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September 28, 2011

Catholic Social Thought and Film: "Entertaining Angels"

I am currently teaching a seminar in “Catholic Social Thought and Economic Justice.”  Over the past few years I have re-vamped the syllabus, cutting down the number of topics I try to cover so as to have more time to discuss applications and the mesh with legal topics and structures.  I am increasingly enamored of including film – at the moment, the Dorothy Day story, “Entertaining Angels” (1996, Paulist Pictures, with Martin Sheen); and “Romero” (1989 Paulist Pictures, starring Raul Julia).

Two snapshots of what I am learning from my students’ interaction with “Entertaining Angels”: First, really interesting observations about the tensions and ambiguities in Dorothy Day’s approach to single-mother parenting, as she raised her young daughter in the midst of the somewhat chaotic instability of the first Catholic worker house.  This brought us into a fascinating discussion of how one’s commitment to working for justice (or any cause) impacts those closest; and how you think through those choices.  It also gave me a glimpse of how much anxious pressure this generation feels to create an “ideal” setting for their children – which is making me think that as we move into Laborem Exercens I need to give some significant space to talking through a concept of “vocation” (both personal and professional) which allows plenty of room for human limitations, failures and frailty – as well as plenty of room (and permission) to work through the inevitable sufferings of life.

Second, there’s a fabulous culminating scene in which Day emerges from her own dark night in the community’s founding – which included tensions over whether to focus on the dissemination of ideas through the paper; or the day-to-day direct work with the extremely vulnerable and demanding homeless and poor.  The turning point is through Day’s an encounter with Maggie, the alcoholic prostitute who was attempting to steal the community’s rent money.  In response to Maggie’s sobs, “hit me,” Day responds: “I can see the light in you . . . the courage and the love … You are very beautiful . . . I love you.”  What emerged in the class discussion was how this resolved the seeming tension between “contact” and “concepts” - as Peter-Hans Kolvenbach put in in his 2000 talk on the promotion of justice in Jesuit higher education -– “solidarity is learned through ‘contact’ rather than through ‘concepts.’”  For me, Day’s “I can see the light in you” – leading to an attraction to the beauty of the encounter with Christ in the other – regardless of their external circumstances – captures what it means to find a powerful synthesis in a vision that fully contains both. 

Posted by Amy Uelmen on September 28, 2011 at 09:46 AM in Uelmen, Amy | Permalink

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"Entertaining Angels" was an awful movie that should not substitute for a thoughtful discussion and critique of Day, her movement, and her family life choices. Life in a Catholic Worker is not like that.

Posted by: Dan | Sep 28, 2011 9:54:46 AM

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