(This is similar to the afterword I wrote for my biography of Dorothy Day, All is Grace, published by Orbis Books.)
by Jim Forest
I first met Dorothy Day a few days before Christmas in 1960 while on leave from the U.S. Navy. After reading copies of The Catholic Worker that I had found in my parish library, and then reading Dorothy’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, I decided to visit the community she had founded. I was based not so far away, in Washington, DC.
Arriving in Manhattan for that first visit, I made my way to Saint Joseph’s House — then in a loft on Spring Street, on the north edge of Little Italy in the Lower East Side of New York City. Discovering that it was moving day, I joined in helping carry boxes from an upstairs loft to a three-storey brick building at 175 Chrystie Street, a few blocks to the east. Jack Baker, one of the other people assisting with the move that day, invited me to stay in his apartment in the same neighborhood.
A few days later I visited the community’s rural outpost on Staten Island, the Peter Maurin Farm. Crossing Upper New York Harbor by ferry, I made my way to an old farmhouse on a rural road just north of Pleasant Plains near the island’s southern tip. In its large, faded dining room, I found half-a-dozen people, Dorothy among them, gathered around a pot of tea at one end of the dining room table.
At the time, Dorothy was only sixty-three, though to my young eyes she seemed old enough to have known Abraham and Sarah. But what a handsome woman! Her face was long, with high, prominent cheekbones underlining large, quick eyes, deep blue and almond shaped, that could be teasing one moment, laughing the next, then turn grave an instant later. Her gray hair, parted in the middle, was braided and circled the back of her head like a garland of silver flowers. She had a fresh, scrubbed look with no trace of cosmetics. The woolen suit she wore was plain but well-tailored and good quality. (I only recently learned from her goddaughter, Johannah Hughes Turner, that her suit was probably a gift from her sister, Della Spier. “Dorothy was tall and hard to fit,” Johannah told me. “Rarely did she find anything in the Catholic Worker clothing room that she could use. Della enjoyed dressing Dorothy and could afford to provide her with solid, classic suits and dresses.”)
I gave Dorothy a bag of letters addressed to her that had been received in Manhattan. Within minutes, she was reading the letters aloud to all of us.
The only letter I still recall from that day’s reading was one from Thomas Merton, the famous monk whose autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, had held many people in its grip, including me. In 1941, Merton had withdrawn from “the world” to a Trappist monastery in Kentucky with a slam of the door that eventually was heard around the world. I had assumed that he wrote to no one outside his family. Yet here he was in correspondence with someone who was not only in the thick of the world, but one of its more engaged and controversial figures.
In his letter, Merton told Dorothy that he was deeply touched by her witness for peace, which in recent years had five times resulted in her arrest and imprisonment for refusing to take shelter during civil defense drills. “You are right going along the lines of satyagraha [Gandhi’s term for nonviolent action]. I see no other way…. Nowadays it is no longer a question of who is right but who is at least not criminal…. It has never been more true than now that the world is lost in its own falsity and cannot see true values…. God bless you.” This was one of Merton’s first letters to Dorothy. Ten months later, he published an essay in The Catholic Worker — “The Root of War is Fear” — and immediately got into trouble with his religious superiors and others both inside and outside the monastery.
Merton was one of countless people drawn to Dorothy and influenced by her. She had a great gift for making those who met her, even if only through letters or her published writings, look at themselves in a new light, questioning previously held ideas, allegiances and choices.
I was another of those whose life took an unexpected turn thanks to Dorothy Day. Five months after that first encounter, I was granted an early discharge from the Navy on grounds of conscientious objection. At Dorothy’s invitation, I became part of the staff at Saint Joseph’s House in New York.
One of my predecessors was Jack English, who had joined the New York Catholic Worker in its early years and remained close to Dorothy into her old age. Recalling his first impressions of Dorothy in a taped interview with Deane Mowrer in 1970, he said he was still impressed with Dorothy’s ability to engage with so many individuals. “She occasionally talks in terms of the abstract, but she never talks or operates except person to person.” Jack had learned from her that “each human being is unique, totally unique, and that each time I meet and have a real encounter with another human being, I am changed somehow, whether for good or bad.”
The qualities that so impressed Jack were just as striking to me: her ability to focus on the person she was talking to, not to see just a young face but your face, not discerning just a vague, general promise, but your particular gifts. Through Dorothy, you glimpsed exciting possibilities in yourself that you hadn’t seen before.
When I joined the Catholic Worker, there was just one house in Manhattan, Saint Joseph’s. It was so cramped a building that only one person actually lived there as nighttime care-taker. The rest of us, Dorothy as well, lived in $25-a-month cold-water flats located nearby that were usually occupied by two people. By chance, Dorothy’s room (shared at the time with a woman we knew as Saint Louis Marie) was next to the one I shared with Stuart Sandberg, a recent graduate of Cornell University who, later in life, was ordained a priest. We were on the sixth floor of a Spring Street tenement. There were four small apartments per floor, each with a bathtub next to the sink. The one toilet on each floor was in a closet-sized space in the hallway.
As I had discovered that first day at the farm on Staten Island, Dorothy was a tireless story-teller, often using incoming letters as a starting point. I recall her reading a letter aloud one day from the Gauchat family, founders of a Catholic Worker community in Ohio. Dorothy told us how the Gauchats had taken in a six-month-old child who was expected to die at any time. The child, they were told, was deaf and blind, with a fluid-filled lump on his head larger than a baseball. “Bill Gauchat made the sign of the cross over that child’s face,” Dorothy said, “and he saw those dull eyes follow the motion of his hand. The child could see! Within a year David — that was his name — was well enough to be taken home by his real parents. His life was saved by the love in the Gauchat home.”
A letter from a Catholic Worker community that was trying to help a prostitute get free of her pimp reminded Dorothy of a prostitute named Mary Ann with whom she had been in jail in Chicago in the early 1920s. At the time, Dorothy had been living a bohemian life with no plans of ever becoming Catholic or joining any church. She hadn’t intended to be arrested and was terrified of the guards. “You must hold your head high,” Mary Ann advised her, “and give them no clue that you’re afraid of them or ready to beg for anything, any favors whatsoever. But you must see them for what they are — never forget that they’re in jail, too.”
Hearing stories like these, we were learning something about life that you don’t get in newspapers, classrooms or even in many churches. At the core of each story there were always just a few people, perhaps just one, for whom following Christ was the most important thing in the world.
Stories gave Dorothy occasion to draw on her massive supply of sayings. How many times have I heard her repeat Saint Catherine of Siena’s remark, “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’” There was a passage from George Bernanos’s novel, Diary of a Country Priest, that she often used: “Hell is not to love anymore.” Just as often, she made use of a saying from Saint John of the Cross, “Love is the measure by which we will be judged.” Another favorite was a sentence from Dostoevsky: “The world will be saved by beauty.” There was also Saint Augustine’s declaration: “All beauty is a revelation of God.”
Beauty! Dorothy had an astonishing gift for finding beauty in places where it was often overlooked — in determined flowers blooming in a slum neighborhood, in grass battling upward toward the sky between blocks of concrete, in the smell of an herb growing in a pot on a tenement window ledge, in the battered faces of people who survived on the economic fringes of society.
Music was important in Dorothy’s life, especially opera. One had to have a very good reason for knocking on her door on a Saturday afternoon when she was absorbed in the weekly radio broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera, though she was willing to have company to listen with her so long as no attempt was made at conversation. (Dorothy said once to Willa Bickham, a member of the community at the time, “If I am reincarnated, I hope I come back an opera singer. Then I’ll bring joy to everyone instead of always having to tell what’s wrong with the world.”)
More than anything else, Dorothy was a writer. There was always a notebook in her bag. She seemed endlessly to be taking notes and writing. Note-taking and journal-keeping were as much a part of Dorothy as breathing. Time and again every day she made note of something that had been said or jotted down a passage from the book she was then reading. During the weekly Friday night meetings at the Catholic Worker, Dorothy’s note-taking was usually nonstop. When she traveled, she kept track of everyone she met and what had been said. Her notes in turn became raw material for her monthly column, “On Pilgrimage.” (Dorothy’s more substantial work, the several books she wrote, were mainly written at the several Staten Island beach cottages she had lived in over the years, places of retreat and solitude.)
Dorothy was an avid reader. She had loved books since childhood. She once told me that “the hardest part of living in community is the loss of so many books.” In a 1952 diary entry, she reports with distress how she found her copy of the writings of Saint John of the Cross under an apple tree, soaked by rain. Her engagement in the world seemed only to fuel the reading side of her life — or was it that her reading fueled her engagement? She read certain Russian classics over and over again. She returned again and again to the novels of Charles Dickens. More than once she told young people like me that we could only understand the Catholic Worker by reading Dostoevsky.
Certain books had a huge impact on her life. One can wonder whether Dostoevsky shouldn’t be regarded as a co-founder of the Catholic Worker, so much did his books help shape Dorothy’s understanding of Christianity. In The Brothers Karamazov, the elderly monk, Father Zosima, made an exceptionally deep impression on her, especially his words, “Love in action is often a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” a passage Dorothy recited so often that she made it her own.
I have never known anyone more disciplined in her spiritual life than Dorothy — daily Mass, devotion to the rosary, frequent confession, times of private prayer and intercession each day. How often I have seen her on her knees at one of the nearby parish churches or at the chapel at the Catholic Worker farm. (The Archdiocese of New York permitted a chapel on the farm and reservation of the Blessed Sacrament within it.) While praying, I noticed she often referred to pieces of paper. One afternoon, Dorothy having been summoned from the farm chapel for an urgent phone call, I looked in the prayer book she had left on the bench and discovered page after page of names, all written in her careful italic script, of people, living and dead, for whom she was praying.
It seemed to me Dorothy prayed as if lives depended on it, and no doubt some did. The physician Robert Coles of the Harvard Medical School credited Dorothy’s prayers with the miraculous cure of his wife. She had been dying of cancer but — to the astonishment of her physicians — recovered.
Dorothy had a special list with the names of people who had committed suicide. I once asked Dorothy, “But isn’t it too late?” “With God there is no time,” she responded. She went on to say how a lot can happen in a person’s thoughts between initiating an action that will result in death and death itself — that even the tiny fraction of a second that passes between pulling a trigger and the bullet striking the brain might, in the infinity of time that exists deep within us, be time enough for regretting what it was now too late to stop, and to cry out for God’s mercy.
I recall a story Dorothy once told me about persistence in prayer. For many years, she said, she had been a heavy smoker. Her day began with lighting up. 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 Catholic Worker household was praying she would light up a cigarette. One year, as Lent approached, the priest who heard her confessions at the time urged her not to give up cigarettes that year but instead to pray daily, “Dear God, help me stop smoking.” She used that prayer for several years, she told me, 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. She never smoked another.
Without prayer and the sacraments, Dorothy felt, the Catholic Worker would be blown away like dust in the wind. “We feed the hungry, yes,” she told Bob Coles. “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.”
Dorothy went to Mass every day until her body wasn’t up to it and, even then, received daily communion, carefully preparing before and giving plenty of time afterward for thanksgiving. She loved the rosary and prayed it often. “If we love enough,” she once noted, “we are importunate: we repeat our love as we repeat Hail Marys on the rosary.”
She could be as fierce and determined as one of those resolute Russian women who repaired Moscow streets and kept going to church even in the years of Stalin. Her direct, at times electrifying way of getting to the heart of things was much in evidence one night when she was speaking to a Catholic student group at New York University in a packed and smoky room in a building near Washington Square Park. It was in the fall of 1961 — the Cold War was at its most frozen. The explosion of nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert had become too ordinary an event to qualify as front-page news. A much repeated slogan of the time was, “Better dead than Red.” Clearly some of those present considered Dorothy a Red, meaning a faithful servant of the Kremlin with its blood-red flag. One student demanded to know what Dorothy would do if the Russians invaded the United States. Would she not admit, in this extreme, at least, that killing was justified, even a sacred duty? “We are taught by Our Lord to love our enemies,” Dorothy responded without batting an eye. “I hope I could open my heart to them with love, the same as anyone else. We are all children of the same Father.” There was a brief but profound stillness in the room before Dorothy went on to speak about nonviolent resistance and efforts to convert opponents rather than kill them. Which of his enemies had Christ slain?
Dorothy had an intense devotion to the saints — Christ’s mother Mary, first of all, but then to so many others. One of the least likely was Joan of Arc, famous for her military exploits (though, except in statues, she never wielded a sword) and finally for being burned at the stake for refusing to deny her visions. I once noticed a small statue of Joan, clad in armor, on the table next to Dorothy’s bed. Responding to my surprise at her devotion to a military saint, Dorothy explained, “Joan of Arc is a saint of fidelity to conscience.” This was, she said, her second such statue of Joan. The first had been stolen years earlier, but recently Bishop John Wright of Pittsburgh had given her another.
Joseph, the foster father of Jesus and patron saint of all working people, was among the most important for Dorothy. The Catholic Worker house of hospitality I had become part of was dedicated to Saint Joseph. We had a finely carved wooden statue of him that the artist had donated. Under it, during periods when the community’s financial well was dry or nearly so, Dorothy would place all the bills awaiting payment. “Keeping us going is your responsibility,” she would remind Saint Joseph.
Dorothy had much in common with another of her favorite saints, Teresa of Avila. Both Dorothy and Teresa had animated the foundation of many communities, and both were tireless travelers. Both were reformers who went through periods of being regarded with suspicion by the hierarchy. Both were outspoken and fearless.
Another saint that greatly inspired Dorothy was Therese of Lisieux, a contemplative Carmelite nun of the nineteenth century who, after her death, came to be known as “the Little Flower.” She lived an obscure life, never traveling and never founding anything, and had died only two months before Dorothy’s birth. So significant was she to Dorothy that the only completed biography Dorothy ever wrote was about Therese and her “little way.” What most impressed Dorothy was Therese’s certainty that nothing, even the most hidden action, is ever wasted. As she put in her “On Pilgrimage” column for the December 1965 issue of The Catholic Worker: “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.”
I don’t know when or how often Dorothy made her famous remark, “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” Very likely it was only once, but since her death even the briefest article about her is almost certain to include it. It is the quotation from Dorothy Day. But what was the context? Dorothy found great inspiration in the lives of those people — saints — who had been placed on the calendar of the Church, and she had done what saints do: attempt to follow Christ. At the same time she didn’t want the word “saint” to be used in order to place people who attempted to live according to the Gospel in a special category of irrelevancy.
Dorothy believed we are all called to sanctity. In 1967, when Tom Cornell and I were editing the first edition of A Penny a Copy, an anthology of Catholic Worker writings, we read through thirty-four years of back issues. 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 for the assassination of a president or the outbreak of war — that declared “WE ARE ALL CALLED TO BE SAINTS.” The headline sums up what Dorothy regarded as absolutely basic. Why else would anyone attending the liturgy 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? If someday Dorothy is added to the Church calendar, one benefit is that we will have a saint whose sins and shortcomings will be impossible to airbrush out. She will be a saint who really bears witness to the possibility of flawed people, with pasts that embarrass them, never giving up in their efforts to rise from their falls and stumble along in the general direction of the kingdom of God.
Dorothy’s embarrassment and sometimes annoyance in the face of admiration was only in part due to modesty. Rather she felt that many people would view her more critically if they knew her better — knew her faults, and knew more about her past. She felt she had helped create an idealized image of herself by leaving out of her autobiographical writings certain events preceding her entrance into the Catholic Church that she found particularly shameful, and also saying little about the faults she struggled with every day of her life.
Only years later did I come to realize that nothing in her past distressed Dorothy more than the decision to abort her first child, an event that took place in her early twenties, years before her conversion. I recall how distressed she was when I asked her if I might borrow her first book, The Eleventh Virgin. Somehow I had become aware that, as a young woman, she had written a novel with that title. She didn’t have a copy, she told me, regretted that it had ever been published, appealed to me not to mention it again, and asked me not to look for it. It wasn’t until late in her life that a friend who dealt in rare books presented me with a copy. Only when I read it did I understand why Dorothy had responded to my question with such anguish. The end point of this autobiographical novel was an 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.
In a letter to a young woman written in February 1973, Dorothy refers to her abortion as well as to two suicide attempts she made as a young adult: “Twice I tried to take my own life, and the dear Lord pulled me through that darkness — I was rescued from that darkness. My sickness was physical too, since I had had an abortion with bad after-effects, and in a way my sickness of mind was a penance I had to endure.” A few sentences later, Dorothy added, “I love you, because you remind me of my own youth, and of my one child and my grandchildren. I will keep on praying for your healing, writing your name down in my little book of prayers which I have by my bedside.” (This is one of many letters by Dorothy included in All the Way to Heaven, edited by Robert Ellsberg.)
Dorothy once told Robert Coles about the effort she had made earlier in her life to find and destroy every copy of The Eleventh Virgin. Finally she brought her book-burning effort to the attention of the priest who was then hearing her confessions. He laughed. “My, my,” he said. “I thought he was going to tell me to stop being so silly and mixed up in my priorities,” Dorothy told Coles. “I will remember to my last day here on God’s earth what the priest said: ‘You can’t have much faith in God if you’re taking the life He has given you and using it that way.’ I didn’t say a word in reply. The priest added, ‘God is the one who forgives us, if we ask Him; but it sounds like you don’t even want forgiveness — just to get rid of the books.’”
Normally Dorothy she went to confession every Saturday, not simply because it was, at that time, common Catholic practice, but because she always found that by the end of the week she had a lot to confess. A journal entry Dorothy made in 1951 makes a typical summary note: “This afternoon [I had] glimpses of my own ugliness, vanity, pride, cruelty, contempt of others, levity, jeering, carping. Too sensitive to criticism…” Weeks later she added other sins: “flippancy, criticalness, [a] gibing attitude, lack of respect and love for others.” The following year she wrote: “I fail people daily, God help me, when they come to me for aid and sympathy. There are too many of them, whichever way I turn … I deny them the Christ in me when I do not show them tenderness, love. God forgive me.”
Confession was part of the basic architecture of Dorothy’s life. On the first page of her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she writes about what hard work it was 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 love top the list.
Confession was, for Dorothy, a means of overcoming the sense that she was fighting a losing battle. She once gave Joe Zarrella a card on 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.
No one knew her shortcomings better than Dorothy herself, as has become clearer than ever following the recent publication of her diaries, The Duty of Delight. She was painfully aware that there were some who came to live in community with her who looked back on the experience with more pain than joy, 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 ever-attentive, patient mother to her daughter Tamar that she so wanted to be. (On the other hand, given the circumstances and the fact that she was a single parent, it’s remarkable how good a mother Dorothy was, and later how devoted a grandmother. In 1964, she spent four months taking care of her grandchildren in Vermont while Tamar took a course in practical nursing.)
One of Dorothy’s most impressive gifts was that she was never reluctant to apologize when she felt she had been wrong or too harsh. She could do so with passion and without reservation or excuses. 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.
Confronted by a camera, Dorothy rarely smiled. If you study photos of her, you might form the idea that she had a dour personality. It’s easy to see that she was at times a person of the utmost seriousness, but it’s harder to imagine her warmth. In ordinary life, much of her time was spent sitting at a table, sipping tea or coffee, in comfortable conversation with whoever happened to join her — friend or stranger, sane or insane, young or old — often just listening, saying very little.
When Dorothy was present, she was completely present, but often she wasn’t there at all. She was away visiting other Catholic Worker houses, speaking at churches and colleges, writing at her beach cottage on Staten Island, visiting Tamar and her many grandchildren, or enjoying the relative peace and quiet that reigned at Peter Maurin Farm. In the New York house, her periods away left a hole that no one else could fill. Each member of staff had somehow acquired particular responsibilities: having charge of the kitchen, taking care of the address list, writing thank you notes, handling the household money, managing the paper — though, even in absentia, Dorothy was definitely the paper’s editor and publisher. But no one was in a position to make a significant decision in her absence that everyone else would accept. In the New York house, in our somewhat splintered state, Dorothy alone could lay down the law.
I look back on being part of the Catholic Worker in New York City in those days as a major blessing, but it was not an easy blessing. In the early sixties, the New York house probably was one of the least happy communities in the Catholic Worker movement. In fact we were hardly a community at all. We had no community meetings and not all of us got along with each other. There was no formation program for the integration of new volunteers and few conditions of engagement. Nor was there any pay – though whoever handled community money could dispense small amounts as needed. It was exhilarating and exhausting, inspiring and discouraging.
I recall a decision made by our two-person kitchen crew that the occasional pound of butter or box of eggs contributed to the house would go to those on “the line” rather than to “the family.” This was a change in custom, they recognized, but was, in their view, in line with the Gospel verse, “The last shall be first.”
“The line” referred to those people who turned up for meals but whose names were unknown to most of us. “The family” was the much smaller group of people who had become regulars, were known by name, were living at the Catholic Worker and, in many cases, had chores to do within the household. “The family” ate after “the line.” Traditionally anything special that turned up in small quantities was saved for them. As a result of this change in policy, members of the family, who had seen many volunteers come and go, were outraged, and the staff itself — six or eight people at the time — divided. Conflicting quotations from Dorothy’s writings began to appear on the community bulletin board, each faction hurling verbal fragments of Dorothy at the other. On the one hand there might be a quotation from Dorothy declaring that we must be ready to roll up in old newspapers, giving our beds to those who needed them — and, on the other hand, a text in which Dorothy humbly reflected that voluntary poverty sometimes meant accepting one’s limitations.
Dorothy was soon back again. Without bothering to sort out the paradoxes posed by the quotations from her writings, she said — with the finality of a monastery’s abbess — that the butter and eggs were to go, as before, to the family. In the end, two people resigned, disappointed that Dorothy had failed to live up to some of her own quotations.
Such events, while petty and even comical when viewed from the outside, were grueling from the inside. There were many staff blow-ups during the forty-seven years that lay between the founding of the Catholic Worker and Dorothy’s death in 1980, not to mention divisive controversies within the Catholic Worker movement as a whole, such as the debate about pacifism during World War II. It is an endless cause of wonder to me that, despite all these trials, she nonetheless retained her capacity for faith, hope and love down to the last day of her life. She occasionally spoke of “the duty of hope.”
Perhaps her survival was not only thanks to remaining resolutely hopeful, but also to her taking time away, whether in the solitude of her Staten Island beach cottage or in Vermont visiting Tamar and her grandchildren.
It was in the aftermath of “the great butter crisis,” late in 1961, that Dorothy appointed me as managing editor of the paper. She had to find someone — one of the two who had just left was my predecessor. Having just turned twenty, I was the youngest person ever to have held that post. Eventually, I too became a casualty of the early-sixties stress within the New York Catholic Worker community. When I was poised to get arrested for participating in an act of civil disobedience protesting U.S. resumption of nuclear weapons tests, Dorothy insisted that I instead go south to Tennessee and write about a civil rights project she admired. I said that, having been one of the organizers of the protest, I couldn’t back out. I would have to go to Tennessee afterward. It wasn’t a good moment to work out a compromise with Dorothy — earlier that same day she had been infuriated by the irresponsible actions of several other staff members. She gave me an ultimatum: “Either go to Tennessee or you are no longer part of this community.” At the time, I felt I had no option but to do what I had helped plan and had promised to take part in. From Dorothy’s point of view on that short-tempered day, I was simply being self-willed.
Only later in life, having gone through the white water of parenthood and having worked with many young volunteers in other contexts, did I realize that, had I gone back to Chrystie Street once I completed my month in jail, no one would have been happier to see me than Dorothy. But I was too young to realize the about-face adults can make after a good night’s sleep. Moving timidly, it took me the better part of a year to renew my relationship with Dorothy.
Dorothy often described the Catholic Worker as a school. Certainly it was for me. One of the things I learned was that the poverty-stricken, the addicted and the insane — the people for whom our house of hospitality existed — were often easier to live with, and more patient and compassionate, than young volunteers who knew more about ideology than love. Yet for all our shortcomings and conflicts, we volunteers managed to get a great deal done: food begged or purchased, meals cooked and served, clothing received and given away, dishes washed, floors scrubbed, sheets laundered, the paper mailed out, those with medical needs assisted, hospital patients visited, and thank-you notes sent out to each and every donor, no matter how small the gift — all that and much more.
Not the smallest problem in the house was the noise. I recall one day trying to carry on a conversation with Dorothy about an article we were thinking about using in the next issue of the paper. We were at her desk in a tiny office next to the front door of the house on Chrystie Street, adjacent to the area in which meals were served, easily the noisiest part of the house. We could hardly hear each other. In the middle of a sentence, Dorothy got out of her chair, opened the door, and yelled, “Holy silence!” Silence briefly reigned at Saint Joseph’s House such as a Trappist monk might admire.
One of Dorothy’s striking qualities was her respect for Christians of other churches, especially those in the Orthodox Church. What was at the root of her affinity to Orthodoxy, I don’t know. Perhaps it had to do with her Russian friendships and the special role Dostoevsky had played in the formation of her faith and vocation. The first time I visited an Orthodox church, it was with Dorothy, and the first time I attended the magnificent Orthodox Liturgy, it was with her as well. In the early sixties, she was a friend of a priest serving at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral on East 97th Street in Manhattan, Father Matthew Stadniuk from Moscow. (In 1988, having returned to Moscow some years before, he was the first priest in Russia who got his parishioners into publically-visible voluntary service at a local hospital, thanks to the new climate of religious tolerance inaugurated by Gorbachev. For the first time since Lenin, religious believers were no longer excluded from openly performing the works of mercy.)
Dorothy’s longing for the repair of the centuries-old schism dividing Eastern and Western Christianity drew her into the Third Hour group, founded by her Russian friend, Helene Iswolsky. This may have been the only association in America at the time in which people of various churches came together who had in common a deep respect, even love, for the Orthodox Church. I remember sitting next to Dorothy at a Third Hour meeting at an apartment in mid-town Manhattan, trying to make sense of the Russian words and phrases she and others used so comfortably. Among those present were the poet W.H. Auden, the Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann, and Alexander Kerensky, who nearly half a century earlier had been prime minister of Russia in the brief period between the last tsar’s abdication and the Bolshevik Revolution.
Dorothy’s own commitment to the Catholic Church was never at issue — she wasn’t window-shopping for another, “better” Church. In fact it disturbed many people, including many in the Catholic Worker movement, that Dorothy was so conservative a Catholic — so wholehearted in her acceptance of Catholic teaching and structure. She was critical not of what the Church taught, but rather of its failures in living out its own teaching. “I didn’t become a Catholic in order to purify the Church,” Dorothy once explained to Robert Coles. “I knew someone, years ago, who kept telling me that if we [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.”
Though there are millions of Catholics who seem to be more nationalist than Christian in their core identity, Dorothy found Catholicism the Christian body least contaminated by nationalism. Even the most nation-centered, flag-waving Catholic was at least vaguely aware of being part of a Church that was confined by no national or linguistic borders. Still more significant to Dorothy, it was a church crowded with the poor. Most important of all, it was a dispenser of sacraments without which life, for her, was barren. Part of the value of the Church for Dorothy was that it brought people together across many lines of division — political, ideological, economic, geographic, even the borders drawn by time. She agreed with G.K. Chesterton’s remark that “tradition was democracy extended through time” — a democracy in which not only the living had a vote, but the dead as well.
Dorothy often stressed obedience (the root meaning of which is “listening”), insisting that if she were ordered by her bishop to stop publishing The Catholic Worker, she would do so, though not without trying first to change the bishop’s mind. “Would that mean,” I asked her one day, “if Cardinal Spellman says we have to give up our stand on war, we give it up?” “Not at all,” she said. “But then we might only use quotations from the Bible, the sayings of the saints, extracts from papal encyclicals, just nothing of our own.” But she said that if there was no alternative but to stop publishing the paper, she would do so, hoping others might carry on in some way. Then she quoted the Gospel: “Unless the seed fall into the ground and die, it cannot bring forth new life.”
Dorothy’s devotion to the Church was rock solid but not without a critical edge. Borrowing from Romano Guardini, she sometimes spoke of the Church as being “the cross on which Christ was crucified.” Though the metaphor sounds poetic, it was no compliment. Similarly Dorothy occasionally remarked that the net Peter had lowered into the human sea, once Jesus made him a fisher of men, “caught many a blowfish and quite a few sharks.” There were priests and bishops who reminded her “more of Cain than of Abel.”
Dorothy had very little sense of owning anything — she regarded what she possessed as being “on loan.” What she had was often given away. A friend complained that none of the sweaters she had specially knit as gifts remained with Dorothy for long — sooner or later, usually sooner, each was given away. The same happened with many books. As far as I could see, Dorothy never indulged herself, though she often accused herself of being self-indulgent, as she did one afternoon when we had gone for a walk in the neighborhood. I don’t recall any goal, only that it was a warm day. Passing a small kosher restaurant at a corner somewhere along Ridge Street, Dorothy suggested we stop for a glass of cold beet borscht with a spoonful of sour cream. Once it had been served, Dorothy was slightly scandalized at herself – “Borscht with sour cream! What luxury! This isn’t voluntary poverty.” But then she laughed. The voluptuous treat was only ten cents a glass.
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 one 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 — Catherine Tarengal. Catherine, a bitter complainer second to none, was known in the community as “the weasel.” She lived with her handicapped son and often ate meals at Saint Joseph’s. 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?”
In the early days of the Catholic Worker, those who came to the door were often the unemployed rather than the unemployable. Dorothy’s attitude toward hospitality, much admired during the Depression, often came under criticism in later years on when those being helped struck many observers as considerably less worthy. We were no longer helping the “deserving poor,” we were told, but no-account drunkards, addicts, loafers and thieves. Why did we have no employment or rehabilitation programs? Didn’t we realize that the clothes the Worker gave away were often sold or bartered for drink or drugs? Dorothy responded by pointing out that those who ask such questions also use their money and possessions as they please, and often no more wisely than the down-and-out.
Another often repeated objection was, “Didn’t Jesus himself say that the poor would be with us always? Why make such a fuss about them?” “Yes,” Dorothy replied again and again, “but we are not content that there should be so many of them. The class structure is our making and by our consent, not God’s, and we must do what we can to change it. We are urging revolutionary change.”
There was a social worker who asked Dorothy how long “clients” of the Catholic Worker were permitted to stay. “We let them stay forever,” Dorothy answered 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.”
While Dorothy was an enthusiastic and unapologetic borrower of other people’s ideas, her way of seeing was very much her own. I think, for example, of what happened one day when my room-mate, Stuart Sandberg, and I were clearing out rubbish from a small apartment one flight up in a cold-water tenement on Ridge Street. Dorothy was having increasing trouble managing the five flights to the apartment on Spring Street. These two rooms could be reached without such a climb, but first many layers of linoleum and wallpaper had to be removed and white paint applied to the walls.
Stuart and I dragged box after box of debris down to the street, including a hideous — so it seemed to us — painting of the Holy Family. Mary, Joseph and Jesus had been painted in a few bright colors against a battleship gray background on a piece of plywood. We shook our heads, deposited it in the trash along the curb, and went back to continue cleaning. Not long afterward Dorothy arrived carrying the rejected painting. “Look what I found! The Holy Family! It’s a providential sign, a blessing.” She put it on the mantle of the apartment’s extinct fireplace. I looked at it again and this time saw it was a work of love and faith, however crudely rendered. If it was no masterpiece of iconography, it had its own unlettered beauty, but I wouldn’t have thought so if Dorothy hadn’t seen it first.
Dorothy is no longer with us. We can’t sit down and have a cup of coffee with her anymore, or send her a letter and await her response. But she remains a vital presence. Many regard her as a saint, and not as a way of keeping her at a safe distance or because of ignorance regarding the darker moments in her life. If by the word “saint” we mean a person who helps us see, by both precept and example, what it means to follow Christ, surely Dorothy is such a person.
Dorothy helped bring about a conversion of heart that greatly influenced many people in the Church, especially in America, but has reached far beyond it. It is not a reformation of theological doctrine, but one rooted in the sacredness of life. Dorothy has helped us better understand one of the primary biblical truths: that each person, no matter how damaged or battered by the events and circumstances of life, is a bearer of the image of God and deserves to be recognized and treated as such. She has reminded us of the real presence of Christ in the least person. “Those who fail to see Christ in the poor,” Dorothy said, “are atheists indeed.” Thanks to her, many have come to realize that the opposite of the works of mercy are the works of war. Dorothy gave an astonishing example of hospitality and mercy as a way of life. “We are here to celebrate Him,” she said time and again, “through the works of mercy.”
In my own life, every time I think 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, her example has had its influence. Every time I try to overcome meanness or selfishness rising up in myself, it is 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 cruel, 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.
In 1997, seventeen years after Dorothy’s death, one of her grandchildren, Kate Hennessy, wrote in The Catholic Worker: “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 am still wondering what hit me.
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Jim Forest / Alkmaar / text as of August 2010
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Dorothy Day at draft card burning Union Square NYC 6 Nov 1965 (photo by Jim Forest)