We are moving and have been cleaning out our overstuffed files. As I sorted through one pile, ready to toss it out, I happened to find a letter from Dorothy Day.
Thank goodness I saved it. The date reads “Sept. 17,” and I think it must have been 1973, since Dorothy makes reference to the time she had recently spent in a California jail for supporting the right of farm workers to unionize. She had received Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal the year before, and she begins her letter by responding to a request to accept an honorary degree from Mercy College—where I was teaching at the time. She had only accepted the Notre Dame award, she explained, because she had been on the road and had not gotten “notice of the Laetare Medal before I was given a chance to refuse.” Still, she wrote, “I do draw the line at honorary degrees!”
Although she “had been offered sixteen to date,” she had two objections to accepting them. First: “I am not a scholar but a journalist, and have too great a respect for learning, for the hard labor put in by the young in obtaining degrees, to accept them gracefully.” The second reason, which she did not think applied to Mercy, was that “colleges are so tied up with the government and funding. [Robert M.] Hutchins said they were the heart of the industrial-military conglomerate, and so on. So do excuse me.”
But then she offered a compromise. “I’ll come speak sometime about my recent adventures in jail in California, about the grape strike—about the use of spiritual weapons, etc., etc. It would be a rambling discourse.”
With that modest, ironic refusal and counterproposal out of the way, she went on to write about a recent visit we had shared at the Catholic Worker Farm in Tivoli, New York. The occasion had been a visit with the British theologian Rosemary Haughton, who wished to meet Dorothy Day at the beginning of her American lecture tour. I had driven Rosemary from the airport and felt privileged to bring two of my religious and literary heroines together. By the 1970s, Rosemary had already written umpteen books and cofounded the first of her therapeutic communities—while raising ten children.
So there we three sat (all Catholic converts, by the way), talking amiably in the farm’s shabby common room while various residents went to and fro. Unfortunately, I can’t recall a single thing that was said. But I do remember Rosemary’s remark on the ride home that she felt she could never live Dorothy’s heroic poverty, with its lack of privacy and its ugly, seedy surroundings. And this from Rosemary, who had spent years in hard physical labor caring for her extended household and building a community in the wilds of Scotland. Even more impressive to my mind was Rosemary’s amazing capacity to use every available minute to pour forth page after page of longhand script—using a fountain pen and a tablet on her lap.
Dorothy was just as prolific, and she too could write anywhere while on the road. The note she had sent me was written on the fly on borrowed stationery. Dorothy also made efficient use of her letter to invite me to “come to N.Y. sometime and speak to us on women’s lib.” She wanted me to address this topic because “I feel badly at seeing formerly happy women friends, bitter and angry at all they have suddenly discovered they have suffered. And they get angry at me for not being angry.... Isn’t anger a sin?”
Ah yes, this is a question I have still not been able to resolve in my mind. The role of anger in the moral life is a subject that is going to require another book on the emotions and Christianity. The topic of Dorothy Day’s relationship to feminism is another question that would take a small treatise to explore.
But at this point it is enough for me to hold fast to my recovered “relic” and to be grateful for all the blessings Dorothy has brought into my life. I don’t think I have ever been as fully appreciative of her influence on me as I am now, years after her death. Don’t we always take prophets for granted?
Today, in this gloomy period for the church—with its conflicts, bitterness, disturbing scandals, and sexual-abuse atrocities—Dorothy is a beacon of light. Her tart, liberated, joyful holiness gives me hope that the promised renewal of Vatican II is really going to triumph. How I rejoice when someone calls me a “Dorothy Day Catholic.” She and the great friends of God (so many of them women, I must note) give us a home in the church. They keep us grounded in good sense and good heart. Thank you, Dorothy, for your letter. It has re-arrived in my life and lifted my spirits once again.