The Catholic Worker Is a Fool

…as you will undoubtedly be told when you have The Conversation with friends and family

Anyone who has ever joined the Winona Catholic Worker as a live-in volunteer has inevitably had The Conversation with his or her family and other relatives. With surprisingly few exceptions, the announcement that one is about to join the Catholic Worker sets off alarm bells.

Mealtime at the Winona Catholic Worker circa 2010

But how can we blame them for their furrowed brows and doubtful looks? Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re the brand-new live-in volunteer, breaking the news to your family. Remember the great expectations that your family had for you? Because “you have so much potential,” you know! And now you’re announcing your intentions to join an organization — no, not even an organization, but a “movement” — with vaguely Marxist-Communist overtones: no real leadership, an emphasis on community and “consensus decision-making,” and a commitment to something called “voluntary poverty.” (Hint: Now is not the time to mention that, before her conversion to Catholicism, CW co-founder Dorothy Day ran with the Communists.)

But there’s more. People — complete strangers! — are going to show up at your front door in search of food or a place to sleep or conversation, and you’re going to let them in. They might be snoring in the next room a few hours later, and you don’t even know their last name, much less their past history. If this news prompts a long silence from your parents, they’re undoubtedly trying to recall whether they were sufficiently diligent in warning you not to talk to strangers. And no, your belief in non-violent resistance is not particularly comforting to them at this moment.

And then there’s that whole voluntary poverty thing — particularly the fact that you will not be receiving a salary, not even a stipend. Now, you may see this as part of what frees you to serve the guests of the Catholic Worker, who have no choice but to live with poverty and precarity, and you may assure your family of the virtues of relying on Providence, but truthfully, they would probably sleep better at night knowing you had a 401(k) tucked away somewhere. Or even a decent savings account, actually.

Your family undoubtedly admires your idealism and generosity; after all, you were raised to be helpful to others. On the other hand, the lifestyle you’re proposing to adopt seems really, really impractical. Foolish, even, although they would be too kind to say so (I hope).

In the face of such reasonableness, how can the new volunteer respond? What can possibly be said?

Perhaps he or she could tell a story, a story about how Saint Francis once tested two young men who wanted to join his community. He took them to the garden and told them to plant cabbages upside down, with the heads in the dirt and the roots in the air. One of the young men complied; the other sensibly suggested that it was customary for cabbages to have their roots planted firmly in the ground. Francis gently suggested that the sensible man return to live among the other sensible people of the world. Francis often boasted of being a fool for Christ; sometimes, he knew, following the way of love meant doing things upside down — at least from the world’s perspective.

Francis may have liked one of the refrigerator magnets at Bethany House: “Leap, and the net will appear,” it says. That is a good description of what is happening at the Catholic Worker. Practicing hospitality, community, voluntary poverty, stewardship, and nonviolent resistance requires a leap: it requires that we make ourselves vulnerable. We are able to make that leap because of our belief in the “net”: Love. Providence. The Holy Spirit. This is the practice of faith; it is our sixth core commitment, and the only answer we can give to reasonable, sensible people who object to the foolishness of the Catholic Worker.

The seed of this faith was planted long ago, in our religious upbringings or life experiences, but it is continually enlivened here at the Catholic Worker. It is enlivened by the prayer we regularly share. When we pray, we create an empty space in ourselves so God might have room to “speak” in our lives. (Voluntary poverty resembles prayer in that way.) It is also enlivened by our life in community — by the support and example of one another, our guests, and by our extended community. We speak of relying on Providence or the grace of God, and that is true; but often, the face of Providence and grace looks a lot like someone in our support community (perhaps even you!).

Most of all, our faith is strengthened by its practice — by leaping off that metaphorical cliff, again and again — for the love of our guests, our community, and our world. How is the Xcel energy bill going to be paid this month? When the bank account is scraping bottom, we have no choice but to trust in God’s providence. In a sense, the empty spaces left by our poverty, precarity, and vulnerability make room for God to play in our lives — to surprise us, to catch us in ways we didn’t expect. And so our faith grows.

Yes, there is uncertainty and risk; the crucifix in our prayer room reminds us that faith does not exempt us from pain or loneliness or anxiety or weariness. These are woven into life at the Catholic Worker just as much as anywhere else. But our faith places these things in a larger context. They do not have the final word; God does. Love does. We witness this miracle again and again: somehow, even though the floors need to be scrubbed (again) and even though our guests experience disappointing setbacks, there is an abundance of joy amidst it all. That joy comes to us when we notice a guest making someone new feel welcome, and it comes to us in the loud laughter of nightly card games. And in it, there is a deep sense that all will be well — that whatever we sacrifice for the love of one another is not lost, just changed into something more precious and enduring. This is why we have faith. At the Catholic Worker, we have taken that leap toward love, and found it to be solid.

Perhaps we Catholic Workers are not such great fools after all, given how often we fall short of our ideals, or even deliberately turn away from the hard work of faith. But, there’s always hope! We have many of you in our wider community to serve as examples and set us straight. And we can say this daily prayer: “Lord, make us better fools, so we may know greater love.”

This article first appeared in the newsletter of the Winona Catholic Worker and also appears on Medium.

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