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A Familiar Pilgrimage In Remarkable Detail: A Review Essay: The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2008), 669 pp. + xxxiv.

Michael Baxter teaches at the University of Notre Dame and lives and works at the Catholic Worker in South Bend, Indiana. He is also national secretary for the Catholic Peace Fellowship.


The arrangement whereby the diaries of the Dorothy Day were transferred from the Catholic Worker in New York to the archives at Marquette University can be traced, in part, in the diaries themselves. Sometime before February 1969, Dorothy had agreed to turn her papers over to the archives at Marquette University. The agreement put her in contact with William Miller, a professor of history at Marquette at the time, and later, starting in the fall of 1969, at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Carrying out this agreement first appears in the diaries (for citations, I will be using the dates of entries rather than page numbers) where Day writes: “Kay working on files and archives. Heard from Dr. Miller. Book taken by Herder and Herder. He will move to Florida in June.” (February 25, 1969) Five years later, Day notes another step in the process: “Archivist here all day, packing material, all letters will be closed to public until year 2000. All other materials, writings, pamphlets, books, my articles, etc. open.” (April 11, 1974) The process of turning over material was not without controversy, as reflected in an entry two years after that. She writes: “Bill Miller called about Rockefeller Foundation grant to Marquette for our archives. I told him that no more papers will go to them until we get letters assuring us this will not be accepted.” (Feb 4, 1976) Six days later, there is another entry: “Prof. Miller wrote terse letter giving up, as I asked him, writing my biography. Also pledging himself not to use any Rockefeller funds for archives or his work.” (Feb 10, 1976) With this pledge made, the process continued. Two years later, she writes: “Dr. Miller in morning, will take our archives with him.” (April 12, 1978) And the next day: “Dr. Miller is so quiet and dignified a person it is hard for me to call him Bill. I must read his book.” (April 13, 1978) The book is A Harsh and Dreadful Love . Dorothy appears to have started it a few weeks before—“Reading for the first time Miller’s book. Good.” (March 18, 1978)—but she must not have gotten too far into it.

The wonderful thing about these diaries is that they provide remarkable details of Day’s life and the lives of those around her. Reading the above entries, one can imagine the sighs emitted as “Kay” began gathering up more than three decade’s worth of papers, feel the hurt that William Miller no doubt felt upon reading Day’s request to stop work on her biography, hear the pots and pans rattling at the Catholic Worker in New York as the boxes were being carried downstairs and out to the street. What these diaries provide is access into the give and take, tugs and pulls, the inspirations, difficulties, and unswerving principles that gave shape to Day’s life; access into her thoughts and feelings about the people she lived with and loved, the co-workers she suffered with (and from), the lay apostolate she started and sustained—in heartening and heartbreaking detail. However, a word of caution is in order. Readers of these diaries should be careful not to assume the details in these diaries are necessarily “factual.” In fact, regarding the entries above, Day’s letters and diaries were released not in the year 2000, but in 2005, in accord with a later agreement to unseal them twenty-five years after her death. Miller’s book ( A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement ) was not published by Herder and Herder, but by Liveright in 1973. And Miller did not give up working on his biography; it was eventually published (with an unflattering cover photo) under the title Dorothy Day: A Biography(Harper & Row, 1982). Fortunately, these factual discrepancies are cleared up by an editor whose notes on the people, events, and books Day mentions are helpfully, and unobtrusively, inserted through-out these diaries, namely, Robert Ellsberg.

In addition, Ellsberg introduces these diaries with a ten-page narrative and reflection on Day’s life and work in the Catholic Worker, followed by a twelve-page chronology of events relating to it. He has divided the diary entries into six parts, one for each decade, from the thirties to the seventies, plus a “final diary” for the last year of her life; each part is introduced by a brief summary of the period. But perhaps Ellsberg’s most memorable contribution comes in the last paragraph of the preface, where he recalls consulting with Frank Donavon as to the whereabouts of this “final diary,” prompting Frank “to look in the drawer of Dorothy’s bedside table. And there he found it: a small red-leather diary from 1980, unread by anyone for more than twenty-five years, the final entries written just a week before she died.” This discovery meant much to Ellsberg, as editor of the diaries and as a co-worker and friend of the woman who produced them: “To hold that small book and to transcribe its contents brought this project to a fitting conclusion. But for me it closed a more personal circle, recalling memories of her voice, and of the stories she told, and of our last meeting in that room—which marked both an end and a beginning” (p. xi).

It is natural—and supernatural, Dorothy might add—that Ellsberg should find such profoundly personal mean-ing in reading and editing these diaries. After all, he lived and worked with her for five years in New York, and their relationship grew close, as can evidenced by the periodic entries Day made tracking his anti-nuclear activism, his articles in the paper, and his involvement with the War Resisters League, including, at one point (April 13, 1979; Good Friday), a visit to her room during which he shared with her his desire to become Catholic. Reading these diaries will be equally personal for other readers who knew and worked with Dorothy. Many entries are sure to evoke countless memories of her voice, the stories she told, and one or more encounters that still, after twenty-five years or more, carry deep, personal significance. But these diaries will also carry personal significance for people who never knew Dorothy but who nevertheless seek to live the kind of life she lived—a different kind of personal significance, to be sure, less graphic to the senses, but no less personal or real. For those who were led to the Catholic Worker after Dorothy was gone, then, as well as for those who knew her, these diaries are likely to become an object of prayer, meditation, study, discussion, and “clarification of thought” (to use Peter’s congenial phrase) for decades to come. In this spirit, I offer the following summaries and reflections of Dorothy’s diary entries, gathered around eight aspects or themes: (1) the diaries, (2) life and work at the Worker, (3) money and poverty, (4) quotable quips, (5) reading and writing, (6) peace and protest, (7) family and friends, and (8) God and the Church. My hope is that readers will get a feel for the diaries and be drawn to read them in their entirety, finding insight and inspiration from knowing Dorothy’s familiar pilgrimage in such remarkable detail.

1. The Diaries

“A new resolution, to write these few lines every day.” (May 30, 1937) This line appears three years after Day began these diaries. A similar resolution is recorded in 1939, as the liturgical year came to a close: “In a few days Advent starts. To us who use our missals it is the beginning of a new year. It always makes me happy—beginnings—the oppor-tunity to make fresh starts. One resolution: to write daily. So many things happen, so many people, so many places.” (Nov. 24, 1939) She expresses a similar resolution in 1944, while on her half-year retreat from the Catholic Worker: “I have got quite out of the habit of diary keeping but since my spiritual advisor counsels against writing for some months save for meditations, I shall try to be more regular about this and write some every day, whether just to keep track of events or to write ‘reflections’ as I am so fond of doing. . . . I’m going to try to be more regular in future.” (Feb 18, 1944) Keeping a diary was important to Dorothy; it “helps to clarify ideas, keeps record of reading, as well as happenings. One’s memory is always faulty—not just old age.” (Jan 1, 1965) But she struggled to be consistent about making entries throughout her life, with greater urgency as she anticipated its end: “The fact that this may be the last year of my life should make me faithful in keeping this diary.” (March 9, 1973) Four years later, she writes: “These last few mornings I finished Frank Sheed’s translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions and was struck by Book X’s analysis of memory. What a ragbag of a mind I have, pulling out pieces to be used for this last book I shall write—this Notebook.” (Jan 22, 1977) A few months later, she felt inspired to make entries: “I wake up this morning feeling joyful and determined to write my NOTEBOOK ‘religiously’ each morning.” (April 29, 1977) But not long after, she finds it difficult to fulfill her resolution: “If only I had the strength to write daily! . . . I pray for that strength, then I will write a little every day.” (May 10, 1977)

Given Day’s endless struggle to write regularly in her diary, it is not surprising that the entries are intermittent, with gaps stretching for weeks or months at a time, even more. The entries for 1941 and 1942 each amount to less than a page. No entries appear in 1947 (to compensate, Ellsberg has inserted a page-long excerpt from “On Pilgrimage,” her column in the paper). The year 1937 covers just over five pages; the year 1974, less than four pages. Many shorter skips are present as well. Some years, the diary keeps starting out strong, with entries coming every day or two, owing to a New Year’s resolution perhaps. But as the weeks go by, they become sporadic, a reflection no doubt of the time demanded in putting out a paper, managing a household, raising money, traveling. But whatever the diaries lack in daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly consistency is compensated by the sheer span of time covered in these diaries, almost a half a century, from an era when house and farm were heated with coal to the time of central heating.

What conclusions can be drawn from the intermittent character of these diaries? For one thing, they form only a partial record of Day’s life and work. Extremely rich in pro-viding a record of her personal inspirations and struggles, they are, at the same time, a limited resource, a partial record at best, illuminating yet fragmented. For another thing, there is the possibility, given the sporadic pattern of the entries, as well as the chaotic pattern of life at the Catholic Worker, that significant portions of the diaries have been lost forever; perhaps they went out with the trash one day, or, like the final diary, still lay in a drawer or behind a couch somewhere. Day writes, “My diaries are scattered in many books.” (Dec 10, 1946) And then there is this consoling thought to aspiring diarists: one of the twentieth-century’s more interesting diaries contains dozens of resolutions to begin again.

2. Life and Work at the Worker

A sense of the details of life and work of the Catholic Worker can be conveyed by lifting out selections from two early years, 1939 and 1940.

The first entry in 1939 recounts a local parish “mis-sion,” a program over several days consisting of conferences, preaching, and sacramental renewal, attended by “men from the Bowery.” Knowing they were “living on relief in lodging houses or sleeping in doorways,” Dorothy writes, “they were as poor, as destitute, as ‘down and out’ as man can get. And yet how close they are to our Lord!” “I felt Christ in that man beside me and I loved him.” Then she offers a brief meditation: “Every morning, I break my fast with the men in the breadline. Some of them speak to me. Many of them do not. But they know me and I know them. And there is a sense of comradeship there. We know each other in the breaking of bread.” (Feb 27, 1939)

This meditation, re-phrased in the postscript to The Long Loneliness , signals the abiding importance for Dorothy of seeing Christ in the poor. But it was not easy. Later in the same entry, she writes “Today we had to send Mary O’Connor away to Bellevue. She had been with us since last April, almost a year.” Staying at the Worker helped her for a while, but lately “she had been keeping us up nights chasing imaginary pursuers with a broom . . . cleaning her room at two in the morning . . . attacking people, stepping on their feet, kicking them, spitting at them, throwing a plate with very poor aim. We took broom handle and scissors away from her.” (Feb. 27, 1939). A few months later, Day writes about a guest named Joe being drunk: “drunkenness and all the sins which follow in its wake are so obviously ugly and monstrous, and mean such unhappiness for the poor sinner that it is all the more important that we do not judge or condemn them.” (July 8, 1939) Not easy to see Christ in Mary and Joe. Not easy to see Christ in the families living nearby either: “I remember one family on the west side, a longshoreman who got only a day or so on the docks every few weeks. He drank, his wife drank, and their children were growing up disorderly and dishonest. . . . They sold the clothes they were given for liquor. We spent all one winter giving food and clothing to this family. It was indeed hard to see Christ in these poor.” (Jan 2, 1940)

Some entries afford glimpses of community life, such as this one: “Meeting last night. I spoke: Ade, Harry, Fr. Nelson. Meeting not over till 12:30 really. Best thought: Fr. Nelson on prayer.” (March 1, 1939) Apparently the meeting was edifying to Dorothy, as indicated in the reflection on prayer that follows. But other aspects of community life were not so edifying. The next year she writes, “Frank is filled with grievances against Joe and me. I am so often shocked at the positive venom in the majority around me against me and Joe. He is called a young punk, a stooge, a yes man, and God knows what else. I probably don’t hear the worst. . . . God knows why the whole thing does not fall apart.” (July 23, 1940). And then the next day: “To be hated and scorned by one’s very own—this is poverty. This is perfect joy. . . . Only an hour in church saved me from much anguish. I worry about not having true poverty. Then a scene occurs with recriminations because we are broke, accusing me of bad management, bad judgment, and I realize how the father of a family feels. So I could rejoice in suffering poverty.” (July 24, 1940). Toward the end of the year, these conflicts come up again: “An hysterical scene at Loretta’s in which she accused me of kicking out all Irish and for reasons of my own keeping on Joe who got Damien drunk at age 3. Of being responsible for bums and loafers on farm and making a bum out of Frank. A New Year’s resolution to say nothing; repeat nothing. The most difficult of mortifications.” (Dec 29, 1940)

Dorothy’s work in these years included speaking, giving talks. Many talks were in or near New York City, but others sent her traveling around the country for weeks, even months at a time. Toward the end of 1939, she looks back and concludes “the year had been hard,” and lists, among other things, her “many speaking engagements, visits to Mil-waukee, Chicago, twice to St. Louis, Springfield, Ramsey, Toledo, Cleveland, Akron, Canton, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Rochester, Washington, Baltimore, Virginia, Philadel-phia, Burlington, Worcester, Boston, Providence, Harris-burg—all these houses and groups.” (Dec 4, 1939) During the next year, several entries are written on the train heading from city to city for talks at parishes, factories, union halls, or Catholic Worker com-munities. She was encouraged by such engagements, such as the one in Newport, Rhode Island, where “surrounding Ade [Bethune] is one of the most interesting cells of the CW.” She saw her work bearing fruit: “Thirty houses and eleven farms!” (Sep 27, 1940) Still, speaking was difficult for Dorothy. After transcribing the passage in the Book of Jeremiah where the Lord says “Behold, I have given my words in thy mouth,” she writes, “Tonight I have to speak at Labor temple and I am so fatigued by a two weeks’ speaking trip that I was miserable about it. The above words from the breviary are a comfort. I dislike speaking. It is only with the greatest effort that I speak. The idea depresses me for a day beforehand. I get physically sick from it. But it must be done.” (April 2, 1939)

In spite of all this arduous hospitality, community struggles, and speaking tours, Dorothy managed to take time away. Many entries are written in peaceful moments in the morning at the house or farm, or in a church or at a host’s house while on the road, and at the end of 1939 from Biscayne Bay, where she and Tamar stayed with cousins for several weeks. The entries during these days in Florida are filled with descriptions of the ocean, sun, palm trees, exotic birds and other animals, and only a few details of those quite, leisurely days. They also include a sense of gratitude for all that is happening in the movement. In the final entry for 1939, she writes, “There is much to be thankful for this past year. The growth of the C.C.U. [Catholic Union of Unemployed]. The retreat on the farm. Publication of H. of H. [House of Hospitality ] Re-organization of business office. Growth of groups and houses. Much too of the hardships and sadness of this past year.” (Dec 29, 1939) This last item probably alludes to the death of her father in May, but also, it is fair to say, to the hard life and work at the Catholic Worker.

The final entry of the next year (Dec. 29, 1940) concludes with this: “Tonight the president spoke. America as arsenal. We are at war, undeclared.”—words presaging the U.S. entry into World War II, Dorothy’s unyielding stand against it, and thus the onset of harder times for the Catholic Worker.

3. Poverty and Money

The early entries of these diaries convey the excitement of a rapidly growing lay apostolate: guests pouring in, visitors stopping by, meetings for sharing ideas and ideals. At the same time, they record many mundane tasks to be done, such as “go through the mail, do bookkeeping, hand the orders over to Frank and put the letters inside to be answered.” (March 21, 1934) Frank O’Donnell, Ellsberg informs us, was the Catholic Worker’s “first business manager” (p.3, n.2)—a challenging job, surely. The following summer, Dorothy writes of her plan to go “down to the assay office at noon to sell the old gold donated to the paper by Mrs. Biller. It will help tremendously toward paying the printing bill.” (July 24, 1934). A couple years later, she writes of “being low in mind all day, full of tears,” in part because of “the lack of funds” and “the suit against us, the bills piling up.” (Aug. 18, 1936). This was not merely a case of having a bad day. Money was a continual struggle. Four years later, Day writes: “Today the telephone was turned off. Gas and electric next.” (July 23, 1940). Five years after that: “Snow, cold. No coal or oil. Burning boxes downstairs and in the guest apartment.” (Feb 20, 1945) Financial crisis was a feature of life not only in the early years. Decades later, Dorothy refers to “our bills—Bernie $2,000. Taxes $1,200. Garage, hardware,” and then turns it over: “Meanwhile, dear Lord, pay our bills by Thy divine providence and forgive us our indulgences. . .” (Sep 15, 1961) But prayer was no panacea, at least not for her. Two days later, she writes: “No use saying I do not worry. Others have more faith than I do. No matter how broke we are, people do not stop coming, nor do they go away.” (Sep 17, 1961)

None of this is surprising. Unpaid bills have always been a mark of the Catholic Worker, a sign of taking poverty seriously. Unfortunately, this commitment to poverty often creates the impression that Dorothy had little understanding of the worldly realities of money, that her “purist” position, as it is sometimes called, removed her from having to make decisions in the “real world.” Not only is this unfair, it is also misleading about a woman whose apostolic commitment involved having no money to pay bills, dreading the arrival of more bills, going to friends and supporters for donations, and worrying what the answer will be. It is important to recognize, then, that alongside Dorothy’s embrace of poverty was the constant need for money to sustain the work. Toward that end, it may be helpful to recount in detail the real estate ventures undertaken at the Catholic Worker during one particular year, 1950. From the pertinent entries, we can get a feel for this risky and nerve-wracking set of real estate transactions.

In March of 1950, the Catholic Worker attempted to sell the farm in Newburg and purchase another farm on Staten Island. As usual, Day turned to the patron saint of such dealings: “No sale yet and we hope St. Joseph will send us a message today” (Mar 20, 1950) A positive message came five days later—or so it seemed: “Dear God, I thank Thee, the farm is sold . . . Yesterday morning I took the 10 o’clock bus into N.Y. . . . Went to the bank to talk about a loan but it does not look as though it would be easy to get.” (Mar 25, 1950) The loan that Day sought was for the purchase of the Staten Island farm, which, despite her doubts, came through a month later. But now there was a major problem: the sale of the Newburgh farm never went through, raising the specter of holding two farm properties at once. Worse yet, during these same weeks, the landlord of the house on Mott St. gave notice of his intent to sell, creating an immediate need to find another house. After one possibility fell through, a house on Christie St. was purchased with a loan and a lot of donations. In her diary, after listing the money needed, Day writes: “Preposterous—these amounts. . . .I must take to reading Mother Cabrini again to get in the mood for asking. Our Father’s business in N.Y. seems to demand a fortune.” (June 3, 1950) On retreat two weeks later, she wrote of an “almost insuperable obstacle” to prayer caused by “my terrible pre-occupations about property, mortgages, law, movings . . .” (June 18, 1950) Two days later, she expresses anxieties about purchasing the Staten Island farm with the Newburgh farm unsold: “Frank Coyle, Mr. Walsh, the real estate man, both advise for S.I. at least to see how it works out. It could be sold later, Tom says, if we cannot sell Maryfarm, Newburgh. It will be an expense testing—this seeing what is God’s will by trial and error, is hard. The trials which come with property. What it brings out in people—the suffering which is intense, bitter. Then too, are we losing our poverty?” (June 20, 1950) Two weeks later, she frets about the house purchase: “deed for Chrystie St. not signed yet.” (July 2, 1950) By August, the purchases of the house in the city and the farm on Staten Island were complete, but the Newburgh farm had still not sold. Dorothy is pleased with the purchases but distressed at the payments: “we now have taxes, interest, mortgage payments due. Taxes also in N.Y. and Newburgh. Interest of $200 a year in Newburgh.” (Sep 1, 1950) Months later, the situation remains: “Still thinking of selling Maryfarm since we owe.” (Nov 14, 1950)

All this buying and selling of property left Day wrestling with a “paradox”: on the one hand, she writes, “we are pilgrims here. We have here no abiding city. We should live as travelers, not attached to baggage which weighs us down. Not accumulating.” But on the other hand, “a certain amount of goods is necessary. What kind? Property. The land. Earth to grow food in—to learn from, to walk on. House so we can carry our responsibilities and learn to fulfill the command of God to earn our living by the sweat of out brow.” (March 15, 1951) Dorothy lived with this “paradox” throughout her life, as evidenced by many references in her diaries to buying and selling property, renovating buildings, taking out mortgages, and so on. This same paradox marks the life and work of any religious order, lay community or secular institute, any Christian house-hold taking seriously the call to evangelical poverty. Dorothy’s call led her to make judgments that placed her and the Catholic Worker far closer to actual material poverty than most, but this does not mean she was oblivious to or naïve about money or other worldly realities. As she writes in her diary amid the real estate crisis of 1951: “Our Father’s business in N.Y. seems to demand a fortune.”

4. Quotable Quips

Every so often in her diaries, Day comes up with a quip worth quoting because it is honest, clever, or interesting merely because it was she who wrote it. Here are a few:

“I have a very bad habit of conversing with the preacher in my mind as I listen to him, and sometimes contradicting him.” (Feb 27, 1939)

“If I ever go off in the head, I hope I go that way, haunting churches, saying beads, etc. A happy way to be.” (March 25, 1950)

“In what does our poverty consist? In toilets out of commission, dishwashers who wipe their noses on the dish towels, people who are mental cases.” (May 24, 1961)

“‘Don’t sweat the small stuff, Granny,’ Becky says when I fret over whether the car is running right.” (Sep 3, 1964)

“These retired ones always feel they know a great deal about household engineering.” (April 10, 1965)

“Nothing is more depressing than to read Time .” (May 18, 1965)

“. . . I went to the bank to notarize the 2 summons I had from Cambridge, NY, where I went thru a stop sign and at 45 mph instead of 30, in the village.” (Aug 29, 1966)

(Review Essay to be continued in the next issue of the HCW)


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVIII, No. 5, September-October 2008.