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Putting your hand to the Plough, with Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dorothy Day

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 14, 2017 | In Reviews

Plough Publishing House is a Christian publisher focused primarily on a particular subset of Christian concerns: Solidarity with the poor, non-violence, the gospel of life, and simple Christian living. While Plough has published a number of authors famous in other contexts (from C. S. Lewis to Fyodor Dostoevsky and from Dietrich von Bonhoeffer to Alice von Hildebrand), their home-grown crops tend to be advocates for peace, justice and Christian homesteading. In the main, they are not Catholics.

Historically there is a definite German connection. Some Plough founders were also founders or active members of the Bruderhof Communities launched in Germany in 1920. There are now twenty-three of these pacifist communitarian settlements around the world. In oppositional circles, these have been characterized as cults featuring an essentially charismatic authority structure. Most of their beliefs trace back to the Anabaptists of sixteenth-century Germany, who were distinguished doctrinally by their denial of the validity of infant baptism.

This German connection also explains the interest in Christian resistance to Hitler, but Plough Publishing has a decidedly ecumenical focus. For example, they have published the prison meditations of the Jesuit Alfred Delp, who was a major figure in the plans to couple an assassination of Hitler with a responsible transition using officials already in place who were secretly committed to Catholic social teaching. And yet Plough is just as likely to publish the works of more bizarre priests, such as the activist-first Daniel Berrigan or the more contemporary ex-Jesuit John Dear, who rejects the Catholic understanding of just war.

It’s an odd mix, and a mix which will never garner more than a partial sympathy among most readers of I mention Plough today, however, because the last two books sent to me for review are collections of writings by two very unusual but passionate Catholics, the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (English, 1844-1889) and the unsinkable Dorothy Day (American, 1897-1980). The former was chosen, I believe, because he was widely regarded as a failure while he lived, yet is now considered a giant among Christian men of letters. But Plough needs no explanation for the latter. Dorothy Day’s life-long advocacy of the poor and downtrodden in her Catholic Worker Movement, when combined with a life of ascetic simplicity, puts her at the center of Plough’s wheelhouse.

The impeccable Catholic orthodoxy of both figures does not trouble Plough. Their project emphasizes a direct Christian simplicity which, while admirable as far as it goes, does not grasp the importance of the Magisterium of the Church, which alone can prevent Christian simplicity from becoming a caricature of itself, latching on to queer beliefs and habits that are nothing to the purpose, and cutting themselves off from effective witness to others in the world. On the other hand, as far as effective witness goes, those of us who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

The reader can, of course, expect selections which match the publisher’s priorities. Nonetheless, we have here two collections of considerable interest to Catholics:

  • Dorothy Day, The Reckless Way of Love: Notes on Following Jesus: This little and appropriately inexpensive book showcases snippets from a wide variety of Day’s writings, 141 brief passages, most less than a page long, grouped thematically in sections entitled “A Way of Faith”, “A Way of Love”, and so on for Prayer, Life, and Community.
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selections from His Poems, Letters, Journals, and Spiritual Writings: This book is perhaps more historical and less immediately inspiring, but because of its subject it is intellectually deeper, and certainly linguistically more interesting! It boasts a foreword by Dana Gioia, himself a widely-known Catholic poet, and it is divided into appropriate periods of Hopkins’ life, featuring his poetry from each period along with selected letters, journal entries, sermons and spiritual writings.

You may already know that Dorothy Day’s cause for canonization is slowly but actively progressing. My guess is that she will, in the end, be both beatified and canonized. The same might well be said of Hopkins one day. It is relevant, I am quite sure, that both of these powerfully Catholic figures had their share of interior discouragement. Their dark nights were not as severe as Mother Teresa’s, but they were enough to prompt impressive spiritual growth, learning to love not the consolations God sends, but God Himself. We should be thankful that Plough has transplanted into its own garden such exotic yet incomparably hardy Catholic blooms!

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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