Dorothy Day: Entertaining Angels
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 17, 2008
The tenement they settled in in Chicago’s South Side was a far step down from the kinds of homes they had had previously. At first, Dorothy hated it, and felt great shame at her family’s reduced circumstances. But soon, she developed a great love for her neighborhood—indeed, for all places where poor, working, marginalized people live and struggle and do their best to survive. To her, such places represented real life at its fullest and most rich; to her, the sights and sounds and smells of the city exploded with a deep and full humanity: “Drab streets were transformed by pungent odors: geranium and tomato plants, garlic, olive oil, roasting coffee, bread and rolls in bakery ovens. ‘Here,’ she said, ‘was enough beauty to satisfy me.’”
Even when her father was made sports editor of a leading Chicago daily, and the family moved to a comfortable house on the more fashionable North Side, Dorothy would come back to her former haunts, talking long walks along the South Side, visiting with former friends.
As a youngster, she did well in school, and seemed to inherit her father’s skills as a writer. But when awarded a scholarship to the University of Illinois at Urbana in 1914, she attended only those classes that interested her. Instead, she read what she felt like— classics like Shakespeare and Dante and Milton, but also radical social thinkers like Marx and Engels. Ever willful and independent, she refused to accept money from her father any more, and insisted on supporting herself. She took a job as a waitress in a coffee shop, and began hanging around with the school’s more radical elements. By 1916, she had dropped out of college and moved back to New York City.
She settled in Greenwich Village, continued to frequent left wing gatherings, and became a reporter with The Call, the city’s only socialist daily. Later, she would write for other leftist publications as well, newspapers with names like The Liberator and The Masses. She covered workers’ strikes, the plight of political prisoners, the lack of legal protection for labor unions, the tensions among various elements of the Left—Communists, Anarchists, Socialists, and International Workers of the World—or the “Wobblies” as they were called. She never joined any of them formally, but called herself a socialist, and said, if asked, that she would accept the epithet “Communist” more as a compliment than as a slur.
During this period, Dorothy Day marched with the suffragists, and in 1917, was arrested for picketing outside the White House. In jail, the only thing she had to read was a copy of the Psalms. They planted certain spiritual seeds within her that were still to lie fallow for a number of years. Released from jail, she resumed something of a bohemian lifestyle. She became pregnant by a man who insisted she have an (of course, back then illegal and dangerous) abortion, or he would leave her. She had the abortion, but he left anyway, and Dorothy emerged completely traumatized by the experience. She eventually wrote a novel about the experience called The Eleventh Virgin.
But more and more, Dorothy Day sensed that something deeper was missing from her life: something she later characterized as “the long loneliness”. Her life—fully of activity and friends and even apparent purpose—seemed lacking a spiritual, transcendent dimension. In 1922, in Chicago working as a reporter, she roomed with three young women, devout Catholics, who went to Mass every Sunday and prayed daily. From them, she gained the sense that “worship, adoration, thanksgiving, supplication… were the noblest acts of which we are capable in this life…” Watching the girls at prayer, she said, she “felt a burst of love toward [them] which I have never forgotten.” She felt more and more attracted toward the Christian ideal of service to others, and Catholicism, especially, as the church of immigrants and the poor.
But she continued to move around for a while. She took a job as a reporter for a newspaper in New Orleans (and even worked on the side as a cab driver there for a while). In New Orleans, she lived near Jackson Square, next door to St. Louis Cathedral, where she would often visit in the evenings, late at night.
In 1924, she sold the rights to The Eleventh Virgin to Hollywood, and moved back to New York. She bought a small beach cottage on Staten Island, and settled into a long-term relationship with Forster Batterham, a retired biologist many years her senior. With Foster, Dorothy confided her newfound interest in religion and spirituality, something with which Batterham, a confirmed anarchist, had little sympathy. She would try to broach with him her newfound wonder in the beauty of the natural world—God’s world, she now believed. But when their discussions lead invariably to quarrels, she remained silent, in order to keep their relationship together.
But in 1926, Dorothy Day discovered she was again pregnant. For years, she had longed for a child in her life, but had assumed that the back-alley abortion she had had eight years before had left her barren. She believed that God’s grace was again at work. She would keep her child, she affirmed, and more than anything now, she wanted her offspring to be baptized when he or she was born. She sought out the nuns at a small Catholic parish, Our Lady Help of Christians, near her home on Staten Island, and surreptitiously underwent religious instruction. When her daughter, Tamar Theresa Day, was born in March 1927, Dorothy arranged to have her baptized almost immediately. “I did not want my child to flounder as I had often floundered,” she wrote later. “I wanted my child to believe, and if belonging to a Church would give her so inestimable a grace as faith in God, and the companionable love of the Saints, then the thing to do was to have her baptized…”
This was too much for Batterham, who left soon thereafter. Dorothy and Tamar were now alone with one another. Dorothy began writing again to support her child and herself, and often took to the road on assignment for various publications. In the winter of 1932, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to cover the National Hunger March for the Catholic publications, Commonweal and America. She stood on the sidelines as thousands marched for jobs, unemployment insurance, old age pensions, relief for mothers and children, universal healthcare, and better housing. She felt tormented by covering the march as a “detached observer” rather than as a participant.
It was December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and when the march had concluded, Dorothy went to church, and got on her knees, and asked for divine guidance. Later, she wrote: “I felt keenly that God was more on the side of the hungry, the ragged, the unemployed, than on the side of the comfortable churchgoers, who gave so little heed to the misery of the needy and the groaning of the poor. I had prayed that some way should open up for me to do something, to line myself up on their side, to work for them, so that I would no longer feel I had been false to them in embracing my newfound faith… I offered up a special prayer… that some way could open up to me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.” That evening, she returned to New York.
The very next day, December 9, an odd man named Peter Maurin appeared at her doorstep. Maurin, twenty years Day’s senior, had been born into a peasant family in France, had joined the Christian Brothers, and had left France (and his vocation as a priest) for Canada in 1908. Later, he made his way to the United States, where he had adopted the way of St. Francis, embracing poverty as his vocation. Maurin owned a single suit, the pockets of which were always bulging with the books he was currently reading. But what he lacked in money, Maurin had a-plenty in ideas, and at his very first meeting with Day, he poured them out in a seemingly endless cascade.
They had been called to found a new movement within Christianity together, Maurin told her. She was found a new newspaper, he said—one that would give a voice to the quest for social justice within the church. They must also establish “Houses of Hospitality” to provide aid to the poor, whenever and wherever it was needed. There must be farms eventually, too, Maurin said, where people could grow their own food, and live independently of the corruptions of capitalist society. And there must be places for the “clarification of though”—discussion circles-- where people of a wide range of economic classes and ages and lifestyle and perspectives could share their ideas and edify one another. Together, he said, they would launch a “revolution of the heart”. We are still waiting for that revolution to take place, but out of Maurin’s vision, and Day’s hard work and dedication, the Christian Worker Movement was founded.
By the next spring, Dorothy Day had published the first issue of The Catholic Worker, with a circulation of 2,500. The cost was to be one cent an issue—“so cheap that anyone could afford to buy it,” she said. By December of the next year, circulation was over 100,000.
Day’s own apartment in New York served as both the newspaper’s main office and the first “House of Hospitality”. Soon, an apartment was rented in Greenwich Village for needy women; shortly thereafter, a neighboring unit was secured for homeless men. They were “grey men,” Dorothy Day wrote, “the color of lifeless trees and bushes and winter soil, who had in them as yet none of the green of hope, the rising sap of faith.” To all who appeared at her doorstep, Dorothy Day offered the hospitality of Christ—“I was a stranger and you took me in.” She took as her precedent the verse from the epistle to the Hebrews; "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."
By 1936, the Catholic Worker Movement had somehow raised the money to purchase two buildings in Chinatown to carry out its work. There were also thirty-six other “Houses of Hospitality” now, spread all across the country. At this time of Depression, there were plenty of prospective “ambassadors of Christ” who needed help.
Certainly, the movement would always have its critics. Some criticized Day and Maurin for not differentiating from the “deserving poor” willing to help themselves, and those just seeking to subsist on the handouts of others. When a visiting social worker asked Day how long her “clients” were allowed to stay, she replied: “We let them stay forever. They live with us, they die with us, 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.”
Some would quote scripture at her: “Didn’t Jesus say that the poor would always be with us?” they would ask her. “Yes,” Dorothy Day would respond, “but we are not content that there should be so many of them. The class structure is by our making and by our consent, not God’s” she continued, “and we must do what we can to change it. We are urging revolutionary change.”
Too revolutionary, in the eyes of some within the Church—and beyond. Many—including numerous Catholic bishops—feared that the Catholic Workers Movement was “Communist inspired”. Day took the criticism in stride; she had gotten used to being labeled a Red. She was a convert from Communism, after all, and admitted that “the wine bottle will always smell of the vintage it once contained.”
But it was in her uncompromising pacifism that Dorothy Day came in for the most criticism—especially during the years of the Second World War. She would not suspend the Sermon on the Mount for the duration of the war, she said, and the rosaries said by her followers in their Houses of Hospitality each day should be for peace, she said, not victory. In the face of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the evils of Hitler’s aggression, such an absolutist pacifist stand was too much for many of her own co-workers. Many left the Catholic Workers movement, while many others were drafted into the armed forces and served (more or less) willingly. Numerous Houses of Hospitality closed; both Catholic bishops and the F.B.I, threatened to close the movement down, and the Catholic Workers Movement emerged from World War II just a shadow of its former self.
But Dorothy Day persisted. As the Civil Rights movement coalesced, she was there—and the Catholic Workers movement with her. In 1957, she traveled to rural Georgia, where one of her communities where blacks and whites lived and worked side=by-side in peace was under attack by the local Ku Klux Klan. One night, as she took her turn at the sentry post outside the community’s main gate, an approaching car reduced its speed, and a man inside opened fire. Dorothy ducked—just in time—as a bullet struck the wall in front of her.
As opposition to the nuclear arms race increased, Dorothy Day was there—and the Catholic Workers Movement with her. Concern with the Church’s response to the threat of nuclear war led her to Rome in 1963, where she was one of 50 “Mothers for Peace” who thanked Pope John XXIII for his encyclical “Pacem in Terris” (“Peace on Earth”). At one of his final public audiences, the Pope (now near death) blessed the pilgrims and implored them to continue their efforts for peace.
As opposition to American involvement in Vietnam grew, Dorothy Day was there—and so was the Catholic Workers Movement. One observer has remarked that “there has never been a newspaper [where] so many of its editors have been jailed for acts of conscience” as the Catholic Worker. Over the course of her long life, Dorothy herself was jailed scores of times—the last time in 1973, at the age of 75, in support of picketing farm workers in California.
Indeed, with the passage of time, the ideals for which Dorothy Day stood have become only more relevant, not less. In 1975, she was honored in Rome at an International Congress of the Laity, where she received communion personally from Pope Paul VI. On her 75th birthday in 1972, the Jesuit magazine America devoted an entire issue to her, calling her the individual who best exemplified “the aspiration of action of the American Catholic community during the past forty years.” More than anyone else, they said, she had lived out a vision of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”
Among those who came to visit her when she could no longer travel was Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who pinned on her the cross of the Missionaries of Charity. They were very different women in many ways, Dorothy and Teresa were. But the same love of the poor—and the same love of the Gospel—guided them both.
Soon after her death in 1980, the process began to have Dorothy Day declared a saint. She had wanted none of such talk when she was alive. “Don’t call me a saint,” she had told a reporter once. “I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”
Whether she is a saint or not, officially, is for others to decide.
But we can know, surely, that Dorothy Day was a prophet: a shining lodestar guiding us toward that revolution of the heart—that great transformation of the Spirit-- for which we still yearn, and for which we all are called to labor.