Servant of God Dorothy Day: Saint and Troublemaker

[This lecture was presented 8 June 2013 at the Portsmouth Institute, held at Portsmouth Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Rhode Island. Photos taken at the monastery are included in this set: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/72157634051717182/. This is an revised version of a lecture first written for a conference held on Marquette University in 1997 that marked the 100th anniversary of Dorothy Day’s birth.]

by Jim Forest

Let me begin by mentioning that Dorothy Day had a special link with the place of our meeting, having been a Benedictine oblate of this monastery. The connection was made thanks to her friend and fellow oblate Ade Bethune, the Catholic Worker’s principle artist for decades. It was Ade who designed the widely-recognized symbol of the Catholic Worker movement — Christ embracing two workers — and did countless illustrations for the paper, many of them during the years she was teaching art here at the priory school. I understand Ade is buried in the monastic cemetery and hope to visit her grave later today.

Can you think of a word that describes a person who devoted much of her life to being with people many of us cross the street to avoid? Who for half a century did her best to make sure they didn’t go hungry or freeze on winter nights? Who went to Mass every day until her legs couldn’t take her that far, at which point communion was brought to her? Who prayed every day for friend and enemy alike and whose prayers, some are convinced, had miraculous results? Who went to confession every week? Who was devoted to the rosary? Who lived in community with the down-and-out for nearly half-a-century? Whose main goal in life was to follow Christ and to see him in the people around her?

A saint.

Can you think of a word that describes a person who refused to pay taxes, didn’t salute the flag, never voted, went to prison time and again for protests against war and social injustice? Who spoke in a plain and often rude way about our “way of life”? Who complained that the Church wasn’t paying enough attention to its own teaching and on occasion compared some of its pastors to blowfish and sharks?

A troublemaker.

And there you have Dorothy Day in two words: saint and troublemaker.

Mostly saints lived in the distant past, that is before we were born, and have been presented to us with all blemishes removed. We are not surprised to learn that Saint Wonderbread of the North Pole, daughter of pious parents, had her first vision when she was four, joined the Order of the Holy Pallbearers at the age of 11, founded 47 convents, received the stigmata when she was 55, and that when she died 20 years later, not only was her cell filled with divine light but the nuns attending her clearly heard the angelic choir.

That’s hagiography. It presents Saint Wonderbread as only one percent less perfect than the Virgin Mary. But what about the actual Saint Wonderbread? What the hagiographer failed to mention is that she ran away from home, had a voice that could split rocks and a temper that could melt them back together again, experienced more dark nights of the soul than celestial visions, was accused of heresy by her bishop, narrowly escaped being burned at the stake, and, though she lived long enough to be vindicated, felt like a failure on her deathbed. But all these wrinkles were ironed out after she died. Who needs facts that might dull or dent her halo?

If Dorothy Day is ever canonized, the record of who she was, what she was like and what she did is too complete and accessible for her to be hidden in wedding-cake icing. She will be the patron saint not only of homeless people and those who try to assist them but also of people who lose their temper.

She may have been a saint, but Dorothy Day was not without rough edges.

To someone who told her she was too hot-headed, she replied, “I hold more temper in one minute than you will hold in your entire life.” To a college student who asked a sarcastic question about her recipe for soup, she responded, “You cut the vegetables until your fingers bleed.” To a journalist who told her it was the first time he had interviewed a saint, she replied, “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

On the other hand, as she said time and again, “We are all called to be saints.” She didn’t believe saints had different DNA than anyone else. Sanctity is merely loving God and your neighbor. It’s not that hard. Sanctity is something ordinary. The scandal is not being a saint.

I was nineteen years old the first time I met Dorothy. She was ancient, that is to say 62 years old — nine years younger than I am today. This means that for more than half-a-century she has been encouraging and scolding me on a daily basis. The mere fact of her having died in 1980 doesn’t seem to get in the way.

I met her at the Catholic Worker Farm on Staten Island in the days when the island still had rural areas and its only link to the rest of New York City was by ferryboat. I found her sitting with several other people at the battered table where the community had its meals. Before her was a pot of tea, a few cups, none of them matching, and a pile of letters that I had been charged to deliver from St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality in Manhattan. The Catholic Worker received a good deal of mail every day, much of it for Dorothy — and every now and then a letter for Doris Day. She often read the letters aloud, telling a story or two about the people who had written them. This was the Dorothy Day University in full swing, though I didn’t realize it at the time. She wrote countless letters and notes in response every year, but some letters she gave to others in the community to answer either because a personal reply wasn’t needed or because she wanted to connect the correspondent with someone else on staff. A good part of Dorothy’s life was spent reading and writing letters — even her monthly column, “On Pilgrimage,” was usually nothing more than a long letter. If ever she is canonized, she will be among the patron saints of letter-writers.

People sometimes think of her as the personification of the simple life, but in reality her days tended to be busy, complicated and stressful. Often she was away traveling — visiting her daughter and grandchildren, visiting other Catholic Worker communities, speaking at colleges, seminaries, local parishes, getting around by bus or a donated car on its last spark plugs.

Before an audience, she had a direct, unpremeditated, story-centered way of speaking — no notes, no rhetorical polish, a manner that communicated a certain shyness but at the same time wisdom, conviction, directness, modesty, faith and courage. She was never the kind of speaker who makes those she is addressing feel stupid or without possibilities.

Her basic message was stunningly simple: we are called by God to love one another as He loves us. Love one another. No exceptions.

One of the ways we love one another is by practicing hospitality. For Dorothy a house without what she called a “Christ room” was incomplete, as was a parish without what night be called a “Christ house.” For Dorothy, hospitality is simply practicing God’s hospitality to us with those around us. Christ is in the stranger, in the person who has nowhere to go and no one to welcome him. “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed,” she often said. Her words were similar to those of St. John Chrysostom, one of the great voices of Christianity in the fourth century: “If you fail to recognize Christ in the beggar outside the church, you will not find him in the chalice.”

Judging by the synoptic Gospels, the Last Judgment was not a topic Christ often addressed during the several years of public ministry that led up to his execution. The one place in the New Testament where we hear him speaking in detail about who is saved and who isn’t occurs in the 25th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Welcome into the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of all ages, because I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you took me in, I was sick and you cared for me, I was in prison and you came to be with me. I tell you solemnly that what you did to the least person you did to me … and what you failed to do for the least person, you failed to do for me.”

It’s an astonishing text. It turns out that we are not saved because we excelled at theology or were amazingly clever or received great honors or wrote books about sanctity or never got in trouble or never made mistakes. We are saved because we attempted to be channels of God’s love and mercy. Period.

It is a life inspired by the Gospel and sustained by the sacraments, the church calendar with it parade of saints, the rhythm of feasts and fasts.

The corporal works of mercy — each of them an aspect of hospitality — were at the center of Dorothy’s life and the basis of the Catholic Worker movement. In addition there was also the day-after-day practice of what the Catholic Church calls the spiritual works of mercy: admonishing the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving all injuries, praying for the living and the dead.

Dorothy helped us understand that a life of hospitality has many levels: there is hunger not only for food but also for faith, not only for a place at the table but also for a real welcome, not only for assistance but also for listening, not only words said as if recited from a script but kind words. There is not only hospitality of the door but also hospitality of the face and heart. Hospitality of the heart transforms the way we see people and how we respond to them. Their needs become important to us.

A new words about Dorothy’s remarkable life:

From birth onward, nearly all of Dorothy’s adult life was spent in or near New York City. In 1916, when she was eighteen, she was hired as a journalist by The Call, a radical New York daily newspaper. Next she was on the staff of a radical monthly journal, The Masses, until it was closed by the federal government for its opposition to World War I. During the war, she trained as a nurse at a Brooklyn hospital and worked twelve-hour shifts during the great influenza epidemic.

Dorothy was close to many artists and writers, including Eugene O’Neill. She used to hang out at a Greenwich Village saloon locally known as the Hell Hole. It was an adventurous time in her life but without much of an anchor. She had a lover who wanted neither marriage nor children. In a desperate effort to preserve their ill-fated relationship, she had an abortion. Her lover abandoned her anyway. Dark times! Dorothy tried to commit suicide but a neighbor smelled the gas and saved her life.

By the time of her conversion to Catholic Christianity, in 1927 when she was 30, she had experienced and survived a great deal. By then, thanks to money from the sale of film rights for a novel she had written, she bought a beach house on Staten Island, a small dwelling heated by a cast iron stove in which she burned driftwood. It was in that small house that, with her lover Forster Batterham, she once again conceived a child. This time she was determined not to cut short her pregnancy, which she saw as nothing less than a first-class miracle as she thought she had been made sterile by her abortion. As her belly swelled, she was filled with longing that she and her child would cross the border into the Catholic Church. As a young mother-to-be walking on the beach or going to the post office, rosary in hand she prayed her way through her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, prayed her way through the Baltimore Catechism, prayed her way through the collapse of her relationship with her unborn child’s father, prayed her way to her daughter Tamar’s birth and baptism, and then to her own baptism, prayed her way through the incomprehension of her atheist friends who regarded all religion as snake oil, prayed her way through a good deal of loneliness.

If baptism was the first turning point, the second came six years later — a desperate appeal to God she made in the crypt of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she wrote: “There I offered up a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.”

Occasionally prayers are answered quickly. The very next day Dorothy met Peter Maurin, an immigrant from France who was something of a modern-day St. Francis. It was Peter’s proposal that Dorothy found and edit a newspaper to make better known papal teaching on the social order and encourage its readers to build, “a new society within the old, a society in which it would be easier for people to be good.” Dorothy took to the idea like a duck to water. The first issue of The Catholic Worker was distributed five months later, the first of May 1933, and that December, the first house of hospitality — in fact initially an apartment of hospitality — was started. By December the paper’s print run, which had been 2,500 for the May issue, reached 100,000. Houses of hospitality were soon being founded in other cities.

In 1961, when I arrived, St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality was on Chrystie Street — a decrepit three-storey building a block from the Bowery, in those days one of the city’s grimmest areas, now the much yuppified East Village. As there wasn’t enough room inside, the down-and-out were often lined up at the door waiting their turn either for a place at one of the three bench-like tables or access to the clothing rooms on the next floor.

In the period I was there, Dorothy’s office at the Catholic Worker, just inside the front door, was hardly big enough for her desk. I served as managing editor of the paper for a short time, and it was in that office that she and I would sometimes discuss — occasionally argue — about what should be in the next issue. It wasn’t the easiest place for conversation. The ground floor was where food was prepared and meals served. From morning till night, it tended to be noisy. Sitting at her desk one afternoon, talking about the next issue, we could hardly hear each other. On one occasion, Dorothy got up, opened her office door and yelled “Holy silence!” For a minute or two, it was almost quiet.

On the second floor, site of the two clothing rooms, one for men, one for women, there was an area used for daily prayer — lauds, vespers, compline — as well as recitation of the rosary every afternoon. None of this was obligatory, but part of the community was always present, the community being a mixture of “staff” (as those of us who came as volunteers were called) and “family” (people who had once come in for clothing or a bowl of soup and gradually become part of the household).

It wasn’t a comfortable life. At the time I joined, Dorothy had a sixth-floor, $25-a-month, cold-water flat in a tenement on Spring Street — two small rooms, a bathtub next to the kitchen sink. There was a toilet in the hallway the size of a broom closet. This may sound uninviting, but Dorothy regarded the neighborhood as luxury enough. With an Italian bakery across the street, the smell of bread in the oven was often in the air, and there was always the intoxicating perfume of Italian cooking. The San Genaro Festival was celebrated annually just around the corner — for a week, our part of Manhattan became a neighborhood in Naples.

When climbing those five flights of stairs finally became too much for Dorothy’s aging knees, we moved her to a similar apartment on Ridge Street that was only one flight up. It was also $25 a month, but in a seedier neighborhood. The place was in appalling condition. Two of us went down to clean and paint the two rooms, dragging box after box of old linoleum and other debris down to the street, including what seemed to us a hideous painting of the Holy Family — Mary, Joseph and Jesus rendered in a few bright colors against a battleship grey background on a piece of plywood. We shook our heads before depositing it with the trash along the curb. Not long after Dorothy arrived carrying this primitive icon. “Look what I found! The Holy Family! It’s a providential sign, a blessing.” She put it on the mantle of the apartment’s bricked-up fireplace. It’s an example of Dorothy’s talent for finding beauty where others, in this case Jim Forest who has since written a book on praying with icons, saw only rubbish.

If Dorothy was one of the freest, least fear-driven persons I’ve ever known, she was also one of the most disciplined. This was most notable in her religious life. Whether traveling or at home, it was a rare day when Dorothy didn’t go to Mass, while on Saturday evenings she went to confession. Sacramental life was the bedrock of her existence. She never obliged anyone to follow her example, but God knows she gave an example. When I think of her, the first image that comes to mind is Dorothy on her knees praying before the Blessed Sacrament either in the chapel at the farm or in one of several urban parish churches near the Catholic Worker. One day, looking into the Bible and Missal she had left behind when she was summoned for an emergency phone call, I found long lists of people, living and dead, whom she prayed for daily. She had a special list of people who had committed suicide.

Occasionally she spoke about the importance of prayer: “We feed the hungry, yes,” she once explained. “We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes, but there is strong faith at work. We pray. If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn’t pay attention to our praying and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.”

She was attentive to fast days and fast seasons. It was in that connection she told me a story about prayer. For many years, she said, she had been a heavy smoker. Her day began with lighting up a cigarette. Her big sacrifice every Lent was giving up smoking, but having to get by without a cigarette made her increasingly irritable as the days passed, until the rest of the community was praying with fervor that she would resume smoking. One year, as Lent approached, the priest who ordinarily heard her confessions told her not to give up cigarettes as usual but instead to pray daily, “Dear God, help me stop smoking.” She used that prayer for several years without it having any impact on her addiction. Then one morning she woke up, reached for a cigarette, and realized she didn’t want it — and never smoked another. Moral? God answers prayers but one often has to be persistent.

People sometimes tell me how lucky I am to have once been part of the community led by Dorothy Day. They seem to imagine a group of more or less saintly people having a wonderful time doing good works. In reality Catholic Worker community life in Manhattan in the early sixties had much in common with purgatory. The “staff” was made up of people with very different backgrounds, interests, temperaments and convictions, some quite pious, some on the borderline between Catholic and ex-Catholic. We ranged from the gregarious to the permanently furious. Agreement among us was as rare as visits by the President of the United States.

The most bitter dispute I experienced had to do with how best to use the small amounts of eggs, butter and other rarities that were sometimes donated to us. Should we use them for “the line” (people we often didn’t know by name who lined up for meals) or the “family” (people who might once have been on the line but gradually became part of the household). It had been the custom to save the treats for the family. Though we worked side by side, saw each other daily, and prayed together, staff tension had become too acute for staff meetings. Dorothy or office manager Charlie Butterworth handed out the jobs, and once you had a job, it was yours until you stopped doing it. The final authority was Dorothy Day, not a responsibility she wanted or enjoyed, but no one else could make a final decision that would be respected by the entire staff. (Tom, Cornell has remarked that Dorothy Day was well-suited to be an anarchist so long as she was the chief anarch.)

In this case, when Dorothy returned from a cross-country speaking trip, she told the two people running the kitchen that the butter and eggs should once again go to the family, which led to their resigning from kitchen work and soon after leaving the community trailing black smoke, convinced that the actual Dorothy Day wasn’t living up to the writings of Dorothy Day.

One of the miracles of Dorothy’s life is that she remained part of what was often a conflict-torn community for nearly half a century. Still more remarkable, she remained a person of hope and gratitude to the end. She often spoke of “the duty of hope.”

Even though the Archdiocese of New York launched a process in Rome for the formal recognition of Dorothy as a saint, and Rome has since given her the title Servant of God Dorothy Day, Dorothy was and remains a controversial lady. There was hardly anything she did which didn’t attract criticism and the criticism still lingers. There us something about her to both challenge and irritate anyone who considers her life, witness and writings. Even hospitality scandalizes some people. We were blamed for making people worse, not better, because we were doing nothing to “reform them.” A social worker asked Dorothy one day how long the down-and-out were permitted to stay. “We let them stay forever,” Dorothy answered rather testily. “They live with us, they die with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after they are dead. Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Dorothy, who never seemed to be overly anxious about how little money there was in the community bank account, frequently set an example of passing on what was given as quickly as possible. In a memorable instance, a well-dressed woman visiting the Worker house one day gave Dorothy a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked the visitor, slipped the ring in her pocket, and later in the day gave it to an unpleasant old woman, a bitter complainer second to none who was known in the community as “the weasel.” We paid her rent each month. One of the staff suggested to Dorothy that the ring might better have been sold at the Diamond Exchange on West 47th Street and the money used for paying Catherine’s rent. Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do as she liked with the ring. She could sell and buy whatever she wanted or take a trip to the Bahamas — or she could enjoy having a diamond ring on her hand just like the woman who had given it to the Worker. “Do you suppose,” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?”

What got Dorothy in the most hot water was her social criticism. She pointed out that nationalism was a more powerful force in most people’s lives than the Gospel. While she hated every kind tyranny and never ceased to be thankful for America having taken in so many people fleeing poverty, repression and conscription, she was fierce in her criticism of capitalism and consumerism. She said America had a tendency to treat people like Kleenex — use them, then throw them away.

She had no kind words for war or anything having to do with it — for Dorothy war was simply murder wrapped in flags. She reminded us that the total number of people killed by Jesus and the apostles is zero. Dorothy was convinced Jesus had disarmed all his followers when he said to Peter, “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” A way of life based on hospitality and love, including love of enemies, left no room for killing. You couldn’t practice the works of mercy and healing with one hand and the works of violence and destruction with the other, giving drink to the thirst on Monday and on Tuesday bombing the water works. One must battle evil, as so many saints’ lives demonstrate, only by nonviolent means. Even the best of wars is a disaster.

No stranger to prison, she was first locked up as a young woman protesting with suffragettes in front of the White House in 1917, when she was nineteen, and was last jailed in 1975 for picketing with striking farm workers at the edge of a grape field in California. She took pride in the young people of the Catholic Worker who went to prison rather than be drafted — “Being in prison is a good way to visit the prisoner,” she pointed out. But she also welcomed back others who had left Catholic Worker communities to fight in the Second World War. They might disagree about the best way to fight Nazism, but the door was wide open for those who wished to return.

Dorothy was sometimes criticized for being too conservative a Catholic. How could she be so radical about social matters and so conservative about her Church? While she occasionally deplored statements or actions by members of the hierarchy and once picketed the New York chancery office in support of a strike by Catholic grave diggers, she was by no means an opponent of the bishops or someone campaigning for dogmatic changes in the Church. What was needed, she said, wasn’t new doctrine but our living the existing doctrine. True, some pastors seemed barely Christian, but one had to aim for their conversion, an event that would not be hastened by berating them but rather by helping them see what their vocation requires. The way to do that was to set an example.

“I didn’t become a Catholic in order to purify the church,” Dorothy once said to Robert Coles. “I knew someone, years ago, who kept telling me that if [the Catholic Workers] could purify the church, then she would convert. I thought she was teasing me when she first said that, but after a while I realized she meant what she was saying. Finally, I told her I wasn’t trying to reform the church or take sides on all the issues the church was involved in; I was trying to be a loyal servant of the church Jesus had founded. She thought I was being facetious. She reminded me that I had been critical of capitalism and America, so why not Catholicism and Rome? … My answer was that I had no reason to criticize Catholicism as a religion or Rome as the place where the Vatican is located…. As for Catholics all over the world, including members of the church, they are no better than lots of their worst critics, and maybe some of us Catholics are worse than our worst critics.”

Pleased as she was when the Liturgy was translated into English, she didn’t take kindly to smudging the border between the sacred and mundane. When a priest close to the community used a coffee cup for a chalice at a Mass celebrated in the soup kitchen on First Street, she afterward took the cup, kissed it, and buried it in the back yard. It was no longer suited for coffee — it had held the Blood of Christ. I learned more about the Eucharist that day than I had from any book or sermon. It was a learning experience for the priest as well — thereafter he used a chalice.

Dorothy’s sensitivity for the sacred helps explain her love, rare at the time, of the Orthodox Church, famous — or infamous — for its reluctance to modernize, rationalize, speed up or streamline its liturgical life. (A joke: How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light-bulb? Answer: none. “Change!? What is this ‘change’? And, by the way, what is a light bulb?”) Dorothy longed for the reunion of the Church. She occasionally took me to the meetings of a small group in New York City, the Third Hour it was called, that brought together Catholic and Orthodox Christians, as well as at least one Anglican, the poet W.H. Auden. It was Dorothy who brought me to visit the Russian Orthodox cathedral up on East 97th Street where she introduced me to the Russian priest serving there, Father Matvei Stadniuk, who was later appointed dean of the Epiphany Cathedral in Moscow and secretary to the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1988, it was Father Matvei who launched the first project of Christian volunteer hospital service in what was still Soviet Russia, and it was he, not I, who recalled our first meeting 26 years earlier, but only when I had given him a copy of my biography of Dorothy. “Dorothy Day? Did you know her?” And then he looked more closely at my face and said, “I knew you when you a young man, when Dorothy brought you to our church.”

I’m not sure what had given Dorothy such a warmth for Orthodox Christianity, but one of the factors was certainly her love of the books of Dostoevsky, most of all his novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Perhaps the most important chapter for Dorothy concerned a conversation between a wealthy woman and an elderly monk, Father Zosima. The woman asks him how she can be certain that God exists. Fr. Zosima tells her that no explanation or argument can achieve this, only the practice of “active love.” There is no other way, he assures her, to know the reality of God. The woman confesses that sometimes she dreams about a life of loving service to others — she thinks perhaps she will become a nun, live in holy poverty and serve the poor in the humblest way. It seems to her such a wonderful thought that it makes tears comes to her eyes. But then it crosses her mind how ungrateful some of the people she is serving will be. Some will complain that the soup she is serving isn’t thick enough, the bread isn’t fresh enough, the bed is too hard, the covers too thin. She doubts she could bear such ingratitude — and so her dreams about serving others vanish, and once again she finds herself wondering if there really is a God. To this Fr. Zosima responds with the words Dorothy often repeated: “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” So important was that sentence to Dorothy that I think of Dostoevsky as being among the co-founders of the Catholic Worker.

Another writer important to her was Georges Bernanos. Dorothy often repeated a sentence from his novel, Diary of a Country Priest: “Hell is not to love anymore.”

From time to time she quoted St. Catherine of Siena, a woman who had much in common with Dorothy: “All the way to heaven is heaven because He said, ‘I am the Way’.”

Perhaps Dorothy Day’s main achievement is that she taught us the “Little Way” of love. It was chiefly through the writings of St. Therese of Lisieux that Dorothy had been drawn to the “Little Way.” No term, in her mind, better described the ideal Christian way of doing things. As she once put it, “Paper work, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens — these things, too, are the works of peace, and often seem like a very little way.”

“It is the living from day to day,” Dorothy remarked, “taking no thought for the morrow, seeing Christ in all who come to us, and trying literally to follow the Gospel that resulted in this work.”

I’m sometimes asked, “Dorothy Day gives a fine example for people who don’t have a family to take care of and mortgages to pay, but what about the rest of us?”

The rest of us includes my wife and me. We have six children and, at latest count, eight grandchildren. We have too much and give too little. But, in my own life, every time I have thought about the challenges of life in the bright light of the Gospel rather than in the gray light of money or the dim light of politics, Dorothy’s example has had its influence. Every time I try to overcome meanness or selfishness rising up in me, it’s partly thanks to the example of Dorothy Day. Every time I defeat the impulse to buy something I can get along without, Dorothy Day’s example of voluntary poverty has had renewed impact. Every time I give away something I can get along without — every time I manage to see Christ’s presence in the face of a stranger — there again I owe a debt to Dorothy Day. Every time I take part in efforts to prevent wars or end them, or join in campaigns to make the world a less cruel place, in part I am in debt to Dorothy. What I know of Christ, the Church, sacramental life, the Bible, and truth-telling, I know in large measure thanks to her, while whatever I have done that was cowardly, opportunistic or spiteful is despite her. She has even shaped my reading life — one could do worse than to get to know the authors whose books helped shape and sustain Dorothy’s faith and vocation.

It isn’t that Dorothy is the point of reference. Christ is. But I can’t think of anyone I’ve known whose Christ-centered life has done so much to help make me a more Christ-centered person.

She died 33 years ago but it seems more and more people are aware of her. This past Ash Wednesday, preaching in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Benedict described Dorothy Day as “a model of conversion.” At a meeting I had with Cardinal Dolan a few days ago, he spoke of her as “a saint for our times.”

Writing in The Catholic Worker some years ago, one of her grandchildren, Kate Hennessy, talked of the impact on her own life of her remarkable grandmother: “To have known Dorothy means spending the rest of your life wondering what hit you. On the one hand, she has given so many of us a home, physically and spiritually; on the other, she has shaken our very foundations.”

I am one of the many whose foundations were shaken. I too am still wondering what hit me.

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Photo courtesy of the Dorothy Day/Catholic Worker Archive at Marquette University.

Excellent web link: http://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday — a treasure chest of Dorothy’s writings.