Quiet Terrors, Quiet Joy

In 1846, Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “All religiousness is rooted in being moved, in being shaken, in qualitative pressure on the springs of subjectivity.” Kierkegaard’s observation seems relevant to these diaries of Dorothy Day, most of them previously unpublished, because they offer deeper access to the subjective wellsprings of Day’s compelling religious life.

Day has become ever more widely known to the general public for her founding (with Peter Maurin) of the Catholic Worker movement in 1933, her lifelong commitment to social justice and the poor, and her unwavering pacifism. For many Catholics and others familiar with her life and work, Dorothy Day is also a major religious figure, a source of fascination, inspiration, and sometimes awe. The inevitable quote from David O’Brien’s Commonweal obituary in 1980 still holds: she remains “the most significant, interesting, and influential person in the history of American Catholicism.”

This volume will do nothing to alter or diminish that judgment, and it may well reinforce it, offering as it does fuller access to her most personal thoughts and reflections. True, no one who has read much of Dorothy Day’s published writing, whether her autobiography The Long Loneliness or her Catholic Worker columns and editorials, will be terribly surprised by the spirit and tone of these diary entries, nor by some of their basic content. Day regularly mined her diary—sometimes with only light editing—for her columns or collections of writing like House of Hospitality (1938), in which portions of the diary from the 1930s appeared. In the last few years of her life, many of her increasingly brief comments went straight into the Catholic Worker, “just so people know I’m still alive.”

Yet the personal tone of Day’s writing and the forceful personality that lies behind it come across here with a fresh intimacy, frankness, and complexity. The diaries, barred from publication for twenty-five years after her death, have been superbly edited by Robert Ellsberg, who also contributes the Introduction. Ellsberg, who arrived at the Catholic Worker in 1975 and knew Day personally, provides valuable notes on people, places, and events unfamiliar to most readers, and a connective tissue of context and commentary that enables the reader to follow the historical arc of Day’s life in the Catholic Worker movement. In some cases where the diary entries are thin or significant events go unremarked, he incorporates Day’s Catholic Worker pieces or other writing that explains or fills in the gaps. And to add an inimitable Catholic Worker touch of the sort no one could make up, Ellsberg recovered and includes here Day’s last diary, which had lain untouched for twenty-five years in the bedside table drawer of the Maryhouse room where she died.

While much of the diary records the ordinary happenings of any life—travels and meetings, births and deaths, the comings and goings of friends and co-workers in the movementit is in the sustained presentation of the deeper themes and spiritual struggles of Day’s life that their greatest interest lies. And while much of the diary is conveyed in her straightforward journalistic prose, there are many passages that will further enhance her reputation as a keen and powerful spiritual thinker and writer.

The diaries reveal Day’s fierce self-discipline and her struggle to sustain her own spiritual life amid the demanding and hectic life of the Catholic Worker. In 1960 she writes, “too much activity. Last night and today, cleaning and no letters. Nor article written for June issue.” Day frequently laments her inability to find time to reflect and write as much as she wants: “So little time. Sow time to reap time, Fr. Roy used to say. One’s spiritual life takes at least three hours a day.” She has aspirations to produce a novel about her experiences in jail, where she spent time for civil disobedience, but daily demands overwhelm her: “The trouble with the CW is that one is so busy living that there is no time to write about it.”

Yet amid the constant and urgent demands of her vocation, Day maintains her commitment to the daily Mass, prayer, and the rosary, which revive her spirits when she is discouraged about evils near and far. When feeling “lifelessness, a foretaste of death, a sense of ‘quiet terror’” on one occasion in 1968, it is recitation of the psalms, “prayers which thousands, tens of thousands, are saying all over the world,” that comfort and revive her, “and from quiet terror I go on to quiet joy at God’s goodness and love in giving us Jesus to show us how to love.”

Reading is also a discipline for Day, and a regular source of strength and insight. She becomes ever more steeped in Catholic writing of many kinds, from St. Augustine to Teresa of Ávila, Graham Greene, Walker Percy, and J. F. Powers. But she also thrives on work by a remarkable array of classical and contemporary novelists and others: Silone, Wolfe, Bellow, Whitman, Orwell, DuBois, Simone Weil, and many more. Dostoevsky and Dickens are her steady companions and sources of inspiration, their novels read, reread, and quoted. “Reading Nicholas Nickleby,” she writes in 1958: “What a help Dickens is in time of trouble.” Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is “a help in prayer. Also to counteract sense of futility.” More surprisingly, she finds time for writers whose outlook she resists. February 14, 1958: “Could not sleep. Read Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. Did not help.” She declares Nabokov’s Lolita “a terrible book, a horrible picture of American life.”

But it is the constant effort to find beauty and joy amid the conflicts, suffering, and (sometimes) ugliness of life in the houses of hospitality that provides perhaps the richest thread of these diaries. The real hardships of Day’s life, and her sensitivity to the harsh criticism frequently directed at her, are conveyed in her diary with a vividness and detail that seldom made it into her printed columns or appeals. “In this groaning of spirit everything is irksome to me. The dirt, the garbage heaped in gutters, the hopelessness of the human beings around me, all oppress me,” she writes in 1938. Thirty years later not much has changed: “While meeting goes on Larry is drunk in office. Eileen fighting in hall. Dan and Ramon shouting in hall.... Friday nights are getting to be hell.”

There is a constant dialectic in the diaries: whenever the sense of harshness or ugliness or sadness and even despair caused by these circumstances creeps upon her, Day finds renewed faith and hope in Scripture, in Mass, in family (her sister Della and her daughter Tamar and Tamar’s children), music (she loved Brahms and opera), and especially nature.

This is the “duty of delight” that Ellsberg chose as the title of this volume. It is a phrase from Ruskin that Day frequently invoked and intended to use as a title herself. In one sense, experiencing delight was no duty at all for Day. She had a deep, natural feeling for every form of beauty and joy of every kind. An especially luminous entry on November 3, 1970, conveys her lifelong sensuous, sacramental perception and experience of the world: “My conversion came about over the years through the knowledge I gained through the senses,” she writes. She traces her love of nature from her childhood through her intense sensual engagement with beaches and saltwater to her attraction to the church “because she believes in the resurrection of the body and the life ever-lasting.” Even the “garishness” of contemporary material Catholicism, as expressed in “stained glass windows, statues, flowers and pure bees’ wax candles, incense” and more, “appealed to me and still does.”

But it is when nature itself seems ugly, repulsive, or painful—and human nature even worse, as it regularly does in these pages—that Day’s ability to experience and express the beauty of nature and see through to the original goodness of human beings, despite their manifold sins, becomes most vivid and moving. If Christian spirituality is Christian truth expressed in life, then it is when Day is under “pressure,” sometimes moved and shaken, that she proves herself a Christian thinker and writer of rare power. An entry on July 21, 1972, reads: “No matter how old I get (and I am 75 in Nov. 1972, this year), no matter how feeble, short of breath, incapable of walking more than a few blocks what with heart murmurs, heart failures, emphysema perhaps, arthritis in feet and knees, with all these symptoms of age and decrepitude, my heart can still leap for joy as I read and assent to some great truth enunciated by some great mind and heart.” These diaries will be the occasion for many other hearts to leap for joy.


Related: A Faithful Striving: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, by Robert Ellsberg
A Relic, by Sidney Callahan

Published in the 2008-11-07 issue: 

Mel Piehl is professor of humanities and history at Christ College, Valparaiso University.

Also by this author
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