Posted by: Bill Tracy | February 4, 2010

Irritatingly Right

Ammon is a prophet, and will walk the streets fasting and calling on man to awaken to the crisis of the time and the part he could play in averting it.

-Dorothy Day

St. Therese of Lisieux

Saint Therese of Lisieux. This is the most intense image I've ever seen of her. Image courtesy: http://chicagoboyz.net/archives/6271.html

“He could try the patience of a saint.” That’s a trite old phrase that so easily passes the lips of countless mothers, teachers, wives, managers, workers and anyone else forced to interact with a challenging person. Few of us know what would really try the patience of a saint. There is a story I’ve loved about St. Therese (of Lisieux) from first I heard it. When they were in the chapel in prayer there was always an old nun behind Therese who constantly rattled her rosaries and knocked them against the back of her pew. This perpetual distraction drove Therese crazy. In the best Catholic tradition, Therese “offered it up” as the nuns used to tell us to do when I was a child, i.e. accept our suffering as an honorific, so to speak, for the greater glory of God. In practice, she did this by being especially nice and helpful to this particular nun who so distressed her. After St. Therese died (at age 24), the offending nun told everyone, “You know, I was her favorite.”

Therese had it easy compared with Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement and spent nearly 50 years working with the world’s poorest people in the world’s richest country. She had the patience of a saint, and there is now a strong movement in the Catholic Church to get her canonized. It’s usually a slow process, but I’m sure it will eventually happen. Imagine the person it would take for Dorothy Day to say he is “irritatingly right.” Irritatingly right. Think about what that says, especially coming from a saint.

Ammon Hennacy, copyright Jerry Currier and used with permission. http://www.currier-photos.com/

Ammon Hennacy, around age 70, at the Joe Hill House. Image copyright Jerry Currier and used with permission. http://www.currier-photos.com/

The man who was so right that he could irritate Dorothy Day was Ammon Hennacy. I’m surely no saint, but his story is a perpetual embarrassment to me. I say I want peace, and I say I care about the poor, and I say I believe in economic justice, and I say I revere community. I’ve even been known to preach these things! Well, blah, blah, blah – what have I done about all that in my life? Not much, when I compare myself to Ammon Hennacy. I can think of no other person whose life was lived with such a courage and commitment to his values that he makes me feel truly ashamed of my own life. He consistently challenged people with the reality of his life and said he was just a man, if he could live this way, why couldn’t you? Day said his thinking was: “What I can do, every man can do, if he will put fear far from him.”

Day herself called him “a prophet,” one who delivers a message directly from God! The variety of opinion about him varies:

The folk singer, Utah Phillips, who worked with him for years at the Joe Hill Catholic Worker house in Salt Lake City, called him “Tougher’n nails, heart of gold.”

The U.S government called him a traitor, tax evader, criminal, and prisoner.

Jerry Currier, who took some of the pictures here said of him: “…one of the most intriguing people I have encountered in over 50 years of making images: A radical, a rebel, and a thoroughly delightful man to have known and disagreed with.”

He called himself a Christian, Pacifist, Anarchist, One-man Revolution in America.

Dorothy Day. Image from: http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/features/f0000246.shtml

Dorothy Day demonstrating with farm workers in California in 1973. It only took four police officers to arrest her for sitting amid the crops. Image from: http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/features/f0000246.shtml

While all the facts of Hennacy’s life aren’t well documented, here are a few biographical highlights of his life, as I understand them:

  • Born 1893 in Negley, Ohio, “a mile from the Pennsylvania state line and thirteen miles from the Ohio River and the West Virginia state line,” as he says in his autobiography, The Book of Ammon. “My first memory is that of my Quaker great-grandmother in her bonnet sitting in the east room by her Franklin stove and telling my three-year-old sister Julia and me of how the peaceful Quakers loved the Indians and were not hurt by them.”
  • Grew up on a farm. “I cultivated corn the length of a mile-long hillside field, walking behind Dexter, the old white horse. I shoved back hay in the sheep barn ‘mid wasps and sweat. I rode horses bareback after the cows to the lower farm in the evening.”
  • Sold cornflakes door-to-door to pay for college. Became a socialist when that movement was still viable (and respected) in this country.
  • Opposed World War I and was imprisoned in 1917 for refusal to register for the military draft. Spent two years at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, nine months of it in cruel solitary confinement reading only the Christian Bible. This formed the Christian pacifism that became the foundation of his life. He said the day he finally learned to love the warden was the day he finally understood what the Sermon on the Mount really meant. “To change the world by bullets or ballots was a useless procedure. The only revolution worthwhile was the one-man revolution within the heart.”
  • In the relative calm between the wars, he married, had two daughters, did social work, went to school and advocated for social justice, pacifism, etc.
  • Refused again to register for the military draft in 1941. The U.S. government decided not to imprison any refuser over age 45 and pretended to itself that Hennacy had registered by persistently mailing him draft cards – which he even more persistently ripped up and returned to them. By then I suppose they knew he was “incorrigible,” but they were not enlightened enough to know he was also “irritatingly right.”
  • In order not to support war, he refused to pay income tax. “During this time I was aware that a withholding tax would be taken from my pay if I worked on any other place than a farm and that at the end of the year I would have to pay taxes or refuse to pay them. My study of Tolstoy and the emphasis of Dorothy Day in the Catholic Worker [newspaper] that payment of taxes was unChristian, inasmuch as most of the taxes went for war, helped me to make up my mind openly to refuse to pay taxes.” He took jobs doing day labor and was paid cash. Most of this was hard agricultural work in the U.S. southwest, fieldwork picking crops, tending cows on a dairy farm, etc. Most of the money he made was sent to his wife to support her and pay for the education of his daughters.
  • Once his daughters were grown, and he had satisfied that responsibility, he went to New York and joined the Catholic Worker community there. This was the early 1950s, and he spent the decade waging peace and teaching the Catholic Worker folks that a simple absence of war is not peace in this country that puts half the tax money it collects into guns and bombs and the evil of killing.
  • Did an annual fast and demonstration protest against nuclear weapons. Beginning August 6 each year he would fast and demonstrates at some federal government facility one day for each year since 1945 when this country first used nuclear weapons to kill human beings. By 1960, this fast and attendant demonstration lasted more than two weeks each year.
  • In 1961 he co-founded a Catholic Worker house of hospitality in Salt Lake City. Named the Joe Hill House, it celebrated the memory of labor martyr Joe Hill. Folk singer Utah Phillips lived and worked in the house with Hennacy and learned Christian pacifism and anarchy from him. Phillips said of Hennacy’s life in the house “He had to reach out and grapple with the violence, but he did that with all the people around him. These second World War vets, you know, on medical disabilities and all drunked up; the house was filled with violence, which Ammon, as a pacifist, dealt with — every moment, every day of his life.”
  • January 1970, at age 77, Ammon Hennacy died after a heart attack suffered while demonstrating against the state execution of two men in Utah.
Ammon Hennacy in conversation at the Joe Hill House in early-mid 1960s. Image copyright Jerry Currier and used with permission. http://www.currier-photos.com/

Ammon Hennacy in conversation at the Joe Hill House in early-mid 1960s. Image copyright Jerry Currier and used with permission. http://www.currier-photos.com/

Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest has said: “There is no peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war – at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake.” Hennacy is the poster boy for what it really takes to make peace this way. From the standpoint of the average workaday U.S. citizen (those who have the few jobs remaining in this country), Hennacy was the very disgrace Berrigan suggests. He refused to support his country by “fighting for freedom.” He was a freeloader who paid no taxes. He was a convict who did time in prison. Yes, a disgrace. For his trouble demonstrating against state-sanctioned murder, he found death on the picket line. As for “disruption,” how much more disruption could one life suffer? Like all of us, Hennacy would surely have enjoyed comfort and the daily company of his family; that was something he rarely had.

A day never passes when I don’t feel the pangs of my own shortcomings. Although the IRS doesn’t agree entirely, I have paid taxes. I enjoy the comforts of a reasonably easy life. And when I see news of our having killed people in some far off land I know I had a part in that murder. I’m not easy with it, but I’m no Hennacy either. And I know why.

Classic photo of Ammon Hennacy (fourth from left) and Dorothy Day seated on far right. This is a protest against civil defense air raid drills July 20, 1956 in New York City. Image from Marquette University collection of Catholic Worker materials. http://www.marquette.edu/library/collections/archives/News/Spotlight/04-2009/04-2009.html

Classic photo of Ammon Hennacy (fourth from left) and Dorothy Day seated on far right. This is a protest against civil defense air raid drills July 20, 1956 in New York City. Image from Marquette University collection of Catholic Worker materials. http://www.marquette.edu/library/collections/archives/News/Spotlight/04-2009/04-2009.html

In much of his writings Hennacy talks about courage. “There is that in even the most conservative person which reacts to courage rather than to timidity,” he said. In 1948, he made a list of “…issues that seemed to me most important.” First on that list of seven is “Courage.” He says this “…is the most important virtue, for, as Johnson said to Boswell, if you do not have it you cannot practice the other virtues.” In this I disagree with Hennacy. I believe courage is second to love. Hennacy, always so irritatingly right, takes our love of one another for granted. He takes for granted that we care sufficiently about one another to act with courage. If we don’t care about our neighbor, whether in the next house on the street or in distant Afghanistan, our courage is meaningless. What Hennacy’s life says to me is that I really don’t care enough, and that’s a bigger cause of shame, I believe, than cowardice.

Dorothy Day eulogized Hennacy saying he was, “…the most ascetic, the most hard working, the most devoted to the poor and the oppressed of any we had met, and that his life and his articles put us on the spot. He was an inspiration and a reproach.”

And I would add, he was irritatingly right.

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Responses

  1. Greetings from the Archives! Please note that the photo on our site is by Robert Lax. Rights are hald by his neice, Marcia Kelly (mmkelly@monasteries.net).

  2. Thanks for this story, Bill. Dorothy and Dan were already heroes of mine, but I did not know about Ammon Hennacy. We all need the examples of those who lived radically but weren’t nuts. Their lives encourage us to do what we can with the personalities we came with.

  3. I wanted to admire him but when I found he fathered children but left his wife alone to raise them, it gave me pause. No matter what else he did, he had an obligation to be there for those girls. Paying child support is not the same as being a father. Hope there is a good reason for why he left his family.

  4. Hello. I am Ammon’s brother’s grandaughter. I have spent much time researching his life and would like to have permission to use one of the photos from your site on my new website. In reference to a recent post, my Great Uncle loved his daughters and it broke his heart that his passion for the cause of peace interfered with their relationship.


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