I recently finished the autobiography of the American Catholic, and potential saint, Dorothy Day. She spent her life working for the poor, and doing so in community. It was an enlightening read.
I picked up this book after reading Eugene Peterson’s The Jesus Way. Born in New York, and raised in San Francisco until the great earthquake made her family relocate to Chicago, her father was a left-leaning journalist. Through her reading and contacts even as a child, she came to identify with the poor, even though her own family was of modest means. Working for the poor became her life goal from early on:
“I felt even at 15, that God meant man to be happy, that he meant to provide him with what he needed to maintain life in order to be happy, and that we did not need to have quite so much destitution and misery as I saw all around and read of in the daily press.” (p. 38)
She became a journalist herself and was dedicated to the trade union movement of the 1920’s, even being imprisoned on several occasions. Her first experience of prison strongly confirmed her passion for the poor:
“Never would I recover from this wound, this ugly knowledge I have gained of what men were capable in their treatment of each other. It was one thing to be writing about these things, to have the theoretical knowledge of sweatshops and injustice and hunger, but it was quite another to experience it in one’s own flesh. ” p. 79
After a long struggle with faith, she converted to Catholicism, the faith, as she saw it, of the poor, bringing about the demise of her relationship with her daughter’s father. During the social ferment of America in the 1930’s she co-founded The Catholic Worker with Peter Maurin, who profoundly influenced her work for the poor. This was not only a newspaper for the people, but was also a movement centered around houses of hospitality, where she lived in community with the poor. This living with was very important, as she says in her autobiography:
“Going around and seeing such sights is not enough. To help the organizers, to give what you have for relief, to pledge yourself to voluntary poverty for life so that you can share with your brothers is not enough. One must live with them share with them their suffering too. Give up one’s privacy, and mental and spiritual comforts as well as physical. ” p.214
The first house of hospitality was in the slums of New York, and was to provide shelter, food, and other necessities for those in need. The key was the living together. This was not a place where one received services, but rather lived in community with others. Day and her associates lived there too. In time this work expanded to communal farms around New York, including near Easton, PA, not far from where I live. The houses of hospitality idea spread around the country; there were over 30 affiliated communities by the 1940’s. And there are over 100 around the world today.
Dorothy Day is a controversial figure due to her counter-cultural and even bohemian early life. Abbie Hoffman called her the first hippie, which she did not disavow. She was also a pacifist during the run up to World War 2. And she had many contacts and sympathies with Communism as an ideology at least. But her dedication to the poor, which flowed from her Christian faith, has earned her much applause. There is currently an effort to canonize her in the Roman Catholic Church.
Pope Benedict put her mixed legacy well in his last Ash Wednesday address:
In her autobiography, she confesses openly to having given in to the temptation that everything could be solved with politics, adhering to the Marxist proposal: “I wanted to be with the protesters, go to jail, write, influence others and leave my dreams to the world. How much ambition and how much searching for myself in all this!”. The journey towards faith in such a secularized environment was particularly difficult, but Grace acts nonetheless, as she points out: “It is certain that I felt the need to go to church more often, to kneel, to bow my head in prayer. A blind instinct, one might say, because I was not conscious of praying. But I went, I slipped into the atmosphere of prayer … “. God guided her to a conscious adherence to the Church, in a lifetime spent dedicated to the underprivileged.
I have always had a great respect for the Roman Catholic Church for the great work it does for the poor, and I was aware of the name of Dorothy Day as one involved in that work. It was good to learn more about her. There is so much more to learn and there is a lot available. She wrote some other books that shed more light on her work and all of her articles written for The Catholic Worker from 1933-1939 are available online at the excellent Dorothy Day Collection (http://dorothyday.catholicworker.org/). I look forward to delving in more deeply.
So what do I learn about ministry from Dorothy Day, this Catholic laywoman? That’s the next post…