Saturday, August 24, 2013

Dorothy Day: Saint or Trouble-maker?

Icon Credit DDIconByTsai-sm

This post is a very rough draft. I am sending it out to some friends who knew Dorothy Day (or of her) for personal reflections, quotes and stories. (Yet other readers are welcome to add comments.)

My plan is soon to revise this post (perhaps into a series). Please disregard the unpolished quality here and come back in a week or so for a profile more honoring to a woman who still speaks to us as we walk our own streets where the "landed" and the "desperate" and everyone else in-between aimlessly wander looking for true light.

Dorothy Day has LONG been a part of my life: perhaps she's somehow been with me ALL my life -- ever since I met her decades ago at Jubilee Partners Refugee Community in Comer, Georgia. I met her in the book she wrote years before that: "Loaves and Fishes". Somehow she's been with me even when I was not aware at times of her presence. Her heart has remained sometimes in the shadows of my life. She has fueled my own much weaker one with her passion for peace and her love for those on the outskirts of "usual life". She haunts me when my unsteady feet get out of order with her steps.

Most of all, I can't refuse to see in her eyes, her life and her energy the Love for her Lord and for her Lord's Father. Her life and writings have a way of ordering our steps in the steps of God's word to us in His Son, Jesus.
I can't forget her love for the poorest of the poor as friends. She was was born in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, and raised in San Francisco and Chicago. These are the places which helped shape her life and vision.

Prayer For The Canonization
of Servant of God
Dorothy Day

Merciful God, you called your servant
Dorothy Day to show us the face of
Jesus in the poor and forsaken.
By constant practice
of the works of mercy,
she embraced poverty and witnessed
steadfastly to justice and peace.
Count her among your saints
and lead us all to become friends of
the poor ones of the earth,
and to recognize you in them.
We ask this through your Son
Jesus Christ, bringer of good news
to the poor. Amen

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Dorothy Day Library

Find items below on The Catholic Worker Library:

"The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?"

This post and the references below are devoted to the writings and life of Dorothy Day who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement with Peter Maurin in 1933.

US bishops currently endorse the sainthood cause of Catholic Worker's Dorothy Day


"Saint Dorothy?"
from Dorothy Day - Saint and Troublemaker By


If Dorothy Day is ever canonized, she will be the patron saint not only of homeless people and those who try to care for them but also of people who lose their temper.

If Dorothy Day is ever canonized, the record of who she was, what she was like and what she did is too complete and accessible for her to be hidden in wedding cake icing. She will be the patron saint not only of homeless people and those who try to care for them but also of people who lose their temper. Dorothy Day was certainly not without her rough edges.

To someone who told her she was too hot-headed, she replied, “I hold more temper in one minute than you will hold in your entire life.” To a college student who asked a sarcastic question about her recipe for soup, she responded, “You cut the vegetables until your fingers bleed.” To a journalist who told her it was the first time he had interviewed a saint, she replied, “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

I was 20 years old the first time I saw her. She was ancient, that is to say 62 years old — seven years older than I am today. This means for 35 years she has been scolding and encouraging me on a daily basis. The mere fact of her having died 17 years ago doesn’t seem to get in the way.

I met her at the Catholic Worker Farm on Staten Island in the days when the island still had rural areas, its only link to the rest of New York City being the ferry. People sometimes think of her as the personification of the simple life, but in reality her days tended to be busy, complicated, and stressful. Often she was away traveling — visiting other Catholic Worker communities, speaking at colleges, seminaries, local parishes, getting around by bus or a used car on its last spark plugs.

Her basic message was stunningly simple: we are called by God to love one another as He loves us. If “God” was one key word, “hospitality” was another. She repeated again and again a saying from the early Church, “Every home should have a Christ room in it, so that hospitality may be practiced.” Hospitality, she explained, is simply practicing God’s mercy with those around us. Christ is in the stranger, in the person who has nowhere to go and no one to welcome him. “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed,” she often said.

A day never passed without Dorothy speaking of the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, giving shelter to the homeless, caring for sick, visiting prisoners, burying the dead, admonishing the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving all injuries, praying for the living and the dead. She helped us understand a merciful life has many levels: there is hunger not only for food but also for faith, not only for a place at the table but also for a real welcome, not only for assistance but also for listening, not only for kind words but also for truthful words. There is not only hospitality of the door but also hospitality of the face and heart. As she said, “We are here to celebrate Him through these works of mercy.”

For all her traveling, most of Dorothy’s life was spent in New York City. Before her conversion, in 1924 when she was 28 years old, she had bought a small beach house on Staten Island that remained part of her life until she too weak to make the trip any more. It was a simple structure with a few plain rooms and a cast iron stove. Walking on the beach or to the post office, rosary in hand, she prayed her way through an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, prayed her way through the Baltimore Catechism, prayed her way to her daughter Tamar’s baptism in a nearby Catholic parish, prayed her way through the collapse of a common-law marriage and to her own baptism, prayed her way through the incomprehension of her atheist friends who regarded all religion as snake oil. Years later it was mainly in the beach house that she found the peace and quiet to write her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.

If she was one of the freest persons alive, she was also one of the most disciplined. This was most notable in her religious life. Whether traveling or home, it was a rare day when Dorothy didn’t go to Mass, while on Saturday evenings she went to confession. Sacramental life was the rockbed of her existence. She never obliged anyone to follow her example, but God knows she gave an example. When I think of her, the first image that comes to mind is Dorothy on her knees praying before the Blessed Sacrament either in the chapel at the farm or in one of several urban parish churches near the Catholic Worker. One day, looking into the Bible and Missal she had left behind when summoned for a phone call, I found long lists of people, living and dead, whom she prayed for daily.

Occasionally she spoke of her “prayings”: “We feed the hungry, yes. 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.”

She was attentive to fast days and fast seasons. It was in that connection she told me a story about prayer. For many years, she said, she had been a heavy smoker. Her day began with lighting up a cigarette. 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 community was praying she would light up a smoke. One year, as Lent approached, the priest who ordinarily heard her confessions 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 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 — and never smoked another.

Dorothy was never “too polite” to speak about God. Nothing we achieved was ever our doing, it was only God’s mercy passing through us. Our own love wasn’t our love. If we experienced love for another person, whether wife or child or friend or enemy, it was God’s love. “If I have accomplished anything in my life,” she said late in her life, “it is because I wasn’t embarrassed to talk about God.”

People sometimes tell me how lucky I am to have been part of the same community that Dorothy Day belonged to. They picture a group of more or less saintly people having a wonderful time doing good works. In reality Catholic Worker community life in Manhattan in the early sixties had much in common with purgatory. The “staff” was made up of people with very different backgrounds, interests, temperaments and convictions. We ranged from the gregarious to the permanently furious.

Not everyone was all thorns but agreement within the staff was as rare as visits by the President of the United States. The most bitter dispute I experienced had to do with how best to use the small amounts of eggs, butter and other treats that sometimes were given to us — use them for “the line” (people we often didn’t know by name who lined up for meals) or the “family,” as had been the custom? Though we worked side by side, saw each other daily, and prayed together, staff tension had become too acute for staff meetings. The final authority was Dorothy Day, not a responsibility she enjoyed, but no one else could make a final decision that would be respected by the entire staff. In this case, when Dorothy returned from a cross-country speaking trip she told the two people running the kitchen that the butter and eggs should go to the family, which led to their resigning from kitchen work and soon after leaving the community trailing black smoke, convinced that Dorothy Day wasn’t living up to the writings of Dorothy Day.

One of the miracles of Dorothy’s life is that she remained part of a conflict-torn community for nearly half a century. Still more remarkable, she remained a person of hope and gratitude to the end.

Dorothy was and remains a controversial lady. There was hardly anything she did which didn’t attract criticism. Even hospitality scandalizes some people. We were blamed for making people worse, not better, because we were doing nothing to “reform them.” A social worker asked Dorothy one day how long the down-and-out were permitted to stay. “We let them stay forever,” Dorothy answered. “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.”

What got her in the most hot water was her sharp social criticism. She pointed out that patriotism was a more powerful force in most people’s lives than the Gospel. While she hated every kind tyranny and never ceased to be thankful for America having taken in so many people fleeing poverty and repression, she was fierce in her criticism of capitalism and consumerism. She said America had a tendency to treat people like Kleenex — use them, and throw them away. “Our problems stem,” she said, “from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”

She had no kind words for war or anything having to do with it — war was simply murder wrapped in flags. She was convinced Jesus had disarmed all his followers when he said to Peter, “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” A way of life based on love, including love of enemies, left no room for killing. You couldn’t practice the works of mercy with one hand and the works of vengeance with the other.

No stranger to prison, she was first locked up as a young woman protesting with Suffragettes in front of the White House during World War I and was last jailed in her seventies for picketing with farm workers. She took pride in the young men of the Catholic Worker who went to prison rather than be drafted — “a good way to visit the prisoner,” she pointed out. Yet she also welcomed back others who had left Catholic Worker communities in fight in the Second World War. They might disagree about the best way to fight Nazism, but — as she often said — “there is no ‘party line’ in the Catholic Worker movement.”

Dorothy was sometimes criticized for being too devout a Catholic. How could she be so radical about social matters and so conservative about her Church? While she occasionally deplored statements or actions by members of the hierarchy, she was by no means an opponent of the bishops or someone campaigning for structural changes in the Church. What was needed, she said, wasn’t new doctrine but our living the existing doctrine.

Pleased as she was when home Masses were allowed and the Liturgy translated into English, she didn’t take kindly to smudging the border between the sacred and mundane. When a priest close to the community used a coffee cup for a chalice at a Mass celebrated in the soup kitchen on First Street, she afterward took the cup, kissed it, and buried it in the back yard. It was no longer suited for coffee — it had held the Blood of Christ. I learned more about the Eucharist that day than I had from any book or sermon. It was a learning experience for the priest as well — thereafter he used a chalice.

Dorothy Day’s main achievement is that she taught us the “Little Way” of love, which it so happens involves cutting up a great many onions. The path to heaven, it seems, is marked by open doors and the smell of onions. “All the way to heaven is heaven,” she so often said, quoting Saint Catherine of Siena, “because He said, ‘I am the Way’.”

It was chiefly through the writings of Saint Therese of Lisieux that Dorothy had been drawn to the “Little Way.” No term, in her mind, better described the ideal Christian way of doing things. 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.”

It’s a century since Dorothy Day was born and nearly twenty years since she died, but she continues to touch our lives, not only as a person we remember with gratitude, but also as a saint — if by the word “saint” we mean a person who helps us see what it means to follow Christ.

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


Forest, Jim. “Dorothy Day — Saint and Troublemaker.” Canticle Magazine (Winter, 1998).

Reprinted with permission of Canticle Magazine.

Canticle: The Voice of Today’s Catholic Woman is published quarterly by Urbi et Orbi Communications. For subscription information visit their web site at or call 1.800.789-9494.


Jim Forest wrote Love is the Measure, a biography of Dorothy Day and, with Tom Cornell and Robert Ellsberg, co-edited A Penny a Copy: Readings from the Catholic Worker. His most recent book is Praying With Icons. (Orbis). He is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and editor of its quarterly journal, “In Communion,” and lives in the Netherlands.

Copyright © 1998 Canticle

Also see:

"Don't Call Me a Saint"--James Martin's reflection on bishops endorsement of Day's cause

Dorothy Day - Catholic Worker‎

Dorothy Day, Servant of God. Almost immediately after her death in 1980 controversy arose about whether Dorothy Day should be canonized a Saint. For more on her life, work and this controversy go to references to follow:

Dorothy Day - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia‎

Dorothy Day: Dorothy Day Guild - The Cause for Canonization‎ (Official Dorothy Day website. The Dorothy Day Guild of the Archdiocese of New York. Dorothy Day)

Saint Dorothy Day? Controversial, Yes, But Bishops Push For the same ... ( saint-dorothy-day-controv_n_2133584.htm )‎

Nov 14, 2012 - Born in Brooklyn in 1897, Day lived a bohemian life in New York City in the ....See:
"Dorothy Day Documentary: Don't Call Me a Saint" May be found on - YouTube.

Catholic 'Hero' Dorothy Day's Road To Sainthood : NPR See Dorothy Day at › News › Religion

Dec 1, 2012 - James Martin about the push for the canonization and eventual sainthood of Dorothy Day, the American-born mother of the Catholic Worker

Let's canonize Dorothy Day - Salt of the Earth - Claretian Publications‎

Let's canonize Dorothy Day

From September 1983 See references to following church leaders: Father Henry Fehren Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Cypnan, Lawrence, Chrysogonus

Activist Catholic Dorothy Day Considered for Sainthood

See (for dorothy-day) /1562055.html‎

Dec 10, 2012 - Dorothy Day is not a familiar name in the United States or around the world. ... U.S. bishops hope to have Day, who died in 1980, canonized.

Dorothy Day teaches us about the human person, archbishop says, ...1 day ago, He then pointed to Dorothy Day, whose cause for canonization is open. (He spoke of her understanding of herself as a person created by God in his image..‎

If Dorothy Day is ever canonized, she will be the patron saint not only of homeless people and those who try to care for them but also of people who lose their way (and sometimes these two categories of persons are one and the same)...

The following searches relate to the canonization of dorothy day

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•The Life of Dorothy Day (video)
•All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day by Jim Forest.
•Guild for Dorothy Day website
•The Diaries of Dorthy Day Now Published
•An icon of Dorothy Day by Nicholas Tsai


CN said...

Major figures who share/predate some of Day's understanding of more equatable social ideals with peace and Christ's teachings:

Francis of Assisi·

Leo Tolstoy·

Óscar Romero·

Gustavo Gutiérrez·

Daniel Berrigan·

Philip Berrigan·

Martin Luther King, Jr.·

Desmond Tutu·

CN said...

IF you look up "Loaves and Fishes" in a search engine you may run across some reprinted or old versions. For one publication you may find the full review from which I've taken some excerpts here:

57 of 59 people found the following review helpful
"All we give is given to us to give" By Kerry Walters VINE VOICE on January 16, 2004 So says Dorothy Day in "Loaves and Fishes" (p. 177), and it is both the heart of the book's message and the central theme of her adult life...Orbis has reprinted this classic personal history of the Catholic Worker movement...Dorothy tells how her depression-era meeting with Peter Maurin birthed first a newspaper, then a hospitality house, then a national movement. In addition, Dorothy tries to explain the underlying theological and spiritual principles of the Catholic Workers: the resistance to power structures that cynically refuse to care for society's most vulnerable; the Christ-inspired conviction that voluntary poverty (or what Dorothy called "precarity") is a mechanism for social reform as well as a transformative sharing in redemptive suffering; that the duty of Christians is to collaborate with God in the creation of God's Kingdom; and that in society as it's currently structured, one is either on the side of the poor or one is an exploiter--there's no fence-sitting. (see next comment for part II...

CN said...

Part II of the "Loaves and Fishes" review...

"As Peter Maurin says (quoted by Dorothy, p. 86): "We cannot see our brother [or sister] in need without stripping ourselves. It is the only [genuine] way we have of showing our love." Reading Dorothy Day is a reminder both of how far from the Gospel message most of us who call ourselves Christians live, and how wonderfully easy, joyful...By both her example and writings, Dorothy invites us to ask ourselves why we hold back...and inspires us to roll up our sleeves and accept the Gospel challenge. Let her have the final word here (p. 176):
"One of the greatest evils of the [a] sense of futility. People say, What good can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort?

...we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time..

'...we can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transorm all our individual actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes."