One of the most striking things about Jesus as recorded in the Gospels—at least to me—is how directly he speaks to people. Yes, he often taught through parables—paradoxical, sometimes funny stories that continue to generate endless interpretations. He was canny, particularly so when dealing with the authorities, religious and secular. When they tried to trip him up, his rhetorical response could put them to scorn. Still, in most of his recorded sayings, Jesus’ yes is yes and his no is no: “No one can serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24). Yes or no? We’re still dancing around that one. Perhaps the most direct, haunting question he asked, toward the end of his life, remains “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)
In his Tales of the Hasidim, Martin Buber tells the story of a young man who left home and journeyed far to meet the famed preacher of Mezritch, Rabbi Dov Baer (d. 1772). He did so, the tale recounts, not to “learn Torah” (the study and interpretation of the Sacred Law) from the great seer, but to see how the rabbi “unlaced his felt shoes and laced them up again.” When I first arrived at the Catholic Worker house in New York as a volunteer in 1968, I could never have imagined it would be to learn how Dorothy Day (1897–1980) tied her shoes.
Seventy at the time, taller than I had expected, Dorothy had pale blue eyes masked somewhat by her heavy-rimmed editor’s glasses. She wore a bandana that only partially concealed a magnificent crown of braided white hair. The new First Street house (St. Joseph House), just off Second Avenue a block from the Bowery, was in a teeming ghetto of older Italians (too weary to escape with their children to the suburbs), newly arriving Puerto Rican and Dominican families, and the off-scouring of the city—the unemployed and the alcoholics and drug addicts who lived in the alleys and flophouses nearby. They would panhandle and war against one another 24/7, but each day they would drag themselves over to the Catholic Worker for bread and a sobering bowl of soup.
When I arrived at the new St. Joseph House, it was still empty, awaiting an occupancy permit from the city. Dorothy was sitting at a spare desk on the ground floor of the five-story walkup, waiting for a delivery for the contractor. She was talking with two young draft resisters. It was during the Vietnam War and she had publicly encouraged young men to burn their draft cards. (In 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, she had told a New York audience, “You young men refuse to take up arms. Young women, tear down the patriotic posters. And all of you, young and old, put away your flags!”) With the seasoned ease of someone who had been welcoming strangers for generations, she quickly welcomed me and included me in the conversation, inquiring about mutual friends on the West Coast. A lifelong reporter and editor, she could unobtrusively find out more about a person in fifteen minutes than I would in a month. Rather quickly, she then shifted the discussion and told me where I could locate a bed on the floor of a Catholic Worker apartment six blocks away (in a building where she was also living at the time). After leaving my bag there, I could retrace my steps a few blocks to the existing Worker house on Christie Street and pitch in serving the evening meal. It was the shortest interview/job orientation of my life, and the most significant. As one of Dorothy’s granddaughters wrote later, but I was yet to learn, “to have known Dorothy means spending the rest of your life wondering what hit you.” (Dorothy herself once cautioned the young son of a coworker as they were crossing a busy Manhattan avenue: “If I’m going to get run down, I want it to be by a Mack truck.”)
The basic outlines of Dorothy Day’s life are well known. A radical and a journalist who converted to Catholicism in 1927 (following the birth of her daughter a year earlier), she cofounded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933 with an itinerant French Catholic social thinker, Peter Maurin, twenty years her senior. Together they started a newspaper, opened houses of hospitality to respond to the immediate needs of the urban poor, and established farming communes to house and give work to the unemployed. The aim was and continues to be to foster an understanding of Catholic social teaching, to promote personal responsibility for the common good rather than relying on the state, and to exemplify in one’s daily life the voluntary poverty and pacifism of the earliest Christian communities. In short: “to create a new society within the shell of the old.” Day has been called the “most significant, interesting, and influential person in the history of American Catholicism,” and the Catholic Worker has been described as “the most important radical Catholic movement in American history.”
But you might never know that from meeting Dorothy herself, although I did experience occasions when an entire roomful of people would fall silent even though she had entered unobtrusively. While not generally one to put herself forward, when praying and fasting in Rome for ten days in 1965, she wrote to the bishops at the Second Vatican Council that she would be praying the Holy Spirit might “enlighten your minds and inflame your hearts with the courage to proclaim peace and love to the world. Hear the voice of suffering people, starving while billions are being spent for armaments.”
What Dorothy did convey unabashedly in person was an uncommon intelligence and complete attention to whatever was at hand. Her look could be so focused that many thought her severe or unsmiling, but that was not the case. She had a youthful voice, a lilting, if reticent, laugh, and her blue eyes could sparkle. There was in her a modesty that was nearly elemental. I think it had to do with an always near-to-hand self-awareness about past failures—personal, moral, and spiritual—and about the daily, ongoing failures of the Catholic Worker movement as well. (She liked to quote G. K. Chesterton to the effect that if something was worth doing, it was worth doing badly.) Once, after a particularly horrendous week at the new First Street house (bedlam, drunkenness, and a full moon), she told me pointedly, “The Catholic Worker is madness,” but then added immediately, “There is so much suffering in this place I cannot help but think it is redemptive.”
“Where there are slums,” she had written, “we must live in them and share the conditions of the poor.” Why? Because Christ chose to be poor—or, as she put it, because “poverty is so esteemed by God.” It is something to be sought after, worked for, the pearl of great price. In fact, she noted, “It is our greatest message: to be poor with the poor.” But for all that, as her granddaughter Kate observed years later, Dorothy “turned the life of poverty into something dynamic, full of richly simple moments for those who have nothing.”
Most of the clothes Dorothy wore were hand-me-downs from the Catholic Worker clothing room, but she also had some lovely outfits, gifts from her sister Della, and a set of everyday dresses made by a Catholic Worker friend. The fact was Dorothy looked great in just about anything. One summer—it was in 1972—another friend had sent her a check for “wine and roses,” which meant Dorothy could use it for herself. So she invited Kathleen and me (we would be married later that fall) to see Fiddler on the Roof with her and to have a cream cheese sandwich at Chock Full o’Nuts beforehand. Who could refuse?
Fiddler is a rousing musical comedy, based on Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories, which Dorothy loved. The show concerns nineteenth-century shtetl life, and how the Hasidic families of the period were attempting to cope with the growing encroachments of modernity and a czarist state. The curtain goes up with a rousing anthem and circle dance, “Tradition!”—a notion dear to Dorothy ever since she had first lived among poor Jews on Manhattan’s Lower East Side as a fledgling journalist in 1916, and a concept central to Catholicism: Do this in memory of me. Dorothy’s respect for Jewish tradition was informed by her lifelong love and study of the Hebrew scriptures, and by her sensitivity to the plight of Jews worldwide. As early as 1933, the Catholic Worker paper had denounced Catholic anti-Semitism and decried the new Nazi regime in Germany. Only a few months before going to the play, in fact, Dorothy had been honored as a “woman of valor” by the Little Synagogue in Manhattan with its Baal Shem Tov Award.
As we walked up Broadway that Sunday afternoon, Dorothy looked splendid in a two-piece, pale green suit. She wore a pair of custom-made, size 9 1/2 Murray Space shoes (the gift of yet another friend), and her pace was steady but measured. The shoes were dark blue, orthopedic-looking, and had two buckles at the top. She used them almost every day. (A famous photo shows her wearing them as she calmly awaits arrest with striking agriculture workers in California in 1973. At age seventy-five, she sits seemingly impervious before a phalanx of heavily armed sheriff’s officers.) Making our way gradually to the theater, we were stopped by two young women who inquired whether she was Dorothy Day. (Her picture had been in a number of papers that year, when the Nixon administration attempted to shut down the Catholic Worker for alleged tax evasion; Bill Moyers had produced a film on her for public television titled Still a Rebel; and three of her books had been reissued as cheap paperbacks, her picture on each.) Dorothy was delighted to be recognized by these beautiful strangers. To her it meant the Catholic Worker was being taken seriously. Then it was off to the play.
Dorothy loved the Russian authors, particularly Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. In December 1961, while rereading Chekhov, she had written that the question Chekhov “brings out in all his stories is: ‘What is to be done? What is life for?’” His conclusion, she said, “is that we are here to work, to serve our brothers.” He himself was a doctor who wrote on the side to support himself and his family. “Not to be a parasite, not to live off of others, to earn our own living by a life of service—this answered the question for him,” she noted. Further, Chekhov was concerned about faith. His heroine in Uncle Vanya, Sonya, testifies, “I have faith, Uncle, fervent, passionate faith.” And when Christ returns at the end of time, she concludes in triumph, “we shall see evil and all our pain sink away in the great compassion that shall enfold the world.”
Dorothy Day had such powerful, unadulterated faith. It was not based on creedal propositions or on catechetical formulas but on a passionate relationship with the living God. It cost her. “For me, Christ was not bought for thirty pieces of silver but with my heart’s blood,” she wrote in 1967. “We buy not cheap in this market.” For her faith, she had given up friends and what she called a “life of natural happiness” with the man she loved, Forster Batterham, the father of her daughter. He had refused to marry Dorothy and derided her conversion to Catholicism. Still, years later Dorothy was able to say, “It is joy that brought me to the faith, joy at the birth of my child thirty-five years ago; and that joy is constantly renewed as I receive Our Lord at Mass.” As a result of her wrenching personal sacrifice, she considered the loss of faith “the greatest of disasters—the greatest unhappiness.” She found daily Mass to be an antidote to apostasy, calling it the most important work of the day. “If I can just remember to do that well—as well as I am able—everything else will take care of itself,” she said.
When Dorothy turned seventy-two, Vivian Gornick was dispatched to interview her for the Village Voice. “I cannot bear the [religious] romantics,” Dorothy told the writer as they sat in the small backyard of the First Street house. “I want a religious realist. I want one who prays to see things as they are and to do something about it.” In her 1952 spiritual autobiography, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy had pointedly asked, “Why was so much done in remedying social evils instead of avoiding them in the first place?... Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to slaves, but to do away with slavery?” It was very much as a realist that she had entered the church in 1927; and in 1933, when she and Maurin started the Catholic Worker, she had not sought approval for the venture from church officials. Instead, as she recounted some years later, she relied on the advice of three priests (all editors), who told her “to launch out, but not to ask permission. It would not be given, it was implied.”
In 1968, when the Catholic sociologist and peace activist Gordon Zahn (who had brought the story of Franz Jägerstätter to the attention of the English-speaking world) was having a serious crisis of faith over the institutional church, Dorothy reassured him that “as a convert, I never expected much of the bishops. In all history, popes and bishops and father abbots seem to have been blind and power-loving and greedy. I never expected leadership from them. It is the saints who keep appearing throughout history who keep things going.” However, she told Zahn, “What I do expect is the bread of life and down through the ages there is that continuity”—the sacraments and tradition. “The gospel is hard,” she continued. “Loving your enemies, and the worst are of your own household, is hard.” Still, as she was to instruct another coworker thinking of leaving the church, “No matter how corrupt the church may become, it carries with it the seeds of its own regeneration. To read the lives of the saints has always helped me,” she counseled.
Goodness and beauty attract. I used to go up mornings to visit with Dorothy in her room on the third floor of St. Joseph House. Often she would still be in her robe, her long hair uncombed and hanging down to her waist, her feet in slippers or bare. She would have already said the morning psalms, had her cup of coffee (both essential to starting her day), and been reading one thing or another. The conversation was unhurried and instructive: points of history, insights into theology, family stories, editorial directives, personal advice. There would be assignments (“Go hear E. F. Schumacher and report on it for the paper”), warnings (“Be sure you don’t work too hard; beware of your tendency toward sentimentality”), and personal wisdom (“Don’t get married until you have to”). There would be spiritual direction, often from scripture: You must take up your cross daily; we are to forgive seventy times seven; where there is no love, put love and you will find love; we love God as much as we love the one we love least; and pray. “As breath is to the body, prayer is to the soul,” she reflected. As for faith itself, she said often, “Every act of faith increases your faith.” Faith, like love, must be fervent, passionate; it is purchased only with one’s heart’s blood. It must be sought after, suffered for, put to the test, deepened, renewed, and taken joy in.
“You will know your vocation by the joy that it brings you,” Dorothy told Kathleen and me when we were about to leave the New York Catholic Worker in 1975. She said she would pray for us to find the same sort of surety she had experienced when she first met Peter Maurin. It had been the answer to her fervent prayer: What is to be done? Ever since, she said, she had never doubted her vocation—in hard, numbing times as well as in more peaceable and stable ones.
Will I find faith on earth? Jesus asks. And clearly he is looking for the real thing: passionate, practical, thoughtful faith—the only kind worthy of the living God. Where to begin to find and nurture it? Perhaps with how we lace and unlace our shoes. And from there? Perhaps with how we bathe the feet of our brothers and sisters.
This article is adapted from an essay in Not Less Than Everything: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience, from Joan of Arc to Oscar Romero, edited by Catherine Wolff, which will be published by HarperCollins in February.