Love Means Answering the Mail

Dorothy Day on retreat
John Frederick Kensett, “Eaton’s Neck, Long Island,” 1872 (Gift of Thomas Kensett, 1874/Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In the fall of 1943, in a world that seemed to have gone mad with war and division, Dorothy Day decided to take a year-long retreat from her duties at the Catholic Worker to reflect, pray, and write. For nearly a decade she had been working continuously to build up the fledgling Catholic Worker movement—publishing the newspaper, funding houses of hospitality, living in community with the destitute and the difficult, traveling and speaking—not to mention raising a daughter as a single parent. Everyone seemed to want or need something from her.­­­­­

The calls for help from every quarter of her life had come to feel like distractions that were interfering with what she viewed as her primary vocation: writing. Although we revere Day now for her commitment to social justice, she identified herself first as a writer. Jim Forest, Day’s biographer who worked and lived with her wrote, “Dorothy was a writer. There was always a notebook in her bag. She seemed endlessly to be taking notes and writing. Note-taking and journaling were as much a part of Dorothy as breathing.” Her output included not only spiritual masterpieces like The Long Loneliness, but also a massive catalog of diary entries and letters, published selections of which each run to six hundred pages or more. She produced her monthly column for the Catholic Worker newspaper, “On Pilgrimage,” for many decades.

But Day wasn’t satisfied. She yearned for more time to write and for the activities that fueled her writing: prayer, reading, and reflection. Her obligations gave her precious little time for such spiritual work. Residents and visitors came and went endlessly in the Catholic Worker houses and farms, and with them came conflict and stress. Day’s growing reputation as a champion of the poor put her in frequent demand for speaking invitations. Even the squalid conditions in which she lived weighed on her mind. “In this groaning of spirit,” she wrote in a diary entry in the late 1930s, “everything is irksome to me. The dirt, the garbage heaped in the gutters, the flies, the hopelessness of the human beings around me, all oppress me.” She dreamed of space, light, and freedom from these endless distractions.

Finally, in November 1943 she made her dream a reality by moving into a Dominican convent on Long Island, near a school that her daughter Tamar was attending. She sought to immerse herself in the rhythms of religious life: daily Masses, meditative prayer and reading, recitation of the rosary, writing and study. She took long walks and tried to rest in the afternoons. She was almost always alone. She had created the conditions in which she could free her mind to write and pray to her soul’s content.

And she hated it.

Instead of peace, she discovered what all of us find when we make a concerted effort to still the mind and settle into quiet prayer or contemplation: that we don’t like doing it. “My mind like an idiot wanders,” she wrote in her retreat diary, “converses, debates, argues, flounders. If I get in 15 minutes of honest to God praying I’m doing well.” Day’s description of her active, busy brain echoes biologists who tell us how those complex organs in our skulls love novelty and stimulation. Without these things, the brain jumps into action on its own, swirling in constant motion.

“I have made up my mind,” she wrote to a correspondent only a month into her retreat, “that...such a year should be spent in hard work in a hospital, say, not off in a convent, on one’s own.” Day needed the external stimulation that she found in the Catholic Worker movement, even while she longed to escape from its many distractions. She cut the retreat short and returned to the Catholic Worker community six months into her planned year-long stay.

Day’s struggles with retreats contain a lesson for all of us who see the distractions of this world as our enemy.

The retreat wasn’t entirely a disaster. She “labored at watering the garden of my soul,” she wrote in a Catholic Worker column after she returned, and that garden produced some spiritual fruit. But her descriptions of her retreat experience make it sound as though she was awfully glad to be finished with it: “Sometimes I prayed with joy and delight. Other times each bead of my rosary was heavy as lead. My steps dragged, my lips were numb. I felt a dead weight. I could do nothing but make an act of will and sit or kneel, and sigh in an agony of boredom.” It didn’t take Day long to realize that she was not well suited to a life without distractions. She would never attempt such a long retreat again, although she did continue to take shorter ones, which she found more to her liking. She learned and grew much from those retreats, and for many years she worked in fits and starts on a planned book about retreats, tentatively entitled All Is Grace. But in perhaps another demonstration of her rocky relationship with retreats, she never completed the book.

Day’s struggles with retreats contain a lesson for all of us who see the distractions of this world as our enemy, and who long for peace and quiet to pursue our work, whatever it might be, with single-minded devotion. The distractions of the last year and a half, after all, have been particularly intense ones. We struggle to manage life under a pandemic, worrying about both our individual health and the health of the country. Our children need help in their remote schooling, our parents are ill, our homes and offices need sanitizing. Who among us hasn’t longed for a respite from such distractions?

But love “calls us to the things of this world,” as the poet Richard Wilbur wrote. In the decades following her failed retreat, Day turned the Catholic Worker movement into a force for good throughout the world, sought and obtained funds to support its work, bought and sold multiple properties, and personally touched the lives of countless individuals through advocacy and speaking engagements. She was arrested and released on multiple occasions, traveled the world, helped her adult daughter raise her children, and nursed friends and companions through terminal illnesses. Every one of these activities represented a distraction from the vocation of writing, and yet these are the works for which we revere Dorothy Day to this day. Her distractions called her to the works of mercy and love, and she never stopped heeding that call.

“Love means answering the mail that comes in,” Day wrote in another diary entry, “and there is a fearful amount of it. That person in the hospital, that person suffering a breakdown of nerves, the person lonely; far-off, watching for the mailman each day. It means loving attention to those around us, the youngest and the oldest (drunk and sober).” Day reminds us that our primary vocation in life is to love one another—and that we are most frequently called to that love by our distractions.

Published in the December 2021 issue: 

James M. Lang is the author of six books, the most recent of which is Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It (Basic Books). He can be found online at jamesmlang.com or on Twitter at @LangOnCourse.

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