Jeff Dietrich, editor, publisher, and CEO, has honored me by publishing a review of the letters of Dorothy Day in this month's issue of The Catholic Agitator, the newspaper of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker.
You can subscribe to the Agitator, learn more about the amazing work and witness of the LACW, sign on to volunteer at their Skid Row soup kitchen, become an intern, and/or in general get your ear to the social justice/anti-war/hospitality-for-the-disenfranchised-and-downtrodden ground here.
|JEFF DIETRICH, RIGHT, MARCH, 2006,|
IN FRONT OF U.S. SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN'S OFFICE,
PROTESTING FEINSTEIN'S COMPLACENCY RE THE WAR IN IRAQ
All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day,
Edited by Robert Ellsberg
), 2010 Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Dorothy Day’s journals, The Duty of Delight, came out in 2008. [Click here for my review of those]. Now we have the companion volume: All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day. And again, we have editor Robert Ellsberg to thank for this massive and painstaking labor of love.
The letters span the years from 1923 to 1980, the year Day died at the age of 83. She was always a prolific correspondent. But once she and Peter Maurin met, in 1932, and the Catholic Worker got underway, she often spent many hours a day writing letters, considering it part of her spiritual practice and work for the movement. As a matter of humility, she kept no carbon copies so the letters that survived are a testament to the love and care of the recipients who preserved them. “Fortunately, a wealth of material remained,” Ellsberg notes, “including her precious early letters to Forster Batterham, to her daughter Tamar, to Ammon Hennacy, Thomas Merton, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, and many other lifelong friends and fellow travelers,” Ellsberg notes.
Dorothy was neither warm nor effusive. She was flinty, blunt, and to the point. She was a dutiful and loving, but not a doting mother. She acknowledged; she didn’t gush. If the letters are any indication, interestingly, she did not have much of a sense of humor. One of the most fascinating exchanges was with Catherine de Hueck Doherty, the Russian émigré fellow social activist who founded Madonna House in
. Doherty apparently disapproved of what she saw as Dorothy’s lack of organizational skills, apathetic housekeeping, and the almost complete chaos that held sway at any given time at the CW houses of hospitality. And yet in her letters to Doherty, Dorothy shows a warmth, affection, and concern for the spiritual well-being of the other that are lacking in her letters even to Forster Batterham, the love of her life and the father of her child, Tamar. Toronto
She smoothes the ruffled feathers of priests and donors, shores up flagging fellow Workers, admonishes, instructs. She’s wonderfully detached from results: if we get closed down, we get closed down.
What comes through loud and clear is the paradoxes of the religious path and the Cross. A woman with a huge capacity for love who gave up the love of her life, as a matter of conscience, for Christ. A woman who has been widely hailed as the most influential Catholic laywoman of the 20th century who was a "prophet without honor in her own country" (one of Dorothy’s biggest sorrows was that Tamar turned her back on the Church, as did most of Dorothy’s many grandchildren). A “mother” whose extended family of friends, fellow Catholic Workers, and guests was perpetually troubled (as the human family always is). An unprecedented “success” who also experienced massive failure—when the CW held to its pacifist stance during the Spanish Civil War, then WWII, for instance, orders for the newspaper (which in a mere two years had reached an astonishing 150,000 circulation) plummeted. A “political” anarchist who was uninterested in politics: “I should like very much to be able to throw myself into the work of a political movement, but I can’t. The whole policy of our paper is against political activity.” [p. 56] An adherent of voluntary poverty whose movement owned properties in downtown
and an estate on the Manhattan . “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system,” she said, and she also had attorneys, real estate agents, and a cardiologist. Hudson
“Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love,” she was fond of saying, a quote borrowed from
of the Cross. She suffered persecution from the state, at times the Church, from her daughter, from Ammon Hennacy who was in love with her, from the generation of Catholic Workers who came up behind her and had little of her love for the Sacraments, daily devotions, chastity, penance, mortification and prayer. “Fr. Hugo said once, quoting some saint, ‘The best thing to do with the best of things is to give them back to God.’ It is in that spirit that priests and nuns take vows of celibacy.” [p. 169] “I am trying to spend two hours in church every morning before my days begin just to get the strength to go on. And end my days there too.” [p. 185, St. John August 1, 1950]
She had a vision of a new system based on sacrifice, penance, prayer, personalism, and pacifism. “I’m no feminist,” she declared. She was not a feminist; she was a human being. “You can’t go to prison as a gesture,” she observed in response to a correspondent who had criticized the self-righteousness of some of the war resisters. “Prison is real suffering.” She suffered jail herself time and again, mentioning stints of days, a week, a month almost in passing: no self-pity, no drama, no false martyrdom. Her compassion was for others, not herself; for those who are poor not voluntarily but involuntarily: poor in spirit, poor in choices, poor in inner resources.
She was offered (and turned down) 12 honorary doctorates. The cause for her canonization is underway. The Catholic Worker philosophy has spread world-wide, and yet nobody knew better that the real battle against the powers and principalities begins, is perpetually waged, and ends in the human heart. We can’t love the person across the world any better than we can love the person who is standing in front of us in the line at the grocery store, kneeling behind us at church, or sitting across from us at the dinner table. “The powers of this world are overwhelming. Yet it is hoping against hope and believing, in spite of “unbelief,” crying by prayer and by sacrifice, daily, small, constant sacrificing of one’s own comfort and cravings—these are the things that count.”
Impossible for those of us who know and love the L.A. Catholic Worker not to feel a pang at a letter dated
February 2, 1974, from Dorothy to Catherine Morris: “So we will always have trouble and poverty too! Yet we are being given money for a new house just the same. This work has its exciting moments. Hope you and Jeff [Dietrich] give your life to it”—because of course they have.
But perhaps the highest accolade was given by Mr. Breen, a cantankerous “guest” who arrived at the CW doorstep in his seventies and was given to violent emotional outbursts, Tourette’s-like fits of vitriol, and racist, homophobic rants. “I am at my wits end,” wrote Dorothy to Catherine de Hueck Doherty in July, 1935. “He has been with us for the last year, and just suddenly this last week he has gone to pieces. He would not stay with us, not caring for ‘kikes and dingos,’ as he says, so we’ve been paying for a room around the corner and he has spent two days with us. We don’t know what to do. He sits at the lower window like a Cerberus and growls and curses at everyone who comes in for a bite of food or for some clothing. He hates us all, he hates this place, he says he is going to die, yet he won’t have the Sacraments, etc….And he, after all, is Christ. ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these,’ you know. It’s the hardest problem we have yet.”
Mr. Breen clearly belonged in the psych ward, but insisted upon staying, and Dorothy in turn insisted upon keeping him, until his death, in fact, in 1939.
“As long as I live,” Mr. Breen once wrote to Dorothy—and I venture to say he speaks for all of us—“I shall always be proud of having had you as my boss and my friend. Your little glimpses into my mind on personal responsibility a few days ago remade me and I have, thank you, ceased to hate people as I was wont to.”