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Entertaining Angels: the Dorothy Day Story
Article published on 6 January 2005
last modification on 26 April 2015

by r-c.
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by Michael Ray RHODES

USA, 1996





CAST: Moira KELLY; Martin SHEEN; Lenny Von DOHLEN, Melinda DILLON, Paul LIEBER, Heather GRAHAM, Boyd KESTNER, James LANCASTER, Geoffrey BLAKE, Brian KEITH, Heather CAMILLE, Thom ADCOX-HERNANDEZ, David BERON, Pamela SHAFER, Allyce BEASLEY.

In the history of anarchism there was always a religious component. The most important was probably Leo Tolstoy’s, as commented upon and analyzed by Stefan Zweig and Paul Heltzbacher. Some anarchist thinkers proposed even an anarchist Christ. One of them was the Brazilian Anibal Vaz de Mello who authored the essay Cristo, o maior dos anarquistas (Christ, the greatest anarchist). Among the Christians there are some Catholics who did not disdain anarchism, and one of them was the French philosopher Emmanuel Mounier who launched the movement called “Personalism”. While in his country his theories remained purely intellectual, in the United States they were translated into every day life. The link was Peter Maurin, who is one of the key characters in this film, although not a very appealing one. Was he in real life as elusive, ambiguous and, frankly, uninspiring as he is presented in this film?

The central character becomes instead Dorothy Day, a courageous, combative, devoted, intelligent woman who became one of the pillars of what is known as the Catholic Worker movement.

I first discovered this movement in the late fifties corresponding from Switzerland with the author of the Memoirs of a Catholic Anarchist, Ammon Hennacy.

He was very adamant in his letters: he did not take too seriously the typical American anarchist who would only talk and do nothing. The Catholic Anarchists, instead, refused to pay taxes or to be drafted. They practiced civil disobedience, non-collaboration with the State and non violence. They lived in community, practiced solidarity with the poor and the pariahs, rejected hierarchy, were vegetarians, etc.. He started sending me their newspaper (sold symbolically for a penny!) The Catholic Worker where, side to side, I could look at the effigies of St. Francis and Kropotkin, St. Anthony and Sacco and Vanzetti. When, much later, I arrived in the United States, Ammon Hennacy had passed away and it was not until 1979 that I contacted the Catholic Workers to invite them to participate in the organization of The First International Symposium on Anarchism at Lewis and Clark in February 1980. Dorothy Day could not come herself (she was already very ill and died that same year) but Father Gneuhs came instead. So, after all, Ammon Hennacy was right: there were anarchist priests (and nuns) as he affirmed in his correspondence. Locally, we dealt with Johnny Baransky (a poet and a conscientious objector) and his wife Judy, who became an active collaborator in our initiative. We found out, then, that they both had to serve jail time for trespassing (on military property) but they were allowed to do it alternatively so that one parent could take care of the children while the other was in prison.

I took the liberty to introduce so many elements foreign to the film because I wanted to stress the fact that the Catholic Worker is a very serious movement composed of wonderful devoted people, committed to all pacifist, libertarian, ecological and social causes. Its anarchist side does not appear in this film. On the contrary, the only two anarchist characters are not shown in good light: the dramatist Eugene O’Neill is presented as a dypsomaniac bum, while Forster Betterham, Dorothy Day’s last lover and father of her daughter sounds like a selfish individualist who loves her but escapes any kind of commitment.

Perhaps was it naive to expect from the Paulists that they would underscore the anarchist component of the Catholic Worker that bothers the Church hierarchy so much. This process of expurgation is not new. We can mention the example of Ammon Hennacy’s Autobiography of a Catholic Anarchist, which in its more recent editions became simply The Book of Ammon.

Despite these restrictions, the film is still beautiful and powerful. It inspires nice feelings: it shows how beauty, intelligence and culture may become irrelevant in the face of the wide array of the problems that need solving in the world: hunger, prejudice, oppression, patriarchy, injustice, vice. We feel that even if we are poor, we are not too poor to share with those who are complete pariahs in society. Even if we try to be humble, we still are prey to our ego. In front of “holiness” one never feels at ease. It does not matter if the message is not anarchist, if the message is merely Christian: it is a powerful message that we can understand, like, share.

Let’s hope that some Pope will not canonize Dorothy Day for even if she was inspired by “divinity” she worked for “humanity”.

Pietro Ferrua

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