A Radical Lay Catholic
Dorothy Day’s life and legacy is a radical movement, faithful to the Gospel and the church, immersed in the social issues of the day, with the aim of transforming both individuals and society. In an age marked by widespread violence, impersonal government, shallow interpersonal commitments, and a quest for self-fulfillment, Dorothy Day’s spirit fosters nonviolence, personal responsibility of all people to the poorest ones among us, and fidelity to community and to God.
Dorothy Day’s vision continues in the Catholic Worker Movement that she cofounded with Peter Maurin. Approximately 174 Catholic Worker communities serve in the United States, and 29 internationally. New houses of hospitality open every year. Dorothy left no rule or directions for the Catholic Worker communities. The rule she lived by and promoted is contained in the Gospels, most particularly in the Sermon on the Mount and in Matthew, chapter 25.
The vision of Dorothy Day lives on in The Catholic Worker newspaper that has been continually published since 1933. Dorothy was a journalist all her adult life, and she lived through and commented on the central events of the twentieth century: wars, economic depression, class struggle, the nuclear threat, and the civil rights movement. The Catholic Worker and her prodigious writings always focus the light of the Gospel on our conscience as we struggle with these issues. She wrote to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.
These world issues and the suffering of humanity still challenge people of conscience to create a better world. Dorothy Day’s response is essential Gospel: an old vision, so old it looks new. Her vision is anchored in the apostolic era and is essential for the atomic age. It challenges us to build community, grow in faith, and serve poor people. Her vision is a model of liberation for the United States.
In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy divides her life into three parts. She describes her first twenty-five years as a time of “Searching” for a center of meaning and focus for her energies. During the middle period she calls “Natural Happiness,” she lived in a common-law marriage, gave birth to a daughter, completed her conversion, embraced Catholicism, and turned her life in a new direction. The last and longest period, “Love Is the Measure,” began when she met Peter Maurin and then cofounded the Catholic Worker Movement with him.
Dorothy was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 8 November 1897 to Grace Satterlee Day, a New Yorker, and John Day, a Tennessean. Dorothy had two older brothers, Donald and Sam Houston. A sister, Della, and another brother, John, later joined the family.
When Dorothy was six years old, her father, a sports writer, took a job in California and moved the family to Oakland. He lost his job when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake
destroyed the newspaper plant. Dorothy’s memories of the quake and of her mother and the neighbors helping the homeless remained stamped in her mind. The family then moved to Chicago where they lived for the next twelve years.
Dorothy grew up in a conventional middle-class home in the period before World War I. The Days valued reading, education, and writing. Her parents seemed to create a caring home. Nominally Protestant, the Days seldom attended church. Dorothy remembered being interested in religion and recalled reading the Bible, encountering neighbors praying, and at age eight being “disgustingly, proudly pious” (Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day, p. 20).
When Dorothy was ten, the rector of a nearby Episcopal church convinced Mrs. Day to enroll her sons in the choir. Dorothy started to attend church every Sunday. She loved the songs, especially the Benedicite, the Te Deum, and the psalms. When her family moved to the north side of Chicago, she studied the catechism so that she could be baptized and confirmed. She was baptized and confirmed at the Church of Our Savior in March of 1911 when she was thirteen.
Dorothy read avidly. Her father insisted on keeping trashy dime novels out of the house. So even though she spent much of her time looking after John, the last of the Day children, Dorothy devoured the works of Hugo, Dickens, Stevenson, Cooper, Poe, and much of the socially conscious literature of Sinclair Lewis and others. At sixteen, she won a scholarship and enrolled at the University of Illinois.
College: Searching in Earnest
During Dorothy’s two years at the university, she established deep friendships, began her journalistic career, and developed a keen awareness of social conditions. While writing pieces for a local paper, she observed the disparity between the lives of rich and poor people. Subsequently, she joined the Socialist Party at the university. Even though the works of Dostoyevsky helped Dorothy retain a faith in God, she rejected organized religion because she perceived that it did nothing to alleviate the plight of desperate people.
At this time, Dorothy was poor herself, working odd jobs and living-in with families in exchange for doing laundry and child care. Regarding social problems, her critical sense sharpened:
There was a great question in my mind. Why was so much done in remedying social evils instead of avoiding them 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? (Long Loneliness, p. 45)
The Searching Young Journalist
When Dorothy was eighteen, her family moved to New York. Dorothy followed and took her first job as a journalist with the New York Call, a socialist newspaper. Her reporter colleagues were socialists, communists, labor organizers for the American Federation of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World (known as “Wobblies”), and various free thinkers and anarchists opposed to conscription and the entry of the United States into World War I.
Dorothy covered labor meetings and on one occasion traveled to Washington with a group of Columbia University students who opposed conscription. She reported on protests, the “bread riots” against the high cost of living, strikes, unemployment, and the many forms of human misery. The disparity between the classes and a critique of the present system formed the common thread in her reports.
Whether Dorothy personally endorsed the ideas she was writing about or whether they were more the product of her associations is not clear. Her accounts of this period highlight only the adventure of being close to people who were trying to change society. The street actions and the exciting debates of competing visions impressed Dorothy. Nevertheless, primarily she was a reporter, but one who advocated a point of view.
Dorothy’s first jail experience occurred when she accompanied a group of women suffragists to the White House to protest the treatment of other suffragists in jail. While in jail, Dorothy joined a hunger strike and suffered great emotional desolation, a sense of the enormous evil that human beings can inflict on one another. She despaired at the efficacy of the protests and of her efforts: “What was right and wrong? What was good and evil? I lay there in utter confusion and misery” (Long Loneliness, p. 78).
Dorothy asked for a Bible and took great comfort from the psalms that expressed her own sorrow and hope. However, she did not want to go to God in this state of defeat.
After the hunger strike succeeded, she again turned away from religion. Even so, being jailed was a significant experience for Dorothy, one that moved her from observation to participation, from being a passionate idealist to action. Her identification with the masses became real.
A Time of Drifting
During these years, Dorothy lead a bohemian lifestyle that she later described as dissolute, wasted, full of sensation and sensuality. The suicide of one of her circle overwhelmed Dorothy with the tragedy of life. She responded by signing on as a
probationer at King’s County Hospital in Brooklyn to study nursing. After a difficult year of demanding work, Dorothy abandoned her foray into nursing to again pursue writing. She saw clearly that this was her profession.
Dorothy had relationships with several men. After becoming pregnant, she had an abortion when she feared that the man she loved would leave her; the man deserted her anyway. She traveled to Europe, then drifted to Chicago, New Orleans, and briefly, California as a would-be screenwriter.
Even though the labor movement, socialist and communist ideas, and her own experiences of hardship had an indelible impact on Dorothy’s commitment to social justice, this whole colorful period saw her drifting and searching. She had little to ground her spirituality, so at times she found herself dabbling in religious practices. She acquired a rosary in New Orleans and visited churches out of curiosity and in search of quiet and rest. She also observed and admired the religious faith of ethnic Catholics. Dorothy felt haunted by God and noted that even her former friends and comrades of the period remembered her talking about God.
The publication of her autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin, closed her period of searching. She sold the screen rights for five thousand dollars. In 1925 a friend persuaded her to buy a beach house on Staten Island where she could settle down to study and write.
Life in the bungalow on Staten Island was a period of intense happiness. She entered into a common-law marriage with Forster Battingham, a biologist whose political views Dorothy shared. Like her, he decried injustice and suffering. Life seemed idyllic: leisurely, simple, close to sea and sky, a cluster of friends close by. Forster helped Dorothy appreciate the beauty and wonders of the natural world around them.
This peaceful time for Dorothy also contained the seeds of change. Later she reflected:
It was a peace, curiously enough, divided against itself. I was happy but my very happiness made me know that there was a greater happiness to be obtained from life than any I had ever known. I began to think, to weigh things, and it was at this time that I began consciously to pray more. (Long Loneliness, p. 116)
Dorothy prayed as she walked to get the mail, carried a rosary in her pocket, addressed the Blessed Virgin whose statue she had been given, was aware of God’s mystery as she planted a seed, and recited the Te Deum as she worked about the house. She started regularly attending Sunday Mass. Dorothy’s growing absorption in religion dismayed Forster. He saw religion as morbid escapism, and any talk about it immediately threw up a wall between them.
Tamar Teresa and Conversion
Dorothy had thought herself barren, but became pregnant. Years later she recalled, “I will never forget my blissful joy when I was first sure that I was pregnant” (Long Loneliness, p. 136). Forster opposed bringing children into the world, so this development only created more conflict between them.
During her pregnancy, Dorothy decided she would have her child baptized. Belonging to a faith, she thought, would give her child the order lacking in her own life. She prayed for the gift of faith for herself: “I was sure, yet not sure. I postponed the day of decision.” She knew that if she became a Catholic, Forster would leave: “It was hard to contemplate giving up a mate in order that my child and I could become members of the Church. Forster wanted nothing to do with religion or with me if I embraced it. So I waited” (Long Loneliness, pp. 136-137).
Dorothy had been led to worship and prayer through the beauty of creation and the unutterable joy of Tamar Teresa’s birth, but a detached and private faith did not satisfy her. She declared that her whole make-up as a radical led her to associate with others and be a part of the masses. For years Dorothy had seen the masses give their allegiance to the Catholic church in every city she lived in. For her, this ancient church was the church of the masses, so to it she gave her allegiance.
One day she saw a religious sister walking down the road and asked how she could have her daughter baptized. Sister Aloysia taught Dorothy her catechism, which she insisted be memorized, and brought her pious magazines to read. Dorothy found the piety tedious but decided to trust God.
After Tamar Teresa’s baptism, the tension between Forster and Dorothy increased. Over the next months, he left her and the baby numerous times, but always returned. Dorothy hesitated to take the final step that she knew would irrevocably end her life with Forster. If she tried to talk about her faith, he grew silent. Dorothy loved him deeply and respected his anarchist and atheist views, but she could not envision becoming a Catholic and living with him. This tension dragged on into the next summer when Dorothy became ill and was diagnosed with a nervous condition.
During the winter of 1927, after an emotional explosion, Forster left again, Dorothy decided to end the torture for the two of them. When he tried to return, she would not let him in. The next day, she went to Sister Aloysia and was conditionally baptized, since she had already been baptized in the Episcopal church.
Dorothy continued writing and caring for Tamar. The Pathé movie studio in California offered her a contract to write for them. She did so for three months, but they actually gave her little work. She then went to Mexico for six months, partly to delay her return to New York since, “I hungered too much to return to Forster” (Long Loneliness, p. 158). After Tamar contracted malaria in Mexico, mother and daughter returned to New York City only to be greeted by the beginnings of the Great Depression.
In December 1932, the Catholic magazine The Commonweal commissioned Dorothy to write an article about a hunger march on Washington, D.C. The marchers, organized by the communists, sought social legislation to combat unemployment, establish pensions, and provide relief for mothers and children. As Dorothy stood on the curb watching, her heart swelled with pride and joy at the courage of the marchers, and she felt a bitterness that her conversion separated her from them:
I could write, I could protest, to arouse the conscience, but where was the Catholic leadership in the gathering of bands of men and women together, for the actual works of mercy that the comrades had always made part of their technique in reaching the workers? (Long Loneliness, p. 165)
After she had written her story, Dorothy went to the national shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. “There I offered up a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and with anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor” (Long Loneliness, p. 166). When she returned to New York, she would find Peter Maurin waiting to meet her.
Love Is the Measure
Dorothy always insisted that Peter Maurin, not she, started the Catholic Worker Movement. She also credited him for completing her Catholic education.
The details of Peter Maurin’s life are sketchy, but Dorothy recounts what he told her. He was born a French peasant and became a teacher with the De La Salle Christian Brothers in France. He emigrated to Canada, worked as an itinerant laborer in the United States, taught French in Chicago, then moved to New York. Constantly studying, Peter was charged with a vision to change the social order. Saint Francis of Assisi inspired him to live a life of voluntary poverty, and Peter was determined to popularize the social doctrines of the Catholic church.
Peter’s vision was simple yet far-reaching. His program of action consisted of roundtable discussions for the clarification of thought, houses of hospitality where the works of mercy could be performed, and agronomic universities-a return to working the land, where workers could become scholars and scholars workers. He proposed to popularize this vision by publishing a newspaper for the people in the street.
When Peter met Dorothy, he introduced her to a whole new set of ideas and a historical vision of the Catholic church. Speaking in his thick French accent, he expounded on the prophets of Israel, the Fathers of the church, and the lives of the saints. Dorothy admired Peter both for the ideas he taught her and for his personal example of voluntary poverty and deep faith.
Peter also introduced her to his personalist philosophy and the French personalist writers, whose core belief is that all people share a common humanity: each of us becomes who we are meant to be by assuming personal responsibility for our brothers and sisters in need. “He stressed the need of building a new society within the shell of the old-that telling phrase from the preamble to the I.W.W. constitution, ‘a society in which it is easier for people to be good,’ he added with a touching simplicity, knowing that when people are good, they are happy” (Long Loneliness, p. 170). Peter stressed the need to perform the works of mercy at a personal sacrifice.
Peter, a visionary, hardly noticed what he ate or where he slept. Dorothy was more practical and action-oriented. Though Dorothy deeply respected Peter, he sometimes annoyed her with his zealous talking. Dorothy, who loved music, would scowl at Peter to be still while she tried to listen to a concert on the radio. Unfazed, Peter would find another listener and keep on talking. Dorothy once quipped, “When his mouth was full he would listen” (Dorothy Day, Loaves and Fishes, p. 20).
Nevertheless, through Peter’s influence, Dorothy deepened her appreciation of Catholicism, especially of its social teachings. When Peter suggested starting a newspaper, something the journalist Dorothy could readily agree to, she had the vehicle for expressing the vision they shared.
The Catholic Worker Movement
On 1 May 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, The Catholic Worker newspaper made its debut with a first issue of twenty-five hundred copies. Dorothy and a few others hawked the paper in Union Square for a penny a copy (still the price) to passersby. They called the paper The “Catholic” Worker because at the time many Catholics were poor. Peter and Dorothy wanted to influence Catholics, who were criticized for a lack of social and political morality. The paper was also for the worker in the broadest sense because it addressed, “those who worked with hand or brain, those who did physical, mental or spiritual work. But we thought primarily of the poor, the dispossessed, the exploited” (Long Loneliness, p. 204).
The Catholic Worker succeeded immediately, and circulation jumped to 100,000 by the end of the first year. Bundles of the paper found their way into parishes and schools around the country. Soon volunteers arrived to help with the work. Donations of food, clothing, and money came in to support them. A community grew quickly to feed the homeless and unemployed people who streamed to them, and the first house of hospitality opened.
What started as the effort of a newly converted Catholic laywoman and a French peasant on fire with a vision to transform society was becoming a movement. Intellectuals and ordinary laypeople alike responded wholeheartedly to this Catholic vision of social and personal transformation. It offered a more acceptable alternative at a time when many people thought that only the communists cared about the masses. Whether Dorothy sensed in 1933 that they had started a “permanent revolution,” as she called it in The Long Loneliness, is not clear. But her prayer at the national shrine had been answered.
In the early days of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy did what she did best. She wrote about the conditions of poor people and especially about the conditions of workers and the labor movement, then still struggling for recognition. She sought to synthesize Catholic social teaching in such a way that it would inspire volunteers, clergy, even bishops. Often she succeeded.
Some Catholic workers who came to New York went to other cities to form their own Catholic Worker houses. Within a few years thirty-three Catholic Worker houses and farms dotted the country. Although publishing the newspaper, offering hospitality at the houses, and assisting people through the works of mercy composed the chief work of the communities, Catholic Workers also joined street protests and labor pickets, helped with the housing and feeding of strikers, picketed the German consulate in 1935, and called for boycotts of stores where low wages or poor working conditions existed.
Inspired by Peter’s vision, Catholic Worker farms strove to become agronomic universities. Oftentimes farms were donated to a worker community, but many of them failed for lack of resources or the necessary skills to live on the land. Dorothy acknowledged that they had to learn through grim experience. Some of the farms thrived and became rural havens for poor families, places of convalescence for the ill, getaways for slum children, and places where students discussed the green revolution that Peter envisioned.
The Catholic Worker Movement soon met resistance. Dorothy’s opposition to war and her pacifist stand during the Spanish Civil War divided supporters for the movement. Schools canceled their subscriptions to The Catholic Worker. Even so, Dorothy maintained her staunch pacifism and opposed in speech and writing all wars without exception, basing her position on Christ’s command in the Sermon on the Mount to love our enemies.
In addition to writing of her challenging vision for every monthly edition of The Catholic Worker, Dorothy wrote articles for Catholic periodicals and two books. The personal testament of her search for God and eventual conversion became From Union Square to Rome (1938). House of Hospitality (1939) chronicled the early days of the Catholic Worker Movement.
The War Years
Resistance to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement intensified as the nation went to war. For Dorothy it was a time of deepening, a necessary time of consolidation of her Catholic faith and of the ideas that fueled the Catholic Worker Movement. She was one of the few Catholic voices opposing World War II, as she had all previous wars, and not all those in the movement agreed with Dorothy’s total pacifism. Many houses closed, some because the men who ran them were drafted. The bread lines shortened because of full employment for the war effort.
In 1943, Dorothy took a leave from the Catholic Worker Movement and spent some months on a solitary retreat near her daughter’s boarding school. Tamar had grown up in the movement, and Dorothy’s duties as a mother and the work at the Catholic Worker houses taxed them both. Now Dorothy wanted to be closer to her daughter as she matured.
Beginning around 1943, Peter Maurin’s health started to deteriorate, and his mind began to fail him. When he realized the confused state of his thinking, he grew virtually silent, accepting his situation. Peter’s decline was difficult for Dorothy to watch because he had played such a vital role in the formation of her vision.
Dorothy’s spirituality up to this time had been fed by attending daily Mass, reading the lives of the saints and the New Testament, and performing the works of mercy. After attending conferences, days of recollection, and an intense rereat with Catholic Workers from the east coast and the Midwest, Dorothy very consciously began to focus on the Scripture message that we all share in the abundant love of God and that all of us are called to be saints. She concluded:
This love, this foolishness of love, illustrated in the book of Osee in the Old Testament and in the story of the prodigal son in the New, this folly of the Cross, was the sum and substance of the retreat. . . . We must live this life now. . . . If we do not learn to enjoy God now we never will. (Long Loneliness, pp. 255-257)
During the last year of World War II, Dorothy and the Catholic Workers decided to turn one of the houses at the farm in Easton, Pennsylvania, into a retreat house. They began sponsoring retreats every few months that challenged participants to examine their conscience about the work they did, their material goods, and their attachments. Dorothy said that the style of the retreats “should be like a shock treatment,” bringing new life by dying to the old self (Long Loneliness, p. 259). Eventually they sold the Easton farm and acquired Maryfarm in Newburgh, New York, where they continued the retreat work.
The retreats nourished Dorothy’s spirit even though some members objected to their tone and emphasis. Coming after the first flush of success of the movement in the 1930s and during a time when Dorothy was a lone voice for pacifism and justice, the retreats helped Dorothy turn her prophetic witness toward the atomic age, civil rights, and later, to pacifism again when Vietnam dominated national life.
War Ends: The Struggle Continues
After World War II, only eleven Catholic Worker houses still carried on. So in 1946, Dorothy visited each one, trying to encourage the workers and reinvigorate the movement. A few commentators suggested at the time that the Catholic Worker Movement was a thing of the past, but Dorothy insisted that the need for servants of poor people was as relevant as ever. She was stung, however, by the criticism. The circulation of the newspaper was 190,000 in 1938, but largely because of its pacifist stand it now stood at 50,500.
In February of 1946, Dorothy began calling her column, “On Pilgrimage.” In her own personal style, she chronicled the Catholic Worker Movement, commented on events, and talked about the books she was reading. She always looked at things from a spiritual point of view. Letters poured in, and Dorothy answered many of them, often using her travel time to catch up on correspondence.
With the war behind the country, Dorothy and The Catholic Worker continued to critique industrial capitalism and especially the popular notion that machines liberated the worker. Dorothy argued that most factory work debased work and the worker. She favored decentralization and local or regional solutions to problems. Dorothy did not reject all machine technology; indeed, she relished driving cars. However, she felt that work should be creative and humanizing rather than mechanical and dehumanizing. When critics labeled her an anarchist or socialist, she responded by calling herself a Christian personalist.
Then Peter Maurin died on 15 May 1949. He had spent the last years of his life at the Catholic Worker farm in Newburgh, New York. To Dorothy, Peter Maurin was her teacher and the Saint Francis of our times. She continued to eulogize him in her writings for the rest of her life. Peter’s death was a deep, personal loss.
Carrying on the Worker movement, fostering the retreat movement, and caring for her family filled Dorothy’s days. Tamar had married and started her own family. In 1948 Dorothy spent an extended time with Tamar and her husband, David Hennessy, at their farm in West Virginia as Tamar awaited the birth of her fourth child. The country air and her playful grandchildren delighted Dorothy. She wrote about this in her book On Pilgrimage.
For Dorothy, these few years again proved a time of deepening, of acquiring a more profound sense of her vocation and mission. Her writing for The Catholic Worker and other periodicals continued. Dorothy’s daily life consisted of practicing her spiritual devotions (Mass, parts of the Divine Office, meditation and reading, and other prayers), getting the paper out, traveling and speaking frequently, and managing the New York Worker houses. This rhythm provided a faithful regularity to her life.
The Catholic Worker had been arguing against the A-bomb since Hiroshima, and the subject was about to become a personal cause for Dorothy Day. In 1955, Dorothy, a group of Catholic Workers, and others led protests against New York City’s civil defense law. They declared that the air-raid drills deceived people into believing that they could actually survive a nuclear attack. So instead of taking shelter as the sirens sounded to begin the drill, Dorothy and the protesters merely sat on park benches. During the six years these drills occurred, they repeated their protests. Dorothy was jailed three times, once for a month. From this experience, Dorothy penned several strong articles about life in prison.
The Catholic Worker was now an established and distinctive voice within Catholic journalism. During the McCarthy-era of anti-Communism, some charged that The Catholic Worker supported communism. But anyone who studied the paper knew that “the personalist position of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day . . . was the most fundamental and clear-cut anticommunist idea and program that had been defined by an American Catholic voice” (William D. Miller, Dorothy Day: A Biography, p. 434).
Dorothy’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, published in 1952, made her life and vision available to a wide readership, especially since it was broadly reviewed. Some years later, Dorothy wrote Therese, her biography of Thérèse of Lisieux.
Turbulence marked the 1960s. Characteristically, Dorothy and the Catholic Worker Movement responded. Since its beginnings in 1933, The Catholic Worker had carried articles about racism, the exploitation of black labor, and justice for minorities. When the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1960s, other articles added a clear voice for equality and justice among people of all races. When Martin Luther King was killed, Dorothy wrote:
Martin Luther King died daily, as St. Paul said. He faced death daily and said a number of times that he knew he would be killed for the faith that was in him. The faith that men could live together as brothers. The faith in the Gospel teaching of nonviolence. The faith that man is capable of change, of growth, of growing in love. (Dorothy Day, The Catholic Worker, April 1968)
During the Vietnam war, Dorothy actively supported conscientious objectors and advocated only nonviolent protest. Dorothy was among the small group of people that started American PAX, later to become Pax Christi. The name change delighted Dorothy because she believed that Christ stood at the heart of true peace.
Dorothy admired the enthusiasm, energy, and outrage at injustice of the many young people who joined the Catholic Worker Movement during this period. However, elements of their lifestyle troubled her, perhaps because they seemed to mirror the mistakes of her own youthful searching.
In 1963 Dorothy traveled to the Vatican in support of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris and to ask for a more radical condemnation of the instruments of modern warfare. Later that year, she spoke at an English Catholic Conference on voluntary poverty, draft resistance, civil rights, and pacifism. Also in 1963, her book Loaves and Fishes was published. It tells the story of the Catholic Worker Movement and some of the people and events that were significant in its development.
The Catholic Worker Movement acquired a farm at Tivoli, New York, and it became the best embodiment of all their efforts toward a retreat and conference center. Beginning in July 1964 and continuing for the next decade, the PAX Tivoli Conference was held there. Lively thought, prayer, enjoyment of the arts, and fellowship all intermingled.
In September 1965, Dorothy was part of a PAX delegation to the last session of the Vatican Council II. The delegation hoped to influence the bishops to issue a strong peace statement that included support of conscientious objection, the validity of Gospel nonviolence, and a ban on nuclear weapons. Dorothy and nineteen other women fasted for ten days as a penitential offering for the success of the council. Eventually the council published “The Church in the Modern World,” which included a condemnation of indiscriminate warfare, supported conscientious objection, linked arms expenditures with the unmet needs of poor people, and pointed to Gospel nonviolence as a conscionable position for Catholics. Dorothy’s personal account of this decade appeared in a collection of her reflections entitled On Pilgrimage: The Sixties (1972).
Her Last Years
In 1970, as Dorothy was speaking in Detroit, a nurse in the audience pointed out that Dorothy needed medical attention. At age seventy-three, Dorothy suffered from shortness of breath that came from water in her lungs, hardening of the arteries, and an enlarged heart. Medicine somewhat relieved the condition, but her heart was failing.
Although Dorothy tired easily, she accompanied her close friend Eileen Egan on a world tour and then on a journey to Russia in the next year. In India, she met Mother Teresa and spoke to the novice sisters about going to prison for the sake of the Gospels. Dorothy was widely known by this time, and many groups honored her for the goodness of her life and her work on behalf of peace and justice. But the traveling, and even the honors, took a further toll on her body.
In 1973, at age seventy-six, Dorothy joined Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in California’s San Joaquin Valley for a nonviolent demonstration against the Teamsters Union (IBT). She was arrested with other protesters and jailed for ten days. This was Dorothy’s last imprisonment.
Although Dorothy needed long periods of rest, she continued to struggle with the rapid pace of change and the erosion of traditional practice in the church and among the followers of the movement. She chided herself as an old fogy, but lamented that so many young workers seemed to turn away from sustaining religious practices. Perhaps reliving her own youthful searching piqued her sadness. Her faith had challenged and comforted her, but the exodus of so many priests and religious distressed her.
Her speech before the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia on 6 August 1976 was her last. Dorothy departed from her prepared text and spoke from the heart about her love of God, about the necessity of taking that love into all creation, and about the church that gave her the life of the Spirit. True to form, she reminded the assembly that the day was Hiroshima Day and that acts of destruction directly opposed God who “gave us life, and the Eucharist to sustain our life” (Miller, Dorothy Day, p. 513).
Shortly after this talk, Dorothy suffered a heart attack. Virtually confined to bed, she wrote a few letters when her strength permitted. Her daughter and grandchildren made frequent visits. She died in the early evening of 29 November 1980 with Tamar at her side.
So many people came to her funeral at Nativity Church in New York City that many had to stand outside on the sidewalk. During her life, Dorothy Day refused to let people “dismiss her as a saint” (Eileen Egan, Dorothy Day and the Permanent Revolution, p. 19). At her death, many of her admirers used the word openly. A “permanent revolution” had been initiated by Dorothy’s leadership, grounded in the Sermon on the Mount for which she had “prayed, spoken, written, fasted, protested, suffered humiliation and gone to prison” (p. 25).
Two broad spiritual streams came together in Dorothy Day’s character, and each stream contributed to her spirituality. As an American born into a Protestant family that valued education and literacy, she was a pragmatist, a worker, and a woman of action. After her conversion, these traits united with the traditions of Roman Catholicism: the teachings of the papal social encyclicals, the sacramental and liturgical life and sense of sacramentality, and the devotion to and imitation of the saints and mystics. Dorothy’s love of the Scriptures came from her Protestant roots and predated the widespread use of the Bible by lay Catholics.
Dorothy Day’s spirituality is marked by these characteristics:
Love of Scripture: Throughout her life, Dorothy received comfort and inspiration from the Bible, especially the Psalms, the Pauline writings, and the Gospels. They were part of her daily meditation, and scripture verses and images spontaneously wove themselves into her writings. The example and teachings of Christ were at the heart of her spirituality.
Solidarity with the Poor: In the Catholic Worker community, Dorothy shared her daily energies with and on behalf of poor people. Her writings, direct practice of the works of mercy, and her own voluntary poverty bound her to poor, homeless, sick, and desperate people.
Personalism: Dorothy loved doing works of mercy because they allowed her to take direct and immediate action for her brothers and sisters in Christ and against the ills of society that robbed them of their life, freedom, and dignity. Her engagement with other people flowed from her wholeness as a person; her heart and mind were cultivated through her reading, reflection, conversations, writing, and worship. She wanted the fullness of life for herself and every person.
Prophetic Witness: By her public words and work, Dorothy sought to imitate Christ’s witness against injustice, even when such witness seemed folly. Like Christ, she was critical of the powers and structures of injustice and endured ridicule and opposition for her witness.
Peacemaking: A steadfast pacifist, Dorothy opposed all wars and the use of force and violence to solve human problems. She practiced and promoted human dignity with the spiritual weapons of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, civil disobedience, and works of amendment. Like Jesus, the woman at the well, and Saint Paul, she took her message to the people in the streets.
A Sacramental Sense: Dorothy looked to sacramental celebrations, especially the Eucharist, for daily spiritual sustenance, and she saw the world, its people and all of nature, to be full of God’s grandeur and love as well.
Gratitude: In good times and in bad, Dorothy had a keen sense of appreciation and learned to trust in the providence of God. Dorothy regularly expressed gratitude not only to God but to those around her and to The Catholic Worker’s readers.
Dorothy for Today
Although Dorothy spurned the suggestion that she was a saint, she took seriously the importance of becoming one; saintly people could heal the ills of this world. God created the Mystical Body of Christ for holiness, wholeness, and sanctity. Jesus took on humanity to show people how to be godly through acting justly, loving tenderly, and walking humbly. The Holy Spirit continually invites all Christians to holiness.
Dorothy Day provides a contemporary model of the qualities of holiness: solidarity with and service to God’s poor, promoting and being willing to suffer for justice, acting in charity, living in community, integrating faith and action through prayer, sacred ritual, and meditation. Dorothy Day may not always be a comfortable companion on the spiritual journey, but she will certainly be a wise, caring, and challenging one.
Reprinted with permission from Praying With Dorothy Day by James Allaire and Rosemary Broughton which is published by St. Mary’s Press, Winona, MN.