Thursday, October 14, 2010


Paul Elie, after looking at some old photographs of Dorothy Day, suggested that she “doesn’t look like someone who might make you want to change your life… In her castoff overcoat and kerchief Dorothy Day might be a nun or a social worker, not a radical under surveillance by the FBI.” My favorite photo captures her, nearly eighty, sitting in defiant calm before two policemen towering over her, pistols in their holsters: how does a person grow up, and grow old, with such clarity of purpose that as an octogenarian you would think nothing of being arrested or shot?

In childhood photos, she appears serious, prematurely grown up. When she was eight, she was in the thick of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Later she remembered that “while the crisis lasted, people loved each other. It was as though they were united in Christian solidarity. It makes one think of how people could, if they would, care for each other in times of stress, unjudgingly in pity and love.” That loving solidarity provided the script for her life.

In so many photos, Day is holding some book or another. She discovered her vocation, interestingly enough, largely through reading Dostoevsky, Jack London, Upton Sinclair; she longed to life “a life worthy of the great books she had read,” hoping people would say about her “She really did love those books!”

"I’m not a great one for analyzing those novels; I want to live by them! That’s the ‘meaning of my life’ – to live up to the moral vision of the Church, and of some of my favorite writers… to take those artists and novelists to heart…"

Day never looked like one of those pastel, sweetly pious saints. Instead, she lived a rough, dog-eared life, battling inner crises and what she called the “long loneliness.” Having abandoned her childhood religion, she frequented a saloon called the Golden Swan with her Greenwich Village intellectual friends. After an abortion, a divorce, and a child born out of wedlock, she returned to the church for which she had little patience, where she had seen people fawn over the rich, but do nothing for the poor. Thankfully she came back anyway, as a missionary from the streets into the Church, worrying that she was being untrue to the poor she loved, yet determined to remind the Church that it does in fact have a social program.

She published a newspaper out of her own kitchen, selling The Catholic Worker for a penny a copy, cheap enough for anyone to buy and read. She challenged the laziness of an uninvolved church that ignored Christ’s mandate to care for the poor. She questioned how the church could bless the powers that be, instead of lifting up the powerless. She tackled racism and unfairness in the workplace. The Church did not always appreciate being told the truth about its calling. But despite guffaws from inside the Church, circulation of her paper skyrocketed from a first edition run of 2,500 to more than 150,000 in three years.

Day not only needed to, but wanted to back up her talk with action, spending half her life publishing, the other half being a doer of her own words. She personally opened dozens of shelters (the first was her own apartment, which also housed the paper!), places where the poor could come to eat, pray, make friends, and get vocational training. No one preached at them. They were simply loved and welcomed. She served, combining radical advocacy with radical service – an impulse with which she was born:

"Whatever I had read as a child about the saints had thrilled me. I could see the nobility of giving one’s life for the sick, the maimed, the leper. But 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?"

Questions and more questions. Every photo of Day I have ever seen leads me to believe that she was framing, in her mind at just that moment, a question – the kind Jesus asked, the kind that makes people squirm, the kind of questions without which (if they are left unasked) the Church will shrivel.

She was devoted to the sacraments: those offered up by the priests, but also what she called the “sacrament of duty,” changing sheets and bedpans for the needy who found her piety to be tangible, and helpful.

"Does God have a set way of prayer, a way that He expects each of us to follow? I doubt it. I believe some people – lots of people – pray through the witness of their lives, through the work they do, the friendships they have, the love they offer people and receive from people. Since when are words the only acceptable form of prayer?"

The simplicity of her life and conversation were striking. Hospitality was everything: “Let’s all try to be poorer. My mother used to say, ‘Everyone take less, and there will be room for one more.’ There was always room for one more at our table.”

The sorrow and loneliness of her own life sharpened her sensitivity to those who were lonely and sorrowful. The answer to her own plight was the answer to the plight of those to whom she reached out. She said, "The only answer in this life, to the loneliness we are all bound to feel, is community. The living together, working together, sharing together, loving God and loving our brother, and living close to him in community so we can show our love for him."

For community to happen, we must recognize the dignity of the poor. One day, a well-dressed woman visited Dorothy Day and donated a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked her, and later in the day gave the ring to an elderly woman who took most of her meals at the shelter. A co-worker protested, suggesting Dorothy should have sold the ring and used the money to pay the woman’s rent for a year. But Dorothy insisted that the woman have her dignity. The woman could choose what to do with the ring. She could pay her rent for a year; or she could just wear the ring, like the woman who donated it. “Do you suppose that God created diamonds only for the rich?”

What I love about Day is that she embodied the truth that faith without works really is dead (James 1:22), that faith issues in action, that action issues in faith. Jim Forest said that Day’s ability to see good in every person “was surely due to the depth and intensity of her spiritual life. It was obvious to anyone who was in sight of Dorothy for more than a few hours that she was a woman of prayer. When I think of her, I recall her first of all on her knees.” As Dorothy said, “We feed the hungry, yes. We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes, but there is strong faith at work; we pray. If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn’t pay attention to our praying and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.”

I cannot think of any better verbal portrait of what the Christian life is about, what it can be about, that this remarkable thought that Day shared with Robert Coles not very long before her death in 1980: "I try to remember this life that the Lord gave me; the other day I wrote down the words ‘a life remembered,’ and I was going to try to make a summary for myself, write what mattered most – but I couldn’t do it. I just sat there and thought of our Lord, and His visit to us all those centuries ago, and I said to myself that my great luck was to have had Him on my mind for so long in my life!"

Now, that looks like somebody who makes me want to change my life.

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