Dorothy Day, devoted to the poor
November 29, 1980 was the day Dorothy Day left this life for the next. Her journey was quite remarkable, and that is precisely why she is now being considered for canonization by the Catholic Church. Ironically, when she was called a saint by someone during her life, her response was a bit shocking: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” Her response probably was an act of humility, as most holy people do not see themselves as such. However, it is more likely that she did not want her work to be about her, but rather that it be about the nature of what she did. And more important, she wanted it to be about the God whom she served in the poor and marginalized. She did not care for accolades: the only attention she wanted was for the causes to which she devoted her life. She did not think of herself as a saint, but as a servant and a lover of God.
Dorothy Day was anything but self-conscious. She was a social activist and therefore was devoted to helping the poor. She is most known for the Catholic Worker movement she founded with Peter Maurin which was to promote nonviolent action on behalf of the poor and to directly help the poor with their needs. She was tenacious and determined. She was also outspoken and honest. These are traits that often get one noticed, and she was not always appreciated for working so hard for the causes she believed in. But she was always trying to live the Gospel after her own conversion from unbelief to belief.
Dorothy was born into a middle class family in New York in 1897. The family moved a number of times until they settled in Chicago where she went to college and was exposed to socialist ways of thinking. She moved to New York's Lower East Side and began a series of relationships with men, one of which included a short marriage and an abortion, but finally settled into a common law marriage. During this period she began to turn toward spirituality. She began to pray the Rosary and to attend Mass. She also had a baby daughter whom she sought to have baptized, much to the disagreement of the father. She broke up with him and sought her own entrance into the Catholic Church, becoming Catholic shortly thereafter.
A few years later she met Peter Maurin and they began the Catholic Worker Movement. Maurin was deeply devoted to Catholic theology and the social teaching of the Church. He shared this knowledge with Dorothy, who already had great leanings toward helping the poor. They began publishing the Catholic Worker in 1933 and then opened a “house of hospitality” for the poor in the slums and a number of farms, also for the poor. She worked tirelessly her entire life to help the poor not only with the necessities of life, but to promote social programs to help them. In the course of her life of ministry, she traveled all over the country and all over the world, even meeting Mother Teresa of Calcutta in India once, in order to share the message of the Gospel values of the power of love, peace, and justice for the poor.
Dorothy was probably not at all easy to live with or to work with. Often holy people are not. Their directness can be seen as abrasive and they can be most stubborn in carrying out their vision. Holy people are sometimes “difficult” to be around because they challenge us out of our comfortable complacency. They have a calling and live out of truth which is like a fire inside of them. It is a prophetic kind of lifestyle because the holy person sees ills that need attending to, and in doing so they bring them to light. We can no longer pretend we do not see the issues and so it makes us uncomfortable.
Dorothy Day does teach us a lot. For one thing, the ills of poverty are still with us, and as Jesus said, they always will be. That does not mean that we are to throw up our hands in frustration and futility and do nothing. Dorothy shows us that every little action to help the poor has value. One person cannot solve the problems of poverty, but many can work together to make a change and to serve the needs of those who are on the edges of society. Even if all we can do is give an hour of our time once a week, it is something. It does make a difference. For some it may mean a donation of money. For others it is a donation of time and caring. Dorothy also teaches us that everyone can change and grow no matter where we have traveled in our lives. She became an activist against abortion, having learned from her own mistakes. She let God heal what was broken within her. And in doing so she was able to grow into a holy person.
Working to help the poor does not just mean helping the homeless. We have many brothers and sisters in our communities who are the hidden poor. That is, they may live in homes and have jobs, but at minimum wage, barely making ends meet. We have brothers and sisters all over our country who are in need, such as those in the New York and New Jersey area who are homeless or whose homes are in terrible repair due to the recent super storm. One of my friends from the NY area recently gave up some of her holiday vacation to aid stricken people. She reported how many needs there are, but how much gratitude there was in the people who were in need. People like my friend are my heroes and are just as inspiring as Dorothy Day. Regardless of our religious affiliations, our incomes, or where we live, there is always someone whose life we can enrich with a little bit of kindness and sharing.
Dorothy Day shows us that we can work for justice peacefully, which is the message of Jesus. We have a voice in how we vote, we have a voice in writing a letter to an elected official, we have a voice in our actions, but the Gospel shows us that it has to be a voice of peace if it is going to be effective. Violence and hatred only beget more violence and hatred. But peaceful actions are powerful. Love and hope conquer all things if we are willing to take the risk and to work very hard at it. I will not sugar-coat this: being a peaceful advocate for the poor can bring detractors or enemies. All we have to do is look at the prophets and at the life of Jesus to see this. But good does prevail and God's justice is done in the end. Their lives had meaning and their work did bear fruit.... lasting fruit. And if people love, their love is indeed contagious. It will spread to others.
Dorothy Day is a person who challenges us and teaches us by her life. She lived what she preached, living simply and humbly. She did not eat sumptuously or drive fancy cars or wear fancy clothing. This was her choice. I do not think she would judge any of us if we do these things, but she would be upset if we did not share some of the plenty we have with those who do not. She would be upset if we did not live with charity and kindness. She would be upset if we lived without a thought of anyone else except ourselves. She would be upset if we did not love God in others, and most of all, if we did not devote ourselves to a personal relationship with Him, living our lives in service to God, who loves us so much and is worthy of our small works as love in return. As St. Teresa of Avila said, "Christ has no hands or feet on earth but yours." Let us be His!
May we be moved to acts of love and charity, especially at this time of year when we become more aware of those in need. May we be generous with our love, asking the Spirit to move our hearts to peaceful interactions with others. May we be able to look beyond ourselves to the presence of God in our brothers and sisters in need. And may we be able to ask for help if we are in need, trusting in God that He will answer our needs through the kindness of others. Let us continue to meet in the Heart of our loving God who gives us so much, and also challenges us to action. Peace!
There are many books and films about Dorothy Day, and she also wrote a number of books as well. I will mention only a few below, but you can find a bibliography easily.
-Dorothy Day's autobiography, The Long Loneliness, was published in 1952.
-The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, edited by Robert Ellsberg
-Dorothy Day: Selected Writings; By Little and by Little by Robert Ellsberg
-Also she wrote a biography of one of her favorite saints, Therese of Lisieux called Therese: A Life of Therese of Lisieux.
The icon of Dorothy Day at the top was written by Rev. William Hart NcNichols and can be found at his website:
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