(1897 – 1980)
Co-founder of the Catholic Worker
Whatever I had read as a child about the saints had thrilled me. I could see the nobility of giving one’s life for the sick, the maimed, the leper…But there was another question in my mind. Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place? Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?
When Dorothy Day died in 1980 at the age of eighty-three, it was observed that she was’ the most influential, interesting, and significant figure ‘in the history of American Catholicism. This was an extraordinary statement on behalf of someone who occupied no official position in the Church – indeed, someone whose ideas were almost universally rejected throughout most of her life.
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.
As a result, some people called her a communist. She was shot at, jailed, and investigated repeatedly by the F.B.I. She was not seriously disturbed by criticism. ‘The servant is not greater than his master,’ she liked to quote. On the other hand, there were many who liked to call her a saint. That was another matter. ‘When they call you a saint,’ she often said, ‘it means basically you are not to be taken seriously.’ She regarded it as a way of dismissing her challenge. ‘Dorothy can do that. She’s a saint!’ The implication was that hard decisions must have come easily for her. Actually, no one knew as well as she how dearly she had paid for her vocation: ‘Neither revolutions nor faith is won without keen suffering. For me Christ was not to be bought for thirty pieces of silver but with my heart’s blood. We buy not cheap in this market.’
Dorothy Day was born in Bath Beach, Brooklyn on 8 November1897. Though she was baptised as an Episcopalian, she had little exposure to religion. By the time she was in college she had rejected Christianity in favour 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 aimlessness of her Bohemian existence, turned her heart to God. She decided she would have her child baptised as a Roman Catholic, a step she herself followed in 1927. The immediate effect 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 1st May 1933. Like a true prophet, Maurin was concerned to denounce not just injustice but to announce a new social order based on the recognition of Christ in one’s neighbour. In an effort to practice what they preached, Day converted the offices 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 Dorothy Day’s message did not end with the Works of Mercy. For her, the logic of the Sermon on the Mount led to an uncompromising commitment to non-violence. Despite widespread criticism, she maintained a pacifist position throughout World War II and later took part in several 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, Dorothy 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 even conservative piety. Her commitment to poverty, obedience and chastity was as firm as any nun’s. But she remained thoroughly immersed with the secular world with all the ‘precarity’ and disorder that came from life among the poor. Her favourite saint was Therese of Lisieux, the young Carmelite nun, whose ‘little way’ indicated the path to holiness within all our daily occupations. From Therese, Dorothy drew the insight that any act of love might contribute to the balance of love in the world; any suffering endured in love might ease the suffering of others; such was the mysterious bond within the Body of Christ.
In combining the practice of charity and the call to justice, Dorothy Day represented a type of holiness not easily domesticated, but perhaps of special relevance to our times. She called on the Church to recover its identity as an offence and mystery in the eyes of the world. Her life was a living parable, focused on what she called the mystery of the poor: ‘that they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for Him.’ She died on 29 November, 1980.
Robert Ellsberg, ed. Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, (Maryknoll, N.Y. Orbis 1992); Jim Forest, Love is the Measure – A Biography of Dorothy Day, (Maryknoll, N.Y. Orbis, 1993); Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness, (New York, Harper and Row, 1952); Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage – the Sixties, (New York, Curtis Books, 1972); Dorothy Day, Loaves and Fishes, (New York, Curtis Books, 1963); Deborah Kent, Dorothy Day – Friend to the Forgotten, (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.William B. Eerdmans, 1996).
(Taken from All Saints, Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, edited by Robert Ellsberg, Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1997.)