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My Catholic Worker Community

Michael Armstrong
Network, Spring/Summer 2005

I have lived with bipolar affective disorder for 34 years. I have had a number of housing arrangements, but none can match my present situation with a community known as the Toronto Catholic Worker.

In early 1993, I was exploring various possibilities of community, including with a group known as Covenant Circles. This was a group of gay, male Catholics trying to learn to pray together, and thus enhance relationship and fellowship. I was in recovery from a huge psychotic episode stretching over many months. I was unemployed and on welfare. Most of the men in Covenant Circles were professionals. There was no indication anyone was much interested in me. Fortunately, I kept returning to their meetings long enough to meet William.

William talked to me about the philosophy of his Catholic Worker home. He also, more importantly, invited me to visit their house in downtown Toronto. He helped run the house with two friends, Dan and James. All three of them had been in formation to become Catholic priests but had left, not finding vocation there.

The Catholic Worker movement got started during the 1930s in the Depression in New York City. Peter Maurin, a French Catholic labourer and ‘philosopher of the people,’ had met another radical social justice activist, Dorothy Day. Peter once described their mission as trying to make it easier for people to be good. They provided food, lodging and companionship for various persons in need, castoffs, in society.

Today there are about 180 varieties of Catholic Worker communities in Europe and North America. I knew almost nothing about the movement, but William’s invitation was all I needed to start visiting. I would attend a simple liturgy and soup event each Wednesday. Any labels attached to me as a ‘person living with a mental illness on welfare’ were put aside as they tried to get to know me as another ‘son of God.’ Everyone who came to the liturgy was welcomed, but everyone was also expected to help in the set-up and clean-up around the serving of food. It was about breaking down roles and models of charity.

In 1998, I asked if I could move in. The community had relocated to a series of neighbouring houses owned by a single institution in Parkdale. People have tried to live up to ideals of various religions and spiritualities for millennia. The direction to love one’s neighbour as oneself, including the amazing ‘love your enemy,’ is all easier said than done.

Twice a year, the Workers who were what were called ‘intentional members’ would go away on retreat together to try to hammer out a philosophy for living together. Everyone had a voice. We tried to have consensus decision-making – this can be agony. But that’s not all. At one retreat, each person’s gifts to the community and to life were named in turn by every other person in attendance. It was humbling and moving beyond words to hear people who had had the experience of living with you long enough to back up their insights using words of love and affirmation.

But, had I put them to the test of living with a bipolar person, when that person was in crisis? Try August 2001. I was in deep psychosis. Circumstances had it that I was alone in my house overnight. Two community members slept on the floor to keep tuned to my doings during the night. About 3 a.m., Alayna heard me active in the kitchen. She gently engaged me in conversation, and when I expressed a wish to go to hospital, she went along in the ambulance.

I would wait 33 hours for a hospital bed. During the waiting, everyone in the community arranged their lives to make sure someone was with me at all times until admission. I have told this story at public mental health gatherings, and someone once pointed out that this example of the Catholic Worker exercising neighbourliness is hard to copy. Neighbours, if they ‘interfered’ with a neighbour in crisis, could be sued, she thought. What a sad commentary on the possibility of community!

In the Catholic Worker, supportive housing is not enough if it means rigid rolekeeping between caregiver and client. I have a small room in one of the houses, but I am not living with people who hardly know me or, more to the point, don’t really want to get to know me. I am not warehoused. Regarding the current mantra in mental health about ‘a job, a home and a friend,’ I have all three, with special emphasis on ‘home.’

Twice a week the main hospitality house holds dinners opened to the neighbourhood. Whoever walks through the door is welcomed. Beyond the existential loneliness of each of us, I do not fear abandonment as I grow older. As Dan put it to me recently, ‘We shall look after each other as the years unfold.’ As renters we are vulnerable to losing our housing. Hopefully, we can manage to remain reasonably together. Some of our dinner visitors show signs of deep loneliness. But Dorothy Day’s autobiography is called, after all, The Long Loneliness.

Our culture does not allow mental patients to slip in and out of employment very easily. Our incomes always hover on the edge of impossibility. I am at high risk, theoretically, for a dismal old age. I have faith and trust that I need not worry about this. That is what living in the Toronto Catholic Worker community has done for me.

Michael Armstrong, BA, LLB, is a writer and public educator. He is the author of Stable in Bedlam: A Journey to Jesus through Insanity (Balliol Press, 2002).

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