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Dorothy Day: A Saint for Our Age?

Presented at the Dorothy Day Centenary Conference, Marquette University, October 10, 1997. This article also appeared in a shorter form as “The Trouble With Saint Dorothy“, U.S. Catholic, November 1997.

Can you think of a word that describes a person who devoted much of her life to being with people many of us cross the street to avoid? Who for half a century did her best to make sure they didn’t go hungry or freeze on winter nights? Who went to Mass every day until her legs couldn’t take her that far, at which point Communion was brought to her? Who prayed every day for friend and enemy alike and whose prayers, some are convinced, had miraculous results? Who went to confession every week? Who was devoted to the rosary? Who wore hand-me-down clothes and lived in cold-water flats? Whose main goal in life was to follow Christ and to see him in the people around her?

A saint.

Can you think of a word that describes a person who refused to pay taxes, didn’t salute the flag, never voted, went to prison every now and then for protests against war and social injustice? Who spoke in a plain and often rude way about our way of life? Who complained that the Church wasn’t paying enough attention to its own teaching and compared some of its bishops to sharks?

A troublemaker.

Dorothy Day, saint and troublemaker.

Mostly saints lived in the distant past, that is before we were born, and have been presented to us with all blemishes removed. We are not surprised to learn that St. Wonderbread of the North Pole, daughter of pious parents, had her first vision when she was four, joined the Order of the Holy Pallbearers at the age of 11, founded 47 convents, received the stigmata when she was 55, and that when she died 20 years later, not only was her cell filled with divine light but the nuns attending her clearly heard the angelic choir.

What has been left out about the actual St. Wonderbread is that she ran away from home, had a voice that could split rocks and a temper that could melt them back together again, experienced more dark nights of the soul than celestial visions, was accused of heresy by her bishop, narrowly escaped being burned at the stake, and, though she lived long enough to be vindicated, felt like a failure on her deathbed. But all this was edited out after she died— facts like that might tarnish her halo.

If Dorothy Day is ever canonized, the record of who she was, what she was like and what she did is too complete and accessible for her to be hidden in wedding cake icing. She will be the patron saint not only of homeless people and those who try to care for them but also of people who lose their temper.

Dorothy Day was not without rough edges.

To someone who told her she was too hot-headed, she replied, “I hold more temper in one minute than you will hold in your entire life.” To a college student who asked a sarcastic question about her recipe for soup, she responded, “You cut the vegetables until your fingers bleed.” To a journalist who told her it was the first time he had interviewed a saint, she replied, “Don’t call me a saint— I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

When we met

I was 20 years old the first time I saw her. She was ancient, that is to say 62 years old— seven years older than I am today. This means for 35 years she has been scolding and encouraging me on a daily basis. The mere fact of her having died 17 years ago doesn’t seem to get in the way.

I met her at the Catholic Worker Farm on Staten Island in the days when the island still had rural areas, its only link to the rest of New York City being the ferry. She was sitting with several other people at the battered table where the community had its meals. Before her was a pot of tea, a few cups, none of them matching, and a pile of letters. The Catholic Worker received a good deal of mail every day, much of it for Dorothy. She often read the letters aloud, telling a story or two about the people who had written them.

This was the Dorothy Day University in fill swing, though I didn’t know it at the time. She wrote countless letters and notes in response every year, but some letters she gave to others to answer either because a personal reply wasn’t needed or because she wanted to connect the correspondent with someone on staff. A good part of Dorothy’s life was spent reading and writing letters—even her monthly columns were usually nothing more than long letters. If ever she is canonized, she will be one of the patron saints of letter-writers.

People sometimes think of her as the personification of the simple life, but in reality her days tended to be busy, complicated and stressful. Often she was away traveling— visiting other Catholic Worker communities, speaking at colleges, seminaries, local parishes, getting around by bus or a used car on its last spark plugs.

Before an audience, she had a direct, unpremeditated, story-centered way of speaking— no notes, no rhetorical polish, a manner that communicated a certain shyness but at the same time wisdom, conviction, faith and courage. She wasn’t the kind of speaker who makes those she is addressing feel stupid or without possibilities.

Her basic message was stunningly simple: we are called by God to love one another as He loves us. (These days many of us go to great lengths to avoid saying He in such a sentence, but Dorothy steadily resisted a sexually neutral vocabulary.)

If God was one key word, hospitality was another. She repeated again and again a saying from the early Church, “Every home should have a Christ room in it, so that hospitality may be practiced.” Hospitality, she explained, is simply practicing God’s mercy with those around us. Christ is in the stranger, in the person who has nowhere to go and no one to welcome him. “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed,” she often said. Hardly a day passed in her adult life when she didn’t speak about the works of mercy. For her these weren’t simply obligations which the Lord imposed on his followers. As she said, “We are here to celebrate Him through these works of mercy.”

A day never passed without Dorothy speaking of the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, giving shelter to the homeless, caring for sick, visiting prisoners, burying the dead, admonishing the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving all injuries, praying for the living and the dead. She helped us understand a merciful life has so many levels: there is hunger not only for food but also for faith, not only for a place at the table but also for a real welcome, not only for assistance but also for listening, not only for kind words but also for truthful words. There is not only hospitality of the door but also hospitality of the face and heart.

Hospitality of the heart transforms the way to see people and how we respond to them. Their needs become primary. Tom Cornell tells the story of a donor coming into the New York house one morning and giving Dorothy a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked her for the donation and put it in her pocket without batting an eye. Later a certain demented lady came in, one of the more irritating regulars at the CW house, one of those people who make you wonder if you were cut out for life in a house of hospitality. I can’t recall her ever saying “thank you” or looking like she was on the edge of saying it. She had a voice that could strip paint off the wall. Dorothy took the diamond ring out of her pocket and gave it to this lady. Someone on the staff said to Dorothy, “Wouldn’t it have been better if we took the ring to the diamond exchange, sold it, and paid that woman’s rent for a year?”. Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do what she liked with the ring. She could sell it for rent money or take a trip to the Bahamas. Or she could enjoy wearing a diamond ring on her hand like the woman who gave it away. “Do you suppose,” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?”

For all her traveling, most of Dorothy’s life was spent in New York City. Before her conversion, in 1924 when she was 28 years old, she had bought a small beach house on Staten Island that remained part of her life until she too weak to make the trip any more. It was a simple structure with a few plain rooms and a cast iron stove. Walking on the beach or to the post office, rosary in hand, she prayed her way through an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, prayed her way through the Baltimore Catechism, prayed her way to her daughter Tamar’s baptism in a nearby Catholic parish, prayed her way through the collapse of a common-law marriage and to her own baptism, prayed her way through the incomprehension of her atheist friends who regarded all religion as snake oil. Years later it was mainly in the beach house that she found the peace and quiet to write her autobiography, The Long Loneliness

Life in the big city

The main part of her New York life was in Manhattan with the urban part of the Catholic Worker community. In the early sixties, St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality was on Chrystie Street—a decrepit three-story building a block from the Bowery, in those days the city’s grimmest avenue. As there wasn’t enough room inside, the down-and-out were often lined up at the door waiting either for food or clothing—men mainly, people often grouped under the heading “bums.” Bums had been a major part of Dorothy’s life since leaving college in Illinois to come to New York. She rented a room on the Lower East Side and, at age 18, became a reporter for New York’s socialist daily newspaper, The Call.

Dorothy’s office at the Catholic Worker, just inside the front door, was hardly big enough for her desk. Here she and I would sometimes discuss—occasionally argue—about what should be in the next issue of the paper. It wasn’t the easiest place for conversation. The ground floor was where food was prepared and meals served, each meal in shifts as there were only a few bench-style tables. From morning till night, it tended to be noisy. Sitting at her desk one afternoon, talking about the next issue, we could hardly hear each other. Dorothy got up, opened her office door and yelled “Holy silence!” For a few minutes it was almost quiet.

On the second floor, site of the two clothing rooms, one for men, one for women, there was an area used for daily prayer—lauds, vespers, compline—as well as recitation of the rosary every afternoon. None of this was obligatory, but part of the community was always present, the community being a mixture of “staff” (as those of us who came as volunteers were called) and “family” (people who had once come in for clothing or a bowl of soup and gradually become part of the household).

It wasn’t a comfortable life. At the time I joined, Dorothy had a sixth-floor walk-up apartment in a tenement on Spring Street. For $25 a month she got two small rooms, a bathtub next to the kitchen sink, and a bathroom the size of a broom closet.

This may sound uninviting, but Dorothy regarded the neighborhood as luxury enough. With an Italian bakery across the street, the smell of bread in the oven was often in the air, and there was always the intoxicating perfume of Italian cooking. The San Gennaro Festival was celebrated annually just around the corner—for a week, that part of Manhattan became a village in sight of Naples.

The day finally came when climbing those five flights of stairs became too much for her aging knees, so we moved her to a similar apartment only one flight up on Ridge Street—also $25 a month, but in a seedier neighborhood. The place was in appalling condition. Stuart Sandberg and I went down to clean and paint the two rooms, dragging box after box of old linoleum and other debris down to the street, including what seemed to us a hideous painting of the Holy Family—Mary, Joseph and Jesus rendered in a few bright colors against a battleship gray background on a piece of plywood. We shook our heads, deposited it in the trash along the curb, and went back to work. Not long after Dorothy arrived carrying the painting. “Look what I found! The Holy Family! It’s a providential sign, a blessing.” She put it on the mantle of the apartment’s bricked-up fireplace. Dorothy had a gift for finding beauty where others tended to see rubbish.

The discipline of prayings

If she was one of the freest persons alive, she was also one of the most disciplined. This was most notable in her religious life. Whether traveling or home, it was a rare day when Dorothy didn’t go to Mass, while on Saturday evenings she went to confession. Sacramental life was the rockbed of her existence. She never obliged anyone to follow her example, but God knows she gave an example. When I think of her, the first image that comes to mind is Dorothy on her knees praying before the Blessed Sacrament either in the chapel at the farm or in one of several urban parish churches near the Catholic Worker. One day, looking into the Bible and Missal she had left behind when summoned for a phone call, I found long lists of people, living and dead, whom she prayed for daily.

Occasionally she spoke of her “prayings”: “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 prayings and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.”

She was attentive to fast days and fast seasons. It was in that connection she told me a story about prayer. For many years, she said, she had been a heavy smoker. Her day began with lighting up a cigarette. Her big sacrifice every Lent was giving up smoking, but having to get by without a cigarette made her increasingly irritable as the days passed, until the rest of the community was praying she would light up a smoke.

One year, as Lent approached, the priest who ordinarily heard her confessions urged her not to give up cigarettes that year but instead to pray daily, “Dear God, help me stop smoking.” She used that prayer for several years without it having any impact on her addiction. Then one morning she woke up, reached for a cigarette, and realized she didn’t want it—and never smoked another.

Dorothy was never “too polite” to speak about God. Nothing we achieved was ever our doing, it was only God’s mercy passing through us. Our own love wasn’t our love. If we experienced love for another person, whether wife or child or friend or enemy, it was God’s love. “If I have accomplished anything in my life,” she said late in her life, “it is because I wasn’t embarrassed to talk about God.”

People sometimes tell me how lucky I am to have been part of the same community that Dorothy Day belonged to. They picture a group of more or less saintly people having a wonderful time doing good works. In reality Catholic Worker community life in Manhattan in the early sixties had much in common with purgatory. The “staff” was made up of people with very different backgrounds, interests, temperaments and convictions. We ranged from the gregarious to the permanently furious.

There was a recluse named Keith living in a back room on the third floor who maintained the mailing list—a big job as The Catholic Worker had nearly a hundred thousand subscribers. He was rarely seen and never said a word; communication with him was by notes. Another member of staff was the angry daughter of a millionaire newspaper publisher; the last I heard, she had become a leader of a Marxist sect.

But not everyone was all thorns. There was lean, gentle, long-suffering Charlie Butterworth, a lawyer who had graduated from Harvard but whose pacifism had led him to the Catholic Worker.

Arthur J. Lacey, with his matchstick body, was chiefly responsible for the men’s clothing room; he called himself “Haberdasher to the Bowery.”

There was the always-teasing Stanley Vishnewski, who said most of us belonged “not to the Catholic Worker movement but to the Catholic Shirker movement.”

Agreement within the staff was as rare as visits by the President of the United States. The most bitter dispute I experienced had to do with how best to use the small amounts of eggs, butter and other treats that sometimes were given to us—use them for “the line” (people we often didn’t know by name who lined up for meals) or the “family,” as had been the custom? Though we worked side by side, saw each other daily, and prayed together, staff tension had become too acute for staff meetings. Dorothy or Charlie Butterworth handed out jobs and once you had a job, it was yours until you stopped doing it. The final authority was Dorothy Day, not a responsibility she enjoyed, but no one else could make a final decision that would be respected by the entire staff.

When Dorothy returned from a cross-country speaking trip she told the two people running the kitchen that the butter and eggs should go to the family, which led to their resigning from kitchen work and soon after leaving the community trailing black smoke, convinced that Dorothy Day wasn’t living up to the writings of Dorothy Day.

One of the miracles of Dorothy’s life is that she remained part of a conflict-torn community for nearly half a century. Still more remarkable, she remained a person of hope and gratitude to the end. (She occasionally spoke of “the duty of hope.”)

Radical without party line

Dorothy was and remains a controversial lady. There was hardly anything she did which didn’t attract criticism.

Even hospitality scandalizes some people. We were blamed for making people worse, not better, because we were doing nothing to “reform them.” A social worker asked Dorothy one day how long the down-and-out were permitted to stay. “We let them stay forever,” Dorothy answered. “They live with us, they die with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after they are dead. Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.”

What got her in the most hot water was her sharp social criticism. She pointed out that patriotism was a more powerful force in most people’s lives than the Gospel. While she hated every kind tyranny and never ceased to be thankful for America having taken in so many people fleeing poverty and repression, she was fierce in her criticism of capitalism and consumerism. She said America had a tendency to treat people like Kleenex—use them, and throw them away.” Our problems stem,” she said, “from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”

She had no kind words for war or anything having to do with it—war was simply murder wrapped in flags. She was convinced Jesus had disarmed all his followers when he said to Peter, “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” A way of life based on love, including love of enemies, left no room for killing. You couldn’t practice the works of mercy with one hand and the works of vengeance with the other.

No stranger to prison, she was first locked up as a young woman protesting with Suffragettes in front of the White House during World War I and was last jailed in her seventies for picketing with farm workers. She took pride in the young men of the Catholic Worker who went to prison rather than be drafted—”a good way to visit the prisoner,” she pointed out. Yet she also welcomed back others who had left Catholic Worker communities in fight in the Second World War. They might disagree about the best way to fight Nazism, but—as she often said—”there is no ‘party line’ in the Catholic Worker movement.”

Dorothy was sometimes criticized for being too devout a Catholic. How could she be so radical about social matters and so conservative about her Church? While she occasionally deplored statements or actions by members of the hierarchy, she was by no means an opponent of the bishops or someone campaigning for structural changes in the Church. What was needed, she said, wasn’t new doctrine but our living the existing doctrine. True, some pastors seemed barely Christian, but one had to aim for their conversion, an event that would not be hastened by berating them but rather by helping them see what their vocation requires. The way to do that was to set an example.

“I didn’t become a Catholic in order to purify the church,” Dorothy once said to Bob Coles. “I knew someone, years ago, who kept telling me that if [the Catholic Workers] could purify the church, then she would convert. I thought she was teasing me when she first said that, but after a while I realized she meant what she was saying. Finally, I told her I wasn’t trying to reform the church or take sides on all the issues the church was involved in; I was trying to be a loyal servant of the church Jesus had founded. She thought I was being facetious. She reminded me that I had been critical of capitalism and America, so why not Catholicism and Rome? . . . . My answer was that I had no reason to criticize Catholicism as a religion or Rome as the place where the Vatican is located . . . . As for Catholics all over the world, including members of the church, they are no better than lots of their worst critics, and maybe some of us Catholics are worse than our worst critics.”

Pleased as she was when home Masses were allowed and the Liturgy translated into English, she didn’t take kindly to smudging the border between the sacred and mundane. When a priest close to the community used a coffee cup for a chalice at a Mass celebrated in the soup kitchen on First Street, she afterward took the cup, kissed it, and buried it in the back yard. It was no longer suited for coffee—it had held the Blood of Christ. I learned more about the Eucharist that day than I had from any book or sermon. It was a learning experience for the priest as well—thereafter he used a chalice.

Dorothy’s sensitivity for the sacred helps explain her love, rare at the time, of the Orthodox Church, famous—or infamous—for its reluctance to modernize, rationalize, speed up or simplify its liturgical life. She longed for the reunion of the Church. She occasionally took me to the small meetings of a group in New York City, The Third Hour it was called, that brought together Catholic and Orthodox Christians, as well as at least one Anglican, the poet W.H. Auden. It was Dorothy who brought me to visit the Russian Orthodox cathedral up on East 97th Street where she introduced me to the Russian priest serving there, Father Matvei Stadniuk, now dean of the Epiphany Cathedral in Moscow. In 1988, it was Father Matvei who launched the first project of Christian volunteer hospital service in what was still Soviet Russia, and it was he, not I, who recalled our first meeting 26 years earlier, but only when I had given him a copy of my biography of Dorothy. “Dorothy Day? Did you know her?” And then he looked more closely at my face and said, “I knew you when you were a young man, when Dorothy brought you to our church.”

I’m not sure what had given Dorothy such a warmth for Orthodox Christianity in general and the Russian Orthodox Church in particular, but one of the factors was certainly her love of the books of Dostoevsky, and most of all his novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Perhaps the most important chapter for Dorothy concerns a conversation between a wealthy woman and an elderly monk, Father Zosima. The woman asks him how she can really know that God exists. Fr. Zosima tells her that no explanation or argument can achieve this, only the practice of “active love.” He assures her that there is no other way to know the reality of God. The woman confesses that sometimes she dreams about a life of loving service to others—she thinks perhaps she will become a nun, live in holy poverty and serve the poor in the humblest way. It seems to her such a wonderful thought that it makes tears comes to her eyes. But then it crosses her mind how ungrateful some of the people she is serving will be. Some will complain that the soup she is serving isn’t hot enough, the bread isn’t fresh enough, the bed is too hard, the covers are too thin. She confesses she couldn’t bear such ingratitude—and so her dreams about serving others vanish, and once again she finds herself wondering if there really is a God. To this Fr. Zosima responds with the words, “Love in practice is a hard and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” words Dorothy often repeated. I think of the Orthodox monk Father Zosima as somehow a co-founder of all the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality.

It is in the same book that Dostoevsky relates the story of a woman who was almost saved by an onion. She had been a person of absolute selfishness and so, when she died, she went to hell. After all, she had chosen hell every day of her life. Even after her death, her guardian angel wanted to save her and so approached the Savior, saying a mistake had been made. “Don’t you remember? Olga once gave an onion to a beggar.” It was left unsaid that the onion had started to rot, and also that it wasn’t so much given as thrown at the beggar. The Savior said, “You are right. I bless you to pull her out of hell with an onion.” So the angel flew into the twilight of hell—all those people at once so close to each other and so far apart—and there was the selfish woman, glaring at her neighbors. The angel offered her the onion and began to lift her out of hell with it. Others around her saw what was happening, saw the angel’s strength, and saw their chance. They grabbed hold of the woman’s legs and so were being lifted with her, a ribbon of people being rescued by one onion. Only the woman had never wanted company. She began kicking with her legs, yelling at her uninvited guests, “Only for me! Only for me!” These three words are hell itself. The onion became rotten and the woman and all the others attached to her fell back into the disconnection of hell.

“Hell is not to love anymore,” Dorothy said so many times, quoting another author she loved, Georges Bernanos.

All the way to heaven is heaven

Dorothy Day’s main achievement is that she taught us the “Little Way” of love, which it so happens involves cutting up a great many onions. The path to heaven, it seems, is marked by open doors and the smell of onions. “All the way to heaven is heaven,” she so often said, quoting St. Catherine of Siena, “because He said, ‘I am the Way’.”

It was chiefly through the writings of St. Therese of Liseux that Dorothy had been drawn to the “Little Way.” No term, in her mind, better described the ideal Christian way of doing things. As she once put it, “Paper work, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens—these things, too, are the works of peace, and often seem like a very little way.”

I’m sometimes asked, “Dorothy Day gives a fine example for people who don’t have a family to take care of and mortgages to pay, but what about the rest of us?”

The rest of us includes my wife and me. I don’t have enough fingers on one hand to count our children, and the first of the month is mortgage payment day. But every time I open the door to guests, it’s partly thanks to Dorothy Day. Every time I think about things in the bright light of the Gospel rather than in the gray light of money or the dim light of politics, her example has had its influence. Every time I try to overcome meanness or selfishness rising up in myself, it is partly thanks to the example of Dorothy Day. Every time I defeat the impulse to buy something I can get along without, Dorothy Day’s example of voluntary poverty have had renewed impact. Every time I try to see Christ’s presence in the face of a stranger, there again I owe a debt to Dorothy Day.

No one else has made me think so much about the words we will hear at the Last Judgement: “What you did to the least person, you did to me.” What I know of Christ, the Church, sacramental life, the Bible, and truth-telling, I know in large measure thanks to her, while whatever I have done that was cowardly, opportunistic or cruel, is despite her.

It isn’t that Dorothy Day is the point of reference. Christ is. But I can’t think of anyone I’ve known whose Christ-centered life did so much to help make me a more Christ-centered person.

It’s a century since Dorothy Day was born and nearly twenty years since she died, but she continues to touch our lives, not only as a person we remember with gratitude, but also as a saint—if by the word “saint” we mean a person who helps us see what it means to follow Christ.

“It is the living from day to day,” she once said, “taking no thought for the morrow, seeing Christ in all who come to us, and trying literally to follow the Gospel that resulted in this work.”

(Reprinted here with permission of the author.)

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