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Book Review: Saved By Beauty: A Spiritual Journey with Dorothy Day

Saved by Beauty: A Spiritual Journey with Dorothy Day by Michael O’Neill McGrath. World Library Publications, the Music and Liturgy Division of the J. S. Paluch Company, 2012.

Brother Michael O’Neill McGrath, artist and Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, has just published a book entitled with the famous saying from Dostoevsky frequently quoted by Dorothy Day. It is filled with his own paintings of Dorothy and the Catholic Worker and his own writings and reflections about her. Brother Michael makes connections be-tween Dorothy’s life and spirituality, the writings of St. Francis de Sales, and how we might apply these insights to our own lives.

His insights and paintings throughout the book reflect the ideas in his “Introductory Thoughts” in the book:

“I’d always admired and respected her [Dorothy Day], but my love for her is a very recent development. Until now, I never wanted to grow too close because I was afraid she’d “make me” prove my Christian mettle by moving to the slums with bugs and smelly people drinking lousy coffee. I had been doing exactly what she so famously feared: I had made her a saint so I could easily dismiss her. But as I learned more about her life and read her own writings, I discovered her abiding passion for beauty that made Dorothy more accessible to me as an artist. My primary image of Dorothy Day as a grandmotherly icon of charity ladling out soup and baking bread for poor people was gradually replaced as new images, the ones you see here, came to the foreground. The more I read of her and by her, the more sketches I did—which in turn became a series of painted meditations, which in turn evolved into the book you now hold in your hands.”

Like other lines from Dostoevsky, “The world will be saved by beauty,” has sometimes been attributed to Dorothy rather than the original author. Her January 1973 On Pilgrimage column in The Catholic Worker explained why she quoted it: “‘Beauty will save the world,’ Dostoevsky wrote. I just looked up the quotation in Konstantin Mochulsky’s Dostoevsky: His Life and Work…. 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.’ It was Jack English 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.'”

In his book Brother Michael calls Dorothy “the major force in leading the American Catholic Church to a deeper understanding of Jesus, the Gospels, and the works of mercy—that these are the things, first and foremost to which Christians must be obedient. Anything else is secondary.”

Dorothy’s faith and her commitment to the Jesus, the Gospels, the works of mercy reflected in this statement by Brother Michael, is related to her quotes on beauty. Her understanding of beauty, art, music, and literature was related to the eternal, to God himself, and to love for the poor, living out her faith in practical love.

William Miller’s commentary on what beauty meant to Dorothy brought together the words of St. John of the Cross she often quoted, “At the end of life we shall be judged on love.” Noting that the words love and beauty have often come to have different meanings than their original, Miller described the beauty meant by Dorothy and by Dostoevsky: “In this era when even the word ‘love’ means something that has lost all harmony with an ideal of beauty and of the eternal, Dorothy has lived for love and suffered for love in a way that is a striking example of how beauty can be restored. When Dostoevsky’s doddering old professor says that ‘beauty will save the world,’ he is referring to the beauty that is built on love.”

The paintings and reflections in Brother Michael’s book cover various aspects of Dorothy’s life, including the time she lived on the beach and her love of nature, life before the Catholic Worker, her meeting with Peter Maurin, being jailed for protesting injustice, typing for the newspaper, her love for the saints, life at the Catholic Worker, and practicing the presence of God.

The book is a welcome addition to the ever growing collection of books about Dorothy, with unique insights and colorful paintings in an appealing folk art style.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4.