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Dorothy Day and the LIGHT FROM THE EAST: Eastern Christianity, Fathers of the Desert, Dostoevsky

by Angel Valdez

Dorothy Day read great literature all of her life and her reading especially included some of the Russian writers, most of all Dostoevsky. Her reading of authors from the East, which she shared with readers of The Catholic Worker, included not only fiction, but theology, monastic writings and history. She knew the monks from St. Procopius Abbey, the Eastern Catholic Benedictine monastery at Lisle, Illinois. The monks, some of whom were from “Belorrusia” as Dorothy spelled it, visited the Worker and gave days of recollection. One of the monks whom Dorothy frequently quoted was Rembert Sorg, OSB, who had written about a theology of work.

Brigid O’Shea Merriman recorded that there were two early mentions of St. Procopius Abbey in The Catholic Worker. In June of 1935 a vocation pamphlet written by Augustine Studeny, OSB, a monk of St. Procopius, was recommended in The Catholic Worker. In 1940 Dorothy mentioned that she had stopped at the Lisle Benedictine abbey in the course of one of her speaking tours (Searching for Christ; the Spirituality of Dorothy Day, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, p. 104).

Dorothy had developed a friendship with Helene Iswolsky, a Russian emigré who had come to know the monks at St. Procopius. The friendship between the two women was natural because of their shared personalist background. Iswolsky was the daughter of the Russian ambassador to France during World War I. Later, in France, she had joined Emmanuel Mounier in his personalist circles after Nicholas Berdyaev had looked her up (they were both Russian emigrés) and invited her to discussion groups at his apartment. It was in France that Iswolsky had become Catholic. (Miller, p. 361). Iswolsky encouraged Dorothy’s interest in St. Procopius and in Eastern liturgy and theology.

Merriman recounts that by 1943 St. Procopius “was well established as an ecumenical center whose special mission was to labor for the reunion of the Eastern (Orthodox) churches with Rome.” She also describes a reprint about St. Procopius in the September issue of The Catholic Worker: “Entitled ‘Slavonic Mission,’ it presented the Benedictine center, with its high school, college, seminary and its work among Slavonic immigrants in the Midwest, as well equipped to foster an understanding of Russian culture. The essay projected the abbey’s hope of sending Benedictines of the Eastern rite as missionaries to Russia as soon as this became feasible” (Merriman, pp. 104-105).

Dorothy had been affiliated with the English Benedictine congregation at Portsmouth, Rhode Island, where Ade Bethune, Catholic Worker artist, was a Benedictine Oblate from around 1942 until at least 1946. She later changed the locus of her affiliation to St. Procopius, and it was on April 26, 1955 that Dorothy became an oblate of the Benedictine Abbey in Lisle, Illinois. (Merriman, 101-104).

In her April 1957 column in The Catholic Worker Dorothy wrote about her profession at St. Procopius:

“Now I am a professed oblate of the St. Procopius family, and have been for the last two years, which means that I am a part of the Benedictine family all over the world, and a member of the Benedictine community at Lisle. Every month a newsletter comes from St. Procopius, from the pen of Fr. Richard, oblate master. My special love for St. Procopius is because its special function is to pray for the reunion of Rome and the Eastern Church. Their monks can offer Mass in the Eastern or Roman rite and when Fr. Chrysostom came to give us retreats at Maryfarm, we sang the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. St. Procopius is also to be the shrine of the Eastern saints in this country.”

Dorothy frequently quoted St. John Chrysostom, one of the Fathers of the Church, in her writings regarding pacifism and regarding the poor. For example, she pointed out in her March 1966 CW column, while reflecting that acts of violence do not solve problems, that St. John Chrysostom says, “in regard to our Lord’s sending us out as sheep among wolves, that if we become wolves ourselves, He is no longer with us.”

The influence of St. Francis on the Catholic Worker was so great that one might have expected Dorothy to become a Third Order Franciscan. The path to her choosing the Benedictines had included her early reading of the novels by Huysmans, one of which, The Oblate, told of the process of becoming a Benedictine lay oblate. Dorothy later also credited her reading about the Desert Fathers as a crucial influence in becoming an oblate. She wrote in the June 1943 CW, “I was converted to being an oblate by reading and re-reading The Desert Fathers.”

Peter Maurin had suggested to Dorothy that she read the Fathers of the Church. Dorothy’s l975 reminiscence indicates an even earlier reference from Anatole France in Thais to the Desert Fathers; Dorothy said about it: “…even in that satire the beauty of the saints shone through” (Merriman, p. 73-74). In her June 1943 column Dorothy wrote about a new book by Helen Waddell, The Fathers of the Desert. (Merriman says that she used the title The Fathers of the Desert, but that it was obvious from the information in that column and in later references that she meant Waddell’s book, The Desert Fathers.) Some of the Desert Fathers can be considered Eastern.

Merriman emphasized that the Desert Fathers had an influence on Dorothy’s spirituality, along with the positive approach of French personalism: “The sure confidence in God’s mercy which found its way into her spirituality was based upon a positive anthropology which runs through the Psalms, through the Christian personalists Mounier and Maritain, and upon the image of mercy presented by the Desert Fathers” (p. 103).

Merriman does not mention another important aspect of Dorothy’s interest in the Desert Fathers, that of their flight from the cities to escape military service. In her column in The Catholic Worker in February 1943 Dorothy emphasized their pacifism, quoting in addition to Waddell’s book, two complete volumes edited by Ernest A. Wallis Budge, keeper of the Assyrian and Egyptian antiquities of the British Museum: “A lot of these Desert Fathers, according to Dr. Budge, fled from the cities to the wilderness to escape military service.” Dorothy related her reading to the times she was living in during World War II, the campaign in Africa and letters from “Catholic Worker Gerry” in Syria saying, “It’s a good time to be reading about the Desert Fathers.”
In the same column Dorothy emphasized how much she had learned from the Desert Fathers about “personalism and communitarianism,” telling about how “Thousands of monasteries began then for people began to live together as well as to seek solitary places.” The monks practiced hospitality. In this context Merriman emphasizes Dorothy’s appreciation for Ephraim the Syrian (c. 306-373), and includes a quote from The Desert Fathers: “He was a quiet scholar, and without fail a man of hospitality to all who came to him. In the crisis of famine which visited his countryside, Ephraim ‘turned man of affairs, building a rough-and-ready hospital of three hundred beds, nursing and feeding those who had any spark of life in them, burying the dead.’ He wore himself out in the exercise of the works of mercy, much as did Dorothy in the twentieth century. Undoubtedly, she was inspired by his example, but also by the content and ardor of the saint’s prayer….” (p. 102).

In The Catholic Worker later in the same year (July-August 1943) Dorothy wrote again about the Desert Fathers and St. Ephraim as she was reflecting after a retreat about how in order to change the social order, one must spend time in prayer, go deeper, and change oneself. She wrote: “The Desert Fathers had these same ideas. When times got so bad (when there was universal conscription, for instance), they retreated by the tens of thousands to the desert wastes to pray, to work, and God knows what the world would have been without them. St. Ephraim came out when there was need and retired again to pray.”
In September Dorothy notified readers of The Catholic Worker that she would be taking a “sabbatical” from the busy Catholic Worker in order to have a time in the “desert” of quiet to pray. However, instead of taking the year she had planned to spend, Dorothy returned to the Worker within six months. Some Catholic Workers and others who knew Dorothy criticized Fr. John Hugo for this decision, only seeing the connection between her absence and his recommendation to “give up the things we love the most.” However, Merriman points out that Dorothy explicitly expressed her desire to have a “desert” experience: “The sabbatical was viewed by her as a desert experience. Her readings then and later included frequent rereadings of The Desert Fathers….” (Merriman, p.102). Another reason for a sabbatical was the closure of so many Catholic Worker houses because of all the young men going off to war.

Dorothy quoted at length from Fr. Rembert Sorg, OSB Eastern Rite, regarding the Desert Fathers and also his pamphlet, Towards a Benedictine Theology of Manual Labor. She noted in the October 1949 CW that the pamphlet could be obtained from St. Procopius Abbey, Benedictine Orient, Lisle, Illinois, adding:

“It is duplicated there for private distribution. All readers of Orate Fratres know Father Rembert himself for his very splendid articles… In the whole study of labor and of work there is usually an acceptance of our capitalistic industrial system and the acceptance of the machine as the means to do away with human labor… But here is a book by Father Sorg which is of exceptional interest to all in the lay apostolate which has more than a philosophy of labor, it has a theology of labor…

“Father Sorg’s treatise goes back to St. Anthony of Egypt who rejoiced in never having been troublesome to anyone else on account of labor of his hands. The great rules of St. Pachomius and St. Basil both called for manual labor. St. Jerome said that the monasteries of Egypt would accept no monks who would not do manual work and in St. Basil the strict rule of manual labor is inculcated…

“Father Sorg’s book is utterly delightful and he has chosen a wealth of quotations from the early Fathers. St. John Chrysostom writes: “The sun being risen, they depart, each one to their work, gathering thence the Lords supply for the needy.” In St. John Chrysostom’s Homilies, “almsgiving is the love of Christ. The manual labor of monks a sacred spiritual thing and a Holy Communion.

“Nowhere have I seen love so in flower, nowhere such quick compassion or hospitality so eager,” says St. Rufinus… ‘It was the custom, not only among these, but among almost all the Egyptian monks, to hire themselves out at harvest time as harvesters; and one among them would earn eighty measures of corn more or less, and offer the greater part of it to the poor so that not only the hungry folk of that countryside were fed, but ships were sent to Alexandria, laden with corn, to be divided among such as were prisoners in jails, or as were foreigners and in need, for there was not enough poverty in Egypt to consume the fruit of their compassion and their lavishness.’

“The third purpose of the monks’ labor was ascetical. “In avoiding the sweat of the face, the drudgery of the thorns and the thistles, all of which are the punishment of sin, and which induce sloth and atrophy, the rich shirk work itself, which is not a punishment of sin, but a glorious pleasurable exercise of human nature’s God-given faculties…

“I could write much more on this whole subject but I am sure that what I have written will induce our friends to write to Father Sorg and get this very inspiring booklet.”

Among other writers on Eastern, and specifically Russian spirituality, Dorothy quoted on several occasions G. P. Fedotov’s Russian Spirituality. In an article on “The Incompatibility of Love and Violence” in the May 1951 CW she related a scene in that book to Peter Maurin’s reaction when some of the intellectuals or people in charge of CW houses acted against principles of the Catholic Worker, his principles:

On two occasions Peter almost left the Catholic Worker which he had founded. Once when some of the young intellectuals wanted to throw out the “dead wood,” “the rotten lumber,” (meaning the poor) and concentrate on the “message,” on propaganda. And once when two of the men who were in charge of the house struck others. In his horror and indignation he spoke strongly. On the first instance he arose from the round table where the discussion was going on and said, “let us go, let us leave this to them,” like the retiring abbot in the writing of G. P. Fedotov’s collection of Russian Spirituality. And on the other occasion he stated strongly that if he ever again saw evidence of violence such as he had just witnessed, he would leave the work.

In January 1954 she mentioned reading Russian Spirituality and Pares’ history of Russia, noting that, “there is something very steadying about reading history to counteract the hysteria of the radio.” Later, in the September 1962 CW, Dorothy referred again to Fedotov’s book in regard to the power of the Holy Name. She wrote:

“Do we believe this, do we believe in the Holy Name and the power of the Holy Name? It was reading the Way of a Pilgrim, published by Harper, and also included in Russian Spirituality by Fedotov, a collection of the writings of the Russian saints, that brought me first to a knowledge of what the Holy Name meant in our lives… Fordham Russian Center has a pamphlet ‘On the Invocation of the Holy Name’ which teaches us to pray without ceasing with every breath we draw, with every beat of our hearts.”

It may have been Helene Iswolsky who introduced Dorothy to the great Russian theologian, Vladimir Solovyov. (Hans Urs von Balthasar later chose him as one of the models in hisThe Glory of the Lord, Vol. III, Lay Styles (Ignatius Press), and John Paul II points to him as one of the sources from which Catholic thought can be enriched in his encyclical Fides et Ratio.). Helene gave talks at the Worker on Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Solovyov, putting together the ideas of these authors. One of the occasions is recounted in “On Pilgrimage,”CW, October 1949:

“The first week in September we had Helene Iswolsky at the farm at Newburgh, giving a course on Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Solovyov, the three great Russians. ‘In a field where poison grows,’ she began her course, ‘you will find its antidote. The same soil produces both.’ She spoke of Solovyov who told of the glories of the Incarnation, and is the link between the east and the west. She spoke of the three great men who emphasized the dignity of the human person. ‘To love Russia,’ Berdyaev said, ‘is the way of the cross.’ These three men wrote of the struggle of man towards God and to all of them the golden key which opened the doors of prisons and led out of darkness was the key of love. To listen to such talks is not only to learn more of Christ, but to learn to love the Russians who are truly Christ-bearers in their sufferings and poverty. The ruthlessness of the revolution, Helene Iswolsky said, was due to the degradation of the human person from which they have suffered for centuries. We hope Miss Iswolsky will give us some more evenings this winter.”

Dorothy especially quoted Solovyov regarding his book, The Meaning of Love. In 1948 she wrote, “Recently I have been reading The Meaning of Love by Solovyov, and he refused to accept the idea, so universally accepted, that love is an illusion, a lure, succumbed to so that the purpose of procreation is fulfilled, and then vanishing” (On Pilgrimage, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999, p. 199).

Reflecting on the difficulty of continuing to love when the first special emotion and idealization of the loved one has passed, Dorothy looked to Solovyov for insight. She quotes him at length:

“It is well known to everyone that in love there inevitably exists a special idealization of the beloved object, which presents itself to the lover in an entirely different light from that in which outsiders see it. I speak here of light not merely in a metaphorical sense; it is a matter here not only of a special moral and intellectual estimate, but moreover of a special sensuous reception; the lover actually sees, visually received what others do not. And if for him too this light of love quickly fades away, yet does it follow that it was false, that it was only a subjective illusion?

“…The true significance of love consists not in the simple experience of this feeling but what is accomplished by means of it in the work of love.

“For love it is not enough to feel for itself the unconditional significance of the beloved object, but it is necessary effectively to impart or communicate this significance to this object…

“…Each man comprises in himself the image of God. Theoretically and in the abstract, this Divine image is known to us in mind and through mind, but in love it is known in the concrete and in life. And if this revelation of the ideal nature, ordinarily concealed by its material manifestation, is not confined in love to an inward feeling, but at times becomes noticeable also in the sphere of external feelings, then so much greater is the significance we are bound to acknowledge for love as being from the very first the visible restoration of the Divine image in the world of matter….

It may have been exactly the insistence of Solovyov on fostering “an integral world view that would harmonize the heights of theoretical speculation with everyday social and personal need” (Robert F. Slesinski, Communio, Winter 1999, p.778) that drew Dorothy to his ideas. One of the things she frequently mentioned was the desire of Peter Maurin and herself to make a correlation of the material and the spiritual.

In the July/August issue Dorothy shared with the readers of The Catholic Worker that she used materials from both Solovyov and the writings of Chekhov in her talks:

“All winter I had been reading Chekhov, his letters, stories and novelettes and the very basic philosophy of work that he expressed in his plays and stories gave me good ammunition in my talks about man’s necessity to earn his living by the sweat of his brow, not to be a parasite on the social body, but mindful of the common good. I talked too on sex and chastity, and in addition to the Gospel teaching of Jesus, I cited Solovyov’s book, The Meaning of Love….”

Dorothy visited Russia in 1971. She mentioned in her reflections in the November 1971CW Solovyov, “that philosopher of ecumenism, who so influenced Dostoevsky’s thinking,” and noted that Helene Iswolsky was speaking to her as she wrote, commenting: “Solovyov is the prophet of ecumenism, and indeed of everything good in Russia.”
In “On Pilgrimage,” March-April 1978 CW Dorothy mentioned again her friendship with Helene Iswolsky, in some rambling reflections of everyday events. She had been listening to an opera: “Listening to Eugene Onegin being broadcast on radio from the Metropolitan Opera House-delightful, haunting music. This was Helene Iswolsky’s favorite opera as a young girl in Russia, much as my sister’s and mine was La Boheme.”

It was Dostoevsky among the Russian novelists who struck the deepest chord with Dorothy during her adolescence, long before she became a Catholic, as well as throughout her life at the Catholic Worker. William Miller named some of the Russian authors she read in his biography of Dorothy: “She read the novels of Artsybashev, Turgenev, Gorki, Chekhov and above all Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.” Miller especially stressed the influence of Dostoevsky: “She would, in fact, throughout her life, be a passionate devotee of Russian literature, and in time the genius of Dostoevsky recommended itself to her so strongly that his effect on her was oracular and remained so all of her life (Dorothy Day, a Biography,Harper and Row, 1982, p. 36).

In fact, William Miller recounted how Stanley Vishnewski, who spent his life at the Worker, remembered telling another Worker, Gerry Griffin, that “the only way he would ever understand the Catholic Worker was by reading Dostoevsky” (Miller, p. 326). As late as May 1973 Dorothy Day wrote in The Catholic Worker, “I do not think I could have carried on with a loving heart all these years without Dostoevsky’s understanding of poverty, suffering, and drunkenness.”
In The Long Loneliness Dorothy wrote about her early reading of the Russian authors and her trouble in finding Christians who lived the great insights she found there:

“The Russian writers appealed to me too, and I read everything of Dostoevsky, as well as the stories of Gorki and Tolstoy. Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy made me cling to a faith in God, and yet I could not endure feeling an alien in it. I felt that my faith had nothing in common with that of Christians around me” (The Long Loneliness, HarperSanFrancisco, 1952, 1997, pp. 42-43).

Her writing brings out her passionate response to Dostoevsky: “I could not hear of Sonya’s reading the Gospel to Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment without turning to it myself with love. I could not read Ippolyte’s rejection of his ebbing life and defiance of God in The Idiot without being filled with an immense sense of gratitude to God for life and a desire to make some return” (The Long Loneliness, p. 108).

Miller adds to her quotes from her earlier reading of the great novelist: “The characters, Alyosha and The Idiot, testified to Christ in us. I was moved to the depths of my being by the reading of these books during my early twenties when I, too, was tasting the bitterness and the dregs of life and shuddered at its hardness and cruelty” (Miller, p. 154).

Some of the passages that Dorothy quoted often from Dostoevsky are very well known; many who never read Dostoevsky became familiar with some of the themes of his writings through her. A number of these came from The Brothers Karamazov. She quoted the book so often that sometimes she simply refers to it as The Brothers.

Less well known even to those who love Dorothy Day’s writing is her emphasis on the passages from The Brothers Karamazov on monasticism, and even on fasting. Her interest in monasticism and in profound spirituality is reflected in her choice of this passage to present to readers as a model. In her book On Pilgrimage, she declares that on fasting she will not quote Father Lacouture or Father Hugo (her retreat masters), but rather the monk, Father Zossima:

‘”The world says, You have desires, and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don’t be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires… I knew one “champion of freedom” who told me himself that, when he was deprived of tobacco in prison, he was so wretched at the privation that he almost went and betrayed his cause for the sake of getting tobacco again! And such a man says, “I am fighting for the cause of humanity.”

”How can such a one fight, what is he fit for? He is capable perhaps of some action quickly over, but he cannot hold out long. And it is no wonder that the people instead of gaining freedom have sunk to slavery and instead of serving the cause of brotherly love and the union of humanity have fallen on the contrary, into dissension and isolation. The monastic way is different. Obedience, fasting and prayer are laughed at, yet only through them lies the way to real, true freedom'” (Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999, pp. 102-103).

In February 1942 when Dorothy was under attack for her pacifist stand, she spoke of love, the love of Christ which was so different from the starving of whole populations or the bombardment of open cities. She insisted that “love is not killing, it is the laying down of one’s life for one’s friend.” And then she quoted at length from Dostoevsky’s monk, Fr. Zossima. She said she quoted him because the accusation “holier than thou” was also made against the Catholic Workers, who must, like everyone else, admit guilt, participation in the social order which had resulted in the monstrous crime of war.

“Hear Fr. Zossima, in the Brothers Karamazov: ‘Love one another, Fathers,’ he said, speaking to his monks. ‘Love God’s people. Because we have come here and shut ourselves within these walls, we are no holier than those that are outside, but on the contrary, from the very fact of coming here, each of us has confessed to himself that he is worse than others, than all men on earth… And the longer the monk lives in his seclusion, the more keenly he must recognize that. Else he would have no reason to come here.

‘When he realizes that he is not only worse than others, but that he is responsible to all men for all and everything, for all human sins, national and individual, only then the aim of our seclusion is attained. For know, dear ones, that every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all men and everything on earth, not merely through the general sinfulness of creation, but each one personally for all mankind and every individual man. For monks are not a special sort of man, but only what all men ought to be. Only through that knowledge, our heart grows soft with infinite, universal, inexhaustible love. Then every one of you will have the power to win over the whole world by love and to wash away the sins of the world with your tears… Each of you keep watch over your heart and confess your sins to yourself unceasingly… Hate not the atheists, the teachers of evil, the materialists, and I mean not only the good ones-for there are many good ones among them, especially in our day-hate not even the wickedness. Remember them in your prayers thus: Save, O Lord, all those who have none to pray for them, save too all those who will not pray. And add, it is not in pride that I make this prayer, O Lord, for I am lower than all men…'”

One of the best known quotes from Dorothy Day is, “All my life I have been haunted by God.” Those who see the play written and presented about her called Haunted by God may not know that the quote comes from Dostoevsky’s The Possessed.

In the book she wrote about her conversion, From Union Square to Rome, Dorothy reflects on her reading of Dostoevsky and shares some passages:

Through those years I read all of Dostoevsky’s novels and it was, as Berdyaev says, a profound spiritual experience. The scene in Crime and Punishment where the young prostitute reads from The New Testament to Raskolnikov, sensing sin more profound than her own, which weighed upon him; that story The Honest Thief; those passages in The Brothers Karamazov; the sayings of Father Zossima, Mitya’s conversion in jail, the very legend of the Grand Inquisitor, all this helped to lead me on…”

This reflection includes an unforgettable story:

“Do you remember that little story that Grushenka tells in The Brothers Karamazov? “Once upon a time there was a peasant woman, and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into a lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell God. ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered, ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her on the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,” said he, “catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ And he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her out when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.'”

Dorothy added her comment, “Sometimes in thinking and wondering at God’s goodness to me, I have thought that it was because I gave away an onion. Because I sincerely loved His poor, He taught me to know Him. And when I think of the little I ever did, I am filled with hope and love for all those others devoted to the cause of social justice” (Robert Ellsberg, ed., Selected Writings of Dorothy Day, 1983, 1992, pp. 5-6).

Later references to the onion story include Dorothy’s article, “Love is the Measure,” in the June 1946 CW, where she faces the host of problems in the world and how a person can respond to them, how it might be possible to make a better world. Her solution includes giving away an onion:

“What we would like to do is change the world-make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And to a certain extent, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, of the poor, of the destitute-the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor in other words, we can to a certain extent change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We can give away an onion.”

In May 1939 Dorothy wrote a reflection called: “Hell is Not to Love Any More.” Dorothy sometimes quoted Bernanos when she mentioned this phrase; it appears in The Diary of a Country Priest. Miller points out that the original source for this line is Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “Fathers and teachers,” says Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima in a conversation with his fellow monks just before his death, ‘What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love'” (Miller, p. 326).

Her serious study of Dostoevsky is clear from Miller’s commentary: “In September she noted that she had just finished Dostoevsky’s The Raw Youth. She made a brief comment: “Many of the ideas of The Possessed and The Brothers [Karamozov] are in that early novel. Versiloff a more mature Stavragin, Berdyaev said. I wish I had his [Berdyaev’s] book on Dostoevsky. I have only a defective copy with 50 pages missing” (Miller, p. 334). Another example of her awareness of intellectual currents of thought, especially as regarding Dostoevsky, appeared in her October 1953 “On Pilgrimage” column where she brought to readers’ attention “Henri de Lubac’s (S.J.) The Drama of Atheist Humanism which treats of the writings of Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Comte and the answer which Dostoevsky gives to their disbelief.”

In concrete situations, Dorothy’s reflections included Dostoevky’s characters and their experiences. For example, when Peter Maurin was beginning to become ill and was not able to think so clearly and the noise in the house, the constant talking by guests with their problems was overwhelming to him. He was unable to think, but he never complained. Miller shows how Dorothy relates this to her reading:

Thinking of Peter, Dorothy then thought of Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin, who, like Maurin, “is described as entirely passive, [who] willingly accepts suffering, is easily put upon, answers offense by begging forgiveness, and exaggerates the good in others while constantly overlooking evil.” Dostoevsky, she said, described this “submissiveness” as “the most fearful force that can exist in the world” (Miller, p. 373). She referred in May 1974 to the character of Myshkin, especially in terms of the term “Holy Fools,” which she said had a “special significance in Russian literature and is used to describe Myshkin in The Idiot, a truly Christ-like figure.

Dorothy noted here as she had on other occasions that so many at the Catholic Worker considered “holy fools in the eyes of our friends and readers.” However, in this column she mentioned how it was used again in relation to Solzhenitsyn in an article in Newsweek.
Through many of Dorothy’s experiences she was able to relate to Dostoevsky. Having been jailed on several occasions for her principles, she understood the despair and suffering of prisoners and the difficulty of maintaining one’s faith and hope in prison. She quoted Dostoevsky in the September 1940 CW as saying in several of his books that “it is possible for a man to lead a perfect life even in jail.” In January 1974 she said she had a “goodly selection of books about prisons and prisoners, beginning with Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead.”

In difficult time Dorothy often remembered the scene of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov. She included that scene in a recommended reading list in her early book, House of Hospitality. In that same book in chapter nine she described how she felt low and oppressed about discouraged Catholic Workers who were weary of the idea of freedom and personal responsibility. She related this problem to the passage: “Today I just happened to light on Dostoevsky’s ‘Grand Inquisitor’ which was most apropos. Freedom–how men hate and chafe under it, how unhappy they are with it.”

Reflecting on the worst violence of war, Dorothy turned to the Grand Inquisitor scene. In the March 1966 CW, during the Vietnam War she wrote,

“Of course, there were, and always will be, great gaps in my understanding of such questions as the problem of evil in the world and God’s permission of it. I cringe still at Ivan Karamazov’s portrayal of ‘a God that permits’ the torture of children, such torture as is going on today in the burning alive of babies in Vietnam. Theologians debate situation ethics and the new morality (leaving out of account the problem of means and ends) while the screams of the flaming human torches, civilians and soldiers, rise high to heaven. The only conclusion I have ever been able to reach is that we must pray to God to increase our faith, a faith without which one cannot love or hope. ‘Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.'”

Her own identification as a writer with Dostoevsky is apparent in the chapter in her book,Loaves and Fishes, “The Insulted and the Injured.” It begins:

“Last week, stopping to browse as I passed a second-hand bookstore on Fourth Avenue I came across a battered old copy of Dostoevsky’s The Insulted and the Injured, a story which I had not read for many years. It was only twenty-five cents. I got it, and started reading it that very evening.

“It is the story of a young author-it might be Dostoevsky himself-of the success of his first book, and of how he read it aloud to his foster father. The father said, “It’s simply a little story, but it wrings your heart. What’s happening all around you grows easier to understand and to remember, and you learn that the most downtrodden, humblest man is a man, too, and a brother.” I thought as I read these words, “That is why I write” (Loaves and Fishes, Orbis Books, 1963, 1997, p. 75).

A few of the lines which Dorothy quoted frequently from Dostoevsky are sometimes attributed to her instead of to the great Russian author. One of these is “The World will be Saved by Beauty.” Her January 1973 “On Pilgrimage” column explains the deeper meaning of the phrase and why she quoted it so frequently:

“Beauty will save the world,” Dostoevsky wrote. I just looked up this quotation in Konstantin Mochulsky’s Dostoevsky, His Life and Work…In a paragraph on page 224, in speaking of art, Dostoevsky is quoted as saying, “It has its own integral organic life and it answers man’s innate need of beauty without which, perhaps he might not want to live upon earth.”

When a man is in discord with reality, conflict…the thirst for beauty and harmony appears in him with its greatest force. Art is useful here because it pours in energy, sustains the forces, strengthens our feeling of life… Man accepts beauty without any conditions and so, simply because it is beauty, with veneration he bows down before it, not asking why it is useful and what one can buy with it… Beauty is more useful than the simply useful, for it is the ultimate goal of being. On this height, the way of art meets with the way of religion…

It was Jack English [Catholic Worker from Cleveland] who, in one of his letters from the Trappist Monastery in Georgia, wrote to me that line from Dostoevsky’s notebook, ‘Beauty will save the world.’

Dorothy’s reflections on beauty and Dostoevsky’s phrase on other occasions included her appreciation of the beauty of nature and her ability to see beauty even in those who were suffering. In the September 1974 CW she wrote:

The world will be saved by beauty, Dostoevsky wrote, and Solzhenitsyn quoted it in his Nobel talk. I look back on my childhood and remember beauty. The smell of sweet clover in a vacant lot, a hopeful clump of grass growing up through the cracks of a city pavement. A feather dropped from some pigeon. A stalking cat. Ruskin wrote of “the duty of delight,” and told us to lift up our heads and see the cloud formations in the sky. I have seen sunrises at the foot of a New York street, coming up over the East River. I have always found a strange beauty in the suffering faces which surround us in the city. Black, brown and grey heads bent over those bowls of food, that so necessary food which is always there at St. Joseph’s House on First St., prepared each morning by Ed Forand or some of the young volunteers. We all enter into the act of hospitality, one way or another. So many of those who come in to eat return to serve, to become part of the “family.”

Dorothy was sometimes able to create beauty in simplicity and even poverty and appreciated the gift of others who did so. She told the story of what happened when one family joined a Catholic Worker farm and destroyed the beauty in the name of looking poor:
Another family moving in with us, on one of our Catholic Worker farms, felt that the beautifying which had made the farmhouse and its surroundings a charming spot was not consistent with a profession of poverty. They broke up the rustic benches and fence, built by one of the men from the Bowery who had stayed with us, and used them for firewood. The garden surrounding the statue of the Blessed Virgin, where we used to say the rosary, was trampled down and made into a woodyard filled with chips and scraps left from the axe which chopped the family wood. It was the same with the house: the curtains were taken down, the floor remained bare, there were no pictures-the place became a scene of stark poverty, and a visiting bishop was appalled at the “poverty.” It had looked quite comfortable before, and one did not think of the crowded bedrooms or the outhouse down the hill, or the outdoor cistern and well where water had to be pumped and put on the wood stove in the kitchen to heat. Not all these hardships were evident. (Dorothy Day, “Reflections During Advent, Part Two: The Meaning of Poverty,” Ave Maria, December 3, 1966, p. 21).

Peter Maurin’s program had three aspects: cult, culture and cultivation. The culture part was related to many aspects of culture, including beauty and to folk art, expressions of the exuberance and joy and thankfulness for life. The Catholic Worker Houses of Hospitality were not all works of mercy and worship, important as these were. Worship (cult) was complemented at times by “culture.” In an article on “Education and Work” in the September 1953 CW Dorothy wrote:
If we had this good foundation of productive work, culture would grow from it. Folk songs, folk art, folk dancing, are expression of the exuberance and joy and thankfulness for life. Cultivation and culture are based on Cult, which is our Holy Faith.

We have had two and three Masses a day at Peter Maurin farm for the past month. There is the rosary, prime, compline, vespers at Maryfarm. There is culture, which is the drawing which little Mac Smith does, and all the children love to do, and the reading and the listening to music, and the making of it. At Maryfarm Hector Black gave us a wonderful concert this summer on our old piano which he tuned. At Peter Maurin farm, we all joined in singing, Michael with Russian songs, Fr. Wencelaus with Polish, Stanley with Lithuanian, Fr. Pinet and the three seminarians who were visiting with French songs, and the Smith children with calypso!

A reflection on beauty which illustrates this theme so well was written by Dorothy in her “On Pilgrimage” column in the February 1955 CW:

“There is a poor little church down in that section, a frame building and painted a bright swampy green. It was light and warm inside and had the feeling of a much loved place. There was a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe and no matter how garish the decorations, this presentation of Our Lady is always of unutterable beauty. She is the patroness of the Americas and I love to visit her in the shrines, and make special requests there. They are usually in the neighborhoods of the poor.”

In the midst of busy houses of hospitality, Dorothy sometimes found time to listen to beautiful music. In the October 1945 CW she described one such occasion:

“I went out to the kitchen to make fudge…Gerry wanted to mail it to Jack Thornton for Christmas and the package had to get off before Monday and there was no time Friday or Saturday. . . we listened to the symphony while the fudge, made of brown sugar and milk, boiled on the stove. The symphony was Tschaikovsky’s Fifth, the Pathetique, the same one my brother and I listened to while we waited for his wife to have her first baby. Such music to accompany our thoughts of life and death.”

A passage from Dostoevsky which has become closely associated with Dorothy because she quoted it so often comes from The Brothers Karamazov. A society woman goes to Fr. Zossima to speak about her lack of faith and how to achieve immortality. The woman says she likes to love, but wants an immediate reward. Fr. Zossima’s response is, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” This phrase sustained Workers through difficult moments in Houses of Hospitality when the problems were overwhelming and guests were often anything but grateful. The rush of romantic emotion often associated with helping the poor faded after a few days or weeks in a House of Hospitality and Workers had to be sustained by something much deeper. In the postcript to The Long Loneliness, Dorothy wrote: “…the final word is love. At times it has been, in the words of Father Zossima, a harsh and dreadful thing, and our very faith in love has been tried through fire” (The Long Loneliness, p. 285).
In her Spring Appeal in the April 1958 CW Dorothy explained how it was possible to go on even when love in practice might be harsh and dreadful:

“We are called to be saints, St. Paul said, and Peter Maurin called on us to make that kind of society where it was easier for men to be saints. Nothing less will work. Nothing less is powerful enough to combat war and the all-encroaching state.

“To be a saint is to be a lover, ready to leave all, to give all. Dostoevsky said that love in practice was a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams, but if ‘we see only Jesus’ in all who come to us: the lame, the halt and the blind, who come to help and to ask for help, then it is easier.”

Writing in the Houston Catholic Worker about Dorothy Day and Dostoevsky in September-October 1966, Joe Peabody described very well the attitude toward the poor in both the Catholic Worker Movement and in Dostoevsky: “The same respectful, yet realistic, attitude toward people is implied in the Catholic worker philosophy. Neither tries to unravel the mystery of God’s presence in the poor. Neither idealizes them. But both realize that the poor are icons of Jesus.”

Writing late in her life on May Day of 1976 Dorothy reflected on the beginnings of the Catholic Worker movement, the philosophers with whom Peter kept the Workers in touch, and the suffering of the poor served by the Catholic Worker. Again, she brought in the famous phrase from The Brothers Karamazov:

“Sometimes life is so hard, we foolishly look upon ourselves as martyrs, because it is almost as though we were literally sharing in the sufferings of those we serve. It is good to remember-to clutch to our aching hearts those sayings of Fr. Zossima–‘Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.'”

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XX, No. 3, May-June 2000.