Being a relatively new convert to Catholicism, I had never heard of Dorothy Day until she was on the cover of Commonweal not too long ago. My participation in Catholic education taught me that attending Mass, understanding the Church’s positions on social issues, and reading the Bible are all important, but for me the need for well-informed engagement in modern discourse always remains top of mind. So, to initiate myself more fully into the current issues swirling around my new faith, I subscribed to the National Catholic Reporter and to Commonweal not long after my conversion. My respect for John Allen’s writing and reporting led me want to read the former, and my familiarity with the late John Beecher’s writing led me to the latter. I like reading these two magazines in tandem because NCR is more of a news source, and Commonweal contains more commentary.
Commonweal‘s January 2013 feature article, “The Gospel Is Hard,” was my first encounter with Dorothy Day’s heavy commitment to living out the instructions we receive from the Gospels. The article’s author, Patrick Jordan, had worked for Day in the Catholic Worker movement in the 1960s and 1970s and has also been an editor of the Catholic Worker, the movement newspaper she founded; what he learned there impressed him greatly. His fairly brief examination of Day and her life inspired me almost immediately to find out more. This passage in particular caught my attention as simple but powerful advice:
There would be spiritual direction, often from scripture: You must take up your cross daily; we are to forgive seventy times seven; where there is no love, put love and you will find love; we love God as much as we love the one we love least; and pray.
As a high school teacher trying daily to lead young people into lives that embrace education and goodness, as a parent of two small children who need my guidance to be the best that it can be, and as a husband in a strong marriage who wants it to stay that way, I have recalled some of these humbling phrases many times over the last few months: “we are to forgive seventy times seven,” and “we love God as much as we love the one we love least.” And possibly most importantly, “where this is no love, put love and you will find love.”
After reading Jordan’s article more than once, I sought out Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, and I have just begun reading it. At this writing, I am about a third of the way through. The Long Loneliness is divided into three parts, and this first section deals primarily with the period of Day’s youth and upbringing and her young adulthood before becoming Catholic. When I stopped, Day was describing the emptiness involved in life as an unmarried young woman steeped in 1910s radicalism who has suffered through two fairly short stints of incarceration.
I had barely bent back the cover on the The Long Loneliness when I came across this statement from Dorothy Day, quoted in the “Introduction”:
I remember as a girl asking my mother why— why things weren’t better for people, why a few owned so much and many had little or nothing. She kept on telling me that ‘there’s no accounting for injustice, it just is.’ I guess I’ve spent my life trying to ‘account’ for it, and trying to change things, just a little— and that is what I believe people like me ought to try to do: we’ve been given a leg up in the world, so why not try to help others get a bit of a break, too! (3)
Yes, why not? I can’t speak for others, but for me that question is central to being a teaching a public education system and it is central to why high quality public schools are important to have everywhere for all children. This exact sentiment is what always comes to mind when I read about cutting taxes that will result in decreases to public school funding. Why can’t people who have “a leg up” help out people who don’t?
Dorothy Day begins the meat of her story by discussing “Confession,” an aspect of Catholicism to which she likens writing her autobiography. She then moves on quickly to describing her traditional, though generally non-religious upbringing, with a journalist father she rarely saw, in Part One, “Searching.” Having had a fairly normal Midwestern childhood followed by a brief and difficult stint in college, her consciousness was awakened first by her reading novels by writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky then by her involvement with or close witnessing of various early twentieth-century radical movements: anarchism, communism, socialism, etc. While working as a writer and journalist in New York City, she witnessed the junctures of political and social philosophies that focused on equality and liberation, as she also experienced the often-bohemian habits of people who wanted to lead free lives— that is, free of all kinds of rules and norms, some of which she describes but most of it not.
Day’s storytelling about her formative experiences gets far more rich and impassioned when she reaches the chapter titled “Jail.” In this chapter, she describes her first ever period of incarceration after being arrested with a small group of suffragists. Though the term of imprisonment was brief, Dorothy Day had come face-to-face with the suffering, humiliation and helplessness that so many downtrodden people endure. She writes,
I would never be free again, never free when I knew that behind bars all over the world, there were women and men, young girls and boys, suffering constraint, punishment, isolation and hardship for crimes of which all of us were guilty. (78)
As the first section ends, Day is writing of working as a journalist, of being arrested again after being mistaken for a prostitute during a raid on an IWW safe house, and of getting out of the city with the man she has fallen in love with.
Throughout the first hundred pages or so, we see this young woman moving ever so slowly toward the Catholic Church. The undercurrents are there to have us see how all of this furious activism has left larger questions unanswered for her. Soon, these hands-on experiences with radical ideologies of equality and justice will merge with Catholic social teaching.
Although I’m only partially through with reading Dorothy Day’s life story, her very humane mixture of dogma and realism is endearing and inspiring. I am curious to see what exactly caused her decision to come into the Church, when by this point in her story, she is already attending Mass, though has not mentioned any inclination toward converting. Those answers are coming, I expect, in Part Two: “Natural Happiness.”
If you don’t have the time or inclination to read Dorothy Day’s 300-page autobiography, but would like to know more about her, you can watch a pretty good eight-minute video about her done by PBS.