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Who Will Inherit the Legacy of Dorothy Day? The Questions

Will the Catholic Worker movement survive without Dorothy Day?
Who will inherit her legacy?

Can the real spirit of Dorothy Day continue? Some wonder, “Where are the profound leaders who can take up the mantle of Dorothy Day?”

Should the New York Catholic Worker (The Catholic Worker house that Dorothy founded, with Peter Maurin) become the Motherhouse, guarding orthodoxy in the movement? Is this what Dorothy wanted?

Is there a characteristic Catholic Worker Spirituality? Does the spirituality of Dorothy Day have any relevance outside the Catholic Worker movement?

Is it possible to be followers of Dorothy Day in a post-Christian era?

How can Catholic Workers of today deepen their understanding of Catholic Worker spirituality?

The problem of looking at what Dorothy Day did, rather than what she was, inhibits us from understanding the Catholic Worker movement.

If Dorothy Day was anything, she was a comtemplative.

Those seeking to understand or even live the Catholic Worker movement sometimes see only one part or another of it, or judge it by an occasional individual who also only sees a little part of it.

Some people feel that getting food out of dumpsters is almost the whole Catholic Worker movement. Some people see the Worker movement as only pacifism and resistance (e.g., sanctuary movement). Some see the reaction to consumerism as the whole movement. Others see it only as hospitality and soup kitchens, while others limit hospitality to the very few. Some want only to have a newspaper that attacks and agitates (sometimes forgetting Peter Maurin’s mandate to “announce, not denounce!”). Some even feel it is important to be politically correct.

Some judge the Catholic Worker by its worldly success and may even see profound thinkers from the movement (e.g., Maurin) as dreamers who never accomplished anything lasting.

There are even those who feel that rigid orthodoxy was Dorothy Day’s inspiration and that this is the key to the movement.

Others feel that since she has died and we live in a new age, Dorothy Day is no longer relevant, in fact feel the greatness of the movement died with her.

And there are others who venture to judge the integrity of another Catholic Worker on one little part.

Where are the Answers?

But the Catholic Worker movement is much greater than any of these things. Dorothy Day’s life and vision are much greater than any of these things. Dorothy Day’s spirituality combined the best of the ancient and medieval traditions of the Church with the best of the movements (liturgical, biblical, the social teachings of the Church and the importance of the role of the laity) that paved the way for Vatican II. And she insisted on the option for the poor long before liberation theology existed.

Her vision for the Christain life is relevant for any age for the those who want to live according to the New Testament. The Catholic Worker movement is beyond the Right or the Left and can serve as a unifying force for living out the radical Gospel.

“Dorothy Day’s life may be understood only in the context of her great faith. She is for me foremost among the witnesses of the incomprehensible Goodness which is God.”

This is the introductory message of a very significant new book by Brigid O’Shea Merriman, O.S.F., Searching for Christ: the Spirituality of Dorothy Day (Notre Dame Studies in American Catholicism, Volume 13), University of Notre Dame Press, 1994. (This book was brought to our attention by Rocky Vaccaro.)

In this book Sr. Brigid Merriman explores the meaning of Dorothy Day’s spirituality for our time. This study is a treasure for anyone serious about the spiritual life and the search for an authentic living out of faith in the world, and doubly valuable for Catholic Workers.

The above questions will be answered for anyone who bothers to read this book.

Those who endeavor to live out the profound spirituality of this book will inherit the legacy of the Catholic Worker movement.

Merriman’s work is the fruit of years of scholarship and study of Dorothy Day as a person of faith and influences on her spirituality in the context of American Catholicism. Profuse footnotes document her research.

Always a Pilgrim of the Absolute

The book begins with Dorothy’s early life, demonstrating that from her earliest days, long before she became a Catholic at age 30, she longed for the Source of love. Even at age 15, her letters reveal, she was struggling with the meaning of the Acts of the Apostles. This longing grew side by side with a consciousness of the suffering and the needs of the poor and the Scriptural mandates to help them. She could not understand why Christians did not live the message of the Gospels. However, after leaving home to study, she didn’t always choose biblical paths that would be indicative of her future calling.

Some have thought that Dorothy’s conversion to Catholicism was somewhat sudden. But really her decision to have her baby baptized, leave her common-law husband and enter the Church was the culmination of years of searching, reading and praying.

After becoming a Catholic, Dorothy Day continued to read and pray and work as a journalist, to publish articles in Catholic magazines such as Commonweal and America, and to seek a sense of direction and a synthesis of the Christian message for her life. Her prayers that a way would be opened for her to use her gifts was answered by her meeting Peter Maurin, who introduced her to ideas that led to the work she would begin with him as the Catholic Worker at the close of 1932.

People sometimes think that Dorothy Day was just being humble when she credited Peter Maurin with teaching her everything she knew. But, as a matter of fact, he introduced her to the great Catholic saints and writers of history, to the great traditions of Catholicism, including monasticism, and put flesh on Catholic social teaching for her. At the same time he presented his program of houses of hospitality, round table discussions with scholars and workers for the clarification of thought, and agronomic communities or universities (back to the land). But it is also clear that as they worked together over the years, Dorothy and Peter influenced each other. From the beginning, Maurin emerged as the theorist and Day as the activist in their partnership.

Personalism and Spirituality

Catholic authors from the personalist movement, centered in France and brought to Dorothy Day by Peter Maurin, provided much of the intellectual base for the Catholic Worker movement and its practical response in service to the Gospels.

Merriman explores, by contrast, the question of the extent of the influence of personalist authors such as Emmanuel Mounier and Jacques Maritain on Dorothy Day’s spirituality.

These authors emphasized the need to bring religious values to the moral and social issues of the day, the dignity of the human person, both as an individual and as a “participant members of human society” and taking personal responsibility. The personalists critiqued the bourgeois world of consumerism and acquisitiveness and comfort- seeking and called for heroic sanctity. Mounier raised an important question for contemporary Christians when he said, “Comfort is to the bourgeois world what heroism was to the Renaissance and sanctity to medieval Christianity: the final value, the reason for all action. ”

Merriman gives us the insight that Dorothy Day integrated these ideas into her spirituality, taking the ideas of community and personal responsibility in Mounier’s personalism and translating it into membership in the mystical Body of Christ and the responsibility to care for one another as members or potential members of the Body of Christ. A quote from the Catholic Worker of 1936 shows us how Dorothy integrated the personalist philosophy with the practice of the Works of Mercy: “Not only is there no chance of knowing Christ without partaking of that Food that He has left us (the Eucharist), but also we can’t know each other unless we sit down to eat together. We learn to know each other in the breaking of the bread. When the stranger comes to us to be fed, we know because Christ told us so, that inasmuch as we have fed one of His hungry ones we have fed Him. That is why the most fundamental point in the Catholic Worker program is emphasizing our personal responsibility to perform Works of Mercy.”

Voluntary Poverty

From the outset Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin believed that the Works of Mercy should be performed personally and at a personal sacrifice. This personal sacrifice involved voluntary poverty, a life of simplicity, as opposed to consumerism. Merriman tells us that Dorothy Day saw in Maurin an apostle of voluntary poverty, a man whose non-grasping approach to life she saw as necessary for world peace.

Laity Called

It was pleasant to discover again in this book that Jacques Maritain really believed in the radical pursuit of Gospel values, knowing how he had been denigrated in the latter years of his life. Maritain advocated Christian involvement in the world, but he maintained that it must be marked by a simultaneous interior conversion. Dorothy Day picked up on this and constantly referred to the revolution of the heart as a prerequisite for the activist. (Editor’s Note: Of course, no kind of revolution ever occurred with Dorothy until she had her two aspirins and a cup of coffee in the morning. This is one thing that the Houston Workers have in commmon with Dorothy.)

All the writers that influenced Dorothy Day called for the spirit of heroism, identified simultaneously with sanctity and with a radical return to Gospel living. Laity must follow the universal call to holiness and are called to be leaven for good–the common good–in the world. They are not permitted to say: “I can’t do this because I am not a priest or sister.”

Classic Writers

Dorothy Day was influenced and her religious sensibilities awakened by literature. Her reading raised her consciousness of and sensitivity to the needs of the poor. Her reading as an adolescent included the Russian authors, especially Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and she returned to their writings many times later in life.

Some of her most famous quotes come from the works of Dostoevsky. “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” was the response, often repeated by Dorothy, of Fr. Zossima to a woman who asked him about her need to be rewarded for helping the poor. (From The Brothers Karamozov).

Also very frequently quoted by Dorothy Day is Dostoevsky’s reminder on the redemptive value of beauty, “The world will be save by beauty,” from The Idiot. All beauty spoke to Dorothy Day of God. This concept supported her appreciation of beauty and the arts and may have enabled her to see beauty in its most hidden form–in the poor.

In Tolstoy’s works she must have read of Ivan Ilyich who realized as he was dying that he had in his lifetime chosen not to struggle for spiritual growth–and then screamed for three days.

These great novels addressed the issues of good and evil, heroic service and sanctity, and had a profound effect on Dorothy Day.

Throughout her life, Dorothy also returned to spiritual classics such as St. Augustine’s Confessions and The Imitation of Christ.

Dorothy Day and the Scriptures

The book which was Dorothy’s companion throughout life, however, was the Bible. Daily reading of the Bible was very important to her. Her reading of Matthew 25:31-46 over the years convinced her that seeing Christ in the poor was central to her Christian faith and to the Catholic Worker movement, lived out in the Works of Mercy. The Psalms were her favorite prayers.

Scripture reading at the table, in monastic fashion, was common at the house on Mott Street, and later became an established custom at the New York Catholic Worker. Dorothy loved to pray the Hours–Vespers and Compline–with the other workers.

The Impact of Monasticism

It is common knowledge that Benedictine Fr. Virgil Michel, O.S.B., one of the founders of the liturgical movement in the United States, and Dorothy Day influenced each other and the U.S. Church in terms of the social dimensions of liturgy and the Mystical Body of Christ. But few mention the impact of the Benedictine tradition in her life. Merriman reminds us that Dorothy Day became a Benendictine lay oblate in 1955, after being drawn for many years to the Benedictine charism, which places great value upon identification with Christ, on community, on hospitality and on a harmony between work and prayer.

It was from the Benedictine Rule that Peter Maurin shared his ideas of Cult, Culture and Cultivation, key words in his ideas for the Catholic Worker. As Dorothy Day understood it, this Benedictine-inspired program involved a life of voluntary poverty, as well as a synthesis of prayer, intellectual productivity and manual labor. It was in such a setting that beauty and joy could flourish.

Benedict’s Rule emphasized the love of Christ as expressed in hospitality, based on the 25th chapter of Matthew (“I was a stranger and you welcomed Me”). All guests were to be received with courtesy and given accomodation in Benedictine monasteries, but especially the poor:

“Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received; our very awe of the rich guarantees them special respect.” (Chapter 53)

This emphasis on hospitality, a hallmark of the Catholic Worker movement, was, for Dorothy Day, closely related to the doctrine of the Body of Christ. Dorothy understood, in Catholic Christian terms, that the Christ dwelling within her loved the Christ within another, either actually present through grace or potentially through God’s desire that all be members of Christ’s Body. She recognized with St. Paul that if one person suffered, all share in this suffering; if one person rejoiced, then all share in that joy.

At various times during its existence, the Catholic Worker (in the early years and certainly in the 60’s and later) has responded to charges that the group’s work of hospitality served only to maintain the present order–or to put band-aids on cancer. Merriman tells us that The Catholic Worker addressed this issue in an article in May of 1940:

“We consider the spiritual and corporal Works of Mercy and the following of Christ to be the best revolutionary technique and a means for changing the social order rather than perpetuating it. Did not the thousands of monasteries, with their hospitality, change the entire social pattern of their day?”

In addition to the Benedictines, Dorothy Day related to another form of monasticism through the most prolific writer in a monastery since the early Church, Thomas Merton. Correspondence between the two, as well as articles Merton pulbished in The Catholic Worker, reflect that they were kindred spirits and that they shared many concerns in the Christian life and also about war and peace.

The Heart of Her Spirituality

Dorothy Day’s spirituality was Christocentric. Merriman tells us that the centrality of the Eucharist was crucial to Dorothy and she never ceased to consider it as the greatest work of the day (for herself and for Catholic Workers). All her life was a meeting with Christ, whether she met him in human guise in the poor, or in the Eucharist disguised in word and human symbol, intimately transforming her so that she could say, “Now, not I live, but Jesus Christ in me.” She believed, with the wisdom of the liturgical movement, that all life flowed from worship.

In fact, Dorothy Day believed that prayer was the first duty of all those working for social justice, and that only that which was done for Christ and with Christ was of value.

She was convinced that the Catholic Worker movement had come about because she had been going to daily Mass, receiving communion daily and crying out like Samuel for direction.

The Retreat Movement

The Catholic Worker had its own retreat movement beginning in the late 1930’s. Fr. John Hugo, principal U.S. leader of the famous Retreat, played a significant role in the life of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement.

Dorothy loved the retreat, wanted all Catholic Workers to make the retreat and even tried to start a retreat center for priests.

This retreat came under fire, especially the Canadian founder of the retreat movement, Onesimus Lacoutrure, S.J., because of its emphasis on detachment from worldly pleasure and wordly things, if one is to put on Christ. Controversies developed over recommending to diocesan priests and laity that they give up smoking or remove radios from their cars, etc., to better love Jesus. This controversy caused Dorothy Day much pain, because she loved the retreat movement. Expecting people and diocesan priests to try to be like the Cure of Ars or St. John of the Cross was considered borderline heresy.

Dorothy Day, who had been drawn to the retreat because of her perennial search for a synthesis, defined it throughout her life as helping people continue their search for God and realize that the only purpose for which we were made is to become saints.

Fr. Hugo, who had been forbidden to give the retreat under Bishop John Deardon, was later encouraged by Bishop John Wright to give the retreat in 1959.

Today Dorothy Day, smiling, looks down from heaven to see the Surgeon General of the United States forbidding smoking.

The Folly of the Cross

The retreat emphasized the fact that the folly of the cross frequently becomes a reality for those who are followers of the Nazarene. Dorothy Day wrote about facing the cross as a part of the retreat in an article in The Catholic Worker in 1947:

“One might say that the retreat… is a basic retreat in that it makes people realize and face even with despair the work that is before them, the death to self, the chosen one must bridge, to reach God. We must begin sometime to aim at sanctity. The tragedy, Newman said, is never to begin. On having put one’s hand to the plough, to turn back. To become a tired radical. To settle down to relish comfortably past performances of self-sacrafice and self-denial. It is not enough, St. Ambrose remarks, to leave all our possessions, we must also follow Him, and that means to the Cross, to Gethsemane and Calvary, before one can share in the Resurrection and Ascension.”

Dorothy Day’s Special Gifts

It was Dorothy’s intuitive genius, Merriman tells us, that translated Maurin’s abstractions into the Works of Mercy. And her vision and practical living out of the Works of Mercy themselves was unique. She emphasized that since for the Catholic Worker the Works of Mercy included not only feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, the prisoner, and burying the dead, but enlightening the ignorant, “We put the publication of the paper, our going out into the street and carrying picket signs and posters, giving out leaflets, and even on occasion going to jail as part of the works of mercy.”

Dorothy Day also brought a unique gift to the Catholic Worker in the charism of pacifism. A pacifist prior to the foundation of the Catholic Worker, she wrote often of the opposition of the work of love to the work of violence or war. In 1937 she stated, “I do not believe that love can be expresed by tear gas or police clubs, by airplane bombardments and wholesale slaughter.” Her pacifism was related to the Lord’s teaching in the Sermon on the the Mount.

And her journalistic background helped to bring the ideas of the Catholic Worker into a national lay movement. One could readily believe that an important part of the Catholic Worker platform, the publication of a newspaper, trying to bring Christ into all areas of life, was a part of the spirituality–getting the word out to laity, clergy and bishops alike. She said God gave her a vocation to be writer. And so she wrote.

Saints as Models

One of the most important aspects of Dorothy Day’s spirituality was her belief in the evangelical counsels of perfection–the call to holiness addressed to all Christians in the Sermon on the Mount. Saints who had tried to live this ideal during their lives were as real to Dorothy Day as her visible friends. She derived inspiration from many, among them pacifists, socially active saints and great mystics. They were for her friends and models to imitate–people like St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux and Julian of Norwich.

St. Francis of Assisi was a great inspiration to both Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, as a man ardently in love with Christ, whose commmitment to voluntary poverty, pacifism, manual labor and personalism they both found most attractive.

Love is the Measure

Dorothy looked to the saints as models for greatness in their capacity to love. Always returning to Matthew 25, she emphasized that in the end we will be judged on love–love in practice. She often said, “Love is the measure by which we shall be judged.”

Who Will Inherit Her Legacy?

Who will inherit the legacy of Dorothy Day? Will it be the Catholic Worker of New York, of Los Angeles? Will it be Llewellyn Scott House in Washington, D.C.? Will it be the house in Tacoma, Washington, or Dallas, Texas, or the St. John of the Cross House in Cedar Rapids, or the Houston Catholic Worker? Will it be one of the many houses committed to love and the consistent life ethic?

Will individual leaders emerge? Could it be the movement as a whole?

Will the movement find unity in this great spirituality?

Whoever follows the profound spirituality outlined in this book will inherit the legacy. Those who do not fear to walk in the steps of Dorothy Day, clothed in the whole garment of the Catholic Worker, will inherit the legacy.

Fidelity to the Catholic Worker movement and orthodoxy will depend on Worker’s commitment to Dorothy Day’s spirituality.

Unless we as Workers are steeped in the values of the Gospels, like Dorothy, it is possible that we may become resounding gongs and clanging symbols. It is possible that we may disintegrate into a tower of Babel of lightweight activism, or worse yet, may adopt a vision we consider orthodox, but that at best could only be called myopic and skewed. It would be better to get a job.

We cannot think of any problem or disagreement in the Worker movement, whether it be moral, ethical or social, that could not be solved by focusing on these values–we believe.

It looks like we need a Revolution of the Heart–in Houston or wherever.

May we all be consumed with a passionate response to the Gospel call to holiness, to love beyond measure, as we reflect on the meaning of the life and spirituality of Dorothy Day.

May we learn to love each other!

May Holy Envy (of trying to be like Dorothy Day and the saints in putting on Christ) engulf us.

We urge you to read this book.


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XIV, No. 3, May 1, 1994.