A Faithful Striving

The Diaries of Dorothy Day

In her 1952 spiritual autobiography, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day (1897–1980) described her early habit of keeping a diary: “When I was a child, my sister and I kept notebooks; recording happiness made it last longer, we felt, and recording sorrow dramatized it and took away its bitterness; and often we settled some problem which beset us, even while we wrote about it.” She maintained this habit, though somewhat irregularly, throughout her life.

Sometimes her reflections were prompted by happiness, sometimes by sorrow, but mostly her diary entries were an expression of her intense interest in life and her responses to what was happening around her.

Unfortunately, the diaries from her early life were lost. So we have no contemporary record of the years described in her memoirs or her earlier (and much-regretted) autobiographical novel. That part of her life included a mostly happy childhood in New York, Oakland, California, and Chicago; a brief college career; a return to New York in 1916, which put her in touch with many leading radical journalists and activists of the day; her arrest with suffragists in Washington and her friendship with an assorted lot of socialists, anarchists, and literary bohemians; her association with the playwright Eugene O’Neill; an unhappy love affair; and what she later described as years of restless searching. She acknowledged, in her books, that there was much that she left out (as she later noted in her diary, “Aside from drug addiction, I committed all the sins young people commit today”), but the memories and associations from her early years would continue to surface and shape the rest of her life.

In her first memoir, From Union Square to Rome (1938), she borrowed verbatim from a journal she kept while living on Staten Island in 1925 with her “common-law husband,” Forster Batterham. From that text, later revised in The Long Loneliness, we get an immediate impression of the peace and happiness that preceded her conversion to Catholicism.

I have been passing through some years of fret and strife, beauty and ugliness, days and even weeks of sadness and despair, but seldom has there been the quiet beauty and happiness I have now. I thought all those years I had freedom, but now I feel that I had neither real freedom nor even a sense of freedom.

She wrote particularly about her experience of pregnancy and the feelings of gratitude she felt—a gratitude so large that only God could receive it.

But that happiness was not to endure. Her decision to have her daughter Tamar baptized in the Catholic Church, followed by her own conversion in 1927, involved a wrenching separation from Forster, who would have nothing to do with marriage or religion. That sacrifice was the decisive turning point in her life. But it left open the question of just what she was supposed to do next. She had found a new home in the Catholic Church, but little sense of community. For five years she struggled to support Tamar on her earnings as a writer, but all the while she yearned to find some way of connecting her new faith with her abiding commitment to social justice.

In December 1932, she went to Washington, D.C., to cover a Communist-inspired “Hunger March of the Unemployed.” On the feast of the Immaculate Conception she visited the National Shrine and there prayed that “some way would be opened up for me to work for the poor and the oppressed.” And when she returned to her apartment in New York she found Peter Maurin waiting for her. Maurin, a French-born peasant-philosopher, twenty years her senior, had learned her name from the editor of Commonweal. Even before their meeting Maurin had determined that Dorothy Day would be the one to implement his vision.

Dorothy often described her debt to Peter Maurin, but noted that it took her some time before she comprehended that his plan was the answer to her prayer. Maurin proposed a movement that would implement the radical social message of the Gospels. Without awaiting funding or authorization from the bishops, they would start a newspaper and begin at once to build “a new society within the shell of the old.”

Five months later, the Catholic Worker paper was launched. At a Communist rally in Union Square on May 1, 1933, Dorothy and a few volunteers handed out copies to demonstrators and curious passersby. In an editorial she described the paper’s mission:

For those who are sitting on park benches in the warm spring sunlight.
For those who are huddling in shelters trying to escape the rain.
For those who are walking the streets in the all but futile search for work.
For those who think that there is no hope for the future, no recognition of their plight—this little paper is addressed.
It is printed to call their attention to the fact that the Catholic Church has a social program—to let them know that there are men of God who are working not only for their spiritual but for their material welfare.

Peter Maurin, typically, was not on hand for this occasion. His role, as he conceived it, was to enunciate principles, leaving the practical implementation to others—that is, to Dorothy. But his vision shaped the emerging movement in many ways, not least by his positive vision of an alternative society—a future that would be different, as he put it, “if we make the present different.”

The times certainly cried out for an alternative. It was the heart of the Depression and millions around the country were uprooted, unemployed, or hanging on by their fingertips. New York City was filled with hungry, hopeless people “walking the streets in the all but futile search for work.” For Dorothy this represented not just an economic problem but a profound spiritual crisis—for each one of these people bore the image of Christ.

Before long, the Catholic Worker opened a soup kitchen, and then a shelter for the homeless. Maurin had challenged the U.S. bishops to open “houses of hospitality” in every diocese to meet the needs of the vast numbers of unemployed and homeless. When a homeless woman arrived at the Catholic Worker office asking where to find these houses of hospitality, Dorothy’s response was to rent an apartment, and then a house. This was the first of many such houses of hospitality around the country. They became the heart of the Catholic Worker—centers for practicing the “Works of Mercy”: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked. It was a program drawn from the Gospels. As Jesus said, “Inasmuch as you did these things to the least of my brethren you did them to me.”

At this point, in 1934, Dorothy’s diaries begin. Already the Catholic Worker was becoming a movement; the paper’s circulation was climbing and new houses were emerging around the country. There turned out to be quite a large audience eager for a paper addressing social issues from a Catholic perspective. Idealistic young people, unemployed workers, and a wide assortment of colorful characters were drawn to the cause, attracted perhaps by the spirit of community, or Maurin’s philosophy of voluntary poverty, or by the sense of adventure that Dorothy conveyed in her columns.

There was no formal “rule” to life in a Catholic Worker house. Dorothy likened it to a family—sometimes offering a foretaste of heaven, and at other times just the opposite. And over this sometimes fractious family Dorothy was the unquestioned matriarch. Everyone looked to her for leadership, sympathy, and inspiration, while readily blaming her for anything that went wrong. And yet things got done. The paper was published and mailed out. Thousands of meals were served each week. And the world received a remarkable spectacle of the gospel in action.

In its early years the Catholic Worker featured a good deal of topical reporting about strikes, evictions, and labor struggles. Almost every issue contained a number of Peter Maurin’s “Easy Essays.” Often there might be excerpts from one of the pope’s social encyclicals. And there were always a number of talented writers. But it was Dorothy’s writing—personal, engaged, rooted in the everyday—that defined the spirit of the paper.

Her literary influences ranged from Jack London to Chekhov. But ultimately, the style was her own. She described it as “epistolary.” Her column, she wrote, was “a letter to friends.” “Writing,” as she explained, “is an act of community. It is a letter, it is comforting, consoling, helping, advising on our part, as well as asking it on yours. It is a part of our human association with each other. It is an expression of our love and concern for each other.”

Meanwhile, in her diaries, she wrote a different kind of letter—addressed to herself—describing the events of the day as well as her own personal struggles. In the beginning, these private ruminations overlapped a good deal with her articles in the paper. But over time the public and private voices began to diverge. For long stretches her diary—written in spare moments—might consist of little more than a log of her daily activities. But at other times it offered an opportunity to work out problems or to reflect on matters of private concern. In these diaries she might confide her loneliness and discouragement, or describe her physical ailments, scold herself for a failure of charity, or note some insight or an act of kindness that reminded her of God.

For those who have studied Dorothy Day’s published writings, the voice in her diaries will be mostly familiar. In her column, “On Pilgrimage,” she regularly described her travels, her activities, and her reading of the “signs of the times.” And yet certain themes stand out in the diaries, such as the intense discipline of her spiritual and sacramental life. She attended daily Mass, which usually meant rising at dawn. She prayed the monastic hours from a breviary, a practice she adopted even before becoming a Benedictine oblate in 1955. She devoted time each day to meditating on Scripture, saying the rosary, or other spiritual exercises. None of this is particularly remarkable. And yet the matter-of-fact recital of such habits underscores the fact that her daily life was spent in continuous reference to God. As she writes, “Without the sacraments of the church, I certainly do not think that I could go on.”

At the same time, her diaries reflect her often complicated relationship with church authorities. In one of her early entries she describes a visit from a monsignor who reported the cardinal’s approval of the Catholic Worker (“a modern miracle”). The archdiocese, he told her, “would give us an imprimatur if they thought it would not hinder us in our work.” But later, as the Worker’s pacifist and anarchist tendencies emerged, there was no more talk of an imprimatur. In fact, in 1951 she describes being called to the chancery and informed that “we would either have to cease publication or change our name.” She finessed the problem by telling the chancery official that stopping publication “would be a grave scandal to our readers and would put into the hands of our enemies, the enemies of the church, a formidable weapon.”

Among the more personal themes in her diaries is the relationship with family members, such as her younger sister Della, her daughter Tamar, and her many grandchildren. Though she had limited contact with other members of her immediate family (who disapproved of her religion, her radicalism, and her notoriety), she remained constantly in touch with Della, who lived within easy visiting range. Despite their differences (Della was a dedicated proponent of Planned Parenthood), Dorothy called on her sister nearly every week, often staying overnight to enjoy some rest and recuperation.

The most significant relationship in her life was undoubtedly with her daughter Tamar, who was seven when the Catholic Worker was founded. Dorothy’s diaries show her anxiety about raising a child in this uncertain environment, and the difficulty of balancing the needs of her daughter and the demands of the larger household. When Tamar married at eighteen and began her own family, Dorothy took naturally to the role of mother-in-law and grandmother. She was a frequent visitor in Tamar’s home—often for months at a time—in West Virginia and later in Vermont.

At the same time, her diaries cast new light on her relationship with Tamar’s father, Forster Batterham. In her published memoirs she wrote of him with respect and enduring affection. She even credited him with a major role in her conversion to a faith he could not share. But there was no indication that they ever saw one another again.

In fact, over time, Forster began to reappear in her life. In 1959, remarkably, he asked for her help in caring for his long-time companion, Nanette, who was dying of cancer. And so, for several months, Dorothy spent much of each day with the couple on Staten Island, helping with housework, offering companionship and consolation. On the day before Nanette died, she asked to be baptized—an ironic and poignant repetition of the summer of 1927 that had ended with Dorothy’s own conversion. And once again, after Nanette’s death, Dorothy and Forster went their separate ways.

But now they stayed in closer touch. Forster would call to inquire after their “progeny.” She would visit him when he was in the hospital. He gave her a radio for her room. In later years he would frame art prints to decorate the walls of the Catholic Worker. And toward the end of her life, he took to calling her every day.

The diaries reflect, over a period of nearly five decades, Dorothy’s response to the vast changes affecting America, the church, and the wider world. In the 1930s, Dorothy’s vital interest was in strikes, labor struggles, and the problems of the Depression. She met with union leaders, labor priests, and bishops who undoubtedly saw in the Worker a Catholic counterweight to the appeal of communism. Later, as her pacifist convictions became a defining feature of the Catholic Worker, she would occupy a more marginal position, far outside the Catholic mainstream. In the 1940s, as the world went to war, Dorothy devoted more attention to her own spiritual life. Then, in the 1950s, facing the perils of the cold war, she embarked on a new style of activism, courting arrest several times (and serving jail sentences of up to thirty days) for her protests against civil-defense drills in New York City. With publication of The Long Loneliness and Dwight Macdonald’s extended profile of her in the New Yorker, Dorothy began to be recognized as a voice of conscience crying in the wilderness.

Her journals from the 1960s reflect the turbulence of the times. She traveled to Cuba on the eve of the missile crisis, fasted for peace in Rome during the Second Vatican Council, faced bullets fired on an interracial community in Georgia, and stood in solidarity with young men burning their draft cards. Suddenly she became the spiritual godmother to a new generation standing up against war and the established disorder. Despite her age, Dorothy understood the idealism of youth, the yearning for freedom, and the instinct for the heroic. Yet she recoiled from the spirit of nihilism and the self-indulgence of the “counter-culture.”

In the 1970s, she welcomed signs of a renewed interest in community and a return to the land. As she grew old, she prepared to let go and to entrust the vision to a new generation, yet her feistiness remained. During the Nixon administration, she stared down the IRS, refusing either to pay taxes or to register as a tax-exempt organization. At seventy-five, she was arrested on a picket line with the United Farm Workers and jailed.

Her diaries record her slowing down gradually, adjusting (after a heart attack) to the end of her restless travels, and eventually settling into the confinement of her room at Maryhouse, the Catholic Worker shelter for homeless women in Manhattan. Now she could observe that no matter how old she got, no matter how feeble, short of breath, or incapable of walking more than a few blocks, “my heart can still leap for joy as I read and suddenly assent to some great truth enunciated by some great mind and heart.”

That intense interest in life continued, as she took in the world around her and rummaged increasingly in the “rag-bag” of memory. She had always been a “compulsive” writer, “ever since I was eight years old when I wrote a serial story on a little pad of pink paper for my younger sister’s entertainment.” And writing was virtually the last thing to go. Toward the end her newspaper columns reverted to short, breathless excerpts from her diary—just enough, she said, “to let people know I am still alive.” She kept writing until a few days before her death on November 29, 1980.

David O’Brien, writing in Commonweal after her death, famously called Dorothy Day “the most significant, interesting, and influential person in the history of American Catholicism.” The truth of that pronouncement has become clearer with the passage of time. She has been the subject of biographies, plays, documentaries, a Hollywood film, and even several children’s books. She has been inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame, and is widely recognized as the radical conscience of the Catholic Church in America. But certainly a significant measure of her legacy came in 2000 when the Vatican officially accepted her cause for canonization, and she received the formal title, “Servant of God.”

If Dorothy Day is one day formally canonized, her diaries will offer something quite unusual in the annals of the saints—an opportunity to follow, almost day by day, in the footsteps of a holy person. Through them we can now trace the movements of her spirit and her quest for God. We can see her praying for wisdom and courage in meeting the challenges of her day. But we also join her as she watches television, devours mystery novels, goes to the movies, plays with her grandchildren, and listens to the opera.

Many people tend to think of saints as otherworldly heroes, close to God but not exactly human. Dorothy’s diaries confirm Thomas Merton’s observation that sanctity is a matter of being more fully human: “This implies a greater capacity for concern, for suffering, for understanding, for sympathy, and also for humor, for joy, for appreciation for the good and beautiful things of life.”

To be human is constantly to fall short of the ideals one sets for oneself. Dorothy Day was no exception. There are frequent reminders in her diaries of her capacity for impatience, anger, judgment, and self-righteousness. She herself points them out. And so we are reminded that holiness is not a state of perfection, but a faithful striving that lasts a lifetime, one expressed primarily in small ways, day after day, through the practice of forgiveness, patience, self-sacrifice, and compassion.

In the epilogue of The Long Loneliness, Dorothy incorporated the phrase “the duty of delight,” which comes from John Ruskin, the nineteenth-century English critic. She frequently repeated the phrase in her diaries—often after a recital of drudgery or disappointment. It served as a reminder to find God in all things—the sorrows of daily life and the moments of joy, both of which she experienced in abundance. There were the sorrows of poverty: noise, foul odors, poor food, and the outbreak of violence among the drunk or insane; the various kinds of lice and bedbugs; constant insecurity and the world’s disdain. But there were also the moments of joy: the Saturday afternoon opera; the magic spell of a book; “the soft sound of waves on the beach”; the chatter of happy children; the sights and solitude of a long bus trip; the beauty of church and the liturgy, with its appeal to all the senses, the experience of community at its best.

I knew Dorothy Day during the last five years of her life, when I came to live at the Catholic Worker. I was nineteen at the time and was immediately won over. After a conversation early on, I dared to show her some notes from my own diary. (Did I suppose she would be edified by my two-week-old impressions of life at the Catholic Worker?) The next day she returned to the Catholic Worker farm upstate, but she left me a note: “Good thing to keep a journal,” she wrote. “Please ask Frank [Donovan] to find you a copy of a book in my room, Prayer Is a Hunger, which describes writing as a form of prayer. Love, Dorothy.”

St. Teresa of Ávila defined prayer as “nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with Him Who we know loves us.” Certainly, for Dorothy, writing was a form of prayer. What is striking in her diaries is how many entries refer specifically to prayer, and how often she directly addresses God as the intended reader of her heart.

But ultimately her words, whether written or spoken, derived their meaning from the consistency, courage, and faithfulness of her life. Her diaries provide a unique window on that life, and on the witness of a woman for whom, in the end, everything was a form of prayer.


This article is based on Robert Ellsberg's introduction to The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day (Marquette University Press).

Related: Mel Piehl reviews The Duty of Delight, edited by Robert Ellsberg
Patrick Jordan reviews The Catholic Worker after Dorothy
A Relic, by Sidney Callahan
Fame & Seneca Falls, by Judith Johnson O'Brien

Published in the 2008-03-28 issue: 

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Orbis Books, the author of All Saints, and the editor of The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day (Marquette University Press).

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