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"Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed."


Dorothy Day



Dorothy Day, Saint and Troublemaker
by Jim Forest

If Dorothy Day is ever canonized, the record of who she was, what she was like and what she did is too complete and accessible for her to be hidden in wedding cake icing. She will be the patron saint not only of the homeless and those who try to care for them but also of people who lose their temper.

Dorothy Day was not without rough edges. To someone who told her she was too hot-headed, she replied, "I hold more temper in one minute than you will hold in your entire life." To a college student who asked a sarcastic question about her recipe for soup, she responded, "You cut the vegetables until your fingers bleed." To a journalist who told her it was the first time he had interviewed a saint, she replied, "Don't call me a saint -- I don't want to be dismissed that easily."

I was 20 years old the first time I saw her. She was ancient, that is to say 62 years old. I met her at the Catholic Worker Farm on Staten Island. She was sitting with several other people at the battered table where the community had its meals. Before her was a pot of tea, a few cups, none of them matching, and a pile of letters. The Catholic Worker received a good deal of mail every day, much of it for Dorothy. She often read the letters aloud, telling a story or two about the people who had written them. This was the Dorothy Day University in full swing, though I didn't know it at the time. A good part of Dorothy's life was spent reading and writing letters -- even her monthly columns were usually nothing more than long letters. If ever she is canonized, she will be one of the patron saints of letter-writers.

People sometimes think of her as the personification of the simple life, but in reality her days tended to be busy, complicated and stressful. Often she was away traveling -- visiting other Catholic Worker communities, speaking at colleges, seminaries, local parishes, getting around by bus or a used car on its last spark plugs.

Before an audience, she had a direct, unpremeditated, story-centered way of speaking -- no notes, no rhetorical polish, a manner that communicated a certain shyness but at the same time wisdom, conviction, faith and courage. Her basic message was stunningly simple: we are all called by God to love one another as He loved us.

If "God" was one key word, "hospitality" was another. She repeated again and again a saying from the early Church, "Every home should have a Christ room in it, so that hospitality may be practiced." Hospitality, she explained, is simply practicing God's mercy with those around us. Christ is in the stranger, in the person who has nowhere to go and no one to welcome him. "Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed," she often said. Hardly a day passed in her adult life when she didn't speak about the works of mercy. For her these weren't simple obligations which the Lord imposed on his followers. As she said, "We are here to celebrate Him through these works of mercy."

Hospitality of the heart transforms the way to see people and how we respond to them. Their needs become primary. Tom Cornell tells the story of a donor into New York house one morning and giving Dorothy a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked her for the donation and put it in her pocket without batting an eye. Later a certain demented lady came in, one of the more irritating regulars at the CW house, one of those people who make you wonder if you were cut out for life in a house of hospitality. I can't recall her ever saying, "thank you" or looking like she was on the edge of saying it. She had a voice that could strip paint of the wall. Dorothy took the diamond ring out of her pocket and gave it to this lady. Someone on the staff said to Dorothy, "Wouldn't it have been better if we took the ring to the diamond exchange, sold it, and paid that woman's rent for a year? Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do what she liked with the ring. She could sell it for rent or take a trip to the Bahamas. Or she could enjoy wearing a diamond ring on her hand like the woman who gave it away. "Do you suppose," Dorothy asked, "that God created diamonds only for the rich?"

Dorothy was never "too polite" to speak about God. Nothing we achieved was ever our doing, it was only God's mercy passing through us. Our own love wasn't our love. If we experienced love for another person, whether wife or child or friend or enemy, it was God's love. "If I have accomplished anything in my life," she said late in her life, "it is because I wasn't embarrassed to talk about God."

People sometimes tell me how lucky I am to have been part of the same community that Dorothy Day belonged to. They picture a group of more or less saintly people having a wonderful time doing good works. In reality Catholic Worker community life in Manhattan in the early sixties had much in common with purgatory. The "staff" was made up of people with very different backgrounds, interests, temperaments and convictions. Agreement within the staff was as rare as visits by the President of the United States. The most bitter dispute I experienced had to do with how best to use the small amount of eggs, butter and other treats that sometimes were given to us -- use them for "the line" (people we often didn't know by name who line up for meals) or the "family," as had been our custom? Though we worked side by side, saw each other daily, and prayed together, staff tension had become too acute for staff meetings. Dorothy or Charlie Butterworth handed out jobs and once you had a job, it was yours until you stopped doing it. The final authority was Dorothy Day, not a responsibility she enjoyed, but no one else could make a final decision that would be respected by the entire staff. In this case, when Dorothy returned from a cross-country speaking trip she told the two people running the kitchen that the butter and eggs should go to the family, which led to their resigning from the kitchen work and soon after leaving the community trailing black smoke, convinced that Dorothy Day wasn't living up to the writings of Dorothy Day.

One of the miracles of Dorothy's life is that she remained part of a conflict-torn community for nearly a half a century. Still more remarkable, she remained a person of hope and gratitude to the end. (She occasionally spoke of the "duty of hope.")

There was hardly anything Dorothy did which didn't attract criticism. What got her in the most hot water was her sharp social criticism. She pointed out that patriotism was a more powerful force in most people's lives than the Gospel. While she hated every kind of tyranny and never ceased to be thankful for America having taken in so many people fleeing poverty and repression, she was fierce in her criticism of capitalism and consumerism. She said America had a tendency to treat people like Kleenex -- use them, and throw them away. "Our problems stem," she said, "from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system."

She had no kind words for war or anything having to do with it -- war was simply murder wrapped in flags. She was convinced Jesus had disarmed all his followers when he said to Peter, "Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword." A way of life based on love, including love of enemies, left no room for killing. You couldn't practice the works of mercy with one hand and the works of vengeance with the other.

No stranger to prison, she was first locked up as a young woman protesting with Suffragettes in front of the White House during World War I and was last jailed in her seventies for picketing with farm workers. She took pride in the young men of the Catholic Worker who went to prison rather than be drafted -- "a good way to visit the prisoner," she pointed out. Yet she also welcomed back others who had left Catholic Worker communities to fight in the Second World War. They might disagree about the best way to fight Nazism, but -- as she often said -- "there is no 'party line' in the Catholic Worker movement."

Dorothy's sensitivity for the sacred helps explain her love, rare at the time, of the Orthodox Church, famous -- or infamous -- for its reluctance to modernize, rationalize, speed up or simplify its liturgical life. She longed for the reunion of the Church.

I'm not sure what had given Dorothy such warmth for Orthodox Christianity in general and the Russian Orthodox Church in particular, but one of the factors was certainly her love of the books of Dostoewky, and most of all his novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Perhaps the most important chapter for Dorothy concerns a conversation between a wealthy woman and an elderly monk, Father Zosima. The woman asks him how she can really know that God exists. Fr. Zosima tells her that no explanation or argument can achieve this, only the practice of "active love." He assures her that there is no other way to know the reality of God. The woman confesses that sometimes she dreams about a life of loving service to others -- she thinks perhaps she will become a nun, live in holy poverty and serve the poor in the humblest way. It seems to her such a wonderful thought that it makes tears come to her eyes. But then it crosses her mind how ungrateful some of the people she is serving will be. Some will complain that the soup she is serving isn't hot enough, the bread isn't fresh enough, the bed is too hard, the covers are too thin. She confesses she couldn't bear such ingratitude -- and so her dreams about serving others vanish, and once again she finds herself wondering if there really is a God. To this Fr. Zosima responds with the words, "Love in practice is a hard and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams," words Dorothy often repeated. I think of the Orthodox monk Father Zosima as somehow a co-founder of all the Catholic Worker houses of Hospitality.

It is in the same book that Dostoevski relates the story of a woman who was almost saved by an onion. She had been a person of absolute selfishness and so, when she died, she went to hell. After all, she had chosen hell every day of her life. Even after her death, her guardian angel wanted to save her and so approached the Savior, saying a mistake had been made. "Don't you remember? Olga once gave an onion to a beggar." It was left unsaid that the onion had started to rot, and also that it wasn't so much given as thrown at the beggar. The savior said, "You are right. I bless you to pull her out of hell with an onion." So the angel flew into the twilight of hell -- all those people at once so close to each other and so far apart -- and there was the selfish woman, glaring at her neighbors. The angel offered her the onion and began to lift her out of hell with it. Others around her saw what was happening, saw the angel's strength, and saw their chance. They grabbed hold of the woman's led and so were being lifted with her, a ribbon of people being rescued by one onion. Only the woman had never wanted company. She began kicking with her legs, yelling at her uninvited guests, "Only for me! Only for me!" These three words are hell itself. The onion became rotten and the woman and all the others attached to her fell back into the disconnect of hell. "Hell is not to love anymore," Dorothy said so many times, quoting another author she loved, George Bernanos.

I'm sometimes asked, "Dorothy Day gives a fine example for people who don't have a family to take care of and mortgages to pay, but what about the rest of us?" The rest of us includes my wife and me. I don't have enough fingers on one hand to count our children, and the first of the month is mortgage payment day. But every time I open the door to guests, it's partly thanks to Dorothy Day. Every time I think about things in the bright light of the Gospel rather than the grey light of money or the dim light of politics, her example has had its influence. Every time I try to overcome meanness or selfishness rising up in myself, it is partly thanks to the example of Dorothy Day. Every time I defeat the impulse to buy something I can get along without, Dorothy Day's example of voluntary poverty has had renewed impact. Every time I try to see Christ's presence in the face of a stranger, there again I owe a debt to Dorothy Day.

It isn't that Dorothy Day is the point of reference. Christ is. But I can't think of anyone I've known whose Christ-centered life did so much to help make me a more Christ-centered person. It's a century since Dorothy day was born and nearly twenty years since she died, but she continues to touch lives, not only as a person we remember with gratitude, but also as a saint -- if by the word "saint" we mean a person who helps us see what it means to follow Christ. "It is the living from day to day," she once said, "taking no thought for the morrow, seeing Christ in all who come to us, and trying literally to follow the Gospel that resulted in this work."


This article was reprinted from Guadalupe, the newsletter of Casa Maria the wonderful Catholic Worker in Tucson, Arizona. It was a lecture originally given on October 10, 1997 at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin at the Dorothy Day Conference.

Jim Forest wrote Love is the Measure, a biography of Dorothy Day and, with Tom Cornell and Robert Ellsberg, co-edited A Penny a Copy: Readings from the Catholic Worker. His most recent book is Praying with Icons (Orbis). He is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and editor of its quarterly journal, "In Communion."