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Preface to "The Autobiography of a Catholic Anarchist" by Ammon Hennacy - Catholic Worker odds & ends
June 14th, 2007
03:33 pm


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Preface to "The Autobiography of a Catholic Anarchist" by Ammon Hennacy
Father Vincent McNabb, the great Dominican of England who died a few years ago, said once in an essay which dealt with first principles, that in regard to work, St. Peter could return to his nets and fishing after Good Friday, but St. Matthew, the tax gatherer, could not return to his occupation. It was not an honorable one, this service of Caesar. St. Hilary said that the less we had of Caesar's the less we would have to render to him.

It is a good day to write this introduction to the autobiography of Ammon Hennacy, the Catholic anarchist whose anarchism means that he will also seek to govern himself rather than others, that he " will be subject to every living creature" rather than to the State, that he will so try to abound in goodness and service, love of God and fellows, that for "such there is no law." His is the liberty of the children of God, the brothers of Christ. His love of freedom means that he has put himself in bondage to hard manual labor for a lifetime, not to build up a place for himself in this world where he has no lasting city, but in order to fulfill the law of God. and earn his living by the sweat of his brow rather than the sweat of somebody else's. His love of peace means rejection of the great modern State, and obedience to the needs of his immediate community and to the job. His refusal to pay Federal income taxes does not mean disobedience since he is ready and has always proved himself ready to go to jail, to accept the alternative for his convictions. He is open and frank in his dealings with all men and far from skulking and hiding in fear, he proclaims his point of view by letter, by article, by picketing, and by public fasting. Many of his tax statements appear in this book and many an account of his picketings. He has done it so often now since the last war, that his fellow workers, David Dellinger and I, have begged him to condense, to combine, to shorten, not only to save paper and type, but also to save the reader. He has not done much of it, it is true. The book, from the standpoint of writing is a sprawling, discursive affair, written in spare moments, between hours of manual labor, or traveling or talking to visitors in THE CATHOLIC WORKER office. But he has the genius of the true teacher. If it is necessary to repeat, he repeats, and perhaps when he has repeated his fast in penance for Hiroshima, repeated his picketing, repeated his statement forty times, forty days, he will have put on Christ to such an extent that people will see more clearly Christ in him, and follow more in his steps. That is our job here, to put on Christ to such an extent that people will see more clearly Christ in him, and follow more in his steps. That is our job here, to put on Christ, and to put off the old man, so I am not talking of an excessively religious person, an unbalanced person when I talk of Ammon so living that year by year, he "puts on Christ." We are told by our Lord Jesus, after all, to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, not just as St. Francis, St. Benedict, St. Dominic are perfect.

Ammon has not always been a Catholic, though there is the Catholic strain a few generations back. Surrounded by upright Protestants from his earliest years, he was always struck by the divergence between belief and practice. He distrusted the emotionalism of religious belief too. So it was in his earliest years that he rejected religious belief. He love his fellows, He loved this good world which God made, though he was not thinking of it as a created world, then, but as something which had evolved. He loved and longed for the good, and he felt the solidarity of man. He knew that an injury to one is an injury to all, so he early had a sense of the Body of Christ, of which we all are a part, potentially, or actually. He served Christ, though he denied Him.

This service took him to the Socialist Party, to an opposition to war, which brought him to prison. The story of his prison days will rank, I think,with the great writings of the world about prison. He had nothing to read there but the Bible, and he turned to that with an anxious, hungry mind, a mind that was tortured by inactivity. Ironically enough, in this so-called Christian country, when the guards saw his avid interest in the Bible, they replaced the one he had, which had good type, with a small type edition. Prison, after all, is to punish men, not to bring them to penitence.

A penitentiary is a place of darkness, not of light these days of man's cruelty to man. But Ammon saw light, lived in light, those days of his solitary confinement in Atlanta Penitentiary, so great a light, Monsignor Hillen-brand once said to me, that it seemed to blind him. He got no further for the time, than an acceptance of rel-igion and the Sermon on the Mount. He came out of prison a philosophical anarchist like Tolstoy, in rebellion still against Church and State.

I always remember these words of Monsignor Hillenbrand because they were to me encouraging words. Ammon, in his articles, sometimes blasted organized religion, as he called it, in such a way as to belabor the Church, Holy Mother Church, and that hurt me as though the blows fell on my own body, as indeed they did. Organized religion was one thing, but the Church was another. I tried to moderate these strong statements of his so that he would be attacking what needed to be attacked, the human element in the Church. But if it had not been for Monsignor Hillenbrand's deep understanding and encouragement at the time (and the monsignor is not a pacifist nor an anarchist by any means, though a great lover of freedom) I would perhaps been dis-couraged from publishing so many of Ammon's articles. For by that time, Ammon was a regular contributor to THE CATHOLIC WORKER, of which I am editor. Every month his article came in, and every month I am sure, each of us members of the staff were shamed by his consistency, his true life of poverty and hard work, his utterly consistent pacifism.

He loved peace, he worked for peace, and he did not do any work which contributed to war. From the time of the second draft, he worked at the back-breaking labor of an agricultural migrant. He worked in dairies, and when the withholding tax meant that he would be contributing, though unwillingly, to the war budget, he went farther west and south and did day labor, collecting his pay in advance, so that no Treasury agent could catch up with him. And with the strange inconsistency of us Americans, army men, tax men, were among those who hired him, and with the understanding that they would help him evade paying income tax.He has led this life of daily labor for many years now. The community around Phoenix, Arizona has come more and more to accept him. Their hostility has grown into love and friendship. Like Gandhi, he call all men his brothers, wherever they many be, in castles and hovels, in banks or on skid row. He is what he is attempting to be, a one-man revol-ution.

Ammon was baptized on the Feast of St. Gregory the Wonder Worker, 1952, by Father Marion Casey of the diocese of St. Paul, Minnesota. He is typically mid-western, tall, lank, long-nosed and long-faced with a thin mouth and warm eyes, enduring rather than strong. He is the average American, and as pioneers have done before him, he stands pretty much alone. Next year he will transfer his activities to Denver, the capital of the West, where the President has his summer White House. He will begin again to picket, to fast, to work at hard labor in new surroundings, reaching the man in the street by going to the man in the street. He will still be an editor of THE CATHOLIC WORKER, an editor continually on pilgrimage, a roving editor, doing the work, the speaking, the writing that he can do while he earns his living by the sweat of his brow.

And what is he accomplishing in this one-man revolution of his? Does he expect to change the world? When asked this last question once he said with characteristic wit. "I may not change the world, but I'll work so that the world won't change me."

He told me a story the other day about a Chinese family who were digging a salt mine. The father did not expect to get the work done in his lifetime; the son did not expect to get it done in his; and perhaps the grand-son did not expect to get it done in his, but if they kept at it, one day it would get done.

Ammon is a man of vision, of which there are too few. Sometimes he may seem to be hoping against hope but I prefer to remember that other quotation of Saint Paul's. He has the charity that "rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things." Let us pray that he will abound in charity which "never falleth away, whether prophesies shall be made void or tongues shall cease or knowledge shall be destroyed." God bless him.

Dorothy Day
The Feast of St. Matthew, 1953

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