The Word Among Us

June 2016 Issue

Embracing the “Mystery of the Poor”

The life and influence of Dorothy Day.

By: Robert Ellsberg

Embracing the “Mystery of the Poor”: The life and influence of Dorothy Day. by Robert Ellsberg

In his speech last year before a joint session of Congress, Pope Francis cited four “great Americans” who, he said, “offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality”: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day.

The two Catholics among this group, Merton and Day, were undoubtedly less familiar to his audience. But for those in the know, it was striking to hear the pope single out two Catholics whose prophetic stance regarding peace and justice had put them far outside the mainstream of their day. But it was precisely for such positions that the pope commended them. In the case of Dorothy Day, he spoke of her commitment to “social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed,” which were “inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.”

Influence from the Margins. Such a singular affirmation was remarkable for a woman who occupied no official position in the Church and who had neither sought nor received any official support from the hierarchy. Throughout most of her life, in fact, she was a fairly marginal figure. She was admired at a distance for her unstinting service to the poor but suspect on account of her social activism and her uncompromising pacifism—positions no more popular today in the halls of Congress than in her own time.

That Pope Francis should be drawn to her witness, however, comes as no surprise. It is hard to think of any American Catholic of our times who more clearly reflected—indeed, anticipated—Pope Francis’ vision and priorities: his emphasis on mercy; his prophetic denunciation of a “culture of indifference” that makes it difficult for us to even recognize our brothers and sisters; his commitment to peace; his personal simplicity and manifestation of the joy of the gospel.

These, too, were the principles that guided Dorothy Day. And now it appears that her message may be finding its moment. In 2000, the Vatican accepted her cause for canonization, and she was named Servant of God. This was the first step in a process that may result one day in her recognition not only as a “great American,” but as a saint. If that day comes, she will be a saint with an unusual backstory.

Haunted by God. Having renounced Christianity in her youth, Dorothy Day spent her early years as a journalist and activist for various radical causes. Her friends were anarchists, communists, and assorted literary bohemians. In the aftermath of an unhappy love affair, she had an abortion. Yet there was always in Dorothy some yearning for the transcendent. Like a character in a Dostoevsky novel, she observed, “All my life I have been haunted by God.”

The turning point in her life came when she found herself pregnant and responded with “a gratitude so great that only God could receive it.” She decided to have her child baptized. Why the Catholic Church? Dorothy was attracted much less by Catholic doctrine or theology (of which she knew very little) than by the lives of the saints and the example of her poor neighbors. She had observed how their faith made demands of them and how in return, it gave them access to a dimension of order, meaning, and holiness that transcended the circumstances of their lives.

Her own decision to become a Catholic entailed a great price—separation from the father of her child, a man she deeply loved, when he refused to marry her. “It got to the point where it was a simple question of whether I chose God or man,” she wrote.

Reconciling Body and Soul. On entering the Church, Dorothy experienced another loss—a sense of estrangement from the radical cause. She truly believed that the Church was the home of the poor, and she admired its many works of charity; but too often the Catholic Church seemed like the bulwark of “a social order that made so much charity in the present sense of the word necessary. . . . There was plenty of charity but too little justice,” she said.

She admired the stories of saints who had heroically performed the works of mercy. But where, she asked, were the saints “to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?” She longed “to make a synthesis reconciling body and soul, this world and the next.” On December 8, 1932, at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, she offered a prayer “with tears and anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow worker, for the poor.”

The answer to Dorothy’s prayer came in her meeting with a Frenchman named Peter Maurin (1877–1949), who inspired her to found a lay movement that would promote the social message of the gospel. With Maurin’s encouragement, she founded a newspaper, the Catholic Worker, launched on May 1, 1933, in the heart of the Depression. She also founded “houses of hospitality” where Christians, embracing voluntary poverty, lived in community with the poor and homeless. There they practiced the works of mercy—feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless—while also challenging a social order that gave rise to so much poverty and misery. All this work was rooted in her grasp of the social implications of the Incarnation: “The mystery of the poor is this: that they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for him.”

Dorothy Day’s pacifist position, rooted in the teachings and example of Jesus, made her a controversial figure. She maintained this position throughout her life, beginning with the Spanish Civil War and continuing through the Second World War. During the 1950s, she was repeatedly arrested and jailed for protests against preparations for nuclear war, specifically her refusal to cooperate with mandatory civil defense drills. An early and active opponent of the Vietnam War, she stood in solidarity with young men who resisted the draft, and she refused to pay federal income taxes. Her activism continued into her later years. At the age of seventy-five, she was arrested for joining a picket line with striking farmworkers in California. She died in 1980 at the age of eighty-three.

A Daughter of the Church. Dorothy Day always considered herself a “loyal and obedient daughter of the Church.” Her life was rooted in prayer and the sacraments, daily Mass, the rosary, and meditation on Scripture and the breviary (she was a Benedictine Oblate). Her recently published diaries document her daily struggles to examine her conscience in light of the call to practice love, patience, and forgiveness in her encounters with those around her, especially “the insulted and injured.” Frequently she spoke of the “the duty of delight”—a discipline to find God in all things, both in moments of hardship and suffering as well as times of joy.

At the time of Dorothy’s death, a noted historian called her “the most interesting, significant, and influential Catholic in American history”—a statement that seems more plausible today than it did thirty-six years ago. The newspaper and the movement she founded continue, with more than a hundred Catholic Worker communities around the country.

But since her death, her reputation and influence have extended far beyond the Catholic Worker, or even the Catholic peace and justice movements she inspired. Not only did Dorothy Day anticipate many of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council (liturgical renewal, the role of the laity, the rights of conscience), but in her preferential option for the poor, her critique of the idolatry of the marketplace, her ecological sensibility, and her unyielding commitment to works of peace, she set a course that the Church is gradually adopting. This would not surprise her; she believed this agenda was no more than the plain teaching of Jesus.

In Good Company. As Pope Francis noted, Dorothy Day’s witness was inspired in part by the example of the saints. She wrote a biography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whose teaching of the “Little Way” was the foundation of her spiritual practice, and constantly wrote of the universal call to holiness. But in many ways, she helped to fashion a new model of holiness. “Where were the saints to try to change the social order?” she asked. It was a question she answered with her own life.

Will the pope’s recognition of Day advance her cause for sainthood? The official process of recognizing saints is famously slow and convoluted. Yet long before the process of canonization, Jesus elaborated the attributes of those he called “blessed”—the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the peacemakers. It takes little imagination to picture Dorothy Day in that company.