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Madonnas & Children

From Mother to Daughter to Granddaughter—A Legacy of Spirituality, Service, and Peace Activism

By Martha Hennessy Originally appeared in the Winter 2023 edition of the Clerestory.

Martha Hennessy, American peace activist and member of the Catholic Worker movement, visited with the community. She was in Lisle to screen the film Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story and give a lecture at Benedictine University. Hennessy is the granddaughter of Dorothy Day—founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Benedictine Oblate of St. Procopius, and candidate for sainthood in the Catholic Church. The following are reflections Hennessy shared one evening about her upbringing and spirituality.

My visit to St. Procopius in September of 2022 was a blessed respite from a busy world of family, travel, community life, and a recent prison experience. I have a large family. I travel a lot to speak about peace, the immorality of war, drones, and poverty. Often I visit and work at Mary House, the original Catholic Worker House of my grandmother, Dorothy Day, “Granny” as we called her. Moreover, I protest the possibility of the unthinkable — the possession of and the use of nuclear weapons — a topic for which I spent time in prison, and am still under supervision.

The silence and daily prayer schedule of the abbey rejuvenated my soul and spirit in subtle yet overwhelming ways. Praise be to God for this oasis of sustained prayer and constant devotion to His promise of Christ with us. The monks were delightful company, given these times of tumult and the spiritual challenges of a secular world. The Abbey, surrounded by old oak trees and fields full of wildlife, provide a sanctuary for people and creatures alike. It is sad to see both St. Procopius Abbey and Sacred Heart Monastery communities shrinking as the Catholic Church also is in the United States.

This kind of community living, with ora et labora—prayer and work—are so needed in these times. Maybe this is the same type of deep prayer that Granny experienced when she visited the monks in 1940 and then again at her oblation in 1955 in New York City.

While in the chapel and in my room at the abbey I often prayed my favorite prayer.

I am from Vermont where I have spent a lifetime with family, self-sufficiency farming, and work as an occupational therapist. My grandchildren are now growing up where I and my children, who were born here, grew up. What a blessing this small plot of land has been over the years. I am so grateful to my parents, David and Tamar, for finding and moving to this precious place in 1957.

As a child, I associated the image of the Madonna and Child with all mothers and children. I feel a direct link to the Blessed Mother through my mother and grandmother. We would say the short version of the Rosary at bedtime as we young children settled down for the night. Dorothy would add a list of those we were currently praying for in our family and community. The Divine Feminine at the heart of the Church is always with me.

It is a hard lesson as I to continue to learn about my baptism and its relevance in my life over the years. Reading the Gospel teachings was difficult while attempting to connect them to my current way of living. Dorothy’s conversion as an adult, after giving birth to my mother, is a very powerful story. Tamar was raised Catholic, unlike Dorothy, and there is a big difference. I feel a sense of having both experiences, raised Catholic yet rather unchurched, returning through an adult conversion, and possessing “baptized eyes” for a clearer understanding of the practice of my faith. I saw how Dorothy practiced the values of social justice, but as an adolescent I became uncomfortable with her piety. It took many years for me to begin to see that her faith was the foundation of her lifetime’s work for social justice.

Christianity in the United States takes on a whole different meaning when we study Dorothy’s life. Of course, the core lesson is how to overcome the rancor, the war in our own hearts if we pursue our own desires, and self- will without heed to the small voice of God giving us direction and grace. We are called to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Then there were the Benedictine influences that Dorothy practiced and passed down to her family. We come to see that there is a demand within a balanced tension amid the paradoxes of life. I witnessed this in both Dorothy’s and Tamar’s lives as they coped with family life, community living, the giving of oneself to others, along with self-care. Living and acting in a lay movement with all the varied roles required of these two women was astounding. They gave an example of obedience to life that is God-given as we find and practice our own vocations. The charism of ora et labora is such a practical approach—do what is needed at hand, do it with humility and prayerfully, and God will do the rest! Experiencing work as prayer makes everyday life sacred.

The Benedictine value of stability, the giving of one’s life over to others, putting our lives into the hands of God, was very clear in both Dorothy’s and Tamar’s lives. Even the enduring of a failed married life that brings incredible family instability was handled by them gracefully. Dorothy’s perseverance in her work, and Tamar’s consistency in our Vermont home life, were such gifts.

Dorothy’s belief in the power (priesthood) of the laity was a fine example for many of us. To be willing to self-initiate the works of mercy with Gospel teachings to guide us carried immense power and a leap of faith. God will provide if we give our “yes!” to Him.

I was told to pay attention to the suffering of others, to care and act on the part of the most vulnerable. We learned of the imperative of the dignity of work, choosing work for the common good to realize a better social order—to find one’s vocation, as I did with occupational therapy and also with nursing for several of our family members.

Another spiritual theme envisioned in my family was that of self-sacrifice. Giving birth, bringing a child into the world with a lifelong commitment of caring for that child is one of woman’s greatest acts. The literal sharing of one’s body, oneself, through motherhood is a miracle. Dorothy’s giving birth to Tamar is what set her on the road to a living joy with God. Her exaltation led to this incredible expression of the Catholic Worker movement as becoming one body in Christ. My definition of family was stretched far beyond simply biological. We came to experience the Catholic Worker community as extended family with all the joy and humor, the difficulties and rewards. We learned that everyone has a gift to contribute.

Both Dorothy and Tamar had an uncanny ability to read others, to hold an awareness of others’ needs, to maintain a capacity for long-term relationships, and to hold onto one another no matter what. Still, I felt a certain loneliness in them and in myself despite being with others— this sharing of life. For them there remained an appreciation for solitude, for a contemplative life among all the business of the day, and to maintain a quite listening.

Dorothy had a sensual love of ritual and the beauty of the Mass. She loved to visit old churches, enjoyed religious art, and studied and celebrated the lives of the saints. I grew up with beautiful religious art, icons, paintings, stained glass pieces, and statues.

Tamar gave me a love of nature, gardening, animal husbandry, and an awareness of being frugal. She taught me the manual arts of spinning, knitting, and weaving. Working with one’s hands for creativity and self sufficiency is a blessing.

From childhood I was exposed to hospitality, the healing arts, and the sharing and retaining of faith, hope, and love. Seeing the divine in the ordinary enriches our lives exponentially. The lessons of tolerating failure, both personal and institutional, are invaluable. We learn that we don’t condemn people forced into participating in flawed systems, we try to live an alternative, and set a good example as best we can.

The message of our nonviolent Jesus, especially in the face of modern war and weapons, rang out loud and clear from both my mother and grandmother. Pacifism is a necessity and truth of Christian life. There is no just war with modern weapons; the killing is indiscriminate. Dorothy maintained this stance despite the personal cost during numerous wars in her lifetime. As a Catholic in the United States, an empire nation, she carried a leadership that helped to save the soul of the Church in the face of the nuclear era.

I conclude from a Dorothy Day Reading | Meditations—May 1941, Manual Labor

“We should write more about manual labor. It’s another one of the foundation stones of the work, of the social edifice we are trying to build. Manual labor, voluntary poverty, works of mercy, these are means of reaching the workers and learning from them, and teaching them. Besides inducing cooperation, besides overcoming barriers, and establishing the spirit of brotherhood (besides just getting things done), manual labor enables us to use our bodies as well as our hands, our minds. Our bodies are made to be used, just as they are made to be respected as temples of the soul. God took on our human flesh and became man. He shared our human nature. He rose from the dead and His disciples saw the wounds in His hands, His feet and His side. They saw His body, that it was indeed a body still. He was not a disembodied spirit. We believe in the resurrection of the body, free from fatigues, from pain and disease and distortion and deformities, a glorified body, a body transfigured by love. All those are reasons for respecting the body, and using it well, not neglecting it by disuse.”


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