Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Like most of us, I'm am saddened, frightened, unsettled and bewildered by the recent tragedy in Tucson. I'm also unsettled by the response--much of which, from both "sides," seems way over-geared toward the very venom, vitriol, and finger-pointing from which such a deranged act is likely to spring in the first place.

Help, O Lord, for good men have vanished:
truth has gone from the sons of men.
Falsehood they speak to one another,
with lying lips, with a false heart…
--Psalm 112

Dorothy Day, co-founder of the lay Catholic Worker movement, believed not in pointing fingers, but in doing penance…Not in trying to ferret out other people's motives, but in ferreting out, and amending, our own..."Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system,"

Day wrote, and this seems a fitting week to offer this review of her diaries I wrote a couple of years ago for the newspaper of the L.A. Catholic Worker, The Catholic Agitator.


           On the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1932, Dorothy Day visited the National Shrine and prayed that “some way would be opened for me to work for the poor and the oppressed.” Right there is the difference between Dorothy Day and me, or maybe you. I, too, often pray for help, for solace, for relief—but I’m not always thinking of poor and the oppressed, if you get my drift.  
            When Dorothy returned from the National Shrine to her apartment in New York, Peter Maurin, a Catholic French social activist with peasant roots and a philosophy of personalism, was waiting on her doorstep, and on May 1, 1933, the Catholic Worker was born: first a newspaper, then a soup kitchen, then the first “house of hospitality” from which a worldwide lay movement would eventually blossom. Dorothy’s checkered past—the Bohemian nightlife, the flirtation with Communism, the abortion, the 1927 conversion, the common-law marriage—were behind her. She’d given up Forster Batterham, the resolutely atheistic love of her life, because of his refusal to sanction the baptism of the child they’d conceived together, Tamar. The separation was wrenching, the hardest thing, she later said, that she would ever do. 
            If Dorothy said a thing was hard, you know it had to be. The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, span the years from 1934, a little under a year after the CW began, to nine days before her death in 1980, and nothing could be clearer than that they were written by one fierce burning flame of a Catholic and a woman. Dorothy herself, notoriously unwilling to suffer fools gladly, said, “Don’t call me saint!” But if the saint “is the person who wills the one thing,” as Kierkegaard opined, it seemed to me, as I closed this 654-page book, that she came pretty darned close.
            “A crowded, confused day with a great desire on my part to write on love and the strange things that happen to you in growing in the love of God,” she wrote on September 20, 1953. The love of God was the one thing she willed, and she willed it through poverty, conscripted celibacy, chastity, obedience, labor strikes, jail time, illness, struggles with the Church; through WWII, the Cold War, and the 60’s: “We see her traveling to Cuba on the eve of the missile crisis, fasting for peace in Rome during the Second Vatican Council….and standing in solidarity with young men burning their draft cards,” writes editor Robert Ellsberg in his admirable introduction. 
           She willed it through the Vietnam War, through a showdown with the IRS over her refusal to either pay taxes or register the CW as non-exempt (Dorothy won), through the women’s and sexual liberation movements with which, having lived through and witnessed the effects of similar upheavals in the ‘20’s, she was unable to muster much sympathy. She willed it through moral loneliness. Because when you’re Dorothy Day, who is your peer? She had no peer.
            Peter Maurin’s role was to “enunciate principles”; Dorothy’s was to implement them. By May of 1935, the circulation of the paper, The Catholic Worker, had already reached an astonishing 100,000. By 1936, the CW had moved into 115 Mott Street in Manhattan which would remain headquarters for the next 14 years. The same month they established the first farm outside Easton, Pennsylvania. By 1941, there were already over 30 independent but affiliated CW communities in the U.S., Canada, and the UK.
            In 1943, exhausted, Dorothy took a year’s leave of absence (“For the last few years I’ve been thinking a great deal of putting aside the responsibility of the Catholic Worker…”) She spent several months at a Dominican convent in Farmingdale, Long Island, and used  the time typically, not to relax but to spiritually prune herself. (“Exam. conscience…One’s faults stand out. Also to establish how hard it is to establish regular habits.”)
            Of course, she returned to her beloved Catholic Worker. But for the woman who co-founded, and for decades ran, arguably the most influential Catholic movement of the 20th century, this habit of examining her conscience persisted throughout her life:
            “I am oppressed in general by a sense of failure, of sin.”
            “I have no wisdom, no ability to run things and manage a household.”
            Dorothy frequently quoted the Dostoevsky line: “Love in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” and the diaries give ample testament to the twin crosses of community and poverty:
            “Breakfast a thick slice of dry bread and some very bad coffee….I have prescribed for myself this day in bed but I keep thinking it is my spirit that is all wrong. I am surrounded by repellent disorder, noise, people, and have no spirit of inner solitude or poverty.”
            “Two teeth pulled Monday at a filthy hole in the Bowery. Too weak to go further.”
            “Snow, cold. No coal or oil.”
            “So little time. Sow time to reap time, Fr. Roy used to say. One’s spiritual life takes 3 hours a day at least.”
            “We are begging [the fish man] and he said he would bring us cuttings from filets for chowder.”
            But the real poverty consisted in the conflicts within the community, in meager results, in the fact that no matter how much she did, it was never quite enough to stem the tide of drunks and crazy people, the shell-shocked, the quarrelsome and argumentative who streamed through the house and whom she made it her life’s mission to love and serve.
            “The prevalent complaint when I arrive at the farm for a visit [is]…`you are never here!’”
            “[M]y Halgren’s catechism, stolen. I know by whom, because he thought I, aspiring to be poor, must be kept poor.”
            “Our house will hold just so many, we can feed just so many, and after that we must say no. It makes us realize how little we can do.”
            “What did our poverty consist of? Insecurity—loss of jobs—no ownership—no property—no responsibility—lack of a philosophy of work.”
            “In time of trouble [workers] are most anxious and grateful for our help, but when there is no crisis, they are condescending….They still think, as they have always thought, that church and schools, church and state, church and unions cannot be mixed. In other words, they distrust Catholics because of the aims of Catholics.”
            After 40 years, you’d think her followers would have at least thrown the woman a decent party—but no. “May 1. [1973]. Anniversary [of the CW]: Such drunkenness and noise in the house tonight that I could not stand staying downstairs for our 40th birthday anniversary party. A vision of hell. Went upstairs and wept.”
            Reading along, month after month, year after year, I began to wonder, Why is this feeling so familiar? When I saw that entry, I realized, That sounds like the people with whom I've often been surrounded! That sounds like my life! This is the beauty of the diaries. They show us someone just like us, except perhaps a little, if not about ten times more, focused, more harder-working, more disciplined. Someone who took note of the daily details of life--what she ate for breakfast, the petty quarrel at dinner, that she rinsed out her underwear at night--but was perhaps a little more able to see God in all of it. The saint isn’t the person who refuses to see the meanness and ugliness of the world, but the one humble enough to realize that our humdrum lives, in all their brokenness and glory, are where we find God.
            Because if community was a cross, Dorothy made clear again and again, community was at the same time an enormous blessing. If she was “poor,” she reminded herself, she was also rich. As of 1944, she owned only three pairs of stockings (“heavy cotton, grey, tan, and one brown wool”), all of which had come to her “from the cancerous poor, entering a hospital to die…But the fact remains that I have stockings to cover me when others go cold and naked. The fact remains that I am now listening to a concert—Brahms’ 2nd Symphony, joyful music to heal my sadness….What right have I to recreation? What need have I of recreation?”
            Over and over she reminded herself not to judge others, but to love; not to look at the faults in others, but at the faults in herself.  She praised St. Thérèse of Lisieux for being as strict with herself as “the Spaniards” (St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila), but she was equally strict with herself. In all those years, she never allowed herself a word of self-congratulation, never once rested on her laurels. “Physical and spiritual senses need to be ‘mortified,’ subdued, disciplined,” she observed. That was at the age of 78.
            Who talks about work any more—hard work as an antidote to our “modern” illnesses of neurotic guilt and depression? Dorothy did. She cooked (“My bread is beginning to be very good.”), cleaned, planted, resolved disputes, spent hours caring for Tamar (and later, Tamar’s seemingly innumerable children). She kept up a voluminous correspondence, hand-writing up to 10 letters a day (that she didn’t keep carbon copies she considered a small act of humility). She was an avid reader: Étienne Gilson, St. Augustine, Jacques Maritain, Chesterton, Léon Bloy, Charles Peguy, C.S. Lewis, Butler’s Lives of the Saints; the novelists D.H. Lawrence, Jane Austen, Ignazio Silone. She loved music: Bach, Brahms, opera.
            But first and foremost, Dorothy considered herself a writer. “I must learn to contain myself, to do my own work which is writing, correspondence, and the constant study, meditating on both natural and supernatural life.” She was continually preoccupied with getting the newspaper to press, writing her column, “On Pilgrimage,” and publishing her books: The Long Loneliness, Loaves and Fishes, and several others. She was a beautiful, pithy, unsentimental writer, as the diaries alone attest, and those who have tried to write themselves will marvel at her ability to get so much done with such constant inner and outer distractions.  
            They will marvel and then they will take note that perhaps the reason she was able to accomplish so much was that she built her life on a bedrock of daily devotions: the Divine Office, rosaries, vigils, prayer, fasts, and always, the Mass. For over 40 years, Dorothy went to Mass almost every day. In fact, perhaps her greatest accomplishment was her blending of the active and the contemplative lives in a way that was entirely traditional and yet entirely modern and new. For all her radicalism, she was as observant as any medieval nun. For all her activity, she was at heart a mystic:
            “I was overwhelmed at being right over the altar, the Blessed Sacrament out of my sight but so near, and the strong sound of Gregorian rising in waves of adoration and praise, which seemed to fling themselves joyfully against the altar.” 
            “[I]f our faith were as a grain of mustard seed, we would be prostrate as we entered His presence.”
            “Time only for the prayer of Jesus—always time for that. Waiting traveling, at any time, in any place, that murmur of the heart. My Lord and my God, my Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
            Obedience to and love for the Church allowed her to smoothe her occasional disagreements with it, or more accurately perhaps, the Church’s disagreements with her. In 1951, for instance, she was told by the chancery that “we would either have to cease publication or change our name.” She responded that “ceasing publication would be a grave scandal to our readers and would put into the hands of our enemies, the enemies of the Church, a formidable weapon.” The newspaper continued.  
            As for her frequent, and lifelong acts of resistance, she emphasized that the way to approach civil disobedience is as witnesses to our own complicity in the violence and suffering of the world. Every year from 1955 on, the CW refused to participate in the city-wide Civil Defense Drill and every year they went to jail.  In 1958, the protestors, including Dorothy, were sentenced to 30 days. She published an explanation of her motives which included the following: “We do not wish to be defiant, we atone in some way, with this small gesture, for what we did in Hiroshima, and what we are still doing by the manufacture and testing of such weapons.”       
            Perhaps that is why she could write, “I am not interested in politics or elections.”  She was interested in the homeless, the hungry, the forsaken. She was interested in peace and justice and brotherly love, and she believed that all genuine love is grounded in Christ-like self-sacrifice. “Peter [Maurin’s] greatest message for us, greater even than his message of poverty, was man’s freedom and responsibility…Peter did not want to be fragmented, if we can use that word, by being labeled pacifist or anarchist. First of all we are Catholics, then Americans, Germans, French, Russian, or Chinese. We are members of the Body of Christ, or potential members. We are sons of God.”
            “The year is turning out differently than I planned, as all things do,” she wrote in 1944, and could have written about almost any year in her harsh, difficult, sometime dangerous, yet always rich and varied life. In May, 1957, she was shot at while visiting the Koinonia Community in Americus, Georgia, an interracial Baptist community.  In January, 1958, she set out for a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. She spent weeks with Tamar and her grandchildren in West Virginia and Vermont, and time and again retreated to the Peter Maurin Farm on Staten Island, closely observing birds, flowers, trees, stones, and horseshoe crabs:
            “Out in the fields, the cover crop shows pale green against the black soil, and scattered are quicksilver pools reflecting the sky.”
            “White shades of pink, yellow centers, 9, 9, 6 petals per flower. 8 leaves, 4 flowers on some. Very fragile, growing around trees on Wood Rd. Are these anemones?”
            I myself (again, I’m sure very unlike you) was rabid to know more of her personal life, but even in her diaries, Dorothy is reticent.  An interesting footnote appears about Berkeley Toby, the man she married in 1920 on the rebound from an unhappy love affair—the marriage lasted less than a year—but that’s about it.  She was a traditionalist, and the rampant promiscuity of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, the fact that dear friends and fellow Catholic Workers were marrying outside the Church, pained her. 
            But she never judged. She recognized that we’re so starved for love that we often settle for corrupt forms of it, and her views were always based on charity, courtesy, and her belief that sex is, above all, a sacrament. In 1959, when Forster’s long-time companion Nanette was dying of cancer, he asked Dorothy to help nurse her, which she willingly did. She and Forster maintained a complex friendship to the end. Several entries in her last years read little more than simply, “Forster called.” The fact that after all those years, his call was the single most noteworthy event of the day says more than a sonnet.
            Throughout her life, she lectured, attended conferences, traveled around the country by bus to visit the burgeoning number of sister houses. In July, 1973, she accepted an invitation to speak at Joan Baez’s Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in Palo Alto, and used the occasion to also picket with the UFW. It would be her final arrest. “The true anarchist asks nothing for himself, he is self-disciplined, self-denying, accepting the Cross, without asking sympathy, without complaint.” Her words could have been a caption for the famous photo taken that day in Delano: mouth set, eyes fierce, staring down an armed policeman.

            She continued her travels in California, including a visit to Los Angeles.  The entry for August 19, 1973 leaped off the page: “Sister Catherine [Morris] (Holy Child) is here at A.H. [Ammon Hennacy] house 5 days weekly. Fasting.” Because all these years later, Catherine Morris, and her husband Jeff Deitrich, are still at Hennacy House, still going to jail, still serving the poor of Skid Row, still running their soup kitchen at Gladys and 5th, still providing shelter, food, clothing and hospice to their many and various "guests." 
            On November 29th, 1980, Dorothy died in her bed at Maryhouse, the shelter for homeless women the CW had recently established on East Third Street. It seemed only fitting that she should draw her last breath under one of the same rooves that for decades had given shelter to so many of her brothers and sisters.
            One other entry stayed with me, the entry for August 24, 1973, five days after Dorothy’s visit to Hennacy House:  “Mass at St. Basil’s, to confession to Cardinal McIntyre. Many at Mass, great and beautiful church often crowded.”
            At the time I lived a few blocks from St. Basil’s and the morning after I finished reading the diaries I walked to Mass there myself. Dorothy was much on my mind, and when a black homeless woman—no shoes, no teeth—noisily stretched out in the pew behind me, I realized at once this was no coincidence. She was one of “the least of these” and as she moaned and muttered and the entire congregation edged gingerly back, I was reminded all over again that if you’re going to live out the Gospels you can’t have a life that’s “separate.” You can’t have too much to “lose” in the way of time, money, belongings to not share those things in some way, or at least be willing to. 
          So when Mass was over, I turned and made a point of meeting the homeless woman's eyes and smiling. Smiling back, she asked, “Do you have a dollar?” If I’d been Dorothy Day, I could have said, “Do you need a place to stay? Come home with me.” But I’m not, so I did the next best thing. I said, “Yeah, I have a dollar, but do you want me to take you downtown, too? Cause I know where there’s a soup kitchen if you’re hungry and the people there will know of some shelters.”
            “No thanks, hon,” she said, “I just want a dollar.”
            “Are you sure?” I said. “My car’s back at my apartment but I’d be glad to go get it and drive you down there”
            “I just want a dollar,” she replied, and in the nicest possible way added, “Actually, do you have five dollars? I need to get back to Compton.”        
            Sure you do, I thought, and gave her five, which seemed to delight us both.
            In the annals of human interchange it wasn’t much, but if not for Dorothy Day, I might not have even considered giving up part of my precious morning. If not for Dorothy Day and the good, good people at the LACW who have been comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable since 1970, I might not have known where to offer to take this woman. If I hadn’t spotted a copy of Day's The Long Loneliness “by accident” in the bookstore of a retreat house 15 years ago, I might never have converted at all. 
            Apropos of daily Mass, Dorothy wrote: “He took upon himself our humanity that we might share in his divinity. We are nourished by his flesh that we may grow to be other Christs. I believe this literally, just as I believe the child is nourished by the milk from his mother’s breast.” I believe that, too. What honor, respect, devotion, and love we owe this remarkable woman who, like us, doubted, sweated, bled, believed, and as we can only pray we will, stayed the course. 
            It takes a saint, or at least a Dorothy Day, to live a life that to its smallest moment shows that solace comes from helping the other person. It takes a Dorothy Day to remind us that learning to love our neighbor requires a kind of continuing, ongoing crucifixion.  If not for Christ, where would any of us go, Lord? So under His gaze, we put our arms around each other, the homeless woman and I, and walked out of St. Basil’s together.


  1. Thanks for the great post!! I agree with you wholeheartedly that the media's coverage of the Arizona shooting has been deplorable. I am also sick of the finger pointing by both political sides. I am so disgusted that I am fasting from watching my favorite news channel Fox. I am also fasting from listening to conservative radio pundits who simply just tow the party line. I want smart, unbiased commentary, not the other way around.

    Regarding your post about Dorothy Day I have mixed feelings. I admire her radical conversion and desire to actively help the poor, but I am also uncomfortable by some of the tactics that she used in achieving that end such as civil disobedience, getting arrested, and her leftist, socialist leanings. Dorothy Day is and was a divisive character. I always wondered why she couldn't be more like a Mother Theresa who stayed away from public acts of civil disobedience and just focused on helping the poor. Only time will tell her true legacy, nonetheless thanks for writing such an insightful post. I am a big fan of your blog keep up the great work!


    (check out my blog "Marco Minute" at

  2. Well, Christ was himself was nothing if not divisive. "I have come not to bring peace, but a sword." He didn't mean the sword of war--that's OUR sword. He meant the sword of truth by which we are each bound to search our hearts and to see how very far we are from loving each other as He loved us, or loving each other at all...In one way, the only way to resist the "filthy, rotten system," which is built on, among other things, the violence of perpetual war, is not to participate in it at all. You participate in another system, the "system" that is predicated on saying yes when you mean yes, no when you mean no, and doing unto the least of these as you supposedly would unto Christ.

    And I think there are different ways of not participating in THIS system. Mother Teresa's was one way, and Dorothy Day's was slightly, but only slightly, another. I admire them both tremendously. And their lives both point up that the Gospels call us to a very perilous undertaking. They're not some safe little Let's go to church on Sundays and say the Rosary, although I am a great adherent of both those practices, and believe the Mass, in fact, to be the center of everything. But the whole purpose of prayer is to call us to a deep examination of conscience as to how we spend our energy, our time, our money, our capacity to reason, think, and feel. We're called to ask to what or whom we have ceded, or are ceding, our sexuality, our capacity for love, our possessions, our freedom, our bodies. We're called to at least ask where our taxes go, and to ponder that a bit, and to sit with what for me anyway are very very uncomfortable answers.

    But whatever we see as the answers, we always have to come from a place of humility, of "not knowing," of standing in the back of the church beating our breasts at the knowledge of our terrible brokenness, sinfulness, blindness and hardheartedness, saying Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner...which, though I don't watch TV, I suspect is not exactly, as you say, the stance of Fox News...

    Thanks for checking in! And all the best with your own blog...

  3. "Actually, do you have five dollars? I need to get back to Compton."

    I "smiled out loud" at this, having heard so many variations on it. When I was young, and stupid(er), I'd take slight umbrage at the claim of needing the alms to get "back" to Vacaville, or Mojave, or Sacramento. It was akin to how I initially felt when guests at the soup kitchen where I volunteered displayed a surprising discrimination about the food we served them, which was donated by San Francisco restaurants. "If I were poor," I said to myself, "I'd eat anything put in front of me." Oh, I was certain of it.

    Eventually I learned that the finickiness about food, and the song-and-dance about needing to get somewhere, were more often than not protective displays. We all resort to them -- well, I know I do. How often have I claimed to be engaged in freelance work, when I've been simply, completely, unemployed?

  4. Beautifully written! And now I want to read the diaries of Dorothy Day. Is that the title I should look for?

    Heather, you take my breath away with each of your posts, packed, nuanced, thoughtful, flowing--beautiful in execution, beautiful in meaning. Thank you.

  5. Dorothy Day's diaries are called The Duty of Delight, Judy--the companion volume of her letters, also beautifully edited by Daniel Ellsberg, and just out, is called All the Way to Heaven. They are both well worth reading.

    And I love when "the poor" are finicky, too, mojavehicular. Because God knows I can be! And don't we all, in one way or another, always need five bucks to "get back to Compton?"....

  6. Thanks, Heather. I will try to get them.

  7. Interesting post. I wish the media would place this story on the back page, already.
    The killer is obviously mentally ill-but knew
    what he was doing.Nothing to do with politics.
    I cannot say I agree with Dorothy Day's
    actions all the time. Defying authority is not
    correct either. She was human, born with original sin. Jesus was not. Nevertheless, we try for progress-not perfection.

  8. Dear Heather, I don't know much about Dorothy Day, but what I gather she was a very strong willed individual. I also find her to be very human, with faults, just like everyone else. What I find remarkable about her is she had thoughts and actions of a deep, deep spiritual nature that she herself couldn't really explain and sometimes rebelled against. Am I right about this?

  9. Well, I think we all have thoughts and actions of a deep spiritual nature that we can't explain and sometimes rebel against. What was remarkable about Dorothy Day was that she attempted to live out the Gospels to the letter: among other things, by literally living under the same roof as the poor, by supporting pacifism across the board, a deeply unpopular and controversial stance during, for instance, WWII, and by her lifelong devotion to prayer, the Sacraments, and Catholic teaching about marriage, the family, and sex during a time (the 60's and 70's) when those teachings were being widely ridiculed and scorned. Like Christ, she transcended all politics, all attempts to categorize, all labels. Because love, that "harsh and dreadful thing," defies all labels...

  10. Thanks Heather, I will have to do more research on Dorothy Day. You make her sound wonderful and desirous to know!
    By the way I have recommended you to my three daughters.

  11. Michael, Dorothy Day is well worth knowing. Her books The Long Loneliness and Loaves and Fishes are a good place to start. And I am touched that you have recommended me to your three daughters! Many thanks to you for checking in...


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