The Scandal of the Works of Mercy

The Class of Nonviolence
Lesson 3, Reading 5

By Dorothy Day

One of the peculiar enjoyments I got out of jail was in being on the other side for a change. I was the one working in a laundry, ironing uniforms of jailers. I was the one sitting in the sewing room turning the collar and mending the uniform of an officer. It gave me a chance to tell the other prisoners about Tolstoy, and how he said the first move toward reform was to do one’s own work. Everyone regarded the officers as members of the parasite class, though they would not use that word. How much more respect they would have had for the officers, and for the work they themselves had to do, if they had seen the officers sitting mending their own clothes, if they had seen them working to help their fellows. Perhaps it would have meant a beginning of the philosophy of work which Peter Maurin used to say was so sadly lacking today. If prisoners and officers had worked together to make the prison a happier place, what a change there might have been in the hearts of those confined.

The officers sat all day at their desks, watching, directing, always expecting the worst, always looking for some small infraction, always seeing the women as criminals. They did not see that which is of God in every person, as the Friends put it. St. John of the Cross said, “Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love,” The officers looked for the criminal and found the criminal.

The women got away with what they could. They fought, they lied, they stole when they could. While working in the laundry I saw a girl put a folded dress, which she wanted for herself, up between her legs, under her skirt. When she spoke of it afterward to some of the other prisoners on our corridor, they jeered. “That’s nothing,” one said, “I’ve seen girls who worked in the kitchen get away with a turkey or a ham.” Judith made us all hilarious by immediately getting up and trying to impersonate a girl walking out of the kitchen with a turkey or a ham held thus. Looking back on these last paragraphs, I see that I have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous, even to the vulgar and, for some, the revolting. But beauty and joy often spring from the dungheap.

I have said that I enjoyed being on the other side for a time. People come into the Catholic Worker in such numbers: 800 a day for food; hundreds of men, women, and children coming in for clothes. When all the beds in the house are full we often give out “flop” money, the fifty cents a night it costs to sleep on the Bowery. All that we give is given to us to give. Nothing is ours. All we have to give is our time and patience love. In the movie Monsieur Vincent, the saint tells a young nun that she has to love the poor very much for them to forgive her the bread she gives them. How often we have failed in love, how often we have been brusque, cold, and indifferent. “Roger takes care of the clothes; you’ll have to come back at ten o’clock.” Or “Just sit in the library and wait.” “Wait your turn, I’m busy.” So it often goes. And now I was getting pushed here and there, told what I could or could not do, hemmed in by rules and regulations and red tape and bureaucracy. It made me see my faults, but it also made me see how much more we accomplish at the Catholic Worker in our own direct way, by not asking questions or doing any investigating, but by cultivating a spirit of trust. The whole experience of jail was good for my soul. I realized again how much ordinary kindness can do. Graciousness is an old-fashioned word but it has a beautiful religious tradition. “Grace is participation in the divine life,” according to St. Peter.

Most of the time we were treated like dumb beasts-worse, because it was with indifference and contempt. “You’ll be back,” was the common farewell to the prisoner. It was, in effect, wishing her not to fare well. There was no goodbye, “God be with you,” because there was not enough faith or hope or charity to conceive of a forgiving and loving God being with anyone so lost in vice and crime as prostitutes, drug addicts, and other criminals are supposed to be.

One great indignity is the examination given all women for drugs. There is certainly no recognition of the fact of political imprisonment. All of us were stripped and searched in the crudest way-even to the tearing of tissues so that bleeding resulted. Then there is the matter of clothing—the scanty garments, the crude wrappers which scarcely wrap around one, the floppy cloth slippers which are impossible to keep on! In Russia, in Germany, and even in our own country, to strip the prisoner, to humiliate him, is a definite part and purpose of a jail experience, Even in the Army, making a man stand naked before his examiners is to treat him like a dumb beast or a slave. A great courtesy accorded us was a visit from the warden himself. Never had anything like that happened before, one of the girls assured us. He wanted to know about our demonstration, why we had done it. He was a Hungarian Catholic; so perhaps it was easy to understand his confusion about our pacifism. What man does not wish to resist a foreign aggressor, to defend his home and family? But the problem of the means to an end had never occurred to him. Nowadays it is pretty generally accepted that the end justifies the means. To his mind, one just could not be a pacifist today. It was an “impossible” position.

As to our attitude toward the prison, and the prisoners, he could not understand our love for them, our not judging them. The idea of hating the sin and loving the sinner seemed foreign to him. Of course, he did not hate the sinner but he had to look upon them as evil; otherwise his job would be meaningless. When we talked of the good we found there, in spite of perversion, prostitution, and drugs, he looked at us strangely and wanted to know if we were Christian Scientists. At least he did not call us Communists. He was too intelligent for that. But we seemed to be denying the reality of evil, because we were upholding the prisoners. The evil, was there, all right, frank and unabashed. It was inside and also outside the jail.

One of the greatest evils of the day is the sense of futility. Young people say, “What can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort?” They cannot see that we can only lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time; we can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform these actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loves and fishes.

Next year, perhaps, God willing, we will again go to jail; and perhaps conditions will be the same. To be charitable we can only say that the prison officials do the best they can, according to their understanding. In a public institution they are not paid to love the inmates; they are paid to guard them. They; admit that the quarters are totally inadequate, that want was built for a House of Detention for women awaiting trial is now being used for a workhouse and penitentiary.

from By Little and By Little, the Selected Writings of Dorothy Day. Knopf, New York.

This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372

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