Guest Post: The Servant of God Dorothy Day – Learning from a life of service and prayer
I’m very happy to bring another guest post to my blog this week from one of my best friends Ben Menghini. If you are interested in writing a post for my blog about any subject, feel free to email me your idea and I’d love to post it.
Historian David O’Brien’s has said that Dorothy Day is “the most significant, interesting, and influential person in the history of American Catholicism.” For young Christians who are seeking to live a life modeled after Jesus, a life of peace and service and humility and worship, Day is a compelling hero who awakens our imaginations to the kingdom. The question “why is it important to study Dorothy Day?” is best answered with an anecdote from the preface of the book Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion, by Robert Coles, a friend of Dorothy’s and professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at Harvard Medical School. Coles is remembering the day that he met Dorothy in Chicago in 1952. Entering a Catholic Worker soup kitchen on the Lower East Side, he spotted two middle aged women sitting together having a strange conversation. One of the women was very drunk, and carrying on about absurd stories with wild exclamations. The other woman who sat by was in fact Dorothy Day. As Coles stood by and listened the following took place:
I found myself increasingly confused by what seemed to be an interminable, essentially absurd exchange taking place between two middle-aged women. When would it end – the alcoholic ranting and the silent nodding, occasionally interrupted by a brief question, which only served, maddeningly, to wind up the already overtalkative one rather than wind her down? Finally, silence fell upon the room. Dorothy Day asked the woman if she would mind an interruption. She got up and came over to me. She said, “Are you waiting to talk with one of us?”
One of us: with those three words she had cut through layers of self-importance, a lifetime of bourgeois privilege, and scraped the hard bone of pride: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” With those three words, so quietly and politely spoken, she had indirectly told me what the Catholic Worker Movement is all about and what she herself was like (Coles, xviii).
Dorothy Day was a lifetime activist who protested for the rights of women in the 1920s, for poor workers during The Great Depression of the 1930s, for Peace during WWII in the 1940s, against nuclear weapons in the nuclear arms race of the 1950s, and for civil rights in the South during the 1960s. She was baptized Catholic in 1927, but was soon frustrated by a lack of social action in the church. She met Peter Maurin in 1932, a man of similar convictions, and they founded the Catholic Workers Movement, originally a newspaper that expanded to a series of houses of hospitality across the United States. Coles does a phenomenal job of summarizing Dorothy’s life after founding the Catholic Workers Movement:
From May Day 1933 until November 29, 1980, when she died, Dorothy Day lived without interruption as a Catholic Worker. She edited the paper of that name, she lived in the hospitality houses of that name, and she traveled by bus across the United States, teaching and speaking, helping to cook, and sitting with people the rest of us call bums or homeless or drunks. She also kept saying her prayers, going through devotional rhythms, reading and rereading the books she loved, and writing her Catholic Worker column, “On Pilgrimage.” Tamar grew up at her side, then left, married, and made her mother a grandmother numerous times.
During those years Dorothy Day took on many a controversy. She stood up to Franco when he started the Spanish civil war, thereby losing lots of Catholic readers who saw Franco as a godsend who was leading a Catholic charge against the atheists, the Communists who had taken over Spain. She argued the case for pacifism during the Second World War, a lonely stance, indeed, and one that many of her closest friends, her most enthusiastic coworkers adamantly rejected. After the war, she continued her work among the poor and on behalf of those whom we now call minorities… I well remember her during the 1960s, riding buses in the South, involving herself in the civil rights struggle… wherever she was, she found time every day for prayer, for reading the Bible, for attending Mass, taking Communion, and saying confession (Coles, 15-16).
One of her defining characteristics was her devotion to Christian Pacifism and nonviolent activism. These were not “extras” to Day, and neither were works of mercy. She saw all of them as the very heart of what it meant to live like Jesus did. She is often described as a radical, but that would not likely be a title Day would have selected for herself. In here eyes there was nothing radical about what she was doing. It wasn’t radical Christianity, it was just Christianity.
Anyone who met, has read, or studied Dorothy Day would be quick to notice two things about her, possibly the most important things to know: her ceaseless humility, and her devotion to prayer. Cole describes her as one who never tired of lowering herself to be the servant of those around her, just as the story of Dorothy and the alcoholic testify. Indeed, prayer was her routine, and besides calling to Catholics to social action, she was most often heard reminding Catholics to keep their prayers. She tells a story of what it was that set apart the Catholic Worker Movement and various other “charities.”
Many young people have come here and worked with us, and they tell us after a while that they have learned a lot and are grateful to us, but they disagree with us on various matters – our pacifism, our opposition to the death penalty, our interest in small communities, and our opposition to the coercive power of the state. You people are impractical, they tell us, nice idealists, but not headed anywhere big and important. They are right. We are impractical, as one of us put it, as impractical as Calvary. There is no point in trying to make us into something we are not. We are not another Community Fund group, anxious to help people with some bread and butter and a cup of coffee or tea. We feed the hungry, yes; we try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes, if we have some, but there is a strong faith at work; we pray. If an outsider who comes to visit doesn’t pay attention to our praying and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point of things.
We are here to bear witness to our Lord. We are here to follow His lead. We are here to celebrate Him through these works of mercy. We are here, I repeat, to follow His lead – to oppose war and the murder of our fellow human beings, to reach out to all we see and meet (Coles, 97).
Dorothy Day may be among the most important 20th Century figures that we can study today. She continues to have relevance as her life teaches us the meaning of humility, mercy, grace, and living as Christ did. She provokes in us many important questions. What kind of people do we need to be to love the poor? What does it mean to live nonviolently? Is the Catholic Worker Movement exclusively Roman Catholic, grown out of the Church’s social teaching? Or can the Catholic Worker Movement inspire other Christians to live radical lives of devotion (as it has for Shaine Claiborne, Sean Gladding, and other new monastics?). How can we live more like Jesus did?
In the end, Coles reminds us, as Dorothy reminded him, that the world is full of contradictions, and life is about living in the tension of those contradictions. Coles notes how Dorothy’s own life was a contradiction:
She was always trying to be alone with God, yet she lived in a community where it was hard to find even the conventional privacy of the comfortable bourgeois life. She was always trying to get her own particular moment with God, with Jesus, yet she also loved the crowds in certain Catholic churches and the submergence of all those individuals in worship. She craved secluded study, to be lost in thought and prayer – the nearer the ocean the better – yet she lived near urban din and engaged daily in dozens of collective projects. Though she had both a contemplative and prophetic mind, her life was an active, essentially pastoral one: feed the hungry, house the needy, care for the sick. She was an earthly, political, practical-minded person, yet she could be almost willfully blind to the world’s habits and priorities as she persisted in the direction of her faith (Coles, 159).
Dorothy quoted to Coles Cardinal Suhard, the archbishop of Paris: “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda or even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery; it means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist” (Suhard, quoted in Coles, 160).
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