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Dorothy Day: Driven by Love (Fr. John Hugo)

Fr. John Hugo at Maryfarm
Marquette University Archives

I met Dorothy when she came to Pittsburgh to make a retreat that I was conducting at St. Anthony Village, Oakmont, then an orphanage under the direction of a colleague, Father Louis Farina. These retreats had been planned, during the summer vacation, for small groups including some local Catholic Workers. This was some time after Dorothy had become a Catholic and was looking for a deepening of her Christian faith. She came to Oakmont at the suggestion of Sister Peter Claver, one of her first Catholic friends, who remained her lifetime friend. At that time she told Dorothy about the retreats we were offering and provided some notes. Dorothy read these promptly and came back asking: “This is what I want, where do I find these men?” She was directed to Oakmont. After the retreat she said, “This is what I have been looking for in the Church!”

Subsequently, Dorothy came to the retreat many times, first at Oakmont, then at the Worker farms in Easton, Newburgh, and Tivoli, inviting the Workers and friends to share in them with her. She called the retreat “the bread of the strong,” said that it was “like hearing the Gospel for the first time. . .a foretaste of heaven.” It “influenced my life and gave me courage to persevere,” she declared, “and so filled my heart with you that this joy no man can take from me.” This proved to be prophetic, for she was in fact looking for refreshment from the printed conferences as she approached death. Said Sister Peter Claver: “The retreat is what made the wheels go round in the Worker movement. It is what led Dorothy to holiness.”

Although the universal call to holiness has thus been a teaching of scripture and theology, it was by no means accepted by all Catholics in the 1940’s. Perhaps not in 1981! It had been obscured and forgotten and was by some called extreme, even heretical; although St. Francis de Sales, another Doctor of the Church, who preached universal holiness explicitly to the laity, described its denial as a kind of heresy. Happily, should any Catholics still entertain doubts, the matter has been resolved by Vatican II in what is surely its most important pronouncement on the Christian life, establishing the goal of that life. The statement appears in the Constitution on the Church, and the very title of the Chapter in which it is given, “The Universal Call of Holiness” reveals its meaning as it declares that “all are called to the fullness of Christian life and the perfection of charity.” (Ch. V) This peak has always towered over the perspective of life offered in our retreat. Dorothy Day heard it described in this way many times. She gave herself wholeheartedly to the scaling of this mount of perfection, the perfection of love. She has been in our time a luminous example of the twofold love of God and neighbor fused into one in the furnace of divine love.

When Peter Maurin came into her life, Dorothy had at last met a Catholic passionately concerned with the plight of the poor, and one who like another St. Francis of Assisi, was even willing to share their poverty, unto utter destitution, in the slums of a modern city.

From Peter she also learned that Catholicism is truly radical, in the original sense of that word, getting to the roots. Peter translated into action G. K. Chesterton’s saying, “Christianity, even when watered down, is still hot enough to boil all modern society to rags.” Peter also, introducing Dorothy to the papal social encyclicals, gave her, with his marvelous clarity of mind, a carefully thought out social program for helping the little ones of the world. And he taught her that the most immediate and direct way of social action is through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Dorothy now had almost all that she desired–a program of action that would merge her concern for the neediest with her hunger for God. “Almost,” because she had traveled to Oakmont looking for something more. Even after her newly founded movement was already flourishing, she yearned for the fullness of love, an all encompassing love, still to be brought to her by the Church she had chosen and entered.

Two sayings from the retreat, which Dorothy quoted many times in her column, “On Pilgrimage” (the last time in November, 1978), provide a clue to how its ideas influenced her thinking.

The first, which paraphrases a saying of Jesus, states, “you love God just as much as the one you love least.” It tells of the perfection of love that Dorothy was seeking. Her whole life was a testimony of her unwavering faith that no one is to be excluded from love.

The other saying frequently quoted by Dorothy I had borrowed from St. Augustine: “He who says he has done enough has already perished.” The fullness of love is not attainable all at once, but is rather a life-time goal requiring continual growth. The saint’s words are a reminder that one may not falter in the ascent of the mount of love. And Dorothy was not satisfied with the lowest degree of love. She desired to follow her Master, who had said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” That is, unto death.

Dorothy Day’s culminating expression of love, at once for God and all her neighbors, was her utter abhorrence and rejection of war, the matrix of most of all other evils that disfigure our society. Dorothy was not simply a political pacifist. Her love of peace came of fidelity to the Beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Peace, a gift of the Holy Spirit, is the fruit of the divine love working in the hearts of God’s children.

While some are still prattling about the conditions for just war, bishops are now saying that even the possession of nuclear arms is a crime against humanity. Dorothy realized the danger long before the present insane proliferation of nuclear arms. Here she emerges as a truly prophetic leader who brings us at last to understand what is meant by the kingdom of God. At this point she joins the company of those great saints whom she so admired, contemplative activists, Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila, who brought light and leadership into the darkness of their times. Dorothy has at times been compared to St. Joan of Arc. But Joan rode a war horse and carried a sword. Dorothy, however, followed her Master in riding the absurd donkey of non-violence; and on her standard were emblazoned the words, “God is love!” She could not accept an image of God that would ally Him in any way with the unspeakable horrors of modern war.

In her book Loaves and Fishes Dorothy reproduced a card she had received from Peter Maurin while he was on one of his “missionary journeys.” He tells happily of the “good contacts” he made, especially among priests. He signs himself, “Your fellow worker in the Kingdom.”

The impact of the lives of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin on all who have known and admired and loved them can be nothing less than laboring with them with all our hearts, even at this late day, as fellow workers in the Kingdom.

The world may be destroyed by fire, from nuclear bombs, or it can be saved by the fire of divine love. We must choose the way. Let us abide in love!

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVI, No. 2, March-April 1996.