The Word Among Us

June 2016 Issue

“It Just Happened”

My life with Dorothy Day.

By: Robert Ellsberg

“It Just Happened”: My life with Dorothy Day. by Robert Ellsberg

To have known Dorothy Day, as her granddaughter Kate Hennessy has said, “means spending the rest of your life wondering what hit you.” That is certainly the case for me.

I first met Dorothy Day in the summer of 1975, when I was nineteen. I had dropped out of college and made my way to St. Joseph’s House, the Catholic Worker house of hospitality she had founded on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A number of motivations drew me there. I was eager to experience something of life firsthand, not just from books. I was tired of living for myself alone and longed to give myself to something larger and more meaningful. I had a pretty good idea of what I was against; I wanted to find out what my life was for.

Dorothy Day was familiar with these motivations. “What’s it all about—the Catholic Worker Movement?” she asked in one of her last columns. “It is, in a way, a school, a work camp, to which largehearted, socially conscious young people come to find their vocations. After some months or years, they know most definitely what they want to do with their lives. Some go into medicine, nursing, law, teaching, farming, writing, and publishing. They learn not only to love, with compassion, but to overcome fear.”

Finding My Vocation. I had intended to stay just a few months, but I ended up remaining for five years—as it turned out, the last five years of Dorothy’s life. And in the end, I found much of what I had been seeking—and actually much more.

I remember our first encounter in the kitchen of St. Joseph’s House, after I had been there only a few weeks. Dwight Macdonald, in a famous New Yorker profile, once compared Dorothy to “an elderly schoolteacher or librarian; she has the typical air of mild authority and of being no longer surprised at anything children or book borrowers may do.” Naturally, I was nervous, yet there was nothing to fear. Dorothy was fascinated by other people and their stories, where they came from, where they had traveled, and what books they liked. She thrived on conversations over a cup of coffee or around the kitchen table. She had a sly sense of humor and an almost girlish laugh. People are surprised to hear that because photos almost always made her look severe and intimidating.

A few months after my arrival, Dorothy asked me to become the managing editor of the Catholic Worker paper. At twenty, I scarcely had any qualifications for such a job; I wasn’t even a Catholic. Nevertheless, Dorothy had an uncanny ability to discern and encourage people’s hidden gifts and talents. She had faith in people, and she was able to make them feel her faith as well. I couldn’t imagine at the time that she was pointing me in the direction of my life’s work and vocation.

Dorothy didn’t always endorse my editorial decisions—especially if the articles were too long or my tone was too sarcastic or the illustrations were too gloomy. The only instruction I can recall was the time she told me, “Your job as editor is to make sure I don’t sound like a fool.” That was the least challenging aspect of the job.

A Life of Unending Fascination. Life at the Catholic Worker involved constant improvisation. One day it might involve getting up early to help prepare for the morning “line”—the one hundred or so down-and-out men and women who showed up each day, rain or shine, for a bowl of soup, some bread, and tea. It might involve settling a dispute between unruly guests, welcoming visitors, comforting someone in distress, folding newspapers to be mailed across the country, begging for vegetables at the wholesale market, or cleaning one of the regularly clogged toilets. (My talents were not in this area.) But it might also involve handing out antiwar leaflets before indifferent crowds on Fifth Avenue, marching in demonstrations, or participating in a sit-in at the Pentagon. You never knew. As for Dorothy, she said her prayers, answered mail, attended daily Mass when she was well enough, and joined the community at the end of the day in reciting Evening Prayers.

She was, by this time, in what she liked to call her “retirement”; the day-to-day care of the house and the paper were in the hands of what she called “the young people.” Dorothy was attracted to young people—their idealism, energy, and what she termed their “instinct for the heroic.” And she was understanding of our mistakes and foibles. The memory of her own youthful struggles made her particularly sensitive to the searching and sufferings of youth. I remember her enthusiasm for an article I had written about Gandhi. “We must always aim for the impossible,” she said. “If we lower our goal, we also diminish our effort.”

I knew her in her last years, as she was steadily letting go. Having spent so much of her life on a constant bus trip from one end of the country to the other, Dorothy was gradually confined, first, to the city; then, to Maryhouse, the shelter for homeless women she had established; and finally, to her room on the second floor, where she surveyed the activities of East Third Street, which the Worker shared with the headquarters of the Hells Angels. In her youth, she wrote that she had received a great “revelation”: that for anyone attuned to the life of the mind, the future held the promise of unending fascination. “No matter how old I get . . . my heart can still leap for joy as I read and suddenly assent to some great truth enunciated by some great mind and heart.”

It Just Happened. I received word of Dorothy’s death on November 29, 1980, some months after I had returned to college. I remembered my last meeting with her in her room, surrounded by her favorite books, icons, and picture postcards of forests and the seashore. (Once, while I was fasting in jail, she had sent me one of these cards with the inscription: “Hope this card refreshes you and does not tantalize you.”)

Among other things, after five years at the Catholic Worker I had become a Catholic. She gave me an old biography of Charles de Foucauld—knowing of our shared devotion for the desert hermit. She told me that my mother had written to her, years before, to thank her for all she had done for me. (I didn’t know this.) She embraced me with a maternal kiss. “Well, now you’ll have a better idea of what you’re interested in,” she said.

It is surprising how few are the truly significant moments in our lives—and how often we don’t recognize them at the time. Dorothy ended her autobiography with this thought: “We were just sitting there talking when Peter Maurin [cofounder of the Catholic Worker] came in. We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form, saying, ‘We need bread.’ . . . It was as casual as all that, I often think. It just came about. It just happened.”

They were just sitting there talking when I stepped through the door of the Catholic Worker. And before you knew it, I was editing the paper. And then I became a Catholic. It just happened. And the talk, and the witness, and the daily acts of faith and love continued long after I had moved on. “You will know your vocation,” Dorothy once said, “by the joy it gives you.” It was not my vocation to remain serving soup at the Catholic Worker. But evidently it was my vocation to become an editor—in fact, incredibly enough, Dorothy Day’s editor. Soon after she died, I compiled an anthology of her selected writings. Many years later, I was appointed the editor of her letters and diaries.

I’m Still Learning. Among other gifts I received from Dorothy Day was a fascination with saints—not just the official canonized ones, but a wider cloud of witnesses: writers, mystics, activists, and other great minds and hearts whose stories enlarge our moral imaginations. One minute Dorothy could be telling a story about St. Teresa or St. Francis, talking about them as if they were members of the family; the next minute she could do the same for Chekhov, Emma Goldman, or Dostoevsky. Inspired by her eclectic pantheon, I have written several volumes of such stories.

I was very young when we met. Forty years later I am still wondering what hit me. In the end, I guess I would say that Dorothy Day gave me a life and a sense of direction, and with this, a mission to tell her story and bear witness to her message as best as I can. As for learning “not only to love, with compassion, but to overcome fear,” I am still learning. Those lessons are never finished.

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Orbis Books. A former managing editor of the Catholic Worker, he is the editor of Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, and All the Way to Heaven: Selected Letters of Dorothy Day. A new collection of his writings on saints will appear this year in Blessed Among Us.