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Personal reflections regarding Dorothy Day

This is the text of the talk I gave on May 1, 2008, at the European Catholic Worker gathering in Dülmen, Germany.Frits ter Kuile, of the Amsterdam Catholic Worker house, asked if I would say something about my memories of Dorothy Day and also what I consider “the special charism of the Catholic Worker movement … its special gift to the world, its place in the Mystical Body.” He also wondered if I could identify any “constant undertones in the movement” or if I observe any “new tones or changes in the melody.” He also asked me, as someone who has been close to the Catholic Worker movement for nearly half-a-century, if I had noticed any shortcomings those who identify with the Catholic Worker might struggle with…

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Some personal reflections regarding Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement

by Jim Forest

A key element of the Catholic Worker movement’s charism has been a quality that Dorothy Day possessed in abundance — a gift to see not only what is wrong in the world, but to see beauty and to discern signs of hope. Dorothy loved a sentence from St. Augustine in which he said, “All beauty is a revelation of God.” She put it in another way to her atheist husband, Foster Batterham, “How can there be no God when there are all these beautiful things?” Read just about anything she wrote and you will see what I’m talking about. She was profoundly attentive to beauty and managed to find it in places where it was often overlooked — in nature, in a piece of bread, in the smell of garlic drifting out a tenement window, in flowers blooming in a slum neighborhood, in the battered faces of people who had been thrown away by society. Dorothy saw news of the resurrection in grass battling upward toward the sky between blocks of concrete. Dorothy often used the phrase “the duty of hope.” If we were to understand that theologically, it would mean always seeing everything in the light of the resurrection. To be conscious of beauty, even damaged beauty, is a hope-giving experience.

The absolute heart of the movement that Dorothy founded is an endeavor to give witness to the Gospel message, with a particular emphasis on the works of mercy, and to make better known basic Christian social teachings. In the first issue of the paper, Dorothy put it in these words: “The Catholic Worker … is printed to call [its readers’] 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.”

From the very beginning, there was a stress on hospitality. It wasn’t long after the first issue of The Catholic Worker was published that the first Catholic Worker house of hospitality was opened, and they quickly multiplied in other cities. In every case, such houses were a practical response to local urgent needs. The stress was always on a non-bureaucratic, non-institutional hospitality. Dorothy saw houses of hospitality as being less than ideal but necessary because so few people were willing to welcome those in need into their own homes. Ideally, both she and Peter Maurin said repeatedly, every Christian home would have its “Christ Room,” a room to welcome someone in need.

Unlike many purely charitable endeavors to help the down-and-out, the Catholic Worker is also well known for acts of social protest. This aspect also dates back to the movement’s early days. Over the years protests have been linked to such issues as the abuse of working people, efforts to prevent workers from organizing unions, homelessness, racism, anti-Semitism, conscription and war. The protest aspect of the Catholic Worker is an outgrowth of commitment to the works of mercy. For example, if we are called by Christ to offer a welcome to the homeless, by implication that means taking appropriate action to try to prevent people from being made homeless, either by poverty or war.

The Catholic Worker movement is moored in the Gospel, the Patristic and Conciliar tradition, the writings of the Church Fathers (as the major theologians of the first millennium are known), the witness of the saints, the Church’s liturgical life, and the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church.

To the extent these basic elements are missing in a particular community, what Dorothy meant by the Catholic Worker movement is incomplete, damaged or exists in name only. Tom Cornell, a longtime managing editor of The Catholic Worker and one of the people who worked closely with Dorothy during the last twenty years of her life, told me recently that there are Catholic Worker houses today where Dorothy, if she were to speak her mind, wouldn’t feel welcome. This is not because she had any objection to non-Catholics or estranged Catholics, or even altogether non-religious people, being part of Catholic Worker communities. In the case of the New York house, there has been, for example, at least one Lutheran placed by Dorothy on the masthead of The Catholic Worker as an associate editor. But she expected all who came to help in the work to respect the Catholic tradition even if it was not their own.

Each community that identifies itself as being part of the Catholic Worker movement needs from time to time to ask itself: Are we in fact Catholic? Or have we embraced some form of post-Catholic or ex-Catholic thinking and thus owe it to ourselves and others to make this clear in whatever labels we use in describing our activities and beliefs? Perhaps in reality there are not quite so many Catholic Worker houses of hospitality as currently identify themselves as such. How many are actually Catholic in a sense Dorothy would understand, or indeed any ordinary person, I have no idea. Many, no doubt, but not all.

I am speaking to myself as much as to anyone else. In my own case, in fact I am no longer able to apply to myself the word “Catholic” — that is Catholic with a capital “C,” meaning someone in communion with the bishop of Rome. Twenty years ago, my wife and I were received into the Orthodox Church. We belong to a Russian Orthodox parish in Amsterdam. I am catholic, but only in the lower-case “c” sense of the word, that is part of the universal — but sadly divided — church. Nonetheless, I still feel a deep bond with the Catholic Worker movement and, for that matter, with the Catholic Church. I sometimes say I am in the Orthodox wing of the Catholic Worker movement.

As of today, it’s seventy-five years since the first issue of The Catholic Worker was handed out — the first of May, 1933, on Union Square in Manhattan. My father, a Communist who had earlier in his life had aspired to be a Catholic priest, was there on Union Square that day and was one of those who was handed free of charge a copy of this oddly named penny newspaper. It amazed him to meet Catholics with a radical social conscience!

Seventy-five years of the Catholic Worker — that’s a long time for something so haphazard and so minimally structured. During more than a third of these many years, it has happened without Dorothy’s physical presence. She died in 1980.

People used to wonder: Could the Catholic Worker survive without her? Many assumed the answer was no.

The day of Dorothy’s funeral, a journalist asked the question of Peggy Scherer, a member of the New York Catholic Worker community and at that time managing editor of the paper. Peggy responded, “We have lost Dorothy, but we still have the Gospel.”

“We still have the Gospel.” These are words Dorothy would have strongly agreed with. The Catholic Worker movement has never been about Dorothy Day — it is about following Christ. But one could learn a great deal about following Christ by knowing Dorothy Day.

I first met Dorothy in 1960 when, having found a stack of back issues of The Catholic Worker in a parish library in Washington, DC, I began coming to Manhattan to help out when I had free weekends. At the time I was in the military, working with a Navy unit at the US Weather Bureau headquarters just outside Washington, DC. In the spring of 1961, I left the Navy, having obtained a special discharge as a conscientious objector. At Dorothy’s invitation, I became part of the full-time Catholic Worker community.

I was a little intimidated by her at first. She was then not quite as old as I am now but seemed to me at the time older than Abraham and Sarah.

I had read enough by and about her to know that she was the founder of the Catholic Worker movement — the person who started the newspaper and decided what went in it, the person whose cramped apartment became the first Catholic Worker house of hospitality, the person who after all these years still led the Catholic Worker movement. What I only learned gradually was how modest she was, even shy. She never said anything about being founder. In fact she did her best to play down her role. Because of who she was and what she did, she was often in the spotlight, but she never sought it. She would have much preferred that Peter Maurin, whose ideas had helped her discovery her vocation, be regarded as the founder.

Public attention was something Dorothy had to endure but in which she took no delight. Any form of adulation distressed her. She felt that, if those who thought of her as a living saint knew her better, they wouldn’t be so quick to see a halo over her head. Though at the time it wasn’t clear to me what had been left out of her autobiography, I became aware she felt she had misled people by excluding aspects of her past about which she felt deep shame. The most painful event, I eventually learned, was the abortion of her first child when she was in her early twenties.

I recall how upset she was when I asked her if I might read her first book, The Eleventh Virgin. Somehow I had become aware that, before her conversion, she had written such a book. She didn’t have a copy, she told me, regretted that it had ever been written, appealed to me not to mention it again, and asked me not to look for a copy. It wasn’t until years later that a friend who dealt in rare books and was aware of my Catholic Worker background presented me with a copy of The Eleventh Virgin. Only when I read it could I at last understand why Dorothy had responded with such distress when I asked about the book. The end point of this highly autobiographical novel is her abortion, carried out in the desperate hope that the man she was in love with at the time, her unborn child’s unwilling father, would not leave her. He left her even so.

Yet the book she so hated nonetheless played a positive role in her life. “God writes straight with crooked lines,” as the Portuguese put it. When the book’s film rights were sold, Dorothy used some of the income to buy a beach cottage on Staten Island. While living there, part of time with Foster Batterham, she not only became pregnant a second time but this time gave birth. This truly seemed a miracle to her — she thought her abortion had made her sterile. It was the miracle of Tamar’s life that brought Dorothy into the Catholic Church. If you want to make a list of co-founders of the Catholic Worker movement, not only should it include Peter Maurin but also Tamar. While a great many things and people helped prepare Dorothy to launch the Catholic Worker, from her growing up in a family of journalists to the profound debt she owed to Dostoevsky’s novels, had Tamar not been born, I doubt we would ever have heard of Dorothy Day nor would the Catholic Worker movement exist.

It wasn’t only the knowledge that she had been responsible for the death of her first child, but so many other things that made her feel that the Dorothy Day so many people admired wasn’t the Dorothy Day she saw when she examined her conscience, which she did regularly and unflinchingly. She went to confession each week not simply because it was, at that time, a widespread Catholic practice, but because she always found that by the end of the week she had a lot to confess.

Confession was at the core of Dorothy’s life. On the first page of her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she writes about the hard work it is going to confession, “hard when you have sins to confess, hard when you haven’t … you wrack your brain for even the beginnings of sins against charity, chastity, sins of distraction, sloth or gluttony. You do not want to make too much of your constant imperfections and venial sins, but you want to drag them out to the light of day as the first step in getting rid of them.” Note that sins against charity are at the top of her list.

Confession was, for Dorothy, a means of overcoming the sense that one was fighting a losing battle. She once gave her co-worker Joe Zarrella a holy card on the back of which she had written: “We should not be discouraged at our own lapses … but continue. If we are discouraged, it shows vanity and pride. Trusting too much to ourselves. It takes a lifetime of endurance of patience, of learning through mistakes. We all are on the way.” Rosalie Riegle tells me that Joe carried the card in his wallet until his death two years ago.

No one knew her shortcomings better than Dorothy herself, as becomes clearer than ever in the publication this week of her journals. She was, she knew, often impatient, sometimes manipulative, could be judgmental, and at times (if sufficiently provoked) could lose her temper. Dorothy was painfully aware that there were those who came to live in community with her who looked back on the experience with more regret than gratitude, nor could she blame them. She also felt that, due to the demands of leading the Catholic Worker movement, she had at times failed at being the mother she so wanted to be. On the other hand, given the circumstances, it’s remarkable how good a mother Dorothy was, and later a devoted grandmother. In 1964 she took off four months to take care of her grandchildren in Vermont while Tamar was taking a course in practical nursing. This is the sort of thing one rarely hears about when people ask what sort of mother Dorothy was.

One of Dorothy’s gifts was that she was never reluctant to apologize when she felt she had been either wrong or too harsh. She could do so with a passion and without reservation. I am among those who received letters from Dorothy in which she begged forgiveness for something she had said or written or done which, on reflection, she deeply regretted. The last such letter I had from her along these lines was spattered with tears that had made the ink run. It had been written, she said, on her knees.

I doubt there has ever been an article written about Dorothy since she died that didn’t include what has become her best known quotation: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

There is a real bite in those few words. Mainly the text draws our attention to the problem that canonization has often functioned as a way of distancing ourselves from those who follow Christ too wholeheartedly. We feel less threatened if we can see such people as a race apart with hardly any connection to ordinary human beings. We like to think that saints are possessors of a rare sort of DNA that the rest of us, rank-and-file human beings that we are, didn’t happen to receive.

But, if you focus just on the first five words, “don’t call me a saint,” bear in mind that Dorothy had intensely felt private reasons for regarding herself as totally unworthy of having an exalted place in the memory of the Church.

Even so, she strongly believed sanctity is what each of us is called to. In 1968, when Tom Cornell and I were editing the first edition of A Penny a Copy, an anthology of Catholic Worker writings, we read through 35 years of back issues, roughly 400 in all. The front page that most impressed me had a banner headline — the kind of ultra-bold, all-caps headline that in a conventional newspaper would be used only for the assassination of a president or the outbreak of war — that declared “WE ARE ALL CALLED TO BE SAINTS.”

The headline sums up something Dorothy regarded as absolutely basic. Why else would anyone receive communion? Why receive Christ unless you hope to become more Christ-like? Why call yourself a Christian if you have no interest in trying to live the Gospel?

Yet Dorothy also knew that the word “saint” is a damaged word. Many saints had been stripped of a large part of their humanity by well-meaning hagiographers who were more creative writers than historians. They felt it was their religious duty to fictionalize the lives of their subjects, adding edifying tales while removing any mention of sins the saint had to repent of or temperamental characteristics he or she had to fight against day by day. For the most pious of motives, saints have been made into a remote race of people who are far less subject to temptations than Jesus was, people able to perform miracles that make the miracles in the Gospels look like minor achievements. The saint is often thought of as someone who never knew a moment of doubt and never committed a sin from infancy to the grave.

If some day Dorothy is added to the church’s calendar, one benefit is that we will have a saint whose sins and shortcomings will be hard to airbrush out. She will be a saint who really bears witness to the possibility of flawed people with pasts that embarrass them nonetheless never giving up in their efforts to stumble along in the general direction of the kingdom of God.

When I became part of the New York Catholic Worker community, there was only one house in Manhattan, St. Joseph’s, a not at all spacious three-storey building located at175 Chrystie Street. Only one person actually lived there, a guy named Keith — a recluse who had a room in the back of the third floor — whom we rarely saw and then only briefly. The rest of us, Dorothy as well, lived in small $25 a month cold-water flats located in the neighborhood. By chance, Dorothy’s room was next to mine. We were on the sixth floor of in a run-down tenement on Spring Street. Each floor had four apartments, the occupants of which shared a toilet located in the hallway.

I doubt anyone at St. Joseph’s House in those days thought of Dorothy as a saint, though no doubt most of the staff greatly admired her. There were some in the community, myself among them, whose lives had taken a different direction partly thanks to her writings and the influence of the Catholic Worker newspaper, but she was much too real and unpredictable to think of as anything but the formidable woman she was.

I said “community,” but it would not be accurate to portray the Catholic Worker community in New York as very communal. In fact at that time we were a deeply divided group. We had no community meetings. When a decision had to be made, it was made either by the particular person or persons responsible for a certain chore, or by Charles Butterworth, who in those days could sign checks, or, if necessary, by Dorothy herself.

Part of the problem was that Dorothy wasn’t around all the time — far from it. While we saw a good deal of her, Dorothy’s presence in Manhattan was more the exception than the rule. She spent a great deal of time on Staten Island. Sometimes it was at her beach cottage — the place where she did most of her writing — and sometimes it was at the Catholic Worker farm several miles further south, in those days as rural a place as still existed in New York City. She also traveled a great deal, visiting other Catholic Worker communities that lay scattered between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. And there were her many trips to Vermont, some of them prolonged, to be with Tamar and her nine grandchildren. I doubt anything mattered more to Dorothy than being a help to Tamar and a presence in the lives of her grandchildren.

In Dorothy’s absence, there was really no one in the community who came close to filling her shoes.

Perhaps it is partly because Dorothy was so often away that there was so much stress in the staff. The main thing that held us together was the work we were doing. Each of us volunteers had our chores — to beg or buy food, to cook meals and serve them, to wash dishes, to clean, to sort and distribute clothing, to help in one way or another those who were either part of what we called “the family” — referring to the people who had arrived years before for a bowl of soup and never left — or those who came in for meals but whom we hardly knew or people in the neighborhood whose particular needs somehow had become evident to us. There was also the work of helping in various ways to get the paper out, which in those days was published eleven times a year. It had to be edited, printed and mailed to about 80,000 addresses.

But our interests, our motivations, our temperaments, our cultural inclinations, our theologies or ideologies, our attitudes toward Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular, pulled us in different directions. Not everyone liked everyone. It really astonished me how much tension, at times hostility, there was in the community.

One of the ways the community expressed its disputes was by posting paragraphs from Dorothy’s Catholic Worker columns on the community bulletin board. I wish I had made notes at that time of specific passages that were used — it would be interesting to look at them again. One that stands out in memory was a clipping from an “On Pilgrimage” column in which Dorothy urged her readers to be ready to roll up in newspapers and sleep on the floor in order that a homeless person would have a bed to sleep in. A day or two later someone else posted a rejoinder, another extract from a different “On Pilgrimage” column, this time one in which Dorothy talked about how essential it is that we accept our human limitations and not stretch ourselves to the breaking point.

The contrasting quotations from Dorothy Day were many. A lot of tacks were needed. She wrote a great deal and on many topics. Her views weren’t always consistent. Her month-to-month comments often had to do with thoughts that crossed her mind while visiting one of the many Catholic Worker communities. If you searched her columns long enough, chances are you could find Dorothy saying something that suited your side of whatever argument was going on at the time at the New York house. It was a battle in which quotations from Dorothy Day were hurled back and forth like stones from a slingshot.

Soon enough the actual Dorothy Day would reappear and attempt to sort out areas of contention — such issues as how to use the occasional donation of eggs or butter. Do such treats go to the last person in line or first? The regulars? Or the staff? You would be amazed at the theological and ideological aspects of the question.

When I look back on how heated such disputes were, I’m impressed with Dorothy’s common sense, kindness and patience in trying to get us back in gear with one another.

Most of the time, she had a remarkable gift for appreciating the people, mainly young and contentious, who came to help out and only occasionally lost her temper. Eventually two members of the staff in that period left, trailing smoke, because they found the actual Dorothy Day wasn’t quite the Dorothy Day that they wanted her to be. A few others were expelled because, as Dorothy saw it, they were simply using the Catholic Worker selfishly, for their own counter-cultural ends, and putting the Catholic Worker at risk in doing so.

The early sixties was one of the notably stressful times in the history of the Catholic Worker movement, at least in the case of the New York house. How Dorothy survived such stormy periods I cannot tell you. I didn’t. Though I remained close to Dorothy for the rest of her life and still regard her as one of my non-genetic parents, finally I was too worn out by all the tension to continue. When I was poised to get arrested for participating in an act of civil disobedience protesting nuclear weapon tests, Dorothy insisted that instead I go south to Tennessee and write about a project she admired. I said that, having been one of the organizers of the protest in Manhattan, I couldn’t back out and could only go to Tennessee afterward. Dorothy — who that day had good reason to be in a truly volcanic state — said, “Either go to Tennessee or you are no longer part of this community.” Had it not been such a stressful day, I later realized, she would have been much more open to discussion. But at the time, I felt I had no option but to leave.

Only as I got older, having gone through the teen-age years of my own children, did I realize that had I gone back to Chrystie Street once I got out of jail — I spent about a month locked up on Hart’s Island — no one would have been happier to see me than Dorothy. But I was too young to realize the about-faces Dorothy could make after a good night’s sleep or a Saturday night confession. It took me perhaps a year to renew my relationship with Dorothy.

Dorothy died nearly thirty years ago, but I notice the battle fought with contrasting Dorothy Day quotations is still far from over, only now it involves not just one Catholic Worker house but many of them. Inevitably, each of us finds ourselves attached to certain aspects of Dorothy Day and, just as inevitably, there is the temptation to fit all of her into those characteristics of Dorothy that we personally find most compelling.

Are you drawn to Dorothy’s piety? Do you wish more people in the Catholic Worker were better Catholics? Or that they were at least in some state of approximate harmony with the Catholic Church and its teachings? There are lots of quotations from Dorothy Day you can hang on the wall that will meet your need. Not only did she attend Mass every day, but she found time each day for intercessory prayer, which she preferred to do on her knees in a church or chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. She kept long lists of people, living and dead, for whom she prayed daily. If you asked her to pray for you, or for anyone, she did so. She was as devout a Catholic as I have ever known, and one of most appreciative about being part of the Catholic Church. Yet she also appreciated non-Catholic Christians, not to mention non-Christians. She had an especially deep respect for the Orthodox Church. Committed Catholic that she was, Dorothy would be dismayed, saddened and even angered at some of the writings found in publications issuing from various Catholic Worker communities, but she wasn’t inclined to self-righteousness and, however heatedly she might express herself at times, would seek dialogue. In such moments, she might well use a quotation from Pope John XXIII that was dear to her: “Let dialogue begin by seeking concordances, not differences.” Unless a person was in some sort of leadership role in which he or she was seen as representing the Catholic Worker or some other Catholic movement, I don’t recall her ever criticizing anyone for failures in their religious life. She prayed the rosary every day, but she didn’t insist that others do the same.

If Dorothy pressed no one to follow the example she gave, nonetheless she encouraged volunteers to move toward the deeper waters of religious faith. In my own case, this was made especially clear in the ways she expressed to me her extraordinary respect for the Orthodox Church. She once brought me with her to a meeting of a small discussion group called the Third Hour to which she belonged. It had been started by her friend Helene Iswolsky, daughter of the last ambassador of czarist Russia to France. The group brought together both Catholic and Orthodox Christians plus at least one Anglican, the poet W.H. Auden, to talk about the many threads of connection linking eastern and western Christianity. She took me with her one day to an eastern-rite Slavonic liturgy and sometime later to the Russian Orthodox cathedral in upper Manhattan, where I met a priest whom I came to know better in Moscow many years later. It impressed me that when Dorothy spoke of things Russian, she would invariably use the phrase, “holy mother Russia” — the Russia of churches, chant, long liturgies, holy fools, great saints and gifted writers. Dorothy was always recommending books that had been important in her life, but the writer she was most intent I should discover was Dostoevsky. She described his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, as “a fifth gospel.” It was a great joy to Dorothy when, late in her life, she managed to go on pilgrimage to Russia and pray at the grave of Dostoevsky, who might be considered yet another co-founder of the Catholic Worker, so great was the impact of his writing on Dorothy in the years leading up to her conversion.

Are you alienated from the Catholic Church or from Christianity in general? You will certainly find passages in Dorothy’s writings that you can identify with, as when she speaks of some of the bishops and priests that were caught in Peter’s net as resembling sharks and blowfish. She did not refrain from expressing, in word and print, her many bitter disappointments in some of the declarations and actions of popes, bishops, priests and other fellow Catholics, not to mention Christians in other churches. She often repeated a quotation about the Church being “the Cross on which Christ was crucified.” It scandalized her that so many Christians, including a great many pastors, had made themselves so comfortably at home in a world of violence and injustice, a world of so many abandoned, broken people. Among photos of Dorothy, you will find one of her picketing with the grave diggers of the Archdiocese of New York when they went out on strike.

Only don’t forget her devotion to the Church and the intense sacramental life she lived, her theological orthodoxy, and her mainly successful efforts to build positive relations with Cardinal Spellman and many other politically conservative bishops. In the brief period when I was the paper’s managing editor, Dorothy once reminded me, “Just keep in mind that we don’t save the Church — the Church saves us.” Like Peter Maurin, her main idea about reforming the Church was simply to set an example.

She said much the same to Robert Coles, as he records in a book based on their conversations: “I didn’t become a Catholic in order to purify the church,” Dorothy told him. “I knew someone, years ago, who kept telling me that if [the Catholic Workers] could purify the church, then she would convert [to Catholicism]. 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 hierarchy, they are no better than lots of their worst critics, and maybe some of us Catholics are worse than our worst critics.”

Do you like thinking of yourself as an anarchist? There is a lot in Dorothy to cheer you along as she consistently called herself an anarchist. The word had Greek roots, she explained to me one day. An anarchist was a person without a king. She told me that having Jesus Christ as one’s king was enough of a challenge, and that his kingdom was not of this world. She was not very interested in politics. I don’t recall her ever expressing strong views either on would-be presidents or presidents-in-office — John Kennedy at the time. Trying to better understand what Dorothy meant by anarchism, I got a subscription to a British journal called “Anarchy.” When I showed an issue to Dorothy, she warned me that reading such publications was a waste of time because most people who called themselves anarchists were atheists and also tended to be people who preferred publishing manifestoes and arguing with each other to helping people in need. The only anarchist writings she urged me to read were several books by a nineteenth century Russian prince and scientist, Peter Kropotkin, a remarkable man who had been outraged by the Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest (an idea Ebenezer-Scrooge-type capitalists found hugely attractive). Kropotkin posed against the pseudo-scientific enshrinement of competition his own insights and observations about cooperation and mutual aid, arguing persuasively that human beings do best when they help each other, not when they treat each other as commodities or ladders.

Are you especially drawn to the Dorothy Day who committed acts of civil disobedience and went to prison time and again? Many are. It’s easy to find good quotations from Dorothy on this topic. She wrote a great deal about her acts of civil disobedience and what she learned and whom she met during times when she was locked up. But for those — I was one of them — whom she felt were inclined to put too much time into social protest activities, she struggled to convince us that, important as protest can be, the main thing about Christianity, and an essential dimension of sacramental life, is the daily practice of the works of mercy. The main thing is hospitality. Even protest actions should have a dimension of hospitality. They should be rooted in hospitality toward one’s opponents rather than the contempt for them. Protest is scarred when it is fueled by contempt or enmity. Dorothy expressed her own dissent with some of the forms of protest that emerged in the late sixties. She opposed acts of property destruction. She wrote of her disagreements in The Catholic Worker, yet characteristically did so without denouncing anyone whose actions seemed to her to fall short of what she regarded as “real nonviolence,” by which she meant actions whose driving force was the hope of opening the door of conversion both to oneself and to one’s opponent. Her disagreements with the Berrigans, myself and others, however, did not damage her friendship with any of us. She wrote to us regularly when we were in prison, no doubt prayed for us daily, and welcomed us back when we were free again.

To bring this to an end: Dorothy Day doesn’t fit into any collection of quotations by Dorothy Day. The actual Dorothy Day was far too complex to fit into anyone’s portrait of her. No matter who you are, probably you will find something in her that you can identify with, and — given time — perhaps discover other aspects of her that will help you become a more complete human being — more welcoming, more patient, more forgiving, more Christ-like. And she will do this despite all the personal faults she struggled with every day of her life. In fact her faults may even serve as a bridge. If Dorothy Day can do what she did, perhaps I can as well.

Let me end with a quotation that connects with what I said at the start. Brian Terrell, at the time a member of the Catholic Worker community in Manhattan, recalls a journalist asking Dorothy if she thought the Catholic Worker movement would survive her. “Why shouldn’t it?” Dorothy responded. “It has already survived more than forty years of me!”

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Jim Forest is the author of Love is the Measure, a biography of Dorothy Day published by Orbis Books.
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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

e-mail: jhforest@gmail.com
Forest-Flier web site: www.incommunion.org/forest-flier/
Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site: www.incommunion.org
photos: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/

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