Thirty years after her death, Dorothy Day remains “the most significant, interesting, and influential person in the history of American Catholicism.” I made that claim in 1980 and I am not alone in my admiration. Garry Wills called her “the Saint of Mott Street,” a title she would not have liked. She worried that saint talk would end up trivializing the Catholic Worker message of revolutionary discipleship.

Theologian Lawrence S. Cunningham, who knows about such matters, ranks Day with Thomas Merton among our most impressive American spiritual guides. New York archbishops have backed her canonization. Once considered a radical for her pacifism and uncompromising advocacy on behalf of the poor and workers, Day is now claimed as an inspiration by Catholics of all parties.

The movement to canonize Day may well receive a boost from the 2008 publication of her diaries (The Duty of Delight) and now her letters (All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day, edited by Robert Ellsberg, Marquette University Press, $35, 480 pp.). She asked that these texts remain closed until twenty-five years after her death. When that time came, Ellsberg, a friend of Day’s and former editor of the Catholic Worker paper, took on the task of editing selections for publication. He has provided excellent introductions to both collections and just the right number of explanatory notes.

Readers continue to encounter Day in her own books and a growing number of thoughtful assessments of her life and work. In those we find an impressive, even saintly, journalist observer, a remarkable Christian witness and spiritual guide. But in her letters we meet her as a person very much like ourselves: struggling with relationships, worried about her family, moved by the generous faith of those who join the Catholic Worker movement she and Peter Maurin launched in 1933. She accepts, sometimes reluctantly, responsibility for that movement and as best she can provides care for the poor at the door and for the dedicated but disorderly Worker communities that offer food, clothing, and shelter at personal sacrifice. If saints are people who, over a lifetime, try very hard to live out the gospel message of love and forgiveness, in the first instance with those whom they meet every day, then these letters provide a lot of evidence of Dorothy Day’s saintliness. 

But be warned: Holiness in action, at least in the case of Day, is not an easy path. All the way to heaven may be heaven, but at times the way might not be clearly marked out, particularly if you are keenly aware of your own weaknesses, as Day was. She is profoundly grateful for the gift of faith. She begins each day with Mass, and seems to be praying always. Yet she doesn’t live in a convent or even in a settled household, but within a movement’s scattered houses and farms, each teeming with people who demand her attention. She is an organizer and administrator of sorts, a journalist, citizen, colleague, and friend. She loved to get away, and to read and to pray, but as Ellsberg notes, she thrived on conversation and she loved community.           

Day was a lifelong letter writer. Unlike Merton, she did not seem to fully anticipate publication of her correspondence, so these letters seem less constructed and more spontaneous than his. They confirm much of what we knew: Day was very smart and seems to have thought about every question you might ask. She truly loved to read: when she was exhausted by the needs around her or by the tensions in her local community, she would retire to her room, or take the ferry to Staten Island, and read—a favorite classic, a book about prayer, a recent novel. We are reminded of how tough-minded she could be, responding forcefully to any suggestion that she was an idealistic, sentimental woman, and equally sharply to self-appointed leaders who dismissed her movement’s opposition to violence against workers, to racism and anti-Semitism, and especially to war and all it demanded from good citizens. And, as she eloquently insisted to Robert Coles a few years before she died, she and her friends were good citizens, trying to practice the democratic disciplines of shared responsibility for one another.

Whatever strength of character means—conviction, courage, determination, solidarity, confidence—Day showed it over a lifetime. Catherine de Hueck of Friendship House thought the Catholic Worker houses were too dirty and said so. Without apology, Day explained they were “houses of hospitality” meant to make the poor and the homeless feel welcome. When many Catholic Workers, including Tom Sullivan and John Cogley, accepted military service after Pearl Harbor, Day prayed for them and wrote to them overseas, but she never backed away from the movement’s pacifist commitment. When another young man associated with the Worker set himself on fire in protest against the Vietnam War, longtime friends like Merton joined in a chorus of criticism. Dorothy was stunned and saddened but insisted that her community consistently affirmed the witness of nonviolence on behalf of life. Both her diaries and these letters reveal worries and self-criticism, compassion, generosity, and ever-growing humility. But there is never a hint of self-righteousness. This is what it means to be a strong American Catholic.   

There are new things to be learned here about Day as well. The letters add to the evidence in the diaries of her lifelong care for her family, and for her daughter Tamar and her children. She spent far more time with them all than we knew. She also wrote frankly to her daughter, risking their relationship, but supported Tamar when she distanced herself from the church. Day also stayed close to a grandson who went off to Vietnam. Most amazing is her relationship with her onetime lover Forster Batterham, Tamar’s father. In Day’s spiritual autobiography The Long Loneliness, Forster disappears after Dorothy’s conversion, which followed Tamar’s birth. In the diaries we learn they occasionally communicated about Tamar and her family, and that Day cared for Batterham’s longtime companion, Nanette, during the latter’s fatal illness. But in the letters we learn for the first time that after Tamar’s birth Day kept after Batterham, meeting him occasionally but also asking him repeatedly to marry her, even promising he would not have to convert. These contacts diminished only after Day met Maurin in 1932. But even after that, Day regularly sent news of Tamar to Batterham, who provided some support for Tamar’s education and later eagerly sought news about his grandchildren. 

So this is the very human Dorothy Day. Like everyone, she changed over the years. She knew her limitations and she freely admitted to friends her disappointments and occasional discouragement. She had no patience with the moral laxity of young volunteers in the 1960s, and she admired her friend the anarchist Ammon Hennacy but had to resist his romantic advances. She spoke of her joy at the gift of faith, and she seemed convinced that following Jesus should make one transparently happy. Often it did not seem to. Thus the remarkably well-chosen titles of Ellsberg’s collections—The Duty of Delight, recalling Day’s temptations to sadness that had to be “overcome daily, growing in love and the joy which goes with loving”—and All the Way to Heaven, from St. Catherine of Siena’s “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said ‘I am the way.’” The young convert John Cort, later Commonweal’s longtime labor correspondent, reported that when he heard Day speak in Boston in the mid-1930s, she seemed to be having such fun that he pulled up stakes and moved to New York to join the movement. It is a rare report of a lighthearted Day. More often she is described as personally attentive but serious, and sometimes fierce in her expectations. Both her letters and journals show “the way to heaven” was often rugged. Still, this was her vocation. Others had their vocations—some of which were much harder than her own.

Historian William D. Miller, entrusted with Day’s papers and ready with a book on Worker ideas, chose as his title A Harsh and Dreadful Love. Dorothy objected, in part because she worried people would think the phrase was hers (it comes from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov). As early as 1959, she admitted that, as she got older, she became “more convinced that we must only work on ourselves, to grow in grace,” and that “all we can do about people is love them,” adding in a characteristic aside, “even when they read the Daily News and spend all their time watching television.” Love was often harsh and dreadful, but, she reflected, she had the resources of faith and friendship to assist her in the daily works of love.

But my claim about Day’s historical importance goes much further and turns on at least three other points. The first is freedom, which she treasured because love requires freedom. Hers was Catholic faith freely chosen—at a cost. And her singular vocation was chosen with equal freedom. For Day, a life of voluntary poverty never implied a guilt-ridden renunciation of the world but a realistic means to freedom. It could bring release from the multiple temptations of ordinary life, and allow one the latitude to live the love revealed in Jesus and prescribed by the Gospels. That is why she was and remains at the heart of the church, not on a radical fringe. She and the Catholic Workers lived the gospel in new, interesting, and important ways. How might today’s once immigrant and now fully American Catholics—successful and in the mainstream—learn from Day? Perhaps by freely serving the poor, seeking justice, and making peace.

The second point to which Day gave witness in every period of her life is that religion is serious (historian Robert Orsi says it is about “what matters”). Perhaps that is what lay behind reports that Day was fierce. Her Catholic Christianity was not platitudes about salvation but a lived experience of life and history. When she met young people, she talked about work, books, and current events, and about her own experiences and expectations. The poor and working-class Catholics she saw at church took their religion seriously because it helped make sense of their hard lives. Then, as now, to learn about the gospel Christians turned to people who actually seemed to live it—to priests, nuns, exemplary laypeople like Maurin. He, Day, and their Catholic Worker friends made clear the truths the rest of us often forget: that the Christian vocation to love God and neighbor is serious. It makes personal and political demands. Perhaps most of us are right that we need to earn a living, provide for our families, and occasionally use force to defend the innocent. But, Day reminds us, in so doing we depart a bit from what the Lord expects: we are not yet in the Kingdom of God. Our temptation is posturing—offering moral pronouncements about life, justice, and peace, but without the actions to match them. If the gospel is true, more is required; love, justice, and peace must become verbs. As Ellsberg notes in his introduction, “The Catholic Worker movement was not intended to resolve the problems of poverty and violence in the world but to provide a model of what it might look like if Christians truly lived out their faith in response to the challenges of history and the needs of their neighbors.”

Finally, there are those undeniable challenges of history. From her start as an American radical through her “long loneliness” and life as a Catholic lay leader, Day saw her life as part of a larger historical drama. Its meaning is often obscured by ignorance and sin, but Christian faith reaffirms a narrative of expectation that love is indeed the way, not just for each person to find God, but for the human family to reach its destiny. The duty of delight arises from the gift of God in Christ and his church, and in humanity’s long historical struggle for dignity, justice, and peace. Love, the way to heaven, is the most basic reality of all. Day never lost her radical sense that the “big shots” are deceived, that the truth is to be found in those out-of-the-way corners where men and women freely practice the works of mercy and justice. History is made a long way from Washington, Beijing, or Rome.

Thirty years after her death, Day is revered and remembered. Her small movement persists in its witness, here and abroad. Its members, and many inspired by them, continue to see their lives within this narrative that has love at its center and hope as its spirit. Ellsberg describes the first meeting of Jim Forest (to whom he dedicates the volume) with Day. She sat at a table with others, opening the mail and reading it out loud, and telling stories about the people who had written. “At the core of each story were always just a few people, maybe just one person, for whom following Christ was the most important thing in the world,” Forest recounted. From such faith and from such stories history is made. Dorothy Day is very important for American Catholics because she bore witness to the Catholic belief that history matters, and so do we.


Related: A Faithful Striving, by Robert Ellsberg
Mel Piehl's review of The Duty of Delight
'The Long Loneliness' at 50, by Eugene McCarraher
A Relic, by Sidney Callahan

David J. O’Brien is University Professor of Faith and Culture at the University of Dayton.
Also by this author

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Published in the 2011-04-08 issue: View Contents
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