Dorothy Day's gospel with teeth


Dorothy DayIt is 30 years this week since Dorothy Day died. She was a quirky woman who lived on the margins of Church and United States society. But her life bears reflection if we look for directions to take in our different circumstances.

Day was born in 1897 and became a radical socialist during her university years. After dropping out, she went to New York and worked as a journalist. She was active in radical politics, briefly married, had an abortion and was jailed for her political action.

Her interest in the Catholic Church crystallised in her decision to have her child baptised in 1924, despite her knowledge that it would lead to separation from her partner.

After being torn between her faith and solidarity with the poor, she met a travelling French Catholic intellectual, Peter Maurin. Through him she found her life's work in founding the Catholic Worker newspaper with a radical commitment to social justice, beginning houses of hospitality where anyone in need could find a home, and in advocating pacifism. She was arrested many times during her life, and died in 1980.

Day's life is significant for many reasons. Like her United States contemporary, Trappist monk Thomas Merton, she held up a mirror to the Church but from an unaccustomed angle. She came to Catholicism as an adult, with memories of the experiences and passions that had first gripped her imagination. So she saw see the Catholic Church from outside and heard the Gospel played in a different key.

One of the most poignant points of her journey was after her conversion. She felt that she could not join Communist marchers in support of strikers. Catholics did not consort with Communists. But the Gospel led her to stand in solidarity between the strikers. That she felt this as a dilemma remains disquieting for later Catholic readers.

As this story suggests, Day lived her life with a radical edge. In the house of hospitality she lived with the poor, mentally ill and alcoholic, with their sounds, violent moods and smells. During the Spanish Civil War and World War 2 the Catholic Worker espoused a pacificist stance which was anathema to many Catholics. She was frequently arrested and jailed for the causes she adopted. The Gospel she heard had teeth.

But more significant today than her conversion or her causes was the texture of Day's life. The threads that joined her faith, her guiding principles and the people she gave herself to were quite distinctive. Her life was lived in harsh conditions, but the way she put its elements together was sweet and attractive.

Each thread was radical. The first was a reflective solidarity with the poor. It was expressed in facing jail with marginalised groups, and in the production of the Catholic Worker where the ethical demands of Christian faith in hard times could be explored.

The second thread was hospitality. The houses of hospitality were open to all who came. She saw this hospitality as an expression of every Christian's call to welcome the stranger.

The practice of hospitality coloured her commitment to social action and to reflection on the situation of the poor. These were grounded in intimate familiarity with the battered faces and messy lives of people who came to the houses. It was impossible there to idealise the poor or to think abstractly about justice.

The third thread was pacifism. This was a political stance, but also personal. It was demanding at both levels. Open hospitality of the kind involved in the Catholic Worker houses ensured violence was a fact of life. Many people who sought refuge were wounded and knew only violent responses to frustration. So the houses could be communities only if violence was met by a philosophy and practice of non-violence.

It also followed that illegal action in solidarity with the poor or against war must be based on respect for one's opponents.

These threads are all receptive, not aggressive or strategic. The poor are embraced, the homeless made welcome and the violent accepted. This receptivity provides the characteristic sweetness in a harsh reality. For Day, the three threads were woven together by faith lived within the Catholic community.

Modern observers may be struck by the devotional and almost submissive character of Day's faith. She accepted the community of faith in which she found herself, showing great respect for bishops and priests for all their frailties.

But this quality of her faith also came from her unrelenting focus on what mattered. To her the concrete lives of people whom God loved mattered above all. The wounds she took from other Catholics in following her way did not matter much. People mattered very much.

Her life still speaks to our contemporary world. At a time when political and church life are fragmented, and people are easily preoccupied with the frailties of institutions and personalities, she encourages us to go into the streets and to ask what matters.

Could we find a better answer than her mixture of solidarity with the poor, a reflective spirit, radical hospitality and pacifism? And if we could find a better answer, how could it be lived as sweetly and as strongly as she did? 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. This article is being published simultaneously with the Dutch Jesuit online magazine, Ignis.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Dorothy Day, Catholic Worker



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Existing comments

Thank you Andrew for the reflective reminder. Well written and from the heart.

Andrew | 30 November 2010  

Andrew, Dorothy was never actually "married". She and Forster shared a common-law union only because of the length of time that they lived together before her conversion. Forster, an anarchist, despised all conventional contracts.

Other than that, lovely piece. Thank you.

Miki Tracy | 30 November 2010  

I only ever visited New York for a few days some years ago and I cannot begin to imagine the courage and dedication required to take on that bastion of capitalist excess with even the most delicate form of socialism. The very skyscrapers bellow out: Don't you even think of taking us on. You little people will always be at the bottom of the pile.

Where did Dorothy get her serenity and courage from? Did she have a sacramental life as well as some innate drive to foster her work among the marginalised of NY society?

Andrew might describe her as living her chosen vocation sweetly, what I sense most is her living her life courageously.

Uncle Pat | 30 November 2010  

Great article. thank you. I wish Dorothy Day were better known. Is she being proposed for canonisation in America?

Cath Wallace | 30 November 2010  

Thanks for the reminder about this extraordinary woman.

Di anne mackenzie | 30 November 2010  

Thank you, Andrew.I have for many years had a great admiratiion for Dorothy Day, a truly prophetic,courageous and compassionate woman.For me, she is an unsung saint.Like Cath, I would wish her to be better known.

Maryrose Dennehy | 30 November 2010  

Once again Andrew I am indebted to you. Thanks for a timely reminder of a true prophet's life. Whether she will ever be canonised is to me quite beside the point. What an exemplar of virtue coupled with human weakness too. There is hope for us all!

Ern Azzopardi | 30 November 2010  

A wonderful reflection on the life of the ordinary woman who accomplished the utterly extraordinary in the name of the Gospel. Her faith was in many ways a kind of fundamentalism.

Impertinently, she believed in and lived the Beatitudes and took literally Mt 25: 31-46. Her lived faith and piety could not be dismissed by the cynical Marxist 'opiate of the masses.' It's no wonder that, at the end of her life, Notre Dame U awarded her with the famous medal for her, "Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.'

David Timbs Albion. Vic. | 30 November 2010  

Thanks Andrew for your perception and the quiet, sure challenge of your words. Your own patron held before us this day had a gift of perception and did not keep his discovery to himself.

Janice Tranter | 30 November 2010  

I enjoyed reading the article.

Please credit the photo to the Milwaukee Journal. (It was taken on Dorothy's visit to Milwaukee in February 1968.)

Dorothy was indeed briefly married--to Berkeley Tobey. Her common-law union with Batterham came later. Their daughter, Tamar, was born in 1926 and baptized the next year.

Phil Runkel | 30 November 2010  

I believe her canonisation process has been opened -Please God she will be canonised not least of all because she is such an encouragement to women who have had abortions to draw on the mercy of God and find a new beginning in Jesus

colleen | 01 December 2010  

Thank you for the great words about Dorothy Day 40 years ago I spent time at the house of hospitality ..what an experience . The true and total living out of love was a profound experience.When leaving a battered man said he would walk me to the bus ..he insisted..His words"see those rubbish bins ..if I say so "get in" get in and hold the lid on tight

annetine forell | 01 December 2010  

Andrew, great biographical piece on Dorothy. The Catholic Worker in Australia continues the work which she started. Last Sunday we held a vigil on the steps of St Marys Cathedral Sydney to oppose the appointment of Iraq war general, Peter Cosgrove to the position of chancellor of Australian Catholic University. We continue to do works of mercy, hospitality and non-violently oppose war and all other forms of injustice.

It is great that Dorothy is heading for canonisation but it is important that her work is not trivialized. Instead, genuine Catholics should consider taking up her cause and put the Gospels into action.

If you support or admire, Dorothy Day then please consider supporting the work of the Catholic Worker Movement.

Jim Dodrill | 02 December 2010  

Andrew, great biographical piece on Dorothy. The Catholic Worker in Australia continues the work which she started. Last Sunday we held a vigil on the steps of St Marys Cathedral Sydney to oppose the appointment of Iraq war general, Peter Cosgrove to the position of chancellor of Australian Catholic University. We continue to do works of mercy, hospitality and non-violently oppose war and all other forms of injustice.

It is great that Dorothy is heading for canonisation but it is important that her work is not trivialized. Instead, genuine Catholics should consider taking up her cause and put the Gospels into action.

If you support or admire, Dorothy Day then please consider supporting the work of the Catholic Worker Movement.

Jim Dodrill | 02 December 2010  

Dorothy Day married the active life of social protest and the contemplative life of silence before the mystery of God. When she travelled she took her bible and the breviary along with whatever other reading she was immersed in at the time. Daily mass and quiet time before the Blessed Sacrament were her bread and butter. It humbles me to think of this indomitable woman who lived the Gospel with such passion and who loved the church and the churchmen who sometimes treated her so badly and who was so matter of fact about the realities of Catholic-Christian life. Her autobiography is a profound account of this wonderful woman. Thanks Andrew for a thoughtful article.

Paul O'Shea | 02 December 2010  

Thanks very much for a very good article Andrew. I remember I once wrote wrote an angry response to an article(or editorial perhaps) published in Madonna magazine comparing Anzac Day and Good Friday. You were the editor of "Madonna" at the time. I did not expect it to be published (or I would have watered it down!)and was amazed by your humility in doing so. What followed was a much needed debate by readers on the issues of the church and war. Your respect for Dorothy Day, would be very mutual I am sure, if she were alive today.

jim dowling | 02 December 2010  

Yes, Dorothy lived on the margins of secular US society. But in what sense can you claim that she lived on the margins of the Church? She was right in the middle of the Church, outstandingly devout, integrated and principled even by the standards of those days.

Her [pacifism might have been "anathema to many Catholics" but it was right in step with pope Pius XII, who 40 years after his death was outrageously slurred as "soft on Nazis" and even "Hitler's pope" for his trouble.

Peter Kennedy | 02 December 2010  

I remember Dorothy Day came to Australia with Eileen Egan and stayed at the Freshwater presbytery as a quest of the then parish priest Fr. Roger Pryke.

Dorothy Day also spoke at a Vietnam anti-war rally at Sydney Town Hall.
A book is soon to be published about Roger Pryke written by local author Francis R Harvey.

John Brannan | 03 December 2010  

One quote attributed to Dorothy Day states, 'The Church is a whore, but she is our mother'. I hear a lot of truth in that statement.

Michael Vaughan | 04 December 2010  

Nicely written!

You might enjoy something I wrote about my own memories of Dorothy:

In a slightly different form this will serve as an afterword in a biography of Dorothy -- "All is Grace -- that Orbis will soon be publishing:

Jim Forest

Jim Forest | 07 December 2010  

When I was growing up in New York, Dorothy Day was a household name in my family.

My godfather, Stephen Johnson, and his wife Mary were early members of the Catholic Worker and helped run the farm and looked after Tamara Day for several years.

Even after moving on, they led lives of radical simplicity and poverty and people often spoke of Mary Johnson as a saint of the Bowery.

I can still remember my parents taking usable clothing and other gifts to the Worker House on Chrystie Street. There were also the Friday evening talks at "The Worker" with speakers like Daniel Berrigan.

Later, I attended a Mass of celebration of Dorothy's eightieth birthday, held at St. Joseph Church in Greenwich Village. The church was packed, although the honoree was not well enough to attend. Frank Sheed, of Sheed and Ward publishers, spoke eloquently that evening.

Now, all these years later, I am happy to report that students at my son's school here in Florida did projects and reports about her for their saints' day projects in November. So, whether canonized or not, she is still remembered in some corners of America.

Sheila Donohue | 20 December 2010  

Thank you for this piece, which I have come upon rather late, on that remarkable woman, Dorothy Day. I interviewed Dorothy for thirty minutes on national television during her visit to Australia in 1970. Yes, there was the pacifism, there was submissive faith - but, my God, there was strength.

One of the best examples of that awe-inspiring strength was her unqualified commitment to supporting such groups as the farm workers of California led by Cesar Chavez and her rejection of funds offered by foundations of billionaires which she described as 'dirty money'. To anyone who
dared to suggest she had saint-like qualities she would reply 'you can't dismiss me that easily'.

John Nicholson | 23 August 2011  

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