Interview: Dorothy Day – Not Your Everyday Saint – Jeff Dietrich

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 18, Advent 2000

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of Dorothy Day (29 November 1980), The Common Good wishes to share some insights into the life of this remarkable woman and modern saint. In the first article Jeff Dietrich, a 30-year Catholic Worker veteran from Los Angeles, interviews Dorothy around her 70th birthday. Following that, Jo Roberts, of the Toronto Catholic Worker, questions the move to make Dorothy an official saint of the Church.

Dorothy: Not your everyday saint

Reprinted from the Catholic Agitator, June 2000 (first appeared in the Catholic Agitator, December 1971).

Agitator: I’d like to first ask you, are you an anarchist? And what does that mean to you in terms of your daily action?

Dorothy Day: Do you want me to go back into history? When I came from college, I was a socialist. I had joined the Socialist Party in Urbana, Illinois and I wasn’t very much thrilled by it. I joined because I had read Jack London—his essays The Iron Heel, and his descriptions of the London slums. I also read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. All of these made a deep impression on me. So when I was sixteen years old and in my first year of college, I joined the Socialist Party. But I found most of them ‘petty bourgeois.’ You know the kind. They were good people, butchers and bakers and candlestick makers—mostly of German descent—very settled family people. And it was very theoretical. It had no religious connotations, none of the religious enthusiasm for the poor that you’ve got shining through a great deal of radical literature.

Then there was the IWW moving in, which was the typically American movement. Eugene Debs was a man of Alsace-Lorraine background. A religious man, he received his inspiration from reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. That started him off because he could have been a well-to-do bourgeois, comfortable man. But, here you have this whole American movement. The IWW has this motto: ‘An injury to one is an injury to all.’ That appealed to me tremendously because I felt that we were all one body. I had read scripture, but I don’t think I’d ever really recognised that teaching of the ‘Mystical Body’—that we are all one body, we are all one.

Agitator: Was this more of a political than a spiritual outlook at this point?

Dorothy Day: No, I think it was a spiritual outlook, too. As a child, I came across the Bible, but nobody in my family had anything to do with religion. I just felt a profound truth there that appealed to me. What I read in the Bible seemed to me to be very much a part of daily life. The idea that when the health of one member suffers, the health of the whole body is lowered is a teaching of St Paul which is timeless. So I joined the IWW. I felt that it was far nearer my whole philosophy and that basically it was an anarchist movement—though they wouldn’t call themselves anarchists.

Agitator: Would you be more specific about what it means to be an anarchist?

Dorothy Day: The whole point of view of the anarchist is that everything must start from the bottom up, from man. It seems to me so human a philosophy.

Every Marxist group that I’ve known has its theoreticians. The theoretician of the Marxist revolution in Cuba certainly wasn’t Castro. It was Don Carlos Rafaelo Rodriguez. He was the theoretician and very often people say he will take over. But I don’t believe it. I think that it’s a very good combination—the Catholic man working together with a man like that who has everything pretty well planned.

The Communists in Cuba didn’t assist Castro in his revolution. They weren’t on the side of the students. They didn’t do anything to help in the invasion or the long-continuing struggle from the Oriente province down. It wasn’t until Castro marched triumphantly into Cuba that you might say the whole thing grew into a Marxist revolution.

Castro wasn’t a Marxist. He was a Catholic educated by the Christian Brothers and the Jesuits. But fundamentally, I’m not talking about practising Catholics, but rather about something which is inbred; that is, a part of your country, your heritage, your life.

Agitator: Why did you become a Catholic?

Dorothy Day: Because I felt it was the church of the poor, because I felt its continuity. I felt that no matter how corrupt or rotten it became, it had this feeling for man. It had the mark of Jesus Christ on it, walking the roads of the country, gathering a few around. You see this pattern. You see this pattern in Castro, Che Guevara; and that’s why they’re so attractive to people. They work where they are. They begin at the bottom. And then, of course, they go off and become the bureaucratic state.

Written into the constitution of Russia is the withering away of the state. Eventually, there will be the withering away of the state. Why put it off in some far distant utopia? Why not begin right away and say that the state is the enemy. The state is the armed forces. The state is bound to be a tyrant, a dictatorship. A ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ becomes again another dictator.

The anarchist philosophy is that the new social order is to be built up by groupings of men together in communities—whether in communities of work or communities of culture or communities of artists—but in communities. Martin Buber said there could be a ‘community of communities’ rather than a state. They would be united in some way but without any governing body. It would be made up of unions, credit unions instead of banks. There would be no more lending at interest. There would be no more money lenders.

Sounds utopian, doesn’t it? But you see the beginnings of it with the Cesar Chavez land movement and the work of Martin Luther King. It is the work of organising the unorganised. These powerless people at the bottom are the ones with whom we must begin. They must have the insight and the knowledge to work together and recognise that they are on the right track.

Agitator: Do you ever, as an anarchist, see any incompatibilities between anarchy and Catholicism?

Dorothy Day: No, I think anarchy is natural to the Catholic. The Church is pretty anarchistic, you know. Who pays attention to the Pope or the Cardinals? Conscience is supreme, and that’s why we print it on the front page of The Catholic Worker. The saying of Vatican II is above all, ‘Conscience is supreme.’

Agitator: Sometimes you go to see the bishops and members of the hierarchy in the Catholic Church. What do you talk to them about?

Dorothy Day: We talk about the work. As Cardinal McIntyre said to me, looking at the paper, ‘I never studied anything like this in the seminary.’ I think you approach a bishop as a human being and a member of the human family. Consider that the first Pope, St Peter, betrayed Christ three times. And this was right after he was given the message, ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.’ I don’t think any of the translators have been able to get around that. Christ just chose someone who was weak and faulty.

But in the Gospels from the very beginning you find a spirit of non-violence and brotherhood which has gone straight down through the ages, through the Church. After Constantine it was compromised a great deal. But the early disciples did have enough outpouring of spirit to be non-violent, to lay down their lives. It’s a fact of history to such an extent that nobody can explain it except by calling them a bunch of masochists. They were absolutely going to martyrdom until Peter’s sword came again into the picture. So you get St Bernard who wrote sublimely about the love of God and who is preaching the Crusade. These contradictions go on until a St Francis arises to counter them by going alone to the Sultan to make peace. And you get that same kind of folly today. Real folly…

Agitator: In the Church?

Dorothy Day: In the Church as a whole, like with Nevin Sayer, who was the head of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. When the US Marines were in Nicaragua in 1927, I worked for the Anti-Imperialist League. Anyway, our dear friend Nevin went down there on donkey back, wandering around the mountains trying to find Sandino to bring about peace between him and the US. Now, did you ever hear of anything more Quixote-like? And yet there’s something about such folly that strikes the imagination. You don’t forget it. It’s like another St Francis… You know they say Dorothy is an old traditionalist going around rattling her rosary beads, and I guess it’s true. Incidentally, rosary beads were one of the few things they let me keep in jail.

Agitator: Would you talk briefly about how the Catholic Worker started with you and Peter Maurin?

Dorothy Day: This will madden Women’s Liberationists when I say that Peter Maurin was the one who was totally responsible for it all. He came around with these ideas of his that I accepted, and that was all there was to it. I met him as a result of the things I had written. When he came to see me, he was a regular tramp living on the Bowery; a French peasant and a man of great knowledge, however. He had taught in Christian Brothers’ schools in France. He had tremendous knowledge of movements all over Europe.

He laid down a very simple program—the kind of program people would just laugh at. Foremost in this program was the necessity for the clarification of thought. I knew that Lenin had said there could be no revolution without a theory of revolution. And when Peter talked about clarification of thought, I thought this was what he was talking about. He said we needed discussions and meetings and a paper to bring things before the public. He said we should sell it ourselves on the street. He used to have ‘Friday night meetings’ every night of the week. He wore us out. He talked about Houses of Hospitality where there would be direct action of the works of mercy.

Round table discussions, Houses of Hospitality, and farming communes—that was his solution. And you see them coming about. you see ideas that somehow or other are in the air—communes all across the country, young people trying themselves, testing themselves in various ways. I think it’s all part of a world movement. Why should so many people find assent to what we write in the paper—and such a diverse group of people, too? It’s something which is coming, which is evolving. I think that just as we’re in the nuclear era we’re also in an era of non-violence. It’s undefeatable. And the evidences of non-violence are these great movements like the Chavez movement. It makes its appeal. It seems impossible to buck the agribusinesses. But I’ve seen this with my own eyes.

Agitator: How is the work you do in the city with the poor related to the work you do as a journalist?

Dorothy Day: You can’t write about things without doing them. You just have to live that same way. You start in with a table full of people and pretty soon you have a line and pretty soon you’re living with some of them in a house. You do what you can. God forbid we should have great institutions. The thing is to have many small centres. The ideal is community.

Agitator: Does the Catholic Worker offer any sort of alternative existence to the poor other than a bowl of soup and a bed to sleep for the night?

Dorothy Day: It offers them community too—although we fail every time. That’s also life. How can you not fail? That’s the human condition. I think that at the Catholic Worker we have high aims. But how much mingling is there, really, between the worker and the scholar? You get acquainted with some and they become very dear to you, like Hans and John Filigar. They become so much a part of the family that you get mad at them. There’s so much you have to endure in community. It’s like parents with their children. You just have to forgive seventy times seven. There is nothing logical in all this. It’s very hard to talk about. That’s why I dread any kind of interviewing. Because, how can you express these intangible things that the Catholic Worker is doing? You can sit down and add up how many people were fed yesterday afternoon, how many people were served each morning at the jail, how many cups of coffee are distributed—that kind of turnstile counting. It’s impossible to measure the real value of these things.

People, wherever they are, can make a community. ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ The sense is always that community is natural to people. Man is not meant to live alone. That’s in the very first or second chapter of Genesis. There is something so horrifying and so sad when people are living alone. That is why the old and lonely come to us.

Communities are made up of the unlovable as well as the lovable. Dostoevsky said that it’s Godlike to love man—even in his sin—merely because he’s man. We’re under obligation to love—that’s the commandment. The Oxford edition of the New Testament says, ‘A new commandment I give you that you love one another as I have loved you.’ But a new translation written for high school students puts it succinctly, ‘I command you to love.’ There’s enough hate in the world. I command you to love. And you have to make an effort.

I got one of the best directives from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov in the story of Grushenka. Have you read it? Grushenka’s a prostitute who’s been thrown over by her Polish lover and lives with a rich merchant. But the father and son in the Karamazov family are in love with her. And she’s generally considered a bad woman. But she says of herself, ‘I’ve given away an onion, perhaps I’ve given away an onion.’ She’s referring to an old Russian legend about a woman who’s thrown into Hell and cries out to her guardian angel to save her. The angel says, ‘Have you ever done one good deed in your life?’ And she thinks a while and says, ‘Well, I’ve given away an onion.’ So the guardian angel takes out a long green-topped onion and holds it out to her and says, ‘Hold on, I’ll pull you out of this lake of brimming fire.’ She grabs hold of the onion and then everybody else around her begins grabbing hold of her in order to be saved, too. And she kicks and screams and throws them off. So the onion breaks and she goes back into the lake of brimming fire. But she had given away an onion.

I often think of that with people we can’t stand. One woman acts like a tyrant on our third floor. Behind my back she will try to get rid of all the young girls in the place. And she fights with the older women (but they’re a match for her because they’re used to fighting). So there is bedlam sometimes. But I remember that once this woman gave away an onion whenever I feel like throwing her down the stairs. She went to visit an old woman who is a neighbour of ours and senile. And she found this woman covered with lice and lying in her own excrement. Instead of coming over to tell me this sad tale, she cleaned up the old woman herself. Then she came over and told me so that I could get in touch with the family. So she gave away an onion, a very large onion. And I’ll forgive her anything now.

Agitator: Voluntary poverty is an essential part of the Catholic Worker movement. Would you explain what voluntary poverty means?

Dorothy Day: Voluntary poverty isn’t going around with some burlap bag around you and imitating the poor. It means being indifferent to the material, doing as Christ said. He went and sat down with the rich and Zachaeus and publicans and sinners. Some can go further than others. Some have more capacity. Some proceed a few steps along the way. But Christ seemed to love all men. He desired all to be saved. I think one of the things we must constantly keep in mind is, ‘If anybody hits you on one cheek, turn the other.’ In other words, be close enough to people so that you are indifferent to the material. And also have faith. Just as the birds of the air are fed, we’ll continue to be fed.

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