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Dorothy Day: Lecture on Centenary

Lecture given by Robert Elsberg at the New York University Symposium honoring Dorothy Day’s centenary on November 8, 1997. Used with permission.

Dorothy Day and volunteers at Trivoli Farm, 1968.

Dorothy Day has been called many things.

After her death in 1980 the historian David O’Brien called her “the most important, interesting, and influential figure in the history of American Catholicism.”

On the other hand she liked to tell a story about how she once paid a visit to a family. Upon being introduced to their young child the boy burst into tears. When asked why he was crying she confessed, “All day long they’ve been saying `Dorothy Day is coming, Dorothy Day is coming.’ And now you’re here and you’re just an old woman.”

Some people called her a communist. This didn’t especially bother her. I recall how amused she was to hear these words from J. Edgar Hoover which I discovered in her declassified FBI file:

Dorothy Day is a very erratic and irresponsible person. She has engaged in activities which strongly suggest that she is consciously or unconsciously being used by communist groups. From past experience with her it is obvious she maintains a very hostile and belligerent attitude toward the Bureau and makes every effort to castigate the FBI whenever she feels so inclined.

And then there were those, quite numerous, who called her a saint. This was another matter. “Don’t call me a saint,” she used to say: “I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

She was all too conscious that when we call people “saints” we tend to put them on a pedestal, as if their witness belonged to some rarefied atmosphere too thin for ordinary mortals. “Dorothy can do such things; she’s a saint!”

Dorothy had given this quite a lot of thought. “When they call you a saint,” she said, “it means basically that you are not to be taken seriously.”

Of course this attitude contrasted with her own enormous veneration for the saints. Her daily speech and her writings were filled with references to such figures as St. Paul, Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, and of course her beloved St. Therese of Lisieux. She even wrote a book about Therese and her spirituality of the “Little Way.” It was Therese who indicated the path to holiness that lies in the duties and sacrifices of everyday life, and Dorothy was delighted that the church, responding to popular acclamation, had processed the canonization of St. Therese with unusual speed. There is no doubt that she would have welcomed the news, last month, that St. Therese has been declared a Doctor of the Church.

For Dorothy the saints were not idealized superhumans. They were her constant companions and daily guides in the imitation of Christ. She relished the human details of their struggles to be faithful, realizing full well that in their own time the saints were often regarded as eccentrics and troublemakers. She filled the pages of The Catholic Worker with illustrations by Ade Bethune and Fritz Eichenberg that displayed the saints as companions of everyday life–at least for those whose everyday life includes work and prayer and service to the poor.

“We are all called to be saints,” she wrote, “. . . and we might as well get over our bourgeois fear of the name. We might also get used to recognizing the fact that there is some of the saint in all of us. Inasmuch as we are growing, putting off the old man and putting on Christ, there is some of the saint, the holy, the divine right there.”

In other words Dorothy saw the task of being a Christian as a process of sanctification, a process of being conformed to the pattern of Christ. It was a process that was never completed, because there was always more to be accomplished. But I think there can be no doubt that in Dorothy Day there was more than simply “some of the saint.” How much? That is what I wish to discuss today.

Some years ago Cardinal O’Connor wrote in Catholic New York: “Shortly after I announced the study of Cardinal Cooke’s life, several people wrote to ask me: `Why not Dorothy Day?’ . . . It’s a good question. Indeed, it’s an excellent question. [It’s almost impossible to read By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day, without asking it, especially if she started you thinking more than forty years ago.] . . . I would be interested in your answers.”

What follows is my own answer to that question.

In 1983 the Claretians announced that they would take on the initial work of promoting the cause of Dorothy’s canonization. Ironically, this provoked much criticism by some who had been closest to Dorothy, including members of her family as well as the Catholic Worker. It is not uncommon to question the worthiness of a candidate for canonization. But in this case the question was just the opposite. With Dorothy Day, as Ken Woodward has noted, there was “suspicion that the process is unworthy of the candidate.”

Many in the Catholic Worker expressed indifference or even hostility to the idea of canonizing Dorothy Day, feeling it would represent a cooptation of her witness. It would shift attention from imitation to veneration, a preoccupation with miracles, and so forth. It would cost money that could be spent on the poor. It would put too much emphasis on one person rather than the community she was part of. Inevitably church officials would try to emphasize her “wonderful work” with the poor, her orthodox piety, her spirit of obedience and respect for the magisterium, and so would filter out the problematic areas of her life and witness–particularly her radical pacifism and her resistance to the state.

Of course to name someone a saint does not make not the slightest difference to the saint herself. It is not like winning the Academy Award or being added to the Hall of Fame. Canonization is not intended to benefit or honor the saint. It is intended to benefit the church. Dorothy herself understood this. When a saint is canonized it represents the church’s solemn declaration that the life of this servant of God, her message and witness, provides a true and reliable guidepost for us on the path of Christian discipleship –which is to say, on our own path to holiness. The life of the church is enormously enriched each time a new saint is proposed for our imitation and veneration.

But, as Simone Weil suggested, “Today it is not nearly enough merely to be a saint; but we must have the saintliness demanded by the present moment.”

If we are to regard Dorothy Day as a saint, we need to consider the particular gifts that she offers to the church and the world of our day.

Dorothy herself was aware of the need for a new type of saint. Describing her youthful thoughts on this subject she wrote,

“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. Priests and Sisters the world over could be working for the littlest ones of Christ, and my heart stirred at their work. But there was another question in my mind. 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, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?”

In effect, Dorothy’s vocation took form around this challenge. And I would cite this as her first great gift to the church. It was her vocation to join charity with justice. It was in search of this vocation that she prayed at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1932 that “some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.” She longed, as she put it, “to make a synthesis reconciling body and soul, this world and the next. . .”

Dorothy devoted her life to the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless. And it is ironic to note that had she confined herself to this her cause of sanctification would be more assured. But she went further. She set herself “against a social order which made so much charity in the present sense of the word necessary.” In other words, she combined the practice of charity with the struggle for justice. This has always caused controversy. As Dom Helder Camara once said: “When I give food to the hungry they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor are hungry they call me a communist.”

It is this conjunction of charity and justice that made many people uncomfortable with Dorothy in her lifetime, as today it makes some uncomfortable with calling her a saint. But I believe that on this path she created a new model of discipleship, a new model of holiness, a new way of being a saint that combines what Peguy called the mystical and the political. Dorothy did more than anyone to win credibility for this path. In so doing she represented an aspect of the saintliness demanded by the present moment.

The second great gift of Dorothy Day to the church was undoubtedly her commitment to the ideal of Gospel nonviolence. This ideal was widely recognized in the early church. But after the conversion of Constantine it was effectively effaced by just war teaching. For years, in season and out, Dorothy was a solitary prophet insisting on the literal meaning of Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies. Do good to them that persecute you.”

Dorothy believed that Jesus had come to offer a radical new definition of love as the ultimate law of our lives. “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” It was a new commandment, for the love exemplified on the cross extended beyond friends and those on our side. Jesus had left us a definition of nonviolence, not only in his words, but in the manner of his life. By his death and resurrection he had converted the cross, a sign of defeat, into a symbol of life and hope. And he had come to substitute the cross for the sword or the bomb as an effective instrument of liberation and justice.

By maintaining this witness through one war after another Dorothy challenged and enlarged the conscience of the church. Because of her the Church has been challenged to assume a more prophetic role in the vindication of life, and the word Christian has grown that much closer to recovering its original signification of Peacemaker. For this gift, Dorothy Day should be canonized.

The list of saints is notoriously weak on presenting models of holiness among the laity. This points to a third great gift of Dorothy Day. Here was a lay woman–long before such things were heard of–who assumed the leadership of a lay apostolic movement of men and women. At the time when she and Peter Maurin established the Catholic Worker, it was assumed that such a Catholic movement must inevitably be authorized or directed by the hierarchy. Dorothy operated out of a different model of the church. She sought no permission before living out the radical implications of her faith. She held no office in the church. And yet she came to claim an authority that owed nothing to institutional power or official status. It was simply rooted in her courage, integrity and faithfulness to the gospel.

Another point deserves emphasis here. When the church does occasionally canonize lay people, these are often men or women who, in their life experience and spirituality, were virtually indistinguishable from monks or nuns. In Dorothy Day we have a saint who truly experienced the joys and sorrows of family life, of motherhood, and life in a somewhat raucous and mixed community. This is a saint whose conversion was prompted by the experience of pregnancy and the joy of love.

She wrote,

“I had known enough of love to know that a good healthy family life was as near to heaven as one could get in this life. There was another sample of heaven, of the enjoyment of God. The very sexual act itself was used again and again in Scripture as a figure of the beatific vision. It was not because I was tired of sex, satiated, disillusioned, that I turned to God. Radical friends used to insinuate this. It was because through a whole love, both physical and spiritual, I came to know God.”

It was her happiness and joy and delight in the created world that awakened in her heart “a flood of gratitude.” “The final object of this love and gratitude was God. No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.”

Although her conversion ultimately required that she part from the father of her child this was not because she disdained married life, but because she felt such a strong commitment to the sacramental meaning of marriage. Here too is where she forged her “synthesis of body and soul, this world and the next.” For Dorothy all things in nature were the potential channels of grace. This strong sacramental instinct was rooted, ultimately, in the central mystery of Christianity, the doctrine of the Incarnation. Dorothy’s distinctive spirituality was based on the radical implications of this doctrine. In her development of these implications lay yet another of her essential gifts to the church.

As Dorothy saw it, God had entered our flesh and our history, and had left the imprint of divinity all around us. All life was hallowed. God was present in our neighbors, especially in the disguise of those in need. It was Dorothy more than anyone of our time, who rediscovered the plain challenge of Jesus’ words, “Inasmuch as you did this for the least of my brothers and sisters you did it for me.”

We didn’t have to worry about what we would have done for Christ if we had lived 2000 years ago. Whatever we should have done then we could do now. That Christ was to be found in our neighbor was not just an article of faith. This was her experience. If bread and wine, the work of human hands, could become the body of Christ, what else might we discover in the world around us, if we had eyes to see properly?

She believed in the real presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine on the altar. But she believed that Christ was also truly present in the poor. And so our response to the poor was a test of the authenticity of our worship. How could we love God whom we haven’t seen if we haven’t loved our neighbor whom we have seen? And how could we love our neighbors who are hungry except by feeding them? “The mystery of the poor is this: that they are Jesus and what you do for them you do to him.”

For all these gifts and for all she taught us with her words and deeds I believe that Dorothy Day is an authentic saint who speaks to the demands of our time. Ironically, this is now more the case than in her own lifetime. Throughout much of her life Dorothy was regarded as a venerable but controversial figure somewhere on the margins of the Catholic church. That is no longer so. Now at a time when the American church is itself so widely polarized between contending camps, Dorothy Day may be the true saint for what Cardinal Bernardin called “the common ground.”

Her strong emphasis on the primacy of conscience, her courage in resisting war and injustice, and her solidarity with the oppressed, made her a beloved figure to the left. But these positions were combined with pious adherence to Catholic moral teaching and a strong respect for the magisterium. The fact is that Dorothy was much closer in her outlook to the humanism of Pope John Paul II than many of her reform- minded admirers would care to admit. Yet she was much too open in her appreciation of the world, she was much too catholic in her tastes, to believe that everything good and true and beautiful was included in the church. There was, after all, Dostovesky and Dickens and the novels of Chaim Potok, not to mention the opera, Sacco and Vanzetti, her communist friends, and the ailanthus tree outside her window.

Above all she insisted that the church be held accountable to its ideals and founding mission. “I loved the Church for Christ made visible. Not for itself, because it was so often a scandal to me. Romano Guardini said the Church is the Cross on which Christ was crucified; one could not separate Christ from His Cross, and one must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the Church.”

Dorothy, in short, is not easily claimed by either liberals or conservatives. Ultimately she represented something more radical. And she reminded us that we too are called to something much more radical than our identity as champions of tradition or partisans of reform. Ultimately we are called to be saints.

Dorothy answered that call. Thinking of her today, seventeen years after her death, I am reminded of her words about Peter Maurin, words that could apply as well to herself. She noted that some people criticized Peter for being “holier than thou.” Well, Peter was holy, she said. Holier than anyone we ever knew.

We are not called to be another St. Francis or St. Teresa or St. Dorothy, but the particular saint that God wants us to be. And if we are moved to call Dorothy a saint it should not be with the motive of putting her on pedestal but as an inspiration to respond more faithfully to our calling.

Dorothy was a great believer in what de Caussade called “the sacrament of the present moment.” In each situation, in each encounter, in each task before us there was a path to God. We didn’t need to be in a monastery or a chapel. We didn’t need to be become different people first. We could start today, this moment, where we are, to add to the balance of love in the world.

As Cardinal Newman said: “The tragedy is never to have begun.” Dorothy Day made more than a beginning. And so we honor her on the centenary of her birth. We honor her best by making our own beginnings.

Robert Ellsberg © 1997. Not to be quoted or reprinted without permission. Published here with permission.

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