he heard that cry in the dark, that splash in the Seine and went his way without having helped his brother, only to hear a mocking laughter that followed him ever after.

Thank God for retroactive prayer! St. Paul said that he did not judge himself, nor must we. We can turn to our Lord Jesus Christ who has repaired already the greatest evil that ever happened or could ever happen, and trust that He will make up for our falls, for our neglects, for our failures in love.

[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
Dorothy Day on Hope
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