The founder of the Catholic Worker still calls to us, her desire to live with single-mindedness both inspirational and impossible.
This essay was originally written in collaboration with my husband, David Brooks, for a Trinity Forum reading of “The Long Loneliness” in December of 2018.
“I wanted, though I did not know it then, a synthesis.” ~Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness
To understand Dorothy Day is to be reminded of the human longing for integration—integration of head, heart, and helping hand, integration of transcendent ideals with daily action. Dorothy was a person attracted to extremes, drawn to asceticism and sensuality, to obedience and revolution, to surrender and stubbornness. She had an extraordinary sensitivity to the physical—sights, smells, taste, touch—even as she craned toward the mystical—craving connection, intimacy, transcendence. In all this her holiness grew through a practice of prayer and intense observation of this world, a marriage of heaven and earth that she consummated with her very life.
Today, we remember Dorothy Day as the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. We remember her as a person who launched newspapers, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, rural communities, as someone who not only served the poor but embraced a life of poverty for six decades. We remember her for the way she is regarded with reverence by Catholics of left and right. The movement to canonize her was launched during the papacy of John Paul II. And during his recent America visit, Pope Francis mentioned her as frequently as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.
But it is still not what Day did that has been her greatest legacy. It is who she was. It is her way of being. She was humble but also a heroine, saintly, but also a stumbler, a woman who delighted in beauty, but endured suffering and was open about her suffering. We all radiate something out of the inner recesses of our spirit. Day radiated whole galaxies, in volume and with magnetic force.
Dorothy was born with deep rivers. “All my life I have been haunted by God,” she writes in The Long Loneliness. “The gulfness of death overwhelmed me as a child.” In 1906 she was eight years old and living in San Francisco when, in bed one night, the ground began shaking. Her father rushed in and snatched her two younger brothers to safety. Her mother grabbed her baby sister. Dorothy was left alone in a brass bed that rolled back and forth across the room. Suddenly a peaceful childhood of chirping responsibilities and loving parents seemed shaken, the big earthquake scrambling the logic of a world she’d assumed bent towards the good.
People she knew were dead. Her mother’s health was deteriorating. Dorothy began to wake up to a force that was shaping the affairs of men and women, beyond their will. She felt haunted by the existence of something constant. The family was not religious, but Dorothy had encountered the rituals of prayer, hymn-singing, and Bible-reading through a friend next door, and by the time the earthquake occurred, her lens was bifocal.
“People loved each other,” she remembers of San Francisco pulling together after the disaster. “It was as though they were united in Christian solidarity.” Dorothy saw this clearly: the power of people, in the midst of stress, to care for each other, in unjudging compassion and love. She also sensed the awful power of God to sweep life away.
After the quake, the family moved from California to Chicago, where Dorothy lived for the next decade. As a teenager, she began reading about the lives of anarchists and revolutionists. They seemed to have a more satisfying response to the plagues of urban distress than she saw in God-fearing people. “Children look at things very directly and simply,” she writes. “I did not see anyone taking off his coat and giving to the poor. I didn’t see anyone having a banquet and calling in the lame, the halt and the blind. And those who were doing it, like the Salvation Army, did not appeal to me.”
Despite her new radical leanings, Dorothy still had a sense that there was an anchor out there that could ground her being, a being that was bobbing now in the realities of poverty and suffering, injustice and arbitrary cruelty. But all the stories of God seemed like unhelpful fairy tales, making a mockery of the realities she was witnessing. God seemed a crutch, not a creator. So a few months into studying at the University of Illinois, she chose. The world was to be her guide, not some unseen benevolence.
“For me Christ no longer walked the streets of this world,” she writes of that decision. “He was two thousand years dead and new prophets had risen up in His place. I was in love now with the masses. I do not remember that I was articulate or reasoned about this love, but it warmed and filled my heart. The poor and oppressed were going to rise up, they were collectively the new Messiah, and they would release the captives.”
Activism, Motherhood, and Conversion
After two years, Dorothy left her college studies and moved to New York City, where she landed a job as a reporter for the Socialist daily paper, The Call. She started associating with Greenwich Village Marxists like the writer Mike Gold, people who were as passionate about injustice as they were uncontrolled in their passions. It is important to remember the conditions she saw all around her—the unregulated sweatshops that dominated lower Manhattan, the streams of hungry men looking for shelter, the crowds of new immigrants, some thriving, many failing. Dorothy marched by day and made love by night, eventually becoming pregnant by one lover and then, sensing zero sympathy from him, aborting the baby. In the depression that followed she attempted suicide once, maybe twice. She found another man who was moving to Europe, and married him in a civil ceremony, publishing a semi-autobiographical novel while there called The Eleventh Virgin. Dorothy was spiraling, and she knew it. The marriage lasted barely a year before she moved back to the States. Her inner darkness continued to find solidarity with the poor, but she had nothing to offer them beyond words and abstract ideals.
She eventually recognized her burnout and left the city’s dense humanity for Staten Island, where she found a new companion for her passions. Forster Batterham introduced her to the joys of nature. Dorothy collected seashells and took long walks and discussed with Forster all manner of scientific phenomena, large and small. She began experiencing some approximation of peace, of yearnings meeting their match. She began remembering the anchor she’d sensed so long ago, and wondered if this love might lead to God.
Forster would have none of it. He loved her, but God was a non-starter. In The Long Loneliness Dorothy glamorizes him as “an anarchist, an Englishman by descent, and a biologist.” In reality he was a factory worker who never understood her more soulful depths and who exploited her compassionate hunger to serve.
When they became pregnant, Dorothy was filled with joy. She also noticed that all the accounts of childbirth she had read were written by men. She decided to write one herself, forty minutes after the birth of her child. “Earthquake and fire swept through my body,” she writes of the pain of childbearing. “My spirit was a battleground on which thousands were butchered.”
But then came the child, who she named Tamar. “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting, or carved the most exquisite figure I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms. No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I felt after the birth of my child. With this came a need to worship, to adore.”
God rushed toward her as the only object capable of containing the magnitudes inside. But in which house should she seek Him? “I had heard many say that they wanted to worship God in their own way and did not need a Church in which to praise Him, not a body of people with whom to associate themselves. But I did not agree to this. My very experience as a radical, my whole make-up, led me to want to associate myself with others, with the masses, in loving and praising God.” Without even looking into the claims of the Catholic Church, she joined, “willing to admit that for me she was the one true Church. She had come down through the centuries since the time of Peter, and far from being dead, she claimed and held the allegiance of the masses of people in all the cities where I had lived.” Dorothy would join in solidarity with the people.
That leap, and the searing rupture it entailed, are documented in the pages you’ll read here. Her decision was strong, but nothing about its initial experience was joyful. She recalls her and Tamar’s baptism as duty, not capstone. Her break with Forster cut her heart in two. It’s unclear she ever got over the loss.
Dorothy found the Catholic Church both salvific and maddening. On the one hand there was a body fueled by common people she’d long loved. She saw in the immigrant waves of the early twentieth century a slow upheaval that would provide the seeds for much-needed social change. On the other hand, there was a church hierarchy, which, in the late 1920s, showed little to no concern for the poor. “I could write, I could protest, to arouse the conscience, but where was the Catholic leadership in the gathering 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?” Dorothy was desperate for an active God. “Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?”
The Catholic Worker
Five years into being a single mother, drifting as a writer, feeling alienated in the Church, for whom she’d sacrificed both Forster and her bohemian friends, and lonely in the masses whose activist representatives seemed animated by an all-too-pagan definition of power, Dorothy wandered into the National Shrine in northeast Washington, D.C., where she begged God to bridge the competing claims on her life and conviction. It was a desperate prayer, now or never.
A few days later, she returned to New York City, and Peter Maurin was waiting in her kitchen. He’d become familiar with Dorothy’s writing in Commonweal and America, and he had an idea for her—a radical idea marrying solidarity with journalism, voluntary poverty and a workers’ movement. Dorothy was amazed, and said yes.
They became vocational partners, casting themselves into this work as the Great Depression continued to ravage the cities. They formed shelters and soup kitchens, agrarian communities and a newspaper called The Catholic Worker. It was a movement that intrigued Communists and Christians, writers and social workers. It was a movement that became a container for opposites.
A Lasting Legacy
There is much in Dorothy’s life that calls out to our own. First was her drive toward single-mindedness. In a compartmentalized, multi-context age, her frustration is our frustration. She longed for her opposing loves to be bound in one thread, for the partial truths fueling the factions of her time to see the transcendent merits underlying each camp. Her success, not just in living amidst these tensions as a generative citizen, but in bringing these tensions together through both hospitality and baptized intellect, serves as a witness to the supernatural grace available if we but ask. Her commitment was singular: to the poor. And in that focus, she found Christ—cultivating the abundant life for others, and allowing it to subsume her.
Second was her incarnational, this-world way. She was one of the earthiest women we have in western literature. Dorothy would write about the contours of smoke rising from chestnuts in The Catholic Worker, not as a pleasant detail, but to infuse a movement of justice with its actual texture. “The bourgeois,” she wrote in her diary in the 1940s, “the material, fights for abstractions like freedom, democracy, because he has the material things of this life (which he is most fearful of being deprived of). The poor fight for bread, for increase in wages, for time to rest, for warmth, for privacy.” Reality, and the details of it, was a lifelong friend.
Third was her devotion to prayer and worship, and her sustained awareness that she could do none of this work without an anchor. Dorothy attended daily Mass and prayed the monastic hours. She devoted time each morning to meditating on scripture, saying the rosary, or other spiritual exercises. “Without the sacraments of the church,” she writes in her diaries, “I certainly do not think that I could go on.”
Not unlike today’s young people, Dorothy always wanted to get ahead of social ills, not respond to them with band-aids. She sought to fix the underlying structures, but refused vicitimization as a posture. She believed deeply in personal responsibility, always seeking to sow the conditions for moral agency. And rather than addressing the day’s ills from a detached perspective outside, Dorothy was a personalist. She chose to live with the poor, writing from the inside of squalor and starvation.
Finally, there was her loneliness. For Dorothy, this did not mean solitude, as she often yearned for an uninterrupted spell when life at the Catholic Worker house became chaotic (a constant frustration, along with the lack of privacy). She was constantly wrestling with a need to be withdrawn and at the same time unselfish. But her loneliness was deeper. It came wrapped in an insatiable longing—a longing for her own sanctification and inner peace, a longing for God to balance the scales of injustice, and a longing for companionship. Perhaps this was God’s call on her life. Perhaps her loneliness was a melancholic feature of her makeup, baptized in self-sacrifice. One thing is clear: Her loneliness had a holy fragrance to it. “To be hated and scorned by one’s very own,” she writes, “this is poverty. This is perfect joy.”
As she aged, she became more famous. Throngs of young people would come to sit at her feet, to watch her work. She policed herself, fearing that the praise they ladled into her ears would inflate her pride. When the sixties came around, young radicals flocked to her, expecting to find a comrade in arms. Politically she was. She marched against the Vietnam War. Spiritually she was not. She was appalled at their spiritual indiscipline, their unwillingness to surrender self. They wanted to offer the communion wine in Dixie Cups. She shook her head.
Her loneliness was not the alienation we see today. It was not just anger at the way things are and a sense of self-righteousness that flows out of thinking that one is “woke” and right and more enlightened than one’s foes. Her loneliness was a form of longing for a higher justice. It was a spiritual ambition, not an earthly rage. In her prayer journals you don’t see Dorothy satisfying that loneliness very often, but there were times when the great ache was filled.
Near the end of Dorothy’s life, she was interviewed by Harvard psychologist Robert Coles, who asked her if she had any plans to write a memoir. She had a well-known byline by that point, so it was a natural question to ask. Dorothy told Coles that she had once thought of doing that. She pulled out a piece of paper and wrote, “A Life Remembered.” Then, “I just sat there and thought of our Lord, and his visit to us all those centuries ago, and I said to myself that my great luck was to have had Him on my mind for so long in my life.” It was enough.
This essay was co-authored with David Brooks as an introduction to a Trinity Forum reading in December of 2018.