Book Review: “On Pilgrimage: The Sixties”

Don’t dive into this book as one does a novel. Read it slowly, musing on an essay for a week, with a pencil in hand. For Day challenges us to make the connections between a spirituality of love for God and a love for all.

On Pilgrimage: The Sixties

By Dorothy Day
Edited by Robert Ellsberg

Publisher: Orbis (May 19, 2021)
Length: 300 pages
ISBN13: 9781626984097

Love is laced liberally through this compendium of Dorothy Day’s monthly columns, first published in the newspaper of the movement she co-founded, The Catholic Worker, and ably edited by Robert Ellsberg.  Love for God, especially as it lives in the poor whose poverty she tried to share, shines throughout the tellings of her travels as well as of life at the New York houses of hospitality and the community’s farms.  Seeing examples of living love seems even more important today as our country still faces the same problems as in the Sixties: poverty in a land of plenty, racism embedded in our very culture, and endless wars which consume needed resources. 

Day writes of all these issues, but love as lived through acts of mercy is what unites the essays.  She writes of the acts of mercy performed daily at the Catholic Worker (CW) houses of hospitality across the country: the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the dead are mourned and buried, the sick and the prisoners are visited.  In these essays, the works of mercy are presented in lived opposition to the works of war and racism, which so damage the world. That these works are fueled by an out-of-control US military whose expenditures rob the poor is well documented in Day’s laments.  

Coming in for special notice are the prisoners of conscience, Day’s colleagues who are imprisoned for resisting the draft that fueled the Vietnam War and finally, in 1968, by burning the draft files themselves, in nonviolent destruction of what Fr. Dan Berrigan called “improper property.” In the Sixties, as today, these nonviolent trespasses against the laws of the land were in obedience to God’s laws, to oppose racism through the actions of the Civil Rights Movement as well as to oppose the Vietnam War.  After several good recent biographies of Dorothy Day, reading again the words which first introduced me to the Catholic Worker brought back memories of those days when Day helped so many commit to nonviolence as a way to make a world where, as her mentor Peter Maurin would say, “it’s easier to be good.”

Also receiving first-hand attention in this anthology are Day’s visits to Rome to fast for a strong peace message in the documents of Vatican II, her trip to London, and most interestingly, her trip to Cuba. 

In late 1962, Day devoted four columns to her Cuban visit, (p. 69-84), worrying that people might think she saw only what she wanted to see or what the revolutionary government wanted her to see. She explains that once she had been schooled in seeing Christ in the most destitute of New York’s Bowery, it was easy to find “that which is of God in everyone.” (69) She admits that Cuba is “an armed camp” and says she remains as opposed to war and capital punishment as ever, but writes that she prays that the grace of God will grow in Castro and that the Church will be free to function.  

When reading her monthly columns, we realize that Dorothy Day didn’t compartmentalize her life into spiritual and political. Instead, her spirituality flooded into all of life, uniting it under the command of love. Don’t dive into this book as one does a novel, reading from beginning to end.  Instead, read it slowly, musing on an essay for a week, with a pencil in hand to underline and perhaps to journal on passages. For Dorothy Day challenges us to be serious Christians, to make the connections between a spirituality of love for God and a love for all.

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