Messy as Hell

Posted on October 11th, by nicholas in catholic, church, creativity, events, writing. 16 comments

Messy as Hell

{in this piece, writer and activist Stephanie Kornexl talks about writing, Dorothy Day, and living the Incarnation}

For several months I worked at an urban downtown church allocating state ID vouchers to those in need and overseeing a soup kitchen for working poor and homeless men and women.  Each day I pulled into the back alley of the church to my office, and more often than not, I had a guest awaiting my arrival at the door.  Some were street people who came to ask for loose change or cigarettes, and others were distressed travelers seeking a bus ticket home or simply a pair of shoes. There were also the regulars who came to “boloney alley” who would hang around in hopes of catching a sympathetic ear to whom they could relinquish their stories.

As the sole person responsible for overseeing the direct social outreach, many of my days were filled with challenges.  Within a split second, I often had to decide whether or not I should step-in to calm an escalating fight among lunch guests or allow a heavily intoxicated man through the door.  Occasionally I was faced with some peculiar challenges, like the time I was charged with cleaning up after a lunch guest whose colostomy bag burst open in the dining hall during the peak of the lunch hour.  The day was so hot and the smell so nauseating that it cleared out the room instantaneously.

But there were also those challenges that, not only came as a shock but that were maddening and downright messy as hell.  They were the ones that broke my patience and left me seething and in tears.  Such was the occasion the day I watched a man erupt into a violent rampage, overturning trash cans and attacking five unsuspecting people before he was tazed to the ground by police.

In the aftermath I remember holding an ice pack to the man’s bloodied and broken jaw, feeling equal parts enraged and saddened that bystanders stood at a distance and gawked but didn’t step forward to offer any assistance.

On days like those, I went home disillusioned by people and skeptical of the Christian notion that the poor were in some way blessed.  I was convinced instead that the world and everyone in it had gone crazy.  But what is probably closer to the truth is that I was ashamed of myself for what I felt were overwhelming personal and spiritual failures.

As it turns out, I was in good company.  In my greatest moments of despair, I drew hope from the writings of one woman who has taught me the most about what it means to live, write, and persevere as a female layperson in the Church—the legendary Catholic social activist and writer, Dorothy Day.

“Life itself is a haphazard, untidy, messy affair,” she wrote in her autobiographical book, The Long Loneliness, in which she recounts her conversion to Catholicism and life of activism.  Dorothy is most well known for her tireless advocacy throughout the 20th century on behalf of workers’ rights, peace and justice issues, and the dignity of the poor, voiceless and forgotten in society.  As the editor of the national Catholic Worker newspaper and co-founder of its resulting movement, she devoted her life to work that manifested her belief in the Gospel.  Many times her prophetic voice was met with opposition, and her life was marked by endless trials and frustrations, both political and spiritual.  With deep candor she often recalls in her writings the struggles and the messiness that so frequently accompanied her life’s work and passion.

In one of her journal entries from her posthumously published diary The Duty of Delight she confessed to her disappointments in the face of overwhelming demands: “People talk so much about the meaning of life and the work is to grow in love, love of God our destination, and love of neighbor, our first step, our continuing step, our right road in that direction.  Love means answering all the mail that comes in—and there is a fearful amount of it.  That person in the hospital, that person suffering a breakdown of nerves, the person lonely; far-off, watching for the mailman each day.  It means loving attention to those around us, the youngest and the oldest (the drunk and the sober).”

In Dorothy I had (and have) found a spiritual companion, someone for whom “messiness” is not a foreign concept, which is an immense comfort to anyone who finds themselves disillusioned by the task of imitating the Gospel.  But I have also found her to be an equally encouraging writing mentor who compels me to write about my experiences with a voice that is honest and hopeful, even in spite of harrowing doubts or discouragements. In The Long Loneliness she reflects on writing as both a spiritual discipline and as a means of making a living, and the difficult work that it entails.  “Writing is hard work,” she acknowledged, “But if you want to become a writer you will become one. Nothing will stop you.”  I only have to reread those words and I’m consoled whenever I grow frustrated that my words fall short in capturing the fullness of the realities I desperately strive to convey.

I’ve learned that no one escapes life, or the writing process, unscathed by frustrations, and even heartache.  

In trying to love others through our encounters in the Church and in the street, we trudge through varying degrees of messiness.

But for the writer the messiest encounter is the encounter with one’s self, because in creating and trying to reveal ourselves through prose we discover that we aren’t very different from the mess we see in others—the drunk man on the street, the person with the exploding colostomy bag, the begger, the addict, the broken woman in a domestic violence shelter, the idle bystander on the street, the would-be saint Dorothy Day…

Dorothy Day has taught me to not only embrace the people and the messiness I encounter, but to continue persevering, even when all attempts at loving, writing and serving others seem futile:  “People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.”  Indeed, truly there is much work to be done.

Stephanie Kornexl lives in Louisville, KY. In addition to being an antler intern, she works in ministry and studies theology at St. Meinrad.

image credit

16 Responses to “Messy as Hell”

  1. Mary says:

    Encouraging post! I got chills reading about your experiences. Keep up the good work. You definitely gave me something to think about…especially in my daily struggles, working in a school and feeling like I can’t give the kids all that they need.

  2. Ben says:

    Oh my God, I love this! It’s written from such a humble perspective!

  3. dave says:

    mary and ben–thanks for your comments! great to hear it resonates! feel free to share with your friends and contact us!

  4. Agnes says:

    Stephanie, what a moving post: thank you! I couldn’t agree more with your statement: “But for the writer the messiest encounter is the encounter with one’s self, because in creating and trying to reveal ourselves through prose we discover that we aren’t very different from the mess we see in others” It takes courage to look in the mirror and recognize “the other” in the image that stares back at us.If you have a chance, listen to Mike Scott’s “Wonderful Disguise”.

  5. Sue says:

    Thanks for reminding us that we don’t have time to feel sorry for ourselves and that we need to continue to work daily to bring love and support to others.

  6. great post! U hit the nail right on the head. Life is super messy ;and if we as a people, are going to live life at all, we need to accept this aweful but relevant fact that life is not perfect.

  7. Stephanie says:

    Thanks to all of you for your comments and insights! I very much appreciate the feedback.

  8. George Kaissieh says:

    Your style of writing is captivating. You are an artist who uses her words to sketch a picture that is so real, and painful. Please never stop writing!

  9. Beth says:

    I think there are a lot of people who feel as though they are disconnected in ways only until reading an article,book, etc. that there are people in similar states. Sometimes it is not a “good job!” that we need as encouragement, but rather a “yep, it’s messy as hell” agreement we need. Thanks for lending your voice.

  10. Janet says:

    Keep on writing despite the messiness!!

  11. Mark says:

    What Stephanie writes goes beyond the writer needing to be honest and hopeful, even in spite of doubts. It applies to all of us who seek to live a life led by faith. This does create a messy life, one that is at times harrowing, but one that is also interrupted by grace.

  12. Elegant and evocative prose! Better than most homilies. You’ve shined a theological light on intense personal experience. I especially love your observation that, for the writer, “the messiest encounter is the encounter with one’s self, because in creating and trying to reveal ourselves through prose we discover that we aren’t very different from the mess we see in others.”
    Wish that quote would fit on a bumper sticker!
    Thank you, Stephanie!

  13. Daniel M says:

    Very motivating to say the least. A true humility check if ever in doubt about your standing in life. Keep pulling from where this is coming from!

  14. Stephanie says:

    Much appreciated, Daniel. Thank you for reading and commenting!

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