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Dorothy Day: A Radical Saint

The following is a talk given by Robert Ellsberg at the 75 th Anniversary Catholic Worker Conference in Worcester, Massachusetts, July 10, 2008.

Robert is the editor of the newly published diaries of Dorothy Day entitled “The Duty of Delight,” Marquette Univ. Press.

It is a privilege to speak here today, surrounded by so many people who knew Dorothy longer and better than I. At the same time I am honored to speak about Dorothy among so many young people who were not born when she died twenty-eight years ago—and yet have been touched by her spirit and inspired to carry on her vision. I was fortunate to meet Dorothy when I was quite young. I can honestly say that she didn’t change my life; rather, my life truly began with that encounter, and the journey that ensued, leading right up to the present moment.

It is appropriate that we begin this commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Catholic Worker by remembering Dorothy. That is of course not how she would have arranged the program.

I remember the time that a reporter from Time magazine came to St. Joseph house, hoping to interview her for an article on exemplary Christian lives. I was sitting next to her at lunch and I whispered to her, “There’s the woman from Time.” “What?” She had a way of answering, when she couldn’t hear, that made it seem as if you had said something prepos-terous—curling her brow, frowning slightly, squinting her eyes. I answered slightly louder: “I said the woman from Time is here.” “ What ?” “The woman from Time! ” By this time heads were turning our way. “Good Lord,” said Dorothy in a normal tone, “I’ve been trying to avoid that woman for a week.”

Dorothy was a personal writer. In all her writings it would be hard to find a single article on any abstract idea or principle that wasn’t rooted in her own personal experience. Several of her books were straightforward autobiographies. And yet she didn’t welcome personal attention. Though she was offered many honorary degrees, she consistently declined them, citing her respect for “Holy Wisdom.” As she once told me, “Too much praise makes you feel you must be doing something terribly wrong.”

Such praise, in any case, was a departure from the steady criticism she endured through most of her life. It began with the radical friends who accused her, after her conversion, of defecting to the side of the oppressor. Then there was the criticism from family members who felt she was defecting to the side of the Great Unwashed, the church of “Irish cops and washerwomen,” as her father put it. Later, as she became a public person, she would incur his further wrath by violating the first rule of a newspaperman: never allow yourself to get mentioned in the paper. Years later she would quote his maxim: “Fools’ names, like fools’ faces, always seen in public places.”

Then came the critics who accused her of being a Communist agent, of seeking to undermine the church from within. Such criticism didn’t bother her much. She liked to say that it was the complacency of Christians, in her youth, that had made her love the Communists, and it was the Communists, in turn, with their love for the poor, who had finally led her to Christ.

Actually, my favorite assessment of Dorothy Day appeared in her FBI file. According to the Director, J. Edgar Hoover:

“Dorothy Day is a very erratic and irresponsible person. She has engaged in activities which strongly suggest that she is consciously or unconsciously being used by communist groups. From past experience with her it is obvious she maintains a very hostile and belligerent attitude toward the Bureau and makes every effort to castigate the FBI whenever she feels so inclined.”

(She enjoyed this quite a lot: “He makes me sound like a mean old woman,” she said. “Read it again!”)

In the face of her consistent pacifist witness she was charged with being weak, irrelevant, foolish. She embraced these charges: “We confess to being foolish and wish that we were more so.”

And then there was the criticism from within the Catholic Worker family—the eternal battle between the scholar and the worker, the constant griping and grumbling within a community made up, as she put it, of “the poor, the abandoned, the sick, the crazed, and the solitary human beings whom Christ so loved and in whom I see, with a terrible anguish, the body of this death.” There were those who felt she was a dictator and those who felt she was not dictator enough. Actually, she said, she was “a dictator trying to legislate [herself] out of existence.”

On the other hand many people also called her a saint: that was another matter. “When they call you a saint,” she used to say, “it means basically that you’re not to be taken seriously.” To be called a saint, she feared, was a way of being dismissed: “Dorothy can do such things—after all, she’s a saint.” It implied that what would have been difficult decisions for other people must have come easily to her. No one knew as well as she how much she had paid for her vocation: “Neither revolutions nor faith is won without keen suffering. For me Christ was not to be bought for thirty pieces of silver but with my heart’s blood. We buy not cheap in this market.”

And yet today the Church has initiated the cause for the canonization of Dorothy Day. I have supported that cause, above all because I believe she embodied the type of holiness most necessary for our time—a holiness that is not concerned with its own purity or perfection, but empties itself to confront the burning issues of our time: poverty, violence, the desecration of nature, the meaning of work, the yearning for community, freedom, and peace.

Even as a child Dorothy recognized the need for a new type of saint. In her autobiography,The Long Loneliness , she described her first childhood encounter with the lives of the saints, recalling how her heart was stirred by the stories of their charity toward the sick, the maimed, the leper. “But there was another question in my mind,” she said. “Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place?. . . Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?”

In effect, Dorothy’s vocation took form around this challenge. Her conversion to Catholicism and her work in founding the Catholic Worker movement would come many years later. But the great underlying task of her life was to join the practice of charity with the struggle for justice. It was in the search for this path that she prayed at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1932 that “some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.” She longed, as she put it, “to make a synthesis reconciling body and soul, this world and the next.” She believed her meeting with Peter Maurin was the answer to this prayer. And in the Catholic Worker movement that they started she found the synthesis that she had been seeking.

Many people remain confounded by Dorothy’s ability to integrate a traditional style of Catholic piety with a radical style of social engagement. She said the rosary and went to daily Mass while also marching on picket lines and going to jail to protest war and injustice. But there was no paradox in her eyes.

The basis of the synthesis she had been seeking was to be found in the central doctrine of her faith: the Incarnation. Her subsequent mission was rooted in the radical social implications of this doctrine—the fact that God had entered our humanity and our history, so that all creation was hallowed, and whatever we did for our neighbors we did directly for him.

This strong incarnational faith was the thread that united the various aspects of her life: her embrace of voluntary poverty and a life in community among the poor; her practice of the works of mercy—feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless; her prayer and commitment to the sacramental life of the Church; her staunch commitment to social justice; her “seamless garment” approach to the protection of life, and her dedication to gospel nonviolence. It was the Incarnation, ultimately, that showed the way to that synthesis reconciling “body and soul,” the spiritual and the material, the historical and the transcendent, the love of God and the love of neighbor, “this world and the next.”

Let me elaborate on this a bit. Dorothy believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But she believed that Christ was equally present in the poor. And so our response to the poor was a test of the authenticity of our worship. How could we love God whom we haven’t seen if we haven’t loved our neighbor whom we have seen? And how could we love our neighbor who is hungry except by feeding him? “The mystery of the poor is this,” she said: “that they are Jesus and what you do for them you do to him.”

And so the doctrine of the Incarnation led directly to the practice of the Works of Mercy, serving God in the encounter with our neighbor.

But it also led her to the principle of voluntary poverty–as she said, we cannot even see our neighbor without first stripping ourselves. There was an ethical dimension to this, a desire to stand in solidarity with those who were involuntarily poor, to protest against the injustice and exploitation that created so many poor. But there was also a spiritual dimension, as there was for St. Francis and so many of the saints: it was a matter of locating the center of value elsewhere than in material wealth. Where our treasure is there also is our heart. To become poor was to become dependent on God and available to others; it was also to withdraw from the spoils of exploitation. What we possessed beyond our needs, she believed, was stolen from the poor.

From this reflection on the Incarnation came her profound sense of the sacramentality of things. If bread and wine, the work of human hands, could become the body of Christ, what else might we discover in the world around us, if we had eyes to see properly? All created things had a holiness to them. She loved beauty—whether in art, music, literature, or in nature. She loved books, hand-crafts, and anything done with care. But she could also see beauty where others saw only misery and squalor, because all things spoke to her of their Creator—sometimes in glory, sometimes on the Cross.

So this incarnational or sacramental sense had personal as well as social implications. This was obviously expressed in her response to poverty but it was expressed in a far more controversial way in her response to war. If Christ was present in the disguise of our neighbor, this was also true in his most terrible disguise–in the face of the one who is called our enemy.

It was Dorothy’s conviction that Jesus had come to offer a radical new definition of love as the ultimate law of our lives. “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” It was a new commandment, for the love exemplified on the cross extended beyond friends and those who were on our side. Jesus had left us a definition of nonviolence, not only in his words, but in the manner of his life. By his death and resurrection he had converted the cross, a sign of defeat, into a symbol of life and hope. And he had come to substitute the cross for the sword or the bomb as an effective instrument of liberation and justice.

The way of the gospel was true folly in the eyes of the world. But we were not told to love up to the point of reason, prudence, or personal safety—but to love unreasonably, foolishly, profligately, unto the Cross, unto death.

Over the years the Catholic Worker sponsored numerous protests against the dangers of nuclear war. For her own refusal to cooperate with New York City’s compulsory civil defense drills, Dorothy served several jail terms.

But she did not expect great things to happen overnight. She knew the slow pace by which change and new life comes. It was, in the phrase she repeated often, “by little and by little” that we are saved.

And yet she acted out of deep faith in the mystical bonds of cause and effect in which we are all connected. Any act of love might contribute to the balance of love in the world, any suffering endured in love might ease the burden of others. We could only make use of the little things we possessed–the little faith, the little strength, the little courage. These were the loaves and fishes. We could only offer what we had and pray that God would make the increase.

I met Dorothy Day over thirty years ago in 1975. I had taken a leave from college after my sophomore year and made my way to the Catholic Worker, hoping to learn something directly about life, apart from books. I planned to stay a few months, but I was pretty quickly hooked and ended up staying for five years, which turned out to be the last five years of Dorothy’s life.

Our first meeting took place in the dining room at St. Joseph’s House. Dorothy took pride in the occasions when she was mistaken for one of the homeless women on the Bowery. She dressed in clothes that were donated to the Catholic Worker. But there was no mistaking the authority she carried.

To be honest, I was initially intimidated. Knowing the importance of first impressions, I had spent a lot of time preparing to ask just the right question. But when the moment came, all I could think of was, “How do you reconcile Catholi-cism and anarchism?” She looked at me with a bemused expression and said, “It’s never been a problem for me.”

I hadn’t planned a follow-up question. And so I had to withdraw and ponder her answer for a while, wondering if her words contained some deeper Zen meaning. Over time I came to realize that Dorothy just wasn’t too interested in abstractions.

She was actually a very social and approachable person. She had little taste for solitude and it wasn’t hard to get to know her. A great storyteller, she could spin fascinating tales about the Catholic Worker, her comrades in the radical struggle, or poignant details from the life of Chekhov, Tolstoy, or St. Therese. She was, in turn, endlessly fascinated by other people’s stories—where they came from, what books they liked, where they had traveled. “What’s your favorite novel by Dostoevsky?” was a typical conversation starter. Whether you answered The Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment, she inevitably endorsed your selection.

A year after my arrival Dorothy asked me to become the managing editor of the paper. She was, as she liked to say, “in retirement,” and the day-to-day management of the paper and the household were in the hands of those she called “the young people.” I was twenty. I was not at that point a Catholic. My selection had very little to do with any qualification for the job, and much more to do with the fact that no one else was particularly interested. But Dorothy liked some articles I had written about Gandhi; she had faith in people and she was able to make them feel her faith as well; she had an uncanny ability to discern and encourage people’s hidden gifts and talents. Little could I imagine at the time that she was pointing me in the direction of my life’s work and vocation.

She was fastidious and cultivated in her tastes; she loved classical music, the opera, literature, flowers, beautiful things. I remember how she covered the walls of her room in Maryhouse with postcards: icons and paintings, but also pictures of nature—forests, the ocean, icebergs. One time when I was in jail she sent me one of these postcards—an aerial photo of Cape Cod with the inscription, “I hope this refreshes you and does not tantalize you.” She loved to quote Dostoevsky’s words, “The world will be saved by beauty.”

But for all the sadness and suffering around her, she always had an eye for the transcendent. There were always moments when it was possible to see beneath the surface. “Just look at that tree!” She would say. Or it might be some act of kindness, or an opera on the radio, or some vines climbing the fire escape in the middle of a slum. Moments like this made her want to rejoice.

I remember so many of Dorothy’s qualities: her courage, her humor, her boundless curiosity, her capacity for indignation, her fascination with detail, the personal and particular over abstract concepts, her effervescent laughter. But if there is any quality I particularly associate with Dorothy it was gratitude. It was such gratitude and happiness at the birth of her daughter that first turned her heart to God: “No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.” It was this gratefulness that led to her decision to have her child baptized and to follow by joining the Catholic Church, even though this entailed great personal sacrifice. Appropriate-ly, the words on her gravestone are DEO GRATIAS.

But her gratefulness and love for the church did not remove her apprehension of its sins and failures. She constantly judged the church, in which she included herself, by the image of its founder, praying for forgiveness and a spirit of conversion.

For the past several years I have been editing Dorothy Day’s diaries, published this spring by Marquette University Press with the title, The Duty of Delight . The title is drawn from a line she picked from John Ruskin. It recurs throughout her diaries so often as to become a kind of mantra, often after a recital of drudgery or disappointment. It served as a reminder to find God in all things—the sorrows of daily life and the moments of joy, both of which she experienced in abundance.

In the annals of the saints, Dorothy’s diaries offer something unusual—an oppor-tunity to follow, almost day by day, in the footsteps of a holy person. Through these writings we can trace the movements of her spirit and her quest for God. We can see her praying for wisdom and courage in meeting the challenges of her day. But we also join her as she watches television, devours mystery novels, goes to the movies, plays with her grandchildren, and listens to the opera.

While she was a witness or participant in many of the great social and ecclesial movements of her day, her diaries are a reminder that most of any life is occupied with ordinary activities and pursuits. Inspired by her favorite saints, Therese of Lisieux, Dorothy was convinced that ordinary life was actually the true arena for holiness. Her spirituality was much focused on the effort to practice forgiveness, charity, and patience with those closest at hand.

Like most holy people, she often fell short of her ideals. We know this because she herself calls attention to her faults—her impatience, her capacity for anger and self-righteousness. “Thinking gloomily of the sins and shortcomings of others,” she writes, “it suddenly came to me to remember my own offenses, just as heinous as those of others. If I concern myself with my own sins and lament them, if I remember my own failures and lapses, I will not be resentful of others. This was most cheering and lifted the load of gloom from my mind. It makes one unhappy to judge people and happy to love them.”

Dorothy entitled the story of her conversion The Long Loneliness . Despite her life in community, a certain loneliness remained a constant feature of her life. She writes on one hard occasion, “I have had this completely alone feeling. . . . A time when the memory and understanding fail one completely and only the will remains, so that I feel hard and rigid, and at the same time ready to sit like a soft fool and weep my eyes out.”

In response to the insecurity, the sorrows, and drudgery of life among the “insulted and injured,” she tried always to remember “the duty of delight”: “I was thinking how, as one gests older, we are tempted to sadness, knowing life as it is here on earth, the suffering, the Cross. And how we must overcome it daily, growing in love, and the joy which goes with loving.”

And through her diaries we see her gradually slowing down, adjusting, after a heart attack, to the end of her restless travels, eventually settling into the confinement of her room at Maryhouse. In her youth, she writes, she had received a great “revelation”—that for anyone attuned to the life of the mind, the future held the promise of unending fascination. And now she could observe, “No matter how old I get . .. no matter how feeble, short of breath, incapable of walking more than a few blocks, what with heart murmurs, heart failure, emphy-sema perhaps, arthritis in feet and knees, with all these symptoms of age and decrepitude, my heart can still leap for joy as I read and suddenly assent to some great truth enunciated by some great mind and heart.”

That intense interest in life continued, as she took in the world around her and rummaged increasingly in the “rag-bag” of memory. She had always been a “compulsive” writer, “ever since I was 8 years old when I wrote a serial story on a little pad of pink paper for my younger sister’s entertainment.” And writing was virtually the last thing to go. Toward the end her newspaper columns reverted to short, breathless excerpts from her diary—just enough, she said, “to let people know I am still alive.” She kept writing until a few days before her death on November 29, 1980.

I think about her now, twenty-eight years later, in these times we are living through, when once again the Gospel narrative seems somehow foolish and irrelevant in the face of terrorism and endless war. Once again we confront a situation in which massive violence is proffered as the only realistic solution to our problems, and national security is invoked to justify virtually any means.

I remember sitting with her over supper while a somewhat deranged young man pounded on the table, insisting “Dorothy, you just don’t understand. Individuals in this day and age are not what’s important. It’s nations and governments that are important.”

“All individuals are important,” Dorothy answered, in a quiet voice. “They’re all that’s important.”

But she was equally discerning in her approach to peacemaking, cautioning against the temp-tation to be overly concerned with “success.” Too often, she believed, would-be peacemakers are driven by the need to be heard in the corridors of power, to be impressive and spectacular. But Christ’s victory, she always noted, was achieved by the way of apparent failure: “Unless the seed falls into the ground and dies, it bears no fruit.” “We do what we can,” she often said. Nevertheless, “We must always aim for the impossible; if we lower our goal, we also diminish our effort.”

More than ten years ago I gave a talk on the centenary of Dorothy’s birth. I used the occasion to lay out the case for her canonization, highlighting what I saw as her primary gifts to the church: her joining of charity and justice; her vindication of gospel non-violence; her role in advancing the lay apostolate; and her explication of the social implications of the Incarnation. Now that cause has been endorsed by the church, a long, laborious process that may result one day in her being officially named St. Dorothy. Who knows if any of us will live to see that day? Whatever opinion Dorothy might have had of such a process, you can be sure that she would have objected to any effort to airbrush her faults and failings, to put her on a pedestal, out of reach of the rest of us, to make her seem unapproachable, otherworldly, and mysterious.

For me the fundamental significance of this cause rests not just in Dorothy’s own example of holiness but in the way she held up the vocation of holiness as the common calling for all Christians. She did not believe holiness was just for a few—or for those dedicated to formal religious life. It was simply a matter of taking seriously the logic of our baptismal vows—to put off the old person and put on Christ—to grow constantly in our capacity for love through the exercise of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.

She lived out her own vocation in the Catholic Worker movement. But she set an example for all Christians, especially lay people, reminding us that the Gospel is meant to be lived, and challenging us to find our own unique way of living out and bearing witness to it in our daily lives.

It is surprising when we look back over our lives to see that the truly significant moments are relatively few. Often we do not recognize them at all, except in retrospect, when we look back over the paths that they illuminated. Dorothy died twenty-eight years ago, and yet it seems like no time at all, so much has her memory dominated my life since then. It seems only yesterday that we were sitting in her room in Maryhouse, sharing thoughts about Dostoevsky and Gandhi; my giving her a complete description of the latest demonstration; listening to her stories about Eugene O’Neill and Ammon Hennacy.

She was soaked in memories. And yet her spirit of adventure, her idealism, her instinct for the heroic always connect her in my mind with the spirit of youth. Though she grew old and bent with age she never acquired that spirit of compromise or moral laxity that is a proverbial mark of growing up. Until the end she was surrounded by young people, and they have continued in large numbers to be drawn to her story and inspired to take up her mission.

I don’t expect that life at the Catholic Worker has changed all that much in the past twenty-eight years. What would Dorothy Day say to us today? Perhaps the same words she wrote in her journal in the early years of the movement:

“Oh yes, my dear comrades and fellow workers, I see only too clearly how bad things are with us all, how bad you all are, and how bad a leader I am. I see it only too often and only too clearly. It is because I see it so clearly that I must lift up my head and keep in sight the aims we must always hold before us. I must see the large and generous picture of the new social order wherein justice dwelleth. I must hold always in mind the new earth where God’s Will will be done as it is in heaven. I must hold it in mind for my own courage and for yours….

“Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up. If we love each other enough, we will bear with each other’s faults and burdens. If we love enough, we are going to light that fire in the hearts of others. And it is love that will burn out the sins and hatred that sadden us. It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other. No sacrifice and no suffering will then seem too much.

“Yes, I see only too clearly how bad people are. I wish I did not see it so. It is my own sins that give me such clarity. If I did not bear the scars of so many sins to dim my sight and dull my capacity for love and joy, then I would see Christ more clearly in you all.

“I cannot worry much about your sins and miseries when I have so many of my own. I can only love you all, poor fellow travelers, fellow sufferers. I do not want to add one least straw to the burden you already carry. My prayer from day to day is that God will so enlarge my heart that I will see you all, and live with you all, in His love.”

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