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What Dorothy Day Teaches Us About Calling Saints “Saints”

Dorothy Day

Leonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D., is the Director of Notre Dame Vision, University of Notre Dame

The title of Dr. DeLorenzo’s dissertation is “Those Who Hear Will Live”: A Theological Explication of the ‘Communion of Saints.’

Dorothy is a peculiar candidate for sainthood because, after all, she expressly commanded, “Don’t call me a saint, I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” To some, this is the final word on the matter: she said don’t do it, so stop trying. But I don’t think it’s clear that this statement means what many take it to mean, even if it is to receive privileged treatment as her expressed wishes on the matter. In order to seek to understand the meaning and limits of this now oft-quoted line, Dorothy’s own view of sainthood is instructive, which come to the fore in a compelling fashion in her apprehension of Thérèse of Lisieux.

Without a doubt, Thérèse of Lisieux and Dorothy Day seem an odd pair: the pious little French girl locked up in a provincial convent and the radical American firebrand who both served the poor and lambasted the government with a passion bordering on brazen recklessness. And yet Thérèse meant quite a lot to Dorothy, so much in fact that, as many know, Dorothy wrote a spiritual biography of the saint.

The life of Thérèse pierced Dorothy’s heart in a way that glossy clichés never could because Dorothy listened to who the saint really is. Thérèse knew herself as the beloved of God who belonged to the Church. It’s not that she wasn’t pious or French or cloistered, its just that the uniqueness of her holiness is not reducible to tidy explanations. As the cause for the canonization of Dorothy continues to unfold, the Church will ask and scrutinize over the same question about the irreducibility of Dorothy’s own Gospel witness, which, like Thérèse’s, cannot be reduced to neat banner headings. And of all who happen to reduce Dorothy to a banner, the ones who risk doing so most of all are, ironically, those who stand behind her own words: “Don’t call me a saint.”

Dorothy was born about a month after Thérèse of Lisieux died, in 1897. Needless to say, Dorothy never knew Thérèse, at least not until she lay in the maternity wing of Bellevue hospital, holding her newborn daughter, Tamar Teresa. Not yet Catholic, Dorothy could still find the appeal of a great figure who did great things, like the great reformer, Teresa of Avila, after whom she named her own child, or even Joan of Arc whose zeal led to martyrdom. She was not prepared to take seriously a quaint “young nun with a sweet insipid face” (vii, all quotes from Dorothy’s Thérèse unless otherwise noted), who seemed to obsess over minutiae that paled in comparison with the great conflicts of the day.

And yet the woman in the bed next to Dorothy mistook Tamar’s middle name for the name of the “Little Flower” and thus gave Dorothy the medal of the saint she had in her pocket to pin on the newborn child. After initially protesting, Dorothy reluctantly accepted the gift of this new saint—not because she was fond of the saint but because her love for her own child demanded a gesture of largesse. Dorothy would give her child not one but two saints: from the older saint she would give a name and from the younger she would give a “novice mistress, to train her in the spiritual life” (vii). Thus began Dorothy’s own relationship with Thérèse of Lisieux, whose holiness required Dorothy to grow in order to cherish it.

It is this growth—indeed, what is properly called ‘transformation’ — that loosens the tension of Dorothy’s apparent resistance to being proclaimed a saint. It is certainly not surprising that many would hasten to echo that line when Cardinal O’Connor introduced the idea in 1997, and all the more when Cardinal Dolan began furthering the movement in 2012. The more serious her cause becomes, the more frequently these words will be repeated. Several weeks ago, Coleman McCarthy invoked these words in a NCR article to protest the “bureaucratic process to get a halo atop Dorothy” as a move to defang the “heart of the American left”. McCarthy’s claim is that the move to canonize Dorothy is a move to box her in, to reduce her radicalism to domesticated proportions. Besides the fact that an anti-ecclesial bias pervades his piece, McCarthy is certainly right in noting that the canonized saints—especially the most well-known and popular among them—are often glossed over according to pithy banner headings. He thinks the move to do the same to Dorothy would violate her integrity, and he is right in this regard.

What he is wrong about, however, is in concluding that this is what it means to be a canonized saint and that the Church’s process of naming its saints—which usually is bureaucratic—intends such an outcome. Ironically, the most certain way to reduce Dorothy’s originality would be to cling to her as a political force, a figurehead for a cause, or even a lifelong agitator of the status quo. Try as he might, McCarthy cannot capture Dorothy according to these categories. It may in fact be the case that the only category that can capture her is that which he resists: “saint”. But—and this is the decisive but—not a saint according to how we each might prefer the saints to be, but rather as the saints are and show themselves to be. This is why Dorothy’s own devotion to the saints is so instructive: in her growth in response to them she gives witness not only to what a saint is, but to what it means to apprehend a saint.

The saints are given in order to be understood; they are not understood in advance. They are like books that one receives on the recommendation of a friend: “This book will do you good.” You take a book like this not because you have determined on your own that it is good, but because you trust the recommendation. (To take the metaphor a step further, the Church is therefore a library of good books.) Reading the book is then something like an experiment: to see if you can find the good that someone else found there. This dynamic was as true in a convalescent’s bed in Loyola and a garden in Milan as it was in that hospital room in New York. Just as it was with Ignatius and Augustine, the saints were themselves like recommended books who stretched Dorothy. She didn’t seek out Thérèse and she certainly didn’t know Thérèse was good for her: Thérèse was recommended and Dorothy had to learn to apprehend the goodness.

To read Dorothy’s spiritual biography of Thérèse is to receive Dorothy’s own recommendation of the good found in the ‘little saint’.

She came to recognize in the saint the universal human desire to grow in love and the response to the universal human problem of not knowing how to do it. In every way, it was the small and obscure that led to the wholeness in love that Dorothy discovered that she sought for herself. Dorothy wanted to find her answers in the loftiness of great upheavals and the overturning of power structures but was forced, with Thérèse, to contemplate the mundane.

In Thérèse’s parents, Dorothy discovered skilled artisans who poured over intricate details, whether in watchmaking (Louis) or lacemaking (Zèlie). It was this same care and attentiveness that was exercised in the Martin household, where the obscure and routine work of family life remains hidden from the world but for the one who looks closely for the intricacies of how it works. Even the care Louis and Zèlie took to live modestly and save their earnings was, when examined carefully, done in the interest of creating the “kind of home where it would be easier to be good” (31).

In other words, Thérèse’s parents invested in the economy of the household as the place where love was to be practiced, where mutual concern was to be the rule, and where the praise of God was expressed in multiform ways. It is telling, then, that Dorothy finds in the Martin household the basic insight that she grew to love in Peter Maurin’s vision for the Catholic Worker, “to make that kind of society where it is easier for people to be good,” (31). Dorothy’s close attention to the smallness of Thérèse revealed to her an aspect of that great good to which she would orient her life. She didn’t see it at first because she wasn’t looking to the delicacy of domestic life; that is, until she held her own child in her arms and Thérèse was given along with her.

In the account of the death of Thérèse’s mother, Zèlie, Dorothy closely observes the way in which the Church speaks communion into and through death itself. In a family where liturgical feasts marked time, it was not insignificant that the family held a party on August 24 for the feast of St. Louis, whom they celebrated to honor their own father. Even as their mother lay on her deathbed about to receive last rites, the family opens itself to the company of the saints. When Zèlie does receive last rites, the priest prays through the intercession of “Mary, St. Joseph, all the angels, archangels, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins, and all the other saints,” (43). When she is sent forth from the world, Zèlie is bade a happy journey in the name of these same angels and martyrs and saints, “through Christ our Lord, Amen,” (44).

Dorothy then lists Thérèse and her sisters as participants in the requiem Mass, united to this great company just invoked. When it is said elsewhere that Thérèse’s early life was a “festival of communion” (Balthasar), this is what is meant. The good home her parents created was one in which communion was practiced, even at the hour of death.

In attending closely to Thérèse—who left nothing behind except her own life as witness (for what is Story of a Soul but that?)—Day was learning how to cherish the small things, to see their incalculable significance and dignity and worth. “There is never too small an incident for Thérèse to mention in her memories,” Dorothy writes, “knowing that we can all of us match them, but not, perhaps, draw the same lesson,” (76). It is as if to say, ‘begin with the form of the witness, then contemplate its meaning: seek so as to understand’… like trying to find what is good in a recommended book by reading it closely.

When Thérèse offers her first Communion for a poor man who once filled her with pity but refused the alms she offered, Dorothy takes note. She discerned in this the fruits of what Louis and Zèlie taught their children: “that it was a privilege to serve the unfortunate with their own hands and do the works of mercy directly,” (30). When the direct gift of alms was declined, the creativity of Thérèse took over and she offered the very Communion she received for the sake of that poor man: she made her own prayer become an act of embodied communion.

When Dorothy—the revered practitioner of the Corporal Works of Mercy—then exalts the Spiritual Works as “spiritual weapons to save souls, penance for luxury when the destitute suffer, a work to increase the sum total of love and peace in the world” (145), perhaps we might consider that it was this creativity of Thérèse that taught Dorothy something previously unknown: that there is a depth to love that binds together what one does for the demonstrated needs of the neediest with how one gives oneself as a sacrificial offering for the life of the world. This is the genius of the saint—of any saint—to contemplate the paradoxical union of the Incarnation unto the Paschal Mystery as the good that is the foundation and climax of the meaning of the world and of each individual’s existence. To refuse to contemplate this depth of Dorothy—a depth which she herself testifies to—is to reduce her to a caricature of herself.

The beauty — the goodness — that Dorothy learned from Thérèse of Lisieux is not beauty according to the world’s reckoning. It is a veiled beauty, hidden from the proud. When Thérèse was introduced to Dorothy, Dorothy was too proud to receive her as she is. Dorothy wanted greatness on her terms, a revolutionary on her terms, a saint on her terms. What she got was the saint as the saint is: a gift for her child. And at the heart of this saint was the mystery of the beauty of the One the saint herself loved:

“My devotion to the Holy Face, or rather all my spirituality, has been based on these words of Isaias: ‘There is no beauty in him, nor comeliness; and we have seen him, and there was no sightliness in him. Despised and the most abject of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with infirmity; and his look was, as it were, hidden and despised, whereupon we esteemed him not.’ I too desire to be without glory or beauty, to tread the winepress alone, unknown to any creature” (quoted on 166).

The ‘littleness’ that Dorothy first found unappealing is the very ‘littleness’ she herself grew to love. It is the ‘littleness’ of not taking oneself too seriously, of not trusting in oneself too much, of referring all things to the loving care of a loving Father, of discovering oneself in the self-donating love of the Son, and of giving oneself over to the life-giving movement of the Spirit. This is what the saints communicate, as if to say, along with Christ who gives himself as food for the world, “You will not change me into yourself like bodily food: you will be changed into me” (Augustine, Confessions VII.10.16, Maria Boulding translation). This is not a pious gloss on the witness of Dorothy; this is, to the contrary, her own testimony about coming to understand holiness through her devotion to the one whom she at first dismissed as a ‘little saint’ because she did not conform to her notion of “saintliness”. If Dorothy is a saint then she gave to the world she first received, like Thérèse giving communion to the poor man.

Calling upon a “saint” doesn’t so much place demands upon the one called as it does upon the one calling. We who call upon them must allow ourselves to be transformed and to make room within ourselves for their holiness.

They teach us what it means to be human: we are to become as they are, not vice versa. When Dorothy said, “Don’t call me a saint”, I take it that she meant that we are not to reduce her to our own prefabricated ideas of what it means to be human, to be good, to be holy. To do so would be to miss the struggle and the strain, the work and the uncertainty, the striving and the deep longing that ran throughout her life and that was the home for the particularity of her own holiness. Thérèse didn’t conform to Dorothy’s preexisting expectations and Dorothy will not conform to ours.

I know this is true for myself. I would much prefer to find in the saints my own image, such as I am at present. It would be easier because I would then be able to utilize the energy I want to utilize, to grow in the manner pleasing to me, and to remain the same in all the other ways I see fit. To take Dorothy seriously, as herself, pierces through all of that. The Church is asking the question of Dorothy’s holiness in order to discern whether this witness to holiness is authentic, trustworthy, and worthy of imitation. In other words, the Church is asking if Dorothy is, in herself, an original insight into the mystery of the Incarnation, to study how the Son’s eternal embrace of human flesh transforms that human flesh forever, preserving and perfecting it at once.

This is the largest, most capacious question one can ask of Dorothy. It is also a question that requires disciplined attentiveness to who she is. As she herself learned with Thérèse, the question can’t be asked according to what we want a saint to be; it must be asked as a true act of inquiry, to discover what a saint really is. The Church has the duty of asking this question because the Church is bound by identity and mission to contemplate Jesus Christ as communicated, even today, in the Holy Spirit. It is an act of faith to entertain the possibility that the fruits of Christ’s sacrificial love have transformed this real, historical, human life. The Church names its saints because it has to if we are to believe Christ’s promises as true.

I, for one, never knew Dorothy. In fact, I was born about a month after she died. But might it just be the case that Christ who searches for each of us throughout all time finds me in the peculiar holiness of this servant of his, into whose Catholic Worker home I have both dined and served, whose devotion to the actual needs of the neediest thwarts my attempts at complacency, whose political boldness reveals the seriousness of the Gospel, and whose own love of the saints, on their terms and not hers, teaches me what it would mean to learn to love Dorothy as a saint?

Houston Catholic Worker, September-October, 2015.