Revisiting Dorothy Day

July 9, 2018 at 2:31 pm | Posted in Catholicism, feminism, war and violence | 4 Comments
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Because of my half-century of participation in the Grail movement, I have always felt related to Dorothy Day. The first recorded contact between the Grail and American Catholics was a 1936 letter to her from the co-founder of the US Grail, Lydwine van Kersbergen. In 1943, with the Grail planted in the Midwest, Day, on sabbatical from the Catholic Worker, participated in a three-week Grail program on rural living, liturgy, and the women’s apostolate. Later she made a silent retreat at Super Flumina, the Grail’s farm in Foster, Ohio.

My personal contacts with Day were limited. She spoke at a meeting of the Catholic Art Association—or maybe it was the Catholic Art Guild, since the Art Association shut down in 1970––during one of the summers that I spent at Grailville, the Grail’s farm and conference center near Cincinnati, when I was still a fourth-grade teacher. Her talk followed the showing of a short art film, “Two Men and a Wardrobe.”* My recollection is that Day was quite dismissive of the film, something that led me to categorize her as a crabby, old-fashioned Church type; I was in my mid-twenties at the time and not very forgiving.

I also wrote to Day in 1975, after I had become a full-time member of the Grailville staff, asking if she would send me a copy of the Muslim “Ninety-Nine Names of God” that another Grail member, recently home from Egypt, had given her. She responded,

Sorry. Those 99 Names have disappeared from my treasure box, though the beads remain. My bedroom is always used in my peregrinations, so things disappear, are ripped off, liberated, to use the language of the young. My love to all there. –– In Christ––Dorothy.

The message came on a postcard bearing the kind of dramatic woodcut, this one by Antonio Frasconi, that appeared frequently in the Catholic Worker. Eventually I had the postcard framed archivally, to preserve it. When I show it to visitors I tell them that if Dorothy is canonized, it will become a second-class relic, a comment that baffles most of them.

All the rest of my “encounters” with Dorothy have taken place since her death in 1980. One was reading the letter from Cardinal John O’Connor to the Vatican nominating Day for canonization. It highlights, as a reason for her canonization, Day’s repentance for the abortion she underwent she became a Catholic. Later, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, at an event in Day’s honor at St. Joseph’s in Greenwich Village, the church where Day was baptized, described her as an “obedient daughter of the Church.” I was well past my mid-twenties by then, but my responses to these statements were still not very forgiving. With regard to Day’s obedience to the Church, for example, I thought: except for the cemetery workers’ strike, where Day and her Catholic Worker colleagues picketed against the strike breakers brought in by the Archdiocese.

Most recently, my encounters with Day include reading Jim Forest’s biography, All is Grace (Orbis 2011). I have had it in my head for years to write a book about Joan of Arc, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Day, because of the strong but seemingly unlikely connections between them––Thérèse the ascetic having written a play about Joan the warrior, and Day, the pacifist, devoted to Joan as well, then writing a book about Thérèse. Forest’s book is part of the material I’ve been accumulating for the project.

Forest is a terrific writer, and I learned a great deal from his biography that I had not known about Day. For one thing, I learned that she really was in many respects a traditional, if also utterly committed, Catholic. She was also a fairly judgmental individual, a sin she confessed again and again. So my evaluation of her in the 1970s was not entirely mistaken.

I also learned that Day really was an obedient daughter of the Church, frequently following the directions she received from bishops and priests—though she was by no means naïve about the sins of the institution.

I even learned that Day really did seriously regret—repent of—her abortion, though whether she would want to be remembered for that before anything else is another question. Indeed, she objected strongly to any suggestion that she was a saint, believing it undercut the Catholic Worker’s fundamental commitment to egalitarianism and denial of self.

Perhaps the most important insight I took away from reading Forest’s biography, however, is that precisely because of her high level of Christian commitment and the strength of her positions, Dorothy Day may well be exactly the kind of role model needed in this difficult time. In the midst of the environmental crisis that engulfs us, for example, I look around our apartment and wonder why in hell I ever bought all these clothes, these books, those items of kitchen ware, and I find myself deeply inspired by Day’s poverty and self-abnegation.

As I observe the chaos that paralyzes many of the groups I belong to, underpinned by the individualism and expectations of gratification by so many in my generation, I find myself profoundly challenged by Day’s concern with and obedience to authority, however communal her understanding of it was.

And when I am too lazy to turn out for public demonstrations, or too afraid of being arrested, I remember Day’s endless commitment to social action, and her many stays in jail.

Could it be, I find myself wondering, that the woman I once dismissed as too traditional a Catholic and too judgmental a person is exactly the model––the saint––we need as we face the crises that confront us?

 

Versions of this post appeared in EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference and Gumbo the monthly publication of the Grail in the US.)

 

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4 Comments »

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  1. Remarkable examination of conscience and homily for the rest of us. Well done, Marian!

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  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and I look forward to any book you write!

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  3. Lovely. Thank you. I was just reading about her offspring and grandchildren last week.

    Jeanette Stokes Durham, NC stokesnet@aol.com

    >

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  4. Thanks Marian. Haven’t thought about Day in a while. good to remember her…and your comments about her.

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