Whether we want them or not, birthdays roll around once a year on the very same day. They serve as signposts for our journey through life—or, as some might term them, mortality markers. At America House we celebrate birthdays for staff and community members on the fourth Thursday of each month. At 3 p.m. on those days, cake and coffee are served in the basement lunchroom. The honorees—usually three or four—receive the first slices after the candles have been extinguished, and then the rest are handed theirs.
The gathering is important because it brings everyone together from the various offices—editorial, circulation, development, bookkeeping, housekeeping—to share in companionship with one another and to experience a sense of mutual support. Even Glenda Castro, our receptionist, manages to find a substitute to fill in for her so that she too can briefly join the group. Glenda’s is the friendly voice that greets you when you call America during business hours.
With variations, Jesuit communities everywhere generally follow the same tradition, though special circumstances can bring forth different approaches to birthdays. When Dan Berrigan, the Jesuit writer and peace activist, turned 80 last May, the celebration involved a crowd of over 1,000 people, old and young, in the enormous basement social hall of St. Paul the Apostle Church on the West Side of Manhattan. Refreshments consisted of donated bars of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and beverages provided gratis by the actors Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson. A voluntary cover charge helped support the peacemaking activities of the local Kairos Community and provide assistance for members of the Plowshares group serving time in prison for acts of civil disobedience. The evening included Irish music, songs by Dar Williams, greetings by Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, reflections by members of the Berrigan family and a poetry reading by Dan himself. It was indeed a joyous occasion.
For some, though, birthdays are not easy. The saddest comment I ever heard on the subject came from an elderly women I met while studying theology. As part of our training, several of us served as “counselors” at a single-room-occupancy hotel in New York City that provided housing for people released from mental institutions. When the subject of birthdays came up, this resident told me that as a child her parents had never acknowledged her birthday at all: no party. To her mind, it was as if she had never been born, as if she did not exist—a source of sadness throughout her difficult life.
On a different and more cheerful note, a friend at a nursing home I used to visit in Washington, D.C., was dismayed at the thought of approaching her 100th birthday. To lift her spirits, a good-natured maintenance man stopped by her room and said: “Cheer up, Mrs. Dorsey—remember, the first 100 years are always the hardest!” Her spirits did rise, and I have a picture of her looking very happy beneath a balloon attached to her bed with “100 Years” inscribed on it. A large cake stood on the side table, brought by a long-ago high school student who had remained in touch over the decades. The centenarian had no family of her own, so he and his wife and children had lovingly assumed that role.
The birthdays of people who have moved from this life to the next can also be celebrated. One of those who knew and admired Dan Berrigan, Dorothy Day, was born on Nov. 8. Each year on that date, the Catholic Workers on the Lower East Side of Manhattan organize a memorial Mass and celebration, just as they do later the same month in remembrance of the date of her death. In the past, Dan has sometimes been the celebrant there at St. Joseph House, on East First Street, amid the pots and pans of the soup kitchen that continues to serve the homeless men and women in whom Dorothy Day saw the face of Christ—whose own birthday on Dec. 25 served as the focus point for her life’s work. May it also serve as ours.