Note to Amber: The Stuff of Nursing

And so we should see Christ in others, and nothing else, and love them. There can never be enough of it.
~ Dorothy Day

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My Brush with Socialism

Every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of heaven.
~ G.K. Chesterton

A friend of mine posted a NYT op-ed by David Bentley Hart that caught my eye: “Can We Please Relax About ‘Socialism’?” Yes! My thoughts exactly! I’m so tired of hearing that word bandied about on the left and the right, as if a couple of grade-schoolers with identical plastic light sabers were whacking each other into submission. I’m with Hart: Let’s give socialism a rest already!

But that wasn’t Hart’s point. Instead, he was opining that only here in America “is the word ‘socialism’ freighted with so much perceived menace.” That is, he was coming to socialism’s defense against conservative scaremongers like Ben Stein – whack! – and Republicans in general – whack, whack!

Too bad, for I think some “give it a rest” is in order these days, especially since nobody is in a hurry to define what socialism actually is (and isn’t). And, let’s face it, there’s no real incentive to do so as long as the word’s ambiguity continues to prove so effective in stirring up supporters (and donors).

Yet defining socialism is less important than seeing it in action. “Successful socialism has been created in only one place on earth, the kibbutzim of Israel,” Joshua Muravchik wrote in a different op-ed, this time in the WSJ. “But once the Jewish state was securely on its feet, kibbutzniks chose to switch to private enterprise. Socialism, they learned to their surprise, was not a happy way to live.”

I had a taste of happy socialism among the Hutterites, and it’s worth a look.

The Hutterites and their communitarian ways came to my attention decades ago when I was hanging around the Catholic Worker and reading Dorothy Day. “Before families come, they literally sell what they have and come and lay it at the feet of those members in the group who are in charge,” Day wrote of the Hutterite (at the time) Woodcrest Bruderhof in Rifton, New York. “It is truly a Christian communism.”

I had to check it out for myself, so I wrote ahead and made plans to visit Woodcrest for a couple days. In the meantime, I read up on the Hutterites, their history and values. Founded in Tyrol, Austria, by Jakob Hutter in 1528, the Hutterites were an Anabaptist movement that took very seriously the example set by the early church. “All who believed were together and had all things in common,” we read in Acts 2.44, and the Hutterites decided it was a practice that couldn’t be improved upon. “Communalism is the distinguishing principle by which all Hutterites have lived for nearly 475 years,” writes Laura Wilson. What’s more, “Hutterites are resisters. What they resist most are those influences inimical to their beliefs.” And yet, I also found that they are very open to outsiders and welcoming to all those who are curious about their way of life.

My stay with the Bruderhof, a modern Hutterite-like community, was a full one. I stayed with a family, ate and played and prayed with them, and then I also had a chance to work in their manufacturing business – Community Playthings which specializes in wholesome play equipment and solid youth furniture. I helped assemble a large tricycle, as I remember, and felt pretty good about making a contribution – both to the community hosting me as well as the child who’d benefit from the trike.

And that’s my recollection of this successful, even joyful form of limited socialist utopia: There was freedom within the collective unity. “While we share all we have with each other, we reject any attempts to make people uniform,” reads the Bruderhof’s statement on Community of Goods. “We practice our gifts through our work within the community, but there is also plenty of time to explore and nurture individual pursuits.”

The key here is that Bruderhof and Hutterite communitarianism is structured, but voluntary. There are lines of authority – in the community, in the manufacturing business, within each member family – and yet there is security and solidarity in the group’s commitment to mutual support and service. It’s not perfect – can any society be perfect this side of heaven? – but the folks who join and stay can see that it works, and they’re free to leave if they decide it doesn’t.

I think that highlights an important principle that’s too often overlooked in today’s socialism debates. Authentic socialism – or a fair distribution of goods among those in a society – is surely something to be commended as laudatory and even virtuous, especially for Christians, but it’s hard to accomplish well (or at all) through coercion. Yet, as the Bruderhof demonstrates, it doesn’t have to be coerced.

At least, that’s the lesson I took away from my visit there, and it’s one which has stayed with me ever since. I’m much less interested in questions of how much the state should be spreading wealth around than how I can better spread my own wealth around.

And that’s something I can do, God willing, without a whole bunch of debate.

A Reading List for a Eucharistic Life

Does it matter? Grace is everywhere….
~ Georges Bernanos

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Of Eugenics, Down Syndrome, and Defects of the Heart

The greatest challenge of the day is how to bring about a revolution of the heart.
~ Dorothy Day

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In Gratitude for a Fresh Glimpse at Dorothy Day

I didn’t become a Catholic because of Dorothy Day, but I don’t think I would’ve become a Catholic without her.

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My Finest Hour in New York

Let me see new ones every day! let me hold new ones by the hand every day!
Give me such shows! give me the streets of Manhattan!
~ Walt Whitman

It’s complicated, but decades ago I lived in Manhattan with a bunch of Mennonites. I had a room in their Gramercy Park townhouse for a few months, and the rent was cheap-cheap-cheap. The room was no bigger than a closet – actually, it originally had been a closet – but I only slept there, so it didn’t matter.

The rest of the time I wandered around the city, taking the subway here and there, bebopping and cavorting, looking, listening, checking things out. Up to the Cloisters, down to the Battery, Columbia and the Village, St. Pat’s and St. John the Divine, riding, walking, drinking it all in. Sometimes I’d pick a random neighborhood I hadn’t been to, find it on my map – a physical map, a paper map with lots of creases and impossible to refold – then head out on bus and train to find it. Other times (my favorite times) I’d dip into Dorothy Day’s autobiography and locate the sites she mentions like they were hallowed shrines – which they were because she’d been there, because she’d taken note of them. Dorothy was my lodestar in New York, a mentor as I stumbled my way into the practice of the Faith and adult freedoms.

So that’s how I spend most of my time in Manhattan, but I still had to pay my cheap-cheap rent, so I worked at a bookstore. Logos Bookstore of Midtown, on Madison Avenue, between 43rd and 44th (I think). It subsequently moved further north, but at the time it was definitely in the thick of urban things, at least from my suburban perspective. Grand Central Station was my subway stop; Times Square right down the street.

What happened was this. I was working the counter, ringing up books and magazines, answering questions, and Dan, the manager, took over. “Time for lunch,” he said – gladly. I hit the street, did a brief wander in the general vicinity, and settled on some eatery around the corner from the store and across the street. When it was time to head back to work, I maneuvered through the traffic, crossed back over 43rd and I noticed something in the gutter. It was a wallet – an oblong, brown wallet. I picked it up and looked around: nobody close by, nobody looking for it.

“It’s already been rifled,” I thought to myself. “Probably empty.”

It wasn’t.

I could feel through the leather that there was something inside. I undid the snap, and there were credit cards and pictures, a woman’s driver’s license and…cash! Maybe thirty, maybe forty bucks. I looked up again, sharply, glancing left and right – nobody around, no one near. Glory! A fortuitous moment – a serendipity; grace! I was in the right place at the right time, and I rescued this woman’s wallet from oblivion!

When I got back to the store, I showed off the wallet to my coworkers. “Can you believe it still has everything in it?” They couldn’t believe it either.

“Should I mail it to her?”

“Call information and get the phone number,” said Dan, “and call her.” Obviously. I gave the operator the address listed on the card and she gave me the number.

I dialed; a woman answered: “Hello?” I asked if I had the correct person. Pause – “Yes.” Pause – “Who is this?”

“I work at a bookstore in Midtown and I found your wallet today – on the street, on 43rd near Madison.” There was silence, another pause. “It was in the gutter – everything’s still in it.”

Again, another pause as she took in my outlandish claim. “You have my wallet?”

I assured her I did. “I’ll hold it here behind the counter for you.” I gave her the address and my name. “You can pick it up next time you’re in town.” We hung up.

She appeared the next day, accompanied by her brother, I think, or maybe a boyfriend. He hung back, but she inched up to the counter and identified herself, brow furrowed. I’m not sure what she expected – it was just a bookstore, after all, and a religious bookstore at that. Of course, these was the wild days of Mayor Koch’s New York, and I suppose it made sense that she took precautions. Perhaps she imagined a set-up for some kind of elaborate con, a rip-off in the spirit of The Sting, with Scot Joplin melodies tinkling in the background.

Nope. Just ordinary small-town decency. “Here it is,” I said, handing over the wallet. She immediately unsnapped the cover and looked inside: Cards, cash, license, all there. She glanced up at me through the furrows. Without a word she removed a bill – a ten spot maybe? – and held it out.

“That’s not necessary,” I said with a wave. She put away her money – it was an awkward moment. “Thanks,” she uttered as she turned to go. Her man-friend lingered, perhaps out of an abundance of caution, but eventually he exited as well.

That’s it. So simple, so straightforward, it wouldn’t even rate a second thought in the Midwest – in Dubuque, for instance, or Wichita.

But in Manhattan? I know I would’ve been shocked if a stranger had contacted me about a missing wallet, and even more shocked when he restored it to me intact. The whole episode would’ve entered my lexicon of family lore, a story told over and over whenever New York came up in conversation.

Which is why I call my own part in a surprise wallet recovery my finest hour: not because my actions were particularly meritorious, not because I did the bare minimum that most folks would do, especially those that aspire to be Christians. Frankly, if I’d been a real Christian, I would’ve hopped in a cab and delivered the wallet in person, on the spot.

No, I call it my finest hour because the unusual circumstances allowed me to become, just that one time, a bit player, an active player, in someone else’s New York sojourn. That lucky, that providential wallet find made me a character in a stranger’s memorable Manhattan moment that’ll stand out into her dotage, a story that her kids and grandkids will hear over and over, a command performance at Thanksgivings and other family gatherings. “Tell the one about losing your wallet in New York, grandma!”

And she’ll tell it with pleasure. “It was the strangest thing,” she’ll say. “I knew it was gone, and I was making plans to get a new license when I got this odd phone call….” And that’s me, in her New York story! What a gift, what a gift to add to her story, the city’s story, after having received so much.

She might’ve even told our story today, who knows? Wouldn’t that be a coincidence?

A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Witness of Chains: Of Apostolicity and Confinement


Who has God in his soul has it all.
~ Blessed Oleksa Zarytsky

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Convert Companions: Of Merton and Waugh, Me and You


Your monastery tailor and boot-maker could not waste material.
Words are our materials.
~ Evelyn Waugh

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The Once and Future Franciscan


Francis and I go way back, but I’m just now getting to know him.

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3 Short Books for the College-bound Teen


We were always encouraged to read,
and had all the masters that were necessary.
~ Elizabeth Bennet

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