Dorothy Day is one of the greatest and most significant Catholics of the twentieth century. Today is the 30th anniversary of her death.
When I left school I worked for six months in a small religious book publishers, and I was asked to do some research in order to revise a pamphlet they wanted to print about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. I spent a couple of days in one of the London libraries reading some of the early biographies, and I was completely bowled over.
It was the simplicity of her love – for Christ, for the poor, for whoever was sitting next to her. It was the fact that she took the gospel seriously, and literally; and believed it was something to be lived and not just explained away. It was her intelligence, which made her think about the causes of poverty and injustice, so that talking, writing, publishing and debating (all for ‘the clarification of thought’) were as much a part of her mission as opening soup kitchens and houses of hospitality. And it was her beauty – the beauty of her writing, the beauty of her life. Much of it, I’m sure, was romanticised – I was 19 and looking for heroes and heroines. But she remains one of the most important people in my life, and her life has shaped my own thinking and the way I look at the world as much as anyone else’s has.
I went on holiday/pilgrimage to New York in the summer of 1998 just after my ordination. I had supper and celebrated Mass in the main Catholic Worker house where she lived and worked, and had some great conversations – she was still remembered and revered. I hunted down the building where the first house of hospitality was set up. By then it was a Chinese takeaway, so I went in and pretended to look at the menu while I took in the atmosphere and the history. I took the boat to Staten Island and found the spot where she is buried. It’s one of these cemeteries without upright headstones, so the lawnmower can sweep right over the graves. You ask a man in the office and he tells you where the small plaque is hidden. I spent a long time there praying.
I still pray to her often. And one of my prayers is that I will live to see her canonised.
If you don’t know much about her, here are some paragraphs from a short life by Robert Ellsberg. If you want to follow this up, the best book to buy is Dorothy Day, Selected Writings, edited by Robert Ellsberg, which is a fantastic collection of short pieces and excerpts from her longer articles and books. The introduction is itself one of the best short biographies you will find.
The Catholic Worker, a lay movement she founded in 1933 and oversaw for nearly fifty years, was an effort to show that the radical gospel commandment of love could be lived. She understood this challenge not just in the personal form of charity (the works of mercy) but in a political form as well, confronting and resisting the social forces which gave rise to such a need for charity. She represented a new type of political holiness – a way of serving Christ not only through prayer and sacrifice but through solidarity with the poor and in struggle along the path of justice and peace.
Day was born in Brooklyn in 1897. Though she was baptized as an Episcopalian she had little exposure to religion. By the time she was in college she had rejected Christianity in favor of the radical cause. She dropped out of school and worked as a journalist in New York with a variety of radical papers and took part in the popular protests of her day. Her friends were communists, anarchists, and an assortment of New York artists and intellectuals, most of the opinion that religion was the “opium of the people.”
A turning point in her life came in 1926 when she was living on Staten Island with a man she deeply loved. She became pregnant, an event that sparked a mysterious conversion. The experience of what she called natural happiness, combined with a sense of the aimlessness of her Bohemian existence, turned her heart to God. She decided she would have her child baptized as a Roman Catholic, a step she herself followed in 1927. The immediate impact of this was the painful end of her common law marriage. The man she loved had no use for marriage. But she also suffered from the sense that her conversion represented a betrayal of the cause of the poor. The church, though in many ways the home of the poor, seemed otherwise to identify with the status quo. So she spent some lonely years in the wilderness, raising her child alone, while praying for some way of reconciling her faith and her commitment to social justice.
The answer came in 1932 with a providential meeting. Peter Maurin, an itinerant philosopher and agitator, encouraged her to begin a newspaper that would offer solidarity with the workers and a critique of the social system from the radical perspective of the Gospels. The Catholic Worker was launched on May 1, 1933. Like a true prophet, Maurin was concerned not simply to denounce injustice but to announce a new social order, based on the recognition of Christ in one’s neighbors. In an effort to practice what they preached, Day converted the office of the Catholic Worker into a “house of hospitality” – the first of many – offering food for the hungry and shelter for the tired masses uprooted by the Depression.
But Day’s message did not end with the works of mercy. For her the logic of the Sermon on the Mount also led to an uncompromising commitment to nonviolence. Despite widespread criticism she maintained a pacifist position throughout World War 11 and later took part in numerous civil disobedience campaigns against the spirit of the Cold War and the peril of nuclear war. Later, in the 1960s, when social protest became almost commonplace, Day’s peacemaking witness – rooted in her daily life among the poor and sustained by the discipline of liturgy and prayer – retained a particular credibility and challenge.
The enigma of Dorothy Day was her ability to reconcile her radical social positions (she called herself an anarchist as well as a pacifist) with a traditional and even conservative piety. Her commitment to poverty, obedience, and chastity was as firm as any nun’s. But she remained thoroughly immersed in the secular world with all the “precarity” and disorder that came with life among the poor.
You can find a link to the London Catholic Worker here.