She never shied away from the contentions of political engagement. She practiced what she preached, responding to the wretchedness of Depression-era poverty by co-founding a movement that established a newspaper, communal farms and “Houses of Hospitality” for the homeless. She had an abortion as a young woman but would ultimately regret it and defend human life from conception to old age. She remains, almost 40 years after her death, “a reminder of the radical, shocking demands of human dignity.”
Dorothy Day–activist, writer, devout Catholic–isn’t a perfect model of emulation for political idealogues, but that’s exactly what makes her a worthy study for anyone seeking a more authentic cultural engagement today.
She’s often been called an unlikely candidate for sainthood (the cause for Day’s canonization was opened in 2012). That “unlikeliness” is part of her appeal. Day’s gritty authenticity makes comfortable Christians uneasy.
She makes a people pleaser like me feel a mysterious mix of inspiration and shame.
I look at the world with different eyes after each contact with her work. I’m less content to remain where I am and more driven to pray with a searching heart.
Dorothy Day’s life gives me hope that in our current divisive moment, Christians might seek an authenticity that won’t please our purely political friends. Perhaps her example can keep us aching for grace to speak and to live the truth in love instead of feeling like we’ve done something by merely taking in the news and sharing inflammatory articles on our social media feeds.
From Day’s life, I glean three lessons that may help those of us dissatisfied with the current climate to develop greater authenticity in our own lives, with all the particularities of the faces we know and the places we walk. Authenticity like Day’s carries within it the potential to change the world. And the world is aching for it.
First, Dorothy Day’s life reminds us that in-your-face judgmentalism shuts down seekers but authentic faith attracts them.
If you’d met Dorothy Day as a young woman, how would you have judged the radical college dropout covering rallies and workers’ strikes for New York’s socialist newsweekly? What assumptions would you have made upon learning that an unhappy sexual liason had led her to end a pregnancy in abortion?
Dorothy Day was raised without religion but was drawn to it from an early age. She had a seeker’s heart.
Rooming with women who went to daily Mass gave the young adult Dorothy Day a sense of something beautiful that would ultimately flower in a deep conversion. Day would write in her autobiography The Long Loneliness that through these women she saw prayer and worship as the most noble, exalted activity of which humans are capable. Her spiritual hunger grew along with a desire to know more. The hunger remained as she grew in faith, converted to Catholicism and eventually became devoted to daily Mass herself. Her roommates may not have seen the fruit of their example, but the world eventually would.
But how many of us would have had the patience to live lovingly and faithfully with a young woman like Dorothy without caustically bringing to her attention every issue that separates us? Are we able to discern the seeker in the atheist, the activist, the entertainment addict who is our friend? How faithful is our daily example of devotion to Christ?
Next, Day’s life shows the impact of reading literature and spiritual classics.
In a thought-provoking essay for Dappled Things, David Leigh, SJ lays out some important reasons to keep reading literature despite the cultural trend toward reading sociology:
Literature helps readers experience a transformative journey in faith and exploration toward understanding and living out the fullness of the Word.
Day’s story is a perfect illustration. Beginning with The Jungle, which inspired the teenaged Day to explore the neighborhoods whose poverty Upton Sinclair exposed, Dorothy Day always allowed literature to work on her heart. In The Long Loneliness she shares her particular love for Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. She quotes Romano Guardini and she read Thérèse of Lisieux.
In light of Day’s life, I’m examining my reading with an eye to the sociological overload to which Leigh alludes. It seems we’re becoming addicted to didactic reads and books laced with phrases like “data driven” and “the research shows.”
I don’t deny that we need to check our opinions against research (I’m a counselor, after all). But our hearts are starving for the subtle transformation that happens while living life alongside Anna Karenina or Oliver Twist. Our hearts also need the company of saints who “think on things above.” Perhaps we’ll become more authentic witnesses to truth if we have a little more of it glowing from within. Great books grow souls.
In The Life You Save May Be Your Own (Paul Elie’s masterful weaving of the lives of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy) we see the aging Day re-reading those favorite old books, such was their work on her soul. I must make the time to do the same. Day reminds me that it’s worth it.
Finally, a thoroughly Christian ethic isn’t fully aligned with either the left or the right.
Day is often held up as an icon of leftist politics, and there is good reason for that. The intrepid activist was boldly anti-war and pro-union. She’s best known for these positions, but that’s simply the selectivity of those who want to co-opt her for their cause. There is much more to Dorothy Day’s penetrating, intensely Christian view of the world.
Stephen Beale’s article The Dorothy Day Few of Us Know is an eye-opener in this regard. In addition to workers’ rights and pacifism:
[Day] lamented the encroachment of the state and the perils of the welfare system. She once compared abortion to genocide and the U.S. government to Nazi Germany. She cheered on income tax resisters, dismissed the benefits of the minimum wage, and worried about the decline of freedom in an increasingly bureaucratic society.
A stark diversion from the political left is seen in Day’s position on what we now call “reproductive rights.” In the name of women’s rights, many in our culture are denying human rights at the most basic level of our existence. Dorothy Day came to realize this. “The Sexual Revolution is a complete rebellion against authority, natural and supernatural, even against the body and…its natural functions of child bearing,” she wrote.
This is not reverence for life, it is a great denial.
Day has authenticity not only because of her impeccable credentials as an activist, but because she is a woman who once had an abortion but was able to reconsider her position and decide in favor of life.
On the other hand, some of us have always held a life-affirming position on abortion, but haven’t reflected deeply on ways to defend human dignity in other complex and pressing issues.
Which doesn’t mean we must adopt each of Day’s positions, but that we more fearlessly apply the principles she lived by to situations confronting us today. Day’s example can free us from over-attachment to the left or the right as we consider how to apply a passion for human dignity, rooted in an unshakeable trust in Christ, to a life lived moment by moment in love for all human beings.
What will the future look like if we detach ourselves from political enslavement and advocate for the admittedly high ideals of love? Who knows?
Let us begin.
Reads and Other Seeds
The photos in this post are my own. Last August my son treated me to a birthday trip to New York. When he asked for places I might like to see in addition to the city’s wonderful tourist sites, I mentioned St. Joseph House, founded by Dorothy Day and still operated by the Catholic Worker. We were graciously received and shown around by a busy young man from Bangladesh. “We don’t see many people who know about her anymore,” he said when I shared my interest in Dorothy Day.
Day loved Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. Read about Undset’s connection with Dorothy Day at Sparrowfare’s American Exile and Return to Norway: Fascinating Facts about Sigrid Undset, Part 3.
An easy way to absorb the social teaching of the church is through the fascinating lives (including Day’s) profiled in Brandon Vogt’s Saints and Social Justice: A Guide to Changing the World or by listening to Kris McGregor and Omar Gutiérrez discuss these themes on this excellent podcast series.
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