I'm so sorry but: Dorothy Dayvid Foster Wallace
"There might not be angels, but there are people who might as well be angels."
-David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest
I have a joke that I tell sometimes that I basically stole from a priest. I was at a parish soup kitchen volunteering - that's not a flex, I have volunteered once in the past decade, I'm a moral failure just like everyone else - and the priest who ran the thing was explaining how things worked shortly before we opened up for dinner, where everything was, what to expect. And he told us not to be apprehensive about serving the city's poor, because there was nothing to be afraid of, everybody was lovely and nobody was going to give us a hard time or anything. Because they knew, the priest continued, that if there were any problems, they could get kicked out of the soup kitchen. If something really bad happened, they might even get banned permanently. "In fact," the priest continued with a grin, "tonight you'll likely be serving some folks that we've permanently banned three, maybe four times."
I tell a different version of the joke that goes like this: I have permanently left the Catholic church four different times.
In Loaves and Fishes, Dorothy Day's 1963 memoir of the Catholic Worker movement, she talks about one of the residents of her New York house of hospitality:
"Mr. Breen is someone we will not soon forget. A former newspaperman, his talk was filled with words like 'kikes', 'dinges', and 'dagos', and he prided himself on his family background, education, and penmanship. His wife and children had all died, and at the age of seventy he found himself destitute, living in the municipal lodging house. There were thousands being sheltered there that winter; Mr. Breen's greatest affliction was having to share the hospitality of the city with Negroes. He had been put off home relief because he was always threatening the investigators with his cane. He was beaten up one night at the lodging house (age is no protection there) for his racist attitudes. Wandering around the next morning, he discovered us."
An old, violent racist stumbled into the radical hospitality of Day's Catholic Worker movement. He saw God's grace and mercy firsthand, served up by a woman currently being considered by the Vatican for sainthood. And guess what: he became even worse.
"Mr. Breen's racism was not long in showing itself. It caused us difficulties, but it did give us a chance to practice our pacifism. At about the time of his arrival, a Negro had come to us...Mr. Breen took delight in insulting him…Upon my return, Mr. Breen would vent his spleen on me, calling me a 'nigger lover'."
So Breen repeatedly antagonized the other residents of the Catholic Worker house, including the woman running the place. At one point, he almost accidentally sets the place on fire while smoking, and when another resident, a Catholic convert from Judaism, rushes in to put out the fire and save him, "all the while the old man kept beating him off with his cane and calling him a 'god-damn Jew'. But Mr. Freeman saved him anyway." At no point in Day's account does Breen really reckon with his racism, violence, or general pissiness. Based on what I read in Loaves and Fishes, he strikes me as a corrosive presence in the house of hospitality, who basically never improves at any point.
Guess what: he never got kicked out. You can't get kicked out of a Catholic Worker house. He eventually died there, with Day praying the rosary by his side; his dying wish was to leave his cane to Day so that she could "take it and wrap it around the necks of some of these bastards around here."
It's possible - well, it's likely - that Day would have wanted to wrap a cane around people's necks in the course of her ministry. God chose her to work with a lot of people like Mr. Breen, people whom you'd want to strangle sometimes. God did not choose Dorothy Day for this task because she was a model of serenity who was always slow to anger. No, Dorothy Day was a very angry person. It appears that she was an unpleasant person to be around, a lot of the time. Kaya Oakes writes in her recent book The Defiant Middle:
"Scholars of Day have written that she “struggled” with her anger, that it was something she frequently needed to rein in. Catholic Worker Jim Forest, who knew Day in the last decades of her life, writes that her anger was something those around her experienced on a regular basis. When someone complained about her bad temper, she said, “I hold more temper in one minute than you will hold in your entire life.”...She was a woman, and she was angry. All the time. Angry at injustice, angry at politicians, angry at people around her, angry at herself. Dorothy Day’s anger might be dismissed as the same kind of “righteous anger” that has fueled prophets and leaders forever, but because she was part of a religious tradition where patriarchal thinking is so deeply entrenched as to be built into its foundations, her anger is often swept over in favor of focusing on her holiness."
Day was saintly in the sense that she was better at recognizing suffering and responding to it than any of us. But do not let that saintliness blind you to what the Kingdom of God can actually be like. The people who build the Kingdom are not always serene or friendly. The people for whom the Kingdom is built are not always grateful or converted. What you are looking at, with Day's ministry overall and with the story of Mr. Breen as a key example, is almost unbelievably radical. Breen got kicked out of home relief. He got kicked out of a lodging house for getting into a fight. He got kicked out of every part of polite society. But they can't kick you out of the Catholic Worker. Not if you're virulently racist. Not if you hit people. Not if you almost burn the place down. They can't kick you out. The thought doesn't even occur to them, and they don't even want to. You get a place to live and food to eat and people to pray for you, and you can't do anything to stop that unless you up and leave yourself. That is radical hospitality: truly radical not because of who gives it or who receives it, but ultimately because they can't kick you out.
And once again, guess what: a lot of places will kick you out if you say something racist, hit another person, or almost burn the place down. I'd even go so far as to say that most places will do this, and that they probably should. It's kind of how society has to function in most places. What's radical is that Dorothy Day built a place that didn't function like the rest of society. She was an imperfect, person like all of us, but she was capable of love that could build the Kingdom of God, build a home for wretched people who had been kicked out of everywhere else and finally found the one place where they can't kick you out.
That is so radical - I have had day jobs and sung in church choirs and collaborated with leftist organizers and none of them, understandably, work like this - that I could think of very few places where I had ever heard this idea of radical hospitality discussed in these terms at all. Unfortunately for all of you, one of those places was in Infinite Jest.
Sorry to be that guy, but it's true: Infinite Jest is actually a really good novel, one of my all-time favorites. I most recently reread it in 2020, and it is a remarkable window into the world of "living in 2020": people binge-watch streaming TV shows, they order their groceries online for delivery, they deal with polluted air full of toxic fumes, they elect an incompetent former television entertainer as president in an attempt to find a quick fix for their political problems, they're self-conscious about how they look on their webcam conference calls, they see endless sponsored content since streaming services have led to the collapse of traditional advertising, and generally everyone is dealing with crushing feelings of isolation and existential dread and a ceaseless drumbeat of stupid content, and trying to numb themselves any way they can: through drugs and alcohol, through losing themselves in television and movies, through obsessive study of trivial fields, even through misplaced violent nationalism. It's a powerful snapshot of our times, and in many ways is the perfect novel to represent the current era.
But you probably already know the next thing I'm going to say: the author, David Foster Wallace, has been dead for 14 years and wrote Infinite Jest in 1996. The author that wrote stand-ins for Netflix and Zoom and Instacart and SponCon and the Trump presidency and the climate crisis happened to think of all of those things back in the mid-nineties (or even earlier, given that he worked on the novel for years). So in addition to being brilliant and moving, it's also horrifyingly prescient.
But all of that said, it took me five tries to read the damn thing start to finish, and a lot of people try to read the thing and give up, because it's 1100 pages long and, like most of Wallace's work, written in dense hyper-intellectual language full of jargon and punny acronyms and scrambled timelines and nested clauses and hundreds of endnotes. One of the major storylines focuses on a group of young men at a tennis boarding school who talk tennis all the time, talk optics and film theory when they're not talking tennis, and also pass their time playing Eschaton, an advanced-statistics-driven thermonuclear war sim that has the players lobbing tennis balls at each other to simulate A-bombs. It's a lot.
But as you get further into the novel, you start to notice that parts of it actually aren't written in dense Wallace-speak, specifically the parts in the novel's other major storyline, focused on a group of recovering addicts in suburban Boston. These parts of the novel don't feature any futuristic technology or over-educated tennis stars talking in nested digressions. Instead, they're about a group of people who have hit bottom and are trying to stay alive in 1996. Some of them are good people in hard situations, trying their best. Some of them are appalling pieces of shit. One of them is Don Gately, a hulking former demerol addict showing up to every 12-step meeting he can and trying to grow into a leadership position in his halfway house. Gately doesn't really know if he's the right guy to help his fellow addicts since he's short-tempered and once served time for manslaughter and sometimes doesn't really even believe in the twelve steps, but even when he doesn't feel like he's the right guy for the job, he has one piece of advice for the people he meets who are also skeptical about 12-step programs:
"His big plus is he has this ability to convey his own experience about at first hating AA to new House residents who hate AA and resent being forced to go and sit up in nose-pore-range and listen to such improbable cliched drivel night after night. Limp AA looks, at first, and actually limp it sometimes really is, Gately tells the new residents, and he says no way he’d expect them to believe on just his say-so that the thing’ll work if they’re miserable and desperate enough to Hang In against common sense for a while. But he says he’ll clue them in on a truly great thing about AA: they can’t kick you out. Nobody can get kicked out, not for any reason.”
Gately and his fellow addicts live in a world dominated by static and noise where everyone is suffering from loneliness and boredom, and this massive book simulates that static and noise very well - and that's not always super-fun, since it feels an awful lot like our real world right now - but Wallace's profound and moving scenes show AA meetings as an antidote for all of that static, as places of radical hospitality, and as places where they can't kick you out. Even if you think it's all bullshit, and even if you say that. It's the one place they can't kick you out.
“He, Gately, had perked up considerably at 30 days clean when he found he could raise his big mitt in Beginner Meetings and say publicly just how much he hates this limp AA drivel about gratitude and humility and miracles and how he hates it and thinks it’s horseshit and hates the AAs and how they all seem like limp smug moronic self-satisfied shit-eating pricks with their lobotomized smiles and goopy sentiment and how he wishes them all violent technicolor harm in the worst way, new Gately sitting there spraying vitriol, wet-lipped and red-eared, trying to get kicked out, purposely trying to outrage the AAs...but so in the meetings the poison would leap and spurt from him, and how but he found out all that these veteran White Flaggers would do as a Group where he like vocally wished them harm was nod furiously in empathetic Identification and shout with maddening cheer ‘Keep Coming!’ and one or two Flaggers with medium amounts of sober time would come up to after the meeting and say how it was so good to hear him share and holy mackerel could they ever Identify with the deeply honest feelings he’d shared and how he’d done them the service of giving them the gift of a real ‘Remember-When’-type experience.”
More than anything in the weird-but-also-very-real future world, the thing from Infinite Jest that I think about the most is a place where they can't kick you out, a place that is supposed to be a refuge from this loud and angry world, a place that, even if you tell them that it's stupid and broken and beyond saving, they cheer for you and identify with you and tell you to Keep Coming.
If you were looking for someone who was carrying on Dorothy Day’s idea of radical hospitality today, a good pick might be Greg Boyle, the Jesuit priest in Los Angeles who ministers to gang members. After getting placed in an East LA parish in the middle of overlapping gang territories, Boyle and his parish started working to develop services like a school, daycare, career counseling, and, eventually, a bakery so that the most at-risk members of the community could have steady employment. These projects eventually grew into Homeboy Industries, which is the largest gang rehabilitation program in the world, one that directly serves the material needs of people who would get kicked out of everywhere else. The people Boyle serves come from prisons and tent cities, they have done bad things in the past, and they sometimes still do the occasional bad thing even after they’ve started working with Boyle. They don’t get kicked out. Boyle is very clear on how God sees the people he serves, as he wrote in his 2010 memoir Tattoos on the Heart:
“"Behold the One beholding you and smiling." It is precisely because we have such an overactive disapproval gland ourselves that we tend to create God in our own image. It is truly hard for us to see the truth that disapproval just does not seem to be part of God's DNA. God is just too busy loving us to have any time left for disappointment.”
Nobody can love as fully and completely as God loves. If we're lucky, we get to something that comes close, for a few people in our lives. But there are a very small number of people who have been able to come closer, to love a lot of people, in a self-sacrificial way that starts to directly build the Kingdom of God here on Earth. Loving that way looks exhausting. It looks so exhausting, in fact, that it seems one way to tell if someone is truly practicing that kind of love is to see if they don’t have much energy left over to worry about who would and wouldn't be worthy of that love, about who should and shouldn't be kicked out of that love.
I think by late 2020, I had basically written my way out of the Catholic church (the rare "reverse Chesterton"). The stuff I had learned writing G.O.T.H.S. made Catholicism too stupid and miserable for me to stick around. Call that the fourth time I had permanently left the Catholic church.
So I took a few months off of writing G.O.T.H.S. because it was just bumming me out too much. It was always a work of anger, but the anger had gotten big enough to overshadow the fun I had writing these pieces.
During those months off, I wrote and self-published a novel called Rosemont. It was fine. But one of the characters in that novel is a Catholic priest who, at one point, says this:
"Let me tell you something about love, okay? Because that's my job. It's my job to fucking understand how God loves people and explain it to those people. Okay? So let me...look, here's how I'm going to put it: they, they, they, they can't kick you out of the City of God. Yeah. Yeah, that's it. They can't kick you out of the City of God. You, you know how many things I've been kicked out of?...and when I say they can't kick you out of the City of God, I'm talking about something truly radical. Like, I'm not saying God loves you regardless of what other people say or think about you, although that's also true, it's certainly true, but I'm saying that regardless of what you do, God's not going to kick you out. I have alienated myself from...well, from a lot of people. And I do not have to change for God to love me. I don't know why. It's not something I can fully process. And that is the nature of that love, one that doesn't require me to change, one that will not kick me out, one that nobody can fully get his head around."
A few months after I stopped writing G.O.T.H.S., I got pulled back in to doing it again, because a couple of stupid things happened in Catholic media that made me even angrier than I had been before. But this time, the anger was focused. This time, I wasn't just writing an essay to say "look at all this stupid stuff, doesn't it make you mad", I was actually in a place where I could articulate why I was angry and why I wanted to demand something better from our church, and I finally had a handle on what that better thing could look like. This happened to be around the same time that a much larger audience started coming to G.O.T.H.S.. That probably wasn't a coincidence.
The last few G.O.T.H.S. pieces were less about being angry and more about how to focus that anger. How we should understand what the church's responsibility is to the suffering, and what happens when they fall short of that responsibility. What messages we can take from the church in a time of global crisis. How we should actually think about the hierarchy, and where power really is in the church. And damn if by writing those pieces, I didn't write my way back into the Catholic church. The rare "double-reverse Chesterton".
But I wanted to do one last piece on the Kingdom of God, and what it is we should really ask for when we ask for something better, and how radical we can try to be in our thinking. I'm not an expert on the Kingdom of God, but I get to grasp a tiny bit of it - of the thing that tells you and me to Keep Coming, of the thing that won't kick you or me out - when I read Dorothy Day or Gregory Boyle or, yeah, even when I read Infinite Jest.
This will be the last G.O.T.H.S. installment, at least for a while. There are a few reasons for that, including the very big reason that there's some life events coming up in the near future that will leave me with much less time to write. I am very grateful for the people who read it and who encouraged me to keep writing it. At the very least, if you have ever felt angry at your church, I hope that reading these essays made you feel a little less alone. You all made me feel a little less alone. Pray for me if you get a chance, okay?
Grift of the Holy Spirit was a series by Tony Ginocchio detailing stories of the weirdest, dumbest, and saddest members of the Catholic church. And with your Spirit.