A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day's Witness to the Gospel

by Jim Forest

Early in The Brothers Karamazov, a wealthy woman asks Staretz Zosima how she can really know that God exists. The Staretz tells her that no explanation or argument can achieve this, only the practice of “active love.” He assures her that really there is no other way to know God in reality rather than God as an idea. The woman confesses that sometimes she dreams about a life of loving service to others — she thinks perhaps she will become a Sister of Mercy, live in holy poverty and serve the poor in the humblest way. It seems to her such a wonderful thought. It makes tears comes to her eyes. But then it crosses her mind how ungrateful some of the people she is serving are likely to be. They will probably complain that the soup she is serving isn’t hot enough or that the bread isn’t fresh enough or the bed is too hard and the covers too thin. She confesses to Staretz Zosima that she couldn’t 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 the Staretz responds with the words, “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

I mention this story to you because I doubt any figure in literature had more importance to Dorothy Day than Father Zosima. How often I heard her repeat the words, “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” It was partly through Dostoevsky that she formed her understanding of Christianity, seeing it not simply as an institutional structure but as a way of life in which nothing was more important than seeing Christ in others.

I have no doubt she was a saint, that is someone who in a remarkable way shows us what it means to follow Christ. An effort is under way to promote her canonization, and this has the active support of the Cardinal O’Conner, head of the diocese in which she lived all her adult life. I think of her as a modern sister of St. Francis of Assisi.

The link with St. Francis is close. They have in common an attraction to the poor which led them to live among them and to practice what Dorothy called “voluntary poverty.” Like Francis, she formed a commitment to live out the most radical teachings of Jesus, including the renunciation of violence. Like Francis, she started a movement that could involve anyone, not only the unmarried. The Catholic Worker movement she began in 1933 has led to the foundation of houses of hospitality in many parts of the United States. The newspaper she edited until her death in 1980, The Catholic Worker, had and still has 100,000 subscribers.

Some biographical details: She was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 8, 1897. Her father was a journalist, a profession nearly all of his children followed. She was eight years old when her family moved into a six-room tenement flat over a tavern on 37th Street on the South Side. It was a big step down for the Day family. They had been practically wiped out by the San Francisco earthquake. The family had lost their house and John Day was without a job. The curtains Dorothy’s mother Grace made from remnants were hung from fishing rods. Fruit crates served as book cases. Nail kegs became kitchen stools. Dorothy was so ashamed of her home that, returning from school, she would enter the door of a better, more impressive building so that her classmates wouldn’t know the kind of circumstances she was living in. Her mother suffered blinding headaches and went through several miscarriages. Dorothy’s understanding of the shame people feel when they aren’t making it surely dates from this time.

It was in this period of her life that Dorothy began to find in the Catholic Church, an institution despised by her father, something inspiring. Dorothy would often recall later in life the impact of discovering a friend’s mother, a woman named Mrs. Barrett, praying on her knees at the side of her bed. Without dismay or embarrassment, she looked up at Dorothy, told her where to find her daughter, and returned to her prayer. “I felt a burst of love toward Mrs. Barrett that I have never forgotten, a feeling of gratitude and happiness that warmed my heart,” Dorothy wrote in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.

When John Day finally got the job of sports editor of a Chicago daily paper, the Day family moved into a large and comfortable house on Webster Avenue on the North Side. Dorothy need no longer be embarrassed by her domestic circumstances.

The great events in Dorothy’s life at the Webster Avenue house often had to do with books. Though her father was a man with many prejudices, he was a reader and book lover, and this rubbed off on his eldest daughter. In the library of the house, Dorothy first read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Little Dorritt, and many other books that stirred her awareness of injustice in the world and also offered images of sanctity, books she would read again and again for the rest of her life. Books remained Dorothy’s cherished companions throughout her life. She appreciated Erasmus’s confessional boast: “When I have money I buy books, and if anything is left over I buy food and clothes.”

The book that had the most impact on her in her mid-teens was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Unlike books about social injustice by Dickens and Hugo, here was a story set in the present, and not in Europe but Chicago, in the area of the city’s stockyards and slaughter houses. Sinclair’s hero was a Lithuanian immigrant, the only member of his family not utterly destroyed by squalor and injustice. He finally commits himself to struggle for a just social order by joining the Socialist Party. Sinclair’s vivid description of filth and violence in the meat industry so shocked its readers that the book is given credit for Congressional passage of tough meat inspection laws, although what Sinclair had hoped for was to stimulate more profound social change. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” he said, “and by accident hit it in the stomach.”

But he did reach Dorothy Day’s heart. She had responsibility for much of the care of the newest addition to the family, her baby bother John Day, and stirred by Sinclair’s novel, began to push his baby carriage further and further southwest, not far from the parts of the city she had once been so glad to leave behind. “I walked for miles, exploring interminable grey streets, fascinating in their dreary sameness, past tavern after tavern, where I envisioned such scenes as the Polish wedding party in Sinclair’s story.”

As would be typical of Dorothy for the rest of her life, she found a kind of beauty in the midst of urban desolation. “There were tiny gardens and vegetable patches in the yards. Often there were rows of corn, stunted but still recognizable, a few tomato plants, and always the vegetables bordered by flowers.” Drab streets were transformed by pungent odors: geranium and tomato plants, garlic, olive oil, roasting coffee, bread and rolls in bakery ovens. “Here,” she said, “was enough beauty to satisfy me.”

Only fifteen years old, she looked at the world with wide open eyes and a vulnerable heart many of us might envy. Pondering the lives of the people living in these hard-pressed neighborhoods, yet rich in so many ways, she had a vivid sense of who she would become. “From that time on my life was to be linked to theirs, their interests would be mine: I had received a call, a vocation, a direction in life.”

An exceptionally bright student, at age sixteen she won a full scholarship to the University of Illinois. She was delighted no longer to be living with her parents, but the academic world held her attention only briefly. Long before she might have received a degree, she abandoned her studies and moved to New York City where, at age of eighteen, she became a reporter for New York’s socialist daily newspaper, The Call. At the time she was probably the youngest working journalist on a New York paper, and also one of the very few woman journalists writing about something other than social news or cake recipes.

A year later, she joined the editorial staff of Masses, a radical publication silenced by the US government following America’s entry into World War I, for the publication was outspoken in its opposition to the war and encouraged men to refuse to fight in it. Just after her nineteenth birthday, Dorothy was jailed with other feminists who had gone to the White House to protest the exclusion of women from political affairs.

The horror of war challenged her to do something more concrete about suffering than simply to protest or write articles. Dorothy became a nurse in a Brooklyn hospital, but a love affair with a fellow journalist she met at that time led her back to Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan. The affair ended with an abortion. This was the catastrophe of her life, an event still causing her grief in her old age. Just after the war, she was briefly married to a New York literary figure and went with him to Europe, where she wrote her first book, an autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin, that centered on the love affair that had led to her pregnancy and the abortion with which it ended.

Back in the US, Dorothy joined the staff of The Liberator, a Communist magazine in Chicago though Dorothy, always impatient with ideology, never joined the Communist Party. In fact she never cast a vote in any election nor encouraged anyone also to do so as she was convinced that the only vote of significance was how she you lived her life day by day. Also she simply couldn’t imagine voting for someone whose views and priorities were so at variance with her own.

In 1922, she was arrested and jailed again, this time in one of the government’s “anti-red” raids. She went back to reporting work, first for a Chicago newspaper, then one in New Orleans. In 1925 — her novel published and film rights for the book sold to Hollywood — she returned to New York, where she met a British botanist and intellectual disciple of Kropotkin and fell deeply in love with him. The pregnancy that resulted from this relationship was the turning point in her life.

That she should be carrying a child again seemed to her not only remarkable but nothing less than a miracle. The abortion five years earlier left her feeling guilty. She also sensed that her body had been damaged and that she had been made sterile. She believed that she could never conceive again. Whether it was a miracle or not, I don’t know, but certainly it filled her with an overwhelming sense of God’s mercy that was to remain with her for the rest of her life.

She found that whenever she went walking, she was praying, and the prayers were entirely of joy and gratitude. As the months passed, she decided she wanted her child baptized in the Roman Catholic Church; and then she realized she wanted to become a Catholic herself. To the man she lived with, however, as to many radicals, the Catholic Church was one of the world’s more oppressive structures, complicit in almost every evil for many centuries. Dorothy saw it in quite a different way: for her it was the church of the poor, a church with ancient roots reaching back to the beginning of Christianity, a church free of the constraints of national borders. Arguments flared, doors slammed. Their relationship disintegrated.

Dorothy’s daughter, Tamar, was baptized in July, 1927, and Dorothy — now a single parent — was herself baptized in late December. Then began Dorothy’s six-year search for a vocation that could bridge her radical political convictions with her new-found religious commitment.

In May 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, Dorothy founded The Catholic Worker, initially intended only as a small monthly publication. This step had been proposed to her by a remarkable French immigrant, Peter Maurin, who looked like a bum and actually lived like a bum, but a brilliant and saintly man. The paper sold, and still sells, for a penny a copy — the smallest coin, what a kopek used to be in Russia, and perhaps what a ruble is today. Though there was much in it to interest intellectuals, the paper was aimed at ordinary people, many of them out of work in that period. Dorothy’s first editorial said The Catholic Worker would show its readers that the Catholic Church is concerned not only with spiritual welfare but material welfare. The paper caught on. Within a few months there were thousands of readers.

What had been launched only as a newspaper quickly became a movement. First in New York, then in other cities, Catholic Worker houses of hospitality were formed. They were both places of welcome for homeless people (the houses are in the down-out-and areas like New York City’s Bowery) and centers for dialogue about community, the Gospel and the Church, but also for what her collaborator Peter Maurin called a “green revolution” — efforts to inspire social change through entirely peaceful means.

While there were many people in the Catholic Church who supported the initiatives she was taking, not only lay people but priests and bishops, you can image that others found her some kind of strange Protestant or perhaps a Communist pretending to be a Christian.

Dorothy’s methods were also dismissed as “impractical” because of her non-institutional approach of hospitality for people who were living ragged lives on the street. A social worker visiting the Catholic Worker house in New York asked Dorothy how long her guests were “allowed” to stay. Dorothy answered, “We let them stay forever. 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.”

Perhaps all would have gone quite well between the Dorothy and the Roman Catholic hierarchy in America had it not been for the stand she took in failing to support Franco’s side in the Spanish Civil War. Practically all Dorothy’s friend, being people on the left, whole-heartedly supported the republican side, but Dorothy couldn’t support a force that was murdering priests and nuns and destroying churches. Similarly she could not in any way support the fascism that Franco represented, no matter how many bishops regarded him as their hero and protector. In fact there was a still deeper problem for Dorothy, for she could not imagine Christ blessing anyone to kill. She wrote essays about Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, who has chosen to live in a society suffering military occupation by the Romans but had sent none of his disciples to join the Zealots, the national group undertaking violent resistance. He had responded mercifully to people on every side, even the Roman centurion who sought his help. She recalled the witness of Christians in the first three centuries, when it was regarded as far better to lay down one’s own life than to shed anyone’s blood.

There had been no overtly pacifist movement in the Catholic Church for centuries, until the Catholic Worker. Perhaps more than any Catholic since St. Francis, Dorothy Day began a process within her church that put Jesus, rather than the theologians of the just war, at the center of the church’s social teaching.

Dorothy was often imprisoned as a result of her activity in peace, civil rights, and labor demonstrations. Usually this happened in the fifties, when year after year she sat on a park bench in front of New York’s City Hall while air-raid sirens were howling and everyone was required by law to take shelter in what was nothing other than a mass dress rehearsal for nuclear war. But she was occasionally arrested for other reasons, for example with farm workers in California when they were founding a labor movement. One of my favorite photos of her, taken in 1973, shows her holding the dress she wore the last time she was a prisoner. All the women jailed with her signed their names on the rough prison garment, making it a treasure to her.

At the center of Dorothy’s faith was her certainty that we are saved not because we are clever or are often found in churches (though mind you daily Mass was part of the structure of her life) but because of our loving response to “the least.” The Catholic Worker way of life is to practice daily “the works of mercy” that Jesus speaks of in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, taking in the homeless, caring for the sick, and being with prisoners. This same teaching led Dorothy to oppose all those systems that cause suffering. “We see that the works of mercy oppose the works of war,” she said. Often she quoted St. John of the Cross: “Love is the measure by which we shall be judged.”

Dorothy died November 29, 1980. It was a widely marked event in America, not only noticed by Christians of every variety but by many people in other religious traditions, or outside every religion. By then many regarded her as one of Christianity’s great reformers and a modern saint, though Dorothy herself had sometimes said, “Don’t call me a saint–I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

After the funeral, an editor of The Catholic Worker was asked whether the movement would be able to continue without its founder. “We have lost Dorothy,” Peggy Scherer said, “but we still have the gospel.”

The most extraordinary monuments to Dorothy Day are the many houses of hospitality that stretch from Oakland to Amsterdam, places of welcome that not only offer a caring response to the homeless and runaways but centers of work for a nonviolent society. We can say there is still a greater monument, though much less tangible, and that is a renewed understanding of Christianity. She was like a restorer of icons who, after removing layer upon layer of paint left by various generations, comes to the deepest level and finds an image painted by the hand of the Apostle Luke.

“It is the living from day to day,” she once commented, “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.”

What can we learn from Dorothy Day?

First, we see in her that the heart of life is prayer.

I have never known anyone, not even in monasteries, who was more a praying person than Dorothy Day. When I think of her, I think of her first of all on her knees praying before the Blessed Sacrament. I think of those long lists of names she kept of people, living and dead, to pray for. I think of her at Mass, I think of her praying the rosary, I think of her going off for confession each Saturday evening.

“We feed the hungry, yes,” she said. “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 prayings and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.”

If you find the life of Dorothy Day inspiring, if you want to understand what gave her direction and courage and strength to persevere, her deep attentiveness to others, consider her spiritual and sacramental life.

Second, she reminds us that social justice is not just a project for the government or certain agencies or radical movements designing a new social order in which all the world’s problems will be solved. It’s for you and me, here and now, right where we’re standing. Jesus did not say “Blessed are you who give contributions to charity” or “Blessed are you who are planning a just society.” He said, “Welcome into the Kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you fed me . . .”

At the heart of what Dorothy did were the works of mercy. For her these weren’t simply obligations which the Lord imposed on his followers. As she said on one occasion to Bob Coles, “We are here to celebrate Him through these works of mercy.”

Third: The most important thing we can is to try to find the face of Christ in others, and not only those we find it easy to be with but those who make us nervous, frighten us, alarm us, or even terrify us. “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor,” she used to say, “are atheists indeed.”

Dorothy was an orthodox Catholic. This means she believed that Christ makes himself present to us both in the Eucharist and in those in need. “What you did to the least person, you did to me.”

Her searching of faces for Christ’s presence for Christ extended to those who were, at least in a functional sense, her enemies, but also, she always tried to remember, victims of the very structures they were in charge of. She sometimes recalled the advice she had been given by a fellow prisoner named Mary Ann, a prostitute, when Dorothy was in jail in Chicago in the early ‘twenties: “You must hold up your head high, and give them no clue that you’re afraid of them or ready to beg them for anything, any favors whatsoever. But you must see them for what they are — never forget that they’re in jail too.”

Fourth: We can learn from her that beauty is not just for the affluent.

I recall a donor coming into the Catholic Worker and giving Dorothy a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked her for it and put it in her pocket. Later a rather demented lady came in, one of the more irritating regulars at the CW house. Dorothy took the diamond ring out of her pocket and gave it to the woman. Someone on the staff said to Dorothy, “Wouldn’t it have been better if we took the ring to the diamond exchange, sold it, and paid that woman’s rent for a year?” Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do what she liked with the ring. She could sell it for rent money or take a trip to the Bahamas. Or she could enjoy wearing a diamond ring on her hand like the woman who gave it away. “Do you suppose,” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?”

Fifth, Dorothy teaches us that meekness does not mean being weak-kneed. There is a place for outrage as well as a place for very plain speech in religious life. She once said to a person who was counseling her to speak in a more polite, temperate way, “I hold more temper in one minute than you will hold in your entire life.” Or again her lightning-like comment, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system.”

Sixth: We see in Dorothy the value of the Little Way. The phrase was one Dorothy borrowed from St. Therese of Liseux, widely known as the Little Flower. Change starts not in the future but in the present, not in Washington DC or Wall Street but where I stand. Change begins in the ordinary actions of life, how I live minute to minute, what I do with my life, what I notice, what I respond to, the care and attention with which I listen, the way in which I respond. It happens when we practice hospitality of the face.

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.”

What she tried to practice was “Christ’s technique,” as she put it, which was not to seek out meetings with emperors and important officials but “obscure people, a few fisherman and farm people, a few ailing and hard-pressed men and women.”

Seventh: Dorothy provides an example of love of ;;the Church. It is, of course, easy to see the faults of the Church — I mean not the Mystical Body of Christ but the social institution. Dorothy used to say that the net Peter lowered when Christ made him a fisher of men caught “quite a few blowfish and not a few sharks.” Quoting Romano Guardini, she often said that “the Church is the Cross on which Christ is crucified.” She said that when she saw the Church taking the side of the rich and powerful, forgetting the weak, or saw bishops living in luxury while the poor are thrown the crumbs of “charity,” she knew that Christ was being insulted and once again being sent to his death. “The Church doesn’t only belong to the officials and bureaucrats,” she said. “It belongs to all people, and especially its most humble men and women and children.”

Instead of focusing on the human failings so obvious in every church. Dorothy concentrated on what the church sets it sights on. We’re not here to pass judgement on our fellow believers, whatever their rank or role in the church, but to live the Gospel as wholeheartedly as we can and make the best use we can of the sacraments and every other resource the church offers to us.

“I didn’t become a Catholic in order to purify the church,” Dorothy once told her friend Bob 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.”

I learned from Dorothy that the Church is more than an institutional structure but really is the Mystical Body of Christ and as such links together all those who struggle to follow Christ no matter what the shortcomings of the particular church they belong. She herself longed for the unity of the divided Church. She occasionally took me to the small meetings of a 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. The first time I met an Orthodox priest and took part in the Orthodox Liturgy, it was thanks to Dorothy Day. I doubt Dorothy intended that I should become an Orthodox Christian, but that slow pilgrimage in my life had its beginning at the Catholic Worker.

Last but not least: I learned from Dorothy day that I am here to follow Christ. Not the Pope. Not the Ecumenical Patriarch. Not the President of the United States. Not even Dorothy Day or any other saint.

Christ has told us plainly about the Last Judgment and it has nothing to do with belonging to the right church or being theologically correct. All the church can do is try to get us on the right track and keep us there. But we will be judged not on membership cards but according to our readiness to let the mercy of God pass through us to others. “Love is the measure,” Dorothy said again and again, quoting Saint John of the Cross.

Hers was a day-to-day way of the cross, and just as truly the way of the open door. “It is the living from day to day,” she said, “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.”