Vintage Saints and Sinners is about the presence of God in the places that we least expect. With humility and grace, author Karen Wright Marsh’s book challenges the popular idea that saints are perfect people. By reflecting on experiences from her faith and the real lives of historical people of faith, she provides a reminder that saints and sinners are one and the same. Read the excerpt below:
Nobody triggers a guilt trip quite like Dorothy Day.
As a little girl, Dorothy was drawn to the saints of her Catholic tradition, those noble people who ministered to the sick and suffering. But something really bothered her. Why this determined energy toward softening the effects of evil? Why not change the social systems that caused the suffering? Some saints ministered to slaves, but why not do away with slavery itself? she asked.
Well, if gentle, pious Christians weren’t going to actually change the world, then Dorothy would do it without them. After college she threw herself into progressive politics, marched with pacifists and was arrested with suffragettes. She wrote for socialist newspapers. Among Marxists, pacifists, anarchists, and atheists in bohemian Greenwich Village, the activist life energized her. But after some time had passed, worn out by an affair with a married man, an abortion, and a failed marriage, Dorothy ended up out on a Staten Island beach, living in an unheated fisherman’s shack with Forster Batterham, the man she loved. Forster was an honest, independent atheist who could never concede to the “empty form” of a legal marriage license. The couple wrote and worked and walked for miles each day, absorbing the brisk beauty of the world around them.
Dorothy felt the pull of the Spirit there; she wrote in her journal, “I am surprised that I am beginning to pray daily.” But Forster was incensed by the very notion of religion, so Dorothy kept her prayers to herself. Out on the beach, Dorothy sang the “Te Deum,” the ancient hymn of praise to God who fills the earth with glory. As she swept the cottage, she improvised devotions. She murmured the Lord’s Prayer as she walked to the post office.
Marx’s old phrase “Religion is the opiate of the people” interrupted Dorothy’s thoughts, and yet praise of God came to her unbidden. She was praying out of simple, natural happiness. When she gave birth to a daughter she named Tamar, Dorothy’s joy was complete. The final object of this love and gratitude, she knew, was God.
When I think of Dorothy Day the public crusader, I’m intimidated by her extreme acts of mercy. Here on the beach I meet a different woman, a young mother who walks along the water’s edge, picking up shells to show her baby. This Dorothy is simply praying, praying with thanksgiving, praying with her eyes wide open to the sight of fishermen on the beach, to the sunset, the waves, the screaming, snowy gulls. I too have scooped up a child smelling of salt and felt pure gratitude. Perhaps I really have dismissed Dorothy too easily.
Taken from Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh. ©2017 by Karen Wright Marsh. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-1426.
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