30th Anniversary – Dorothy Day (1897-1980)

Co-founder of the Catholic Worker

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 55, Advent 2010

Robert Ellsberg

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the death on 29 November 1980 of Dorothy Day, the famous US convert to Catholicism, who transformed the way modern day Christians need to live out their faith. She left a legacy of taking the Beatitudes and the Scriptures seriously and living them every day. She started a movement of pacifism and opposition to war, voluntary poverty, the practice of non-violence, farming communes, active work for social justice and houses of hospitality based on seeing Christ in one’s neighbour, especially in the poor. It is a movement that has led to the Catholic Worker becoming established in many countries including Aotearoa/New Zealand where there are several CW farms and houses devoted to living this Gospel she so embodied.

When Dorothy Day died in 1980 at the age of 83, it was observed that she was ‘the most influential, interesting, and significant figure in the history of American Catholicism’. This was a statement on behalf of someone who occupied no official position in the Church – indeed, someone whose ideas were almost universally rejected throughout most of her life.

The Catholic Worker, a lay movement she founded in 1933 and oversaw for nearly fifty years, was an effort to show that the radical gospel commandment of love could be lived. She understood this challenge not just in the personal form of charity (the works of mercy) but in a political form as well, confronting and resisting the social forces which gave rise to such a need for charity. She represented a new type of political holiness – a way of serving Christ not only through prayer and sacrifice but through solidarity with the poor and in struggle along the path of justice and peace.

Dorothy Day was born in Bath Beach, Brooklyn on 8 November 1897. Though she was baptised as an Episcopalian, she had little exposure to religion. By the time she was in college she had rejected Christianity in favour of the radical cause. She dropped out of school and worked as a journalist in New York with a variety of radical papers and took part in the popular protests of her day. Her friends were communists, anarchists, and an assortment of New York artists and intellectuals, most of the opinion that religion was ‘the opium of the people.’

A turning point in her life came in 1926 when she was living on Staten Island with a man she deeply loved. She became pregnant, an event that sparked a mysterious conversion. The experience of what she called ‘natural happiness’, combined with a sense of aimlessness of her Bohemian existence, turned her heart to God. She decided she would have her child baptised as a Roman Catholic, a step she herself followed in 1927. The immediate effect was the end of her common law marriage. She spent some lonely years in the wilderness, raising her child alone and praying for some way to reconcile her faith and her commitment to social justice.

The answer came in 1932 with a providential meeting. Peter Maurin, an itinerant philosopher and agitator, encouraged her to begin a newspaper that would offer solidarity with the workers and a critique of the social system from the radical perspective of the Gospels. The Catholic Worker was launched on 1st May 1933. Like a true prophet, Maurin was concerned to denounce not just injustice but to announce a new social order based on the recognition of Christ in one’s neighbour. In an effort to practice what they preached, Day converted the offices of the Catholic Worker into a ‘house of hospitality’ – the first of many – offering food for the hungry and shelter for the tired masses uprooted by the Depression.

But Dorothy Day’s message did not end with the Works of Mercy. For her, the logic of the Sermon on the Mount led to an uncompromising commitment to non-violence. Despite widespread criticism, she maintained a pacifist position throughout World War II and later took part in several civil disobedience campaigns against the spirit of the Cold War and the peril of nuclear war. Later in the 1960s, when social protest became almost commonplace, Dorothy Day’s peacemaking witness – rooted in her daily life among the poor and sustained by the discipline of liturgy and prayer – retained a particular credibility and challenge.

The enigma of Dorothy Day was her ability to reconcile her radical social positions (she called herself an anarchist as well as a pacifist) with a traditional even conservative piety. Her commitment to poverty, obedience and chastity was as firm as any nun’s. But she remained immersed in the secular world with all the ‘precarity’ and disorder that came from life among the poor. Her favourite saint was Therese of Lisieux, the young Carmelite nun, whose ‘little way’ indicated the path to holiness within daily occupations. From Therese, Dorothy drew the insight that any act of love might contribute to the balance of love in the world; any suffering endured in love might ease the suffering of others; such was the mysterious bond within the Body of Christ.

In combining the practice of charity and justice, Dorothy Day represented a type of holiness not easily domesticated, but of special relevance to our times. She called on the Church to recover its identity as an offence and mystery in the eyes of the world. Her life was a living parable, focused on what she called the mystery of the poor: ‘that they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for Him.’ She died on 29 November, 1980.

From All Saints, Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, Robert Ellsberg Ed., Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1997.)

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