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My Dorothy Day

Tom Cornell is a long-time Catholic Worker who worked with Dorothy Day. He is a deacon in the Archdiocese of New York.

Joe Zarrella, among the first Catholic Workers, preferred her old publisher’s publicity photo from the Thirties, Dorothy in wavy shoulder-length hair. I prefer the one from the mid-Sixties, before she lost her weight, looking strong, with her hair braided and wrapped on her head, when I worked most closely with her, “my Dorothy.” Workers who came in the Seventies remember her as she looks in those ghastly icons, old, gaunt, sunken.

The young Dorothy was Victorian, genteel, modest and diffident, and yet volatile and bohemian. Dorothy was, after all, born in Queen Victoria’s time and her parents kept a close eye on their daughters. No penny-novels, no cheap romances in the Day household, only Dickens, Thackeray and Scott, and the Bible, King James Version, of course, and Shakespeare. Not long after leaving home, Dorothy was forced to leave her first job, as a reporter on the Socialist daily, The Call, because she struck a man at the annual Anarchist Ball at the Webster Hall in Manhattan. In those days even women radical revolutionaries were not supposed to slug men who were making unwelcome advances. She was only twenty then. My Dorothy, in later years, would have found a nonviolent way of turning the man away. But she would make her will known at least as forcefully.

Dorothy as I knew her was utterly consistent in her pacifism and classical nonviolence, and she was utterly consistent in her love of the poor and the working people, and in her love of and loyalty to the Catholic Church. Shortly after her death I sat in a kitchen with Father John Hugo and Sister Peter Claver. Peter Claver remarked on Dorothy’s “love of the Church,” as a defining characteristic. Yes, Dorothy was angry when she witnessed hierarchs and Church agencies failing to live up to their own teaching. Yet she was always loyal and obedient. More than that, she put the best possible construction on anything a priest or bishop might say that might cause offense. St. Ignatius Loyola counsels us all to do the same, especially in regard to our opponents. Dorothy wanted the Church to teach thenecessity of peace, the necessity of nonviolence, the necessity of justice and what we now call the “option for the poor”with authority. She was not fool enough to undermine that very authority. An “underground priest” of the Sixties once wrote to chastise her being judgmental in regard to a Worker’s lapse from the marital laws of the Church. “You are betraying the revolution you yourself started!” he wrote. Little did he know Dorothy!

She had her own authority. We obeyed Dorothy because we loved her. We also knew she paid the bills. But Workers well beyond the confines of our own New York City community where Dorothy had the power of the gate obeyed her. When Dorothy was displeased with the wrangling going on at a Catholic Worker house in Boston, back in the Thirties, she ordered the owners to sell all the community’s properties and give the proceeds to the Archdiocese of Boston. They did! When Dorothy issued her famous “encyclical” at the outset of World War II, ordering all CW communities to refrain from open dissent from her stand on the war, the communities that could not do so simply ceased to identify themselves as Catholic Worker. That was the honest thing to do, and a bond of affection was never broken.

Dorothy had the knack of saying just the right thing to people who were seeking counsel. More than once I witnessed people come from a private chat with Dorothy reeling. “How did she know….?” Could she read souls? She had an eye for phonies and gave them short-shrift, though she was never unkind. She did not suffer fools gladly, she said, and she counted that a fault. But I saw her entertain many a fool with patient endurance and even seem to learn from them.

Dorothy was politically savvy. She had lived her early adult, pre-conversion life with radicals of all stripes, socialists, Communists, and anarchists. They are sometimes portrayed as effete and feckless, but that is far from the truth. Eugene O’Neil was America’s finest playwright. Malcolm Cowley and Kenneth Burke were the foremost literary critics of their era. As for the radicals, Warren Beatty wanted Dorothy to appear in his movie, Reds , because Dorothy knew and worked with almost everyone portrayed in that film. Dorothy declined, fearing that her failing hearing and memory might betray her.

Dorothy gave her former comrades credit for leading her to the Faith, though that was certainly not their intention. She admired their dedication, their resolve, their sacrifice, their solidarity with the poor and the exploited. All her life long, Dorothy expressed her gratitude for her radical atheist friends who served Christ in his poor even though they did not acknowledge Him. She loathed the atheism of complacent, smug, self-satisfied Christians who cried “Lord, Lord!” but did not do the will of the Father, who praised Christ in song but exploited Him in the worker, scorned and even scourged Him in the immigrant, the Jew, the “Dago,” the African, the poor, the “bum.” That is a denial of God in Christ because it is a denial of Christ in the poor.

The old radicals believed in the “solidarity of the international working class.” Workers would never again fight each other rather than their common oppressors. How sad a delusion, as World War I demonstrated! The radical movement went into deep despair. Then the Russian Revolution, the fall of the Tsar! New hope! But that hope failed too before the Twenties were out. Dorothy traded in the “solidarity of the international working class” for the Mystical Body of Christ. But from her close association in her formative years with the old radicals, Dorothy picked up a sophisticated political sense. She was not a political analyst, but her instinct seldom led her astray. There were few to match her! And she kept the social passion of her early years and asked, “Where is the Catholic leadership in the struggle for peace and justice?” She would become their mother.

Of all the radicals, Dorothy liked the anarchists best because they were self-disciplined and orderly and they didn’t spend all their time arguing the minutiae of Marxism but went out and did things, “direct action,” it’s called. She joined the Socialist Party but found the meetings boring and drifted away. She described herself as a Communist, not in the sense of being a card-carrying party member, but in the common parlance of the Thirties, in the sense that she worked for a Communist Party front organization, even after her conversion as she looked for other employment in order to support her daughter Tamar [with the permission of her new spiritual director]..

The first words I heard Dorothy utter were Scripture quotes. It was during the Q. and A. at the end of a Friday Night Meeting for the Clarification of Thought over fifty years ago. Someone said all people have the right to life and that therefore they have the right to the means to life, and that everyone should have a sense of security. No one was about to challenge that. But Dorothy didn’t like what she heard. She put her knitting down and stood to say, “Security, security! I don’t want to hear any more about security. There are great things to be done and who will do them but the young and how will they do them if all they are thinking about is their own security?” Then she strung the quotes together, “Consider the lilies of the field,” she started. “Think not on the morrow.” “Think not what you are to eat or what to put on.” She ended with, “Unless the grain of wheat fall into the ground and die it remains alone, but if the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it will bring forth a great harvest.” I had heard all this before, but never spoken with such authority. Her voice was not strong, her delivery was untrained. But she had power, the power of authenticity. I was done for, she had me. A few years later I heard Dorothy recite the Act of Faith. “…. I believe these and all the truthes the Catholic Church teaches because Thou hast revealed them Who canst neither deceive nor be deceived.” Again, her faith deepened mine, just to hear her pray these words. That faith was the source of Dorothy’s strength and insight. To determine just what the Catholic Church teaches was a large part of Dorothy’s life-project.

In the post World War II years, during the Red Scare and the McCarthy period, my spiritual advisors told me to stay away from Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. Dorothy was on the “lunatic fringe” of the Church and the Catholic Worker was tinged with Jansenism. Dorothy was a material heretic, if not a formal one. She’ll get you into trouble, they said. They were right on that count! Now it is clear to see that Dorothy Day was not eccentric. She taught out of the heart of the Church, its very center. That is why today she is being considered for canonization as a saint.

Shortly after Cardinal O’Connor was installed as Archbishop of New York, he took the pulpit at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to ask the advice of the people whether or not he should initiate the canonization process in Rome. I wrote him a three page single-spaced letter, beginning by telling the reasons he should drop the whole idea. Dorothy didn’t want any such talk. She had faults, and I described them, especially how she took offense at a slight and the way she could hold on to a grudge for decades. By the top of the third page I had changed my mind. Well before her death, Dorothy dropped her grudges and made amends with those she may have offended. She never stopped growing in grace, ever closer to God. If saints are those who provide an authentic example of Christian discipleship for their time and the dawning future, then Dorothy Day should not only be canonized a saint, she should be declared a Doctor of the Church.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVI, No. 4, July-August 2006.