Letter in Jail to Dorothy Day
Joseph E. Mulligan, S.J.
A shorter version of this letter/article was published in the December, 2004 issue of the Catholic Worker.
The following is a chapter of a journal I wrote while I was in two county jails from late January to late April, 2004, serving a 90-day sentence for “crossing the line” onto Ft. Benning, Ga., in a November 2003 protest against the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (SOA). The School, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), has trained thousands of Latin American soldiers, some of whom have returned to their countries to be notorious torturers, assassins, and other human-rights violators.
For more information about School of the Americas Watch: www.soaw.org
I have just found great joy and inspiration in reading your autobiography, The Long Loneliness. Thank you for sharing your life of love and struggle with us.
Jon Sobrino, the Jesuit at the Central American University in San Salvador who was giving a seminar in Thailand when his six Jesuit brothers and Elba and Celina were assassinated by U.S.-trained Salvadoran troops in 1989, writes a letter on every anniversary of that massacre to his dear friend and martyred brother, Ignatio Ellacuría, who was the Jesuit rector of the university and principal target of the assassins. I would like to write to you in the same genre.
I’m sure you won’t remember (although, perhaps now, with your memory, mind, and body transformed in the risen Christ, you will) our brief conversation over tea when I visited the Catholic Worker in New York City -- perhaps in 1972, after I got out of federal prison where I had done two years for destroying draft records as a protest against the Vietnam war in 1969. The content of our chat eludes me now, but I do remember your warmth and graciousness.
I feel that I have also come to know you through my friendships with Catholic Workers over many years. In 1967 in Chicago I met Karl Meyer and his family, who had a CW house on the near north side. With some other friends, Karl had organized a series of discussions in parishes concerning various aspects of the Vietnam war and the draft; I gave some input in several sessions.
Karl and I were later together in federal prison at Sandstone, MN -- I for the “Chicago 15" draft-board action, Karl for practicing and promoting tax resistance. There we grew closer in friendship as we talked while walking around the softball field. Karl spoke often and warmly of you, Peter Maurin, and Ammon Hennacy; thus I became more familiar with CW thought.
Karl now identifies himself as an atheist, but this has not diminished our friendship (why should it?), as I’m sure it has not lessened your love and respect for him. In The Long Loneliness you describe your deep friendship with Rayna, a beautiful person and committed revolutionary, who died “at the peak of her glowing, radiant life.” Your reflection about her resonates deeply in me: “When I think of Rayna, I think of Mauriac’s statement in his life of Christ that those who serve the cause of the masses, the poor, working for truth and justice, have worked for Christ even while denying Him” (p. 68).
I also think of Karl and so many other good friends and comrades in this way, as “anonymous Christians” (Mt. 25:31 ff), to use Karl Rahner’s phrase, even though, out of respect for their self-definition, I usually do not tell them that I see them in this light.
In early 1969 I attended a meeting at the CW house in Milwaukee, Casa Maria, where Mike Cullen and his family lived in service of the needy. Mike had taken part in the “Milwaukee 14" draft-board action in 1968, as you well know, and had not yet started his sentence. The meeting was an occasion for a group of interested persons to learn of Mike’s path to civil disobedience and to discern whether the Lord was calling us in that direction. Later, when I arrived at Sandstone, Mike welcomed me and we became close friends as we often discussed politics and theology.
Chuck Fullenkamp, one of my “partners” in the “Chicago 15" action, who had lived and worked with Mike at Casa Maria, was with us in the same prison; and we also shared spiritually and became lasting friends. (Chuck and his son visited me last year in Nicaragua.)
In Chicago after my release on parole in 1972, I became a close friend of the Catholic Workers, especially of John Baranski, who with others participated in anti-war resistance actions. I have also come to know the Day House community in Detroit and have visited CW communities in Davenport, Los Angeles, and D.C.
The movement has been and remains a sign of hope and an inspiration to me: people (the vast majority being laity) living out the poverty and hospitality of the gospel (e.g., the Beatitudes and Mt. 25) and struggling non-violently to combat the injustices which cause misery for others, especially war and the un-Christian priorities evident in military budgets.
But I feel that my story connects with yours in several interesting ways, the first going back long before my birth in 1943. In 1916, at the age of 19, you returned with your family to your native New York City to live in lower Manhattan. My Dad, Eugene Mulligan, had been born in that part of the city in 1906. It is thrilling to me to imagine that perhaps he as a boy and you as a teenage girl might have walked the same streets, seen the same tenements, noticed the same smells, and heard the same variety of immigrants’ languages.
It is for this reason that I relished your vivid descriptions of the area. Dad’s family’s living conditions were probably similar to those you and your family experienced -- not destitution, but poverty.
My Mom, Genevieve Lillis, a year younger than Dad, was born and grew up in Astoria, Queens, across the East River from you. She also lived in similarly austere conditions.
I myself have never lived in real material poverty -- not even in Nicaragua, where such is the common lot of the majority. My current jail experience is just a brief taste of it, and even here our basic physical needs are met perhaps more adequately than they were in your case and that of my parents as children.
Nevertheless, my parents’ stories of living with little made a lasting impact on me, helping me to define my real “needs” as being quite simple and to experience solidarity with the truly needy. My modest degree of freedom from “inordinate attachments” to comfort and security has enabled me to live, at least for short periods, in austere situations in Nicaragua and in prisons and jails in the U.S.
Another commonality I feel with your experience has to do with the poem, “Hound of Heaven,” by Francis Thompson. You describe listening to Eugene O’Neill reciting the poem in a saloon. “The idea of this pursuit by the Hound of Heaven fascinated me,” you recall. “The recurrence of it, the inevitableness of the outcome made me feel that sooner or later I would have to pause in the mad rush of living and remember my first beginning and my last end” (81-2).
I first heard the poem not in a saloon but in my English class at the Jesuit high school in Detroit, recited by a teacher. “I fled Him, down the nights and down the days....” But it had a similar haunting effect on me and kept speaking to me from time to time during my senior year and two years of college before the Hound carried me off to the Jesuit novitiate!
You would kneel in the back of a Catholic church, “not conscious of praying.” Once the Lord helped me to open myself to his call and to think seriously about it, I would go to the Duns Scotus Franciscan friary just north of Detroit to sit or kneel in the chapel, reflecting in silence.
A third experience of yours that I identify with is your heady feeling of optimism about the movement of history in favor of justice after a revolution -- in your case, the Russian Revolution of 1917. “We took the revolution for granted. We watched its progress; we were thrilled by its victories.... We became internationally minded. We lived in one world, and it was a world where dreams came true, where there was a possibility of the workers beginning to take over the means of production and starting to build that kind of society where each received according to his need and worked according to his ability.... We were arrogant and impatient of study and felt we were carried along on a wave of success” (83-4).
You saw the time come when the dictatorship of the proletariat became “a dictatorship by the elite few, by the members of the party.” But in its infancy the revolution was positive and hope-giving.
Did you imbibe some of this optimistic excitement in the 1960s and 1970s? I did, in spite of the reversals, tragedies and, as we saw later, the limited nature of the triumphs. With great sacrifice the civil-rights movement achieved significant gains, as did Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, which you supported; that picture of you sitting captive between two burly California cops speaks volumes.
The movement against the war in Vietnam grew to massive proportions, contributing to a cease-fire in 1973 and U.S. withdrawal in 1975. The socialist physician, Salvador Allende, was elected president of Chile in 1970 (then, it is true, killed in the brutal U.S.-sponsored coup three years later). The Sandinistas, including many revolutionary Christians in their ranks, led the 1979 overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua -- thus sparking hope for other revolutionary movements in Central America. (“If Nicaragua won, El Salvador will win!”)
And the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) opened the windows of our old Church to the modern world and its currents of change, officially affirming the Catholic commitment to justice and peace which you and the CW movement had been exemplifying for decades.
True, political and ecclesiastical reaction soon gathered force, reversing many of the accomplishments. But you and other young radicals needed the victories and optimism of the late 1910s, just as you and your CW family and other radicals in the 1960s and 1970s were nourished by the positive signs of the times of that era. I certainly was.
Now the challenge is to keep that flame of struggle alive, knowing what was achieved in the past (with all its limitations) and therefore what things and greater things can be attained in the future through struggle, even in spite of the evidently advancing evil, especially of U.S. imperialism. For this our hope needs to be firmly grounded in prayer and in faith in Christ’s ongoing empowerment of us in the struggle to bring his Kingdom of justice and peace closer.
A fourth aspect of your story which brings me closer to you is your concern about Nicaragua, where I have lived for 18 years. In the late 1920s you went around “in a stew and fomented over our interventions in Nicaragua and the political situation in New York” (116). At the time of your baptism in the Catholic Church, you were “working with the Anti-Imperialist League, a Communist affiliate, that was bringing aid and comfort to the enemy, General Sandino’s forces in Nicaragua” (145).
You probably knew Bishop John Lancaster Spaulding of Peoria, IL, a member of the League. General Sandino’s brother, Socrates, was also a key figure in the solidarity movement in the U.S. Together you all helped to bring about the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 1933. If you had lived beyond 1980, you surely would have joined the struggle against the Reagan administration’s policy of training and supporting the anti-Sandinista Contras.
I was delighted to discover a fifth experience of yours that I share -- turning to God in prayer out of happiness and gratitude rather than just because of a need. In a time of such prayer, the old phrase, “religion as the opiate of the people,” came to you repeatedly as a jeer. “But, I reasoned with myself, I am praying because I am happy, not because I am unhappy. I did not turn to God in unhappiness, in grief, in despair -- to get consolation, to get something from Him” (128). And so you went on praying in gratitude to God.
As a teenager, whenever I turned to God (which was not all that often!), perhaps in a high-school retreat or sometimes at Mass, I was aware of all that I had received from God, from my family, from my childhood parish and grade school in New York, from my high school in Detroit, and from my friends. I felt gratitude for all these gifts of love and wanted to try to do something meaningful and significant with my life and talents in response for all that I had received.
In my two years at the University of Detroit, I was considering medicine and had just begun to follow a pre-med curriculum when, in a moment of considerable openness during an obligatory weekend retreat on campus, I was struck by the seriousness and strength of Christ’s invitation to serve him and his people as a priest. As I devoted some time and meditation to this, consulting with some Jesuits I had known in high school and college, the call became clearer, and suddenly I was very grateful for this gift. Ever since, in times of prayer, especially at the start of the retreat, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, I rejoice and give thanks for God’s abundant gifts, especially the people in my life.
A final point which resonates with me is your perception, sharpened by your first jail experience, of class discrimination by the criminal-justice system. While picketing the White House with a group of suffragists, you were arrested and then sentenced to 30 days in jail. During your first eight days, while you and others were on a hunger strike, you reflected on the other inmates, especially prostitutes, and on their upper-class counterparts: “People sold themselves for jobs, for the pay check, and if they only received a high enough price, they were honored. If their cheating, their theft, their lie, were of colossal proportions, if it were successful, it met with praise, not blame. Why were some caught, not others? Why were some termed criminals, and others good businessmen? What was right and wrong? What was good and evil?” (75-6).
Did you ever discuss this with your friend, Thomas Merton, whom you knew through correspondence? I thought of you last November when I visited the Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, KY, and the cemetery where Merton is buried. On this matter, especially big-business involvement in war, he wrote: “Violence today is white-collar violence, the systematically organized bureaucratic and technological destruction of man. The theology of violence must not lose sight of the real problem which is not the individual with a revolver but death and even genocide as big business. But this big business of death is all the more innocent and effective because it involves a long chain of individuals, each of whom can feel himself absolved from responsibility, and each of whom can perhaps salve his conscience by contributing with a more meticulous efficiency to his part in the massive operation.”
Merton noted that Adolf Eichmann and others like him “felt no guilt for their share in the extermination of the Jews.” Their feeling of justification was due “partly to their absolute obedience to higher authority and partly to the care and efficiency which went into the details of their work.” They could forget the reality of what they were doing because they were dealing with numbers, not with people, and “since their job was one of abstract bureaucratic organization.”
Merton saw the same distancing mechanism at work “to an even greater extent in modern warfare in which the real moral problems are not to be located in rare instances of hand-to-hand combat, but in the remote planning and organization of technological destruction.... Modern technological mass murder is not directly visible, like individual murder.... It is this polite, massively organized white-collar murder machine that threatens the world with destruction, not the violence of a few desperate teen-agers in a slum.
“But our antiquated theology myopically focused on individual violence alone fails to see this. It shudders at the phantasm of muggings and killings where a mess is made on our own doorstep, but blesses and canonizes the antiseptic violence of corporately organized murder because it is respectable, efficient, clean, and above all profitable” (Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, Maryknoll, N.Y., Orbis Books: 2000, pp. 120-1).
Here in jail, a large young man told me he is doing a sentence for battery (in a bar), which of course is a serious violent crime. But there are no corporate or governmental officials here for battering the people of Iraq or the environment. Another is here for bank robbery, but I haven’t met anyone doing time here for robbing millions of small-time investors by cooking the corporate books or for the usury committed against Third World people by squeezing hundreds of billions of dollars out of them just in interest payments on foreign debts contracted by their upper-class rulers and their unscrupulous and irresponsible First World bankers.
I just want to mention two more things – before the lights are turned off at midnight. Thanks for reporting on and sharing your indignation over the judicial crime perpetrated in 1927 in the conviction and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti -- “two anarchists, a shoemaker and a fish peddler, who were arrested in 1920 in connection with a payroll robbery at East Braintree, Massachusetts, in which two guards were killed” (141).
Vanzetti, “with his sense of peace at his fate,” wrote in a last letter to a friend: “If it had not been for these things [his imprisonment and imminent execution] I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died unmarked, unknown, a failure. This is our career and our triumph.
Never in our full life could we hope to do such work
for tolerance, for justice,
for man’s understanding of man,
as we now do by accident.
--- That last moment belongs to us
- that agony is our triumph.”
A sense of peace and joy in the midst of suffering was the astounding gift promised by Jesus to his faithful disciples. Thanks for providing another example of this mystery from the experience of Sacco and Vanzetti, who found meaning and purpose, and therefore peace, in bearing persecution for the cause of the oppressed.
Dorothy, I must tell you how delighted I am with one anecdote in particular -- a real gem with an important message. In 1918 you entered nurses’ training at King’s County Hospital in Brooklyn and soon started working as a student nurse. Your first patient was a 94-year-old Canadian woman who became more than cantankerous in refusing to be bathed daily.
“‘Let us help you,’ one of the nurses said soothingly. ‘Can’t you see that we want to take care of you because we love you?’
“‘Love be damned,’ the little old lady cried, ‘I want my wig.’ She sat there perched on the end of her thin spine, her eyes blazing black and clear. Her arms were clasped around her bare and scrawny knees. Around a large bare spot on her head she had a thin fringe of hair which stood up like a field of ferns.
“‘She has been crying for her wig since she came in,’ the other nurse said. ‘We let her have her teeth, but she wants her wig.’
“The little old lady needed more than soap and water and clean bed linen. She needed more than to be loved. She wanted to be respected as a person, and for that she needed to have her wishes respected. She needed such appurtenances as her wig. I remember we compromised with a cap and so pleased her” (86-7).