Dorothy Day: Reality Of The Roman Catholic Church

“No, there is nothing particularly holy about dirt and rats and roaches. But there may be something very unholy about the way we regard those who suffer from these things. The safety of the rich lies in almsgiving. We must give until we become blessed. Blessed are the poor.”

Dorothy Day

Solidarity, Compassion, Truth: The Pacifist Witness of Dorothy Day

Loving thy neighbor is not just good for the neighbor, it is essential to our souls, says Dorothy Day. Originally an agnostic, New York City-native Day dropped out of college to write for the Marxist newspapers The CallThe Masses, and The Liberator, covering rent strikes and the birth control and peace movements. Her conversion to Catholicism in her late twenties then prompted her to combine her call for social justice with Christianity. In 1933, Day co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement, which included a newspaper and a system of hospices, in hopes of transforming individuals rather than political and economic systems. In this excerpt from an autobiography, written as a letter to her brother, Day explains the spirituality she found through her social action.


A Portrait of Dorothy Day

For 47 years Day edited The Catholic Worker_, writing more than 1,000 articles. She wrote of Sacco and Vanzetti, the atomic bomb, Thérése of Lisieux, her grandchildren and the proper way to prepare vegetables. She called for every woman to be her sister’s keeper and anticipated Marx’s “withering away of the state.” Day defended the Worker’s pacifism, stating that they did not shun soldiers and were, in turn, willing to endure scorn, “the ignominy of jail, the pain of stripes,” and, if it comes, martyrdom.











Dorothy Day

St. Bonaventure says Our Lady worked in Egypt to earn the family’s daily bread because St. Joseph could not earn enough. It was all part of the humiliation of poverty for St. Joseph.” The Holy Family definitely shared the lot of the poor.

Now this scandal to the country and scalding prophet to the church may be named a saint. Cardinal John O’Connor began her canonization proceedings in 2000. While living, Day chafed at this title. She was more comfortable with the FBI report on her, which called her “very erratic,” and “belligerent,” saying she was “consciously or unconsciously being used by communist groups.”
In her canonization there is strange alchemy—Christian anarchy gives way to Rome’s bureaucracy, degradation to apotheosis. Devotees of her cause wonder if the sharp angles of her life will be dulled by a holy card’s lines and if the prayerful act of tax refusal will be cloaked with the innocuous blanket of charity. But the dross of discord may become concordance. It was O’Connor who said that “her abortion should not preclude her cause, but intensifies it” and who preached that Day “saw people turned into tools of commerce . . . the family treated as a marketplace” and knew “that the Church herself could become . . . a marketplace.”
G.K. Chesterton wrote that saints are an antidote to the age. Day was such a pinprick and balm. When blacks couldn’t order coffee at Woolworth’s, she chose a print of a black man and a white woman embraced by Christ for the paper’s masthead. When every vacant lot was a Hooverville, Day chose to be poor, living with “rats . . . roaches, lice.” When stable families moved to the suburbs, Day wrote that heaven was imagined as a city and savored the smell of bread baking in the ghetto’s “ash heap.”
While others become the monsters they fight, Day did not. As a pacifist she shunned peace activists’ destruction of property.
As a mendicant she did not become a materialist in reverse. She delighted in her senses, telling fellow bus travelers to eat “karopecan pie” in Arkansas and Oklahoma. She liked to listen to opera on the radio. As an old woman, she wrote, “Woke up this morning with these lines haunting me: ‘Joyous, I lay waste the day.’ ‘Let all those that seek Thee be glad in Thee.’”
Catholic Workers gave at a personal sacrifice and welcomed strangers as angels unaware. Catherine Doherty, founder of the Friendship House movement, recalled visiting the Worker when there were no extra cots. Day told Doherty that she could sleep with her. Later that night a syphilitic woman came to the door. When Day told Doherty to sleep in the bathtub and took the sick woman into her own bed, Doherty worried that the syphilis would spread. Day replied, “You don’t understand, this is Christ who has come to ask for a place to sleep. He will take care of me.”
“Jesus Christ is the Fat Lady,” J.D. Salinger wrote and Day repeated. She lived and breathed in the Mystical Body of Christ and so joins the company of those blazing, curious witnesses who are transparently good, a few of whom we know to call saints.
Dorothy Day
I have always loved saints’ stories. Nearer than the dark luminescence of God, I see them in rich illustration. There is Francis, naked, in love and dancing, there he is in a cave with blood spilling from his hands, feet, side. There is Claire, chopping her hair; there is Lucy with her eyes plucked out, serving pastries.
At confirmation I sought out absurd saints—Dymphna, Elmo, Roch—being ironic, being cool. Initially I chose Pelagia of Antioch for her flare. Pelagia, an actress and courtesan, was known for the fineness of her pearls.
One day she rode through Antioch on horseback, wearing only perfume and her pearls. She passed a synod of praying bishops. The men looked away in horror, save the bishop of Nonnus, who was so taken with her beauty that the next day he gave a homily that moved many to repentance and prayer, including Pelagia. Donning the rags of a monk, she climbed to the Mount of Olives. There she lived in a cave as a hermit and gave herself a man’s name, Pelagius. Known as “the beardless monk,” she lived in austerity and prayed for the life of the world. Only at her death in 311 did neighboring monks learn that Pelagius was a woman, and an old dancing girl.
Such stories of radical change are cliché for holy men—the Augustinian trajectory of sinning one’s way to salvation. The women that the church names as saints, however, are usually nuns and virgin martyrs. Flattened by the press of time they lose their hips and incisive minds. How good, then, to hear of Day, who “read desperately trying to rescue [herself] from the . . . silence,” who stayed out all night drinking, who smoked, and lost her temper, who followed a lousy man halfway across the country.
How good for all of us—such mercy—how good for me. My faith was a long time coming, though it came from the start. I found God best dancing until until my bones seemed to slip, like buttons from their slots.
My friends and I are variously scarred and variously well. I think of the girls I know—women now—who are versed in roofies and rape whistles, Planned Parenthood payment options and morning-after drugs. I think of all of us, complicit in each other’s failures, for we have failed each other, and of how right it would be to put on Christ, instead of our game faces.
Dorothy Day
Solomon rose to the throne on six steps, but Day lowered herself into the dregs of the gracious world. Her ascent, like Christ’s, required a descent. “Low in mind . . . and full of tears,” she wrote in her journal, and “Nothing in the bank and two checks bouncing.” All the while she willed the extraordinary. She surrendered her life to the Living God, was tinder, was flint, was flame.
We never know what is to come. We loosed a jar of dragons on the day that Dorothy remembered first as the Feast of the Transfiguration—August 6, 1945. Now 30,000 nuclear warheads keep the queasy balance of “mutually assured destruction.” As we answer terror with terror I see Day holding her placard: “I am Un-American. I am Catholic.”
Born too late to know her, I have been abundantly blessed to sit down with those who did. An old woman tells me over greasy soup that everything she could say about Day and the Worker “is inadequate and would be too little.” She is assured, though, by a memory. She was visiting with Day in her room, and the future of the Worker came up. Day told her simply, “If this is God’s work, it will continue.”
I was staying at Maryhouse, one of many places where the work continues, when the most recent fighting in the ongoing Gulf War began. A cold inevitability was in the air. We ate dinner, said vespers and rolled the TV out of the closet. After the news, a vigil began in the upstairs chapel, where Day prayed in her last years.
Late into the night friends of the house came and went. The room was full with a silence more necessary than words. I was sitting next to a woman whose days are given to the guests who come to Saint Joe’s Catholic Worker wheezing and swearing and perhaps—later—glad. The nearest sound was her breath, and this sound, like the witness of her life, lifted me. In that room were the most startlingly true people, who argue with each other, and have grit under the fingernails, and mean every last terrifying word that they pray in the evenings, “God has lifted up the lowly, and cast down the proud.” Like Day, they serve him best in the vet who stays late to roll cigarettes and mutter to himself; in the mother who comes early to poke through the clothes room and get the soup while it’s steaming.
_Mary Margaret Cecilia Nussbaum is an MFA candidate and Iowa Arts fellow at the University of Iowa, where she teaches freshmen. Her poetry appears in the current issue of Salamander.
Named for a New York activist for peace and social justice, Dorothy Day Apartments is a handsome, turn-of-the-century apartment building at 135th Street and Riverside Drive. Broadway Housing Communities has converted it to 70 apartments for low-income families, a childcare center for resident and neighborhood children, and space for employment training services and educational, cultural, and technology programs.

“The mystery of the poor is this: That they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for Him. It is the only way we have of knowing and believing in our love. The mystery of poverty is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge of and belief in love.”

–The Mystery of the Poor

–Dorothy Day

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