Sunday, June 12, 2011


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.  


All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day,
Edited by Robert Ellsberg
Marquette University Press
(Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 2010

 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 Toronto. 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.

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 Manhattan and an estate on the Hudson. “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system,” she said, and she also had attorneys, real estate agents, and a cardiologist.

 “Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love,” she was fond of saying, a quote borrowed from St. John 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, 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.” 


  1. Another Ellsberg book that deserves special praise is The Spiritual Writings of Flannery O'Connor. Drawing from all O'Connor's work Mr. Ellsberg put together an anthology that highlights as never before her distinctive voice as a spiritual writer, covering such topics as Christian Realism, the Church, the relation between faith and art, sin and grace, and the role of suffering in the life of a Christian. You can find the reading selections I made here:

  2. Do you know the story of Rose Hawthorne and her connection with Dorothy Day?

    Rose died in 1926. At the time of her death, her life story was published in a New York newspaper, where it was read by a young intellectual named Dorothy Day. Day was living on the Lower East Side and struggling to eke out a career as a journalist.

    She was also a spiritual seeker, and the encounter with Rose’s story helped focus her energies and prompt her in the direction of a more radical love.

    Just a few years later, she founded the Catholic Worker movement, an organization dedicated to the intertwining of the love of God and the love of the poor, the hungry, the ignorant, and those forced to the margins of society. A seed sown by Rose Hawthorne took root in the receptive soil of Dorothy Day’s soul.

    Fr.Robert Barron continues the story here



  4. This makes me want to go on a letter reading binge. The letters of Dorothy Day, the letters of Flannery O'Connor, the letters of St. Augustine, etc.

  5. "He hates us all ... And he, after all, is Christ."

    I've always had difficulty with the universalist interpretation of Our Lord's words in the judgment of nations, viz., that "the least of these my brethren" refers to every homeless person in the street, including those who might very well reject Christ. I've always been more comfortable with the strictly literal and historical interpretation, which is that Our Lord is referring to His disciples, who, at the time of the writing of Matthew's gospel, were very often the poorest of the poor, homeless, suffering persecution, and relying on the charity of other Christians.

    I've come to realize that the witness of holy Christians like Blessed Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day is meant to challenge our "comfortable" interpretation of the judgment of nations. We must have the spiritual vision to see Christ even in those who hate Him, because who is poorer than someone who doesn't know Christ? And am I not myself the poorest of the poor, do I not hate Christ, every time that I separate myself from Him by sin?


  6. I do know the story of Rose Hawthorne. Thanks for setting it forth here and for the further Ellsberg suggestion.

    And the poorest of the poor...yeah. St. Therese of Lisieux underwent a fearsome aridity near the end of her life where all consolation vanished, inner voices mocked the notion of heaven that had theretofore seemed so dear...And she realized that before, she'd always thought people who didn't believe in God CHOSE not to believe; that they "knew" but willfully turned their backs. Now she realized differently. Now she saw the frightful poverty and hell, and that belief itself is sheer grace...what kind of followers of Christ would we be if we turned our backs on those who perhaps, unbeknownst to them, hunger for him most?...Interesting how universal law ensures each of us has AT LEAST a few such people in our midst at any given time...

    Finally, I think we get most deeply in touch with the poverty of others by getting in touch with our own: our limitations, our hardness of heart, our fear...

  7. I so appreciate your work, Heather.
    On this topic, I do have a different angle to report, however. My 20 something daughter, 'armed' with a Roman Catechetical diploma and a genuine desire to serve the Church, had applied to volunteer at Dorothy Day centers in both LA and northern CA. She found that her adherence to Church teaching was a stumbling block regarding the distribution of condoms. She would have been expected to go along with that practice and, therefore, was not welcomed. I don't believe that this is the norm everywhere, but it clearly was in this case.

  8. A fine review. A friend recommended reading it and it in turn led me to read a few of your other postings. I'll be back again.

    Julie mentioned her daughter's experience. No two CW houses are the same, and some are really different. In some houses Dorothy wouldn't be all that welcome if she started speaking her mind freely.

    Jim Forest

    Jim & Nancy Forest
    Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands

    Just published: “All is Grace,” my revised and expanded biography
    of Dorothy Day:

    Out in July: "Saint George & the Dragon"

    Photos taken while in the US:

    Jim & Nancy web site:

    Jim's books:

    Photo collections:
    In Communion site:

    Forest-Flier Editorial Services:

    On Pilgrimage blog:

    A Tale of Two Kidneys blog:

  9. Julie,

    God bless your daughter. May she continue to stand with the Church, whatever the cost. Liberalism and dissent against Catholic doctrine is prevalent among many (not all) "peace and justice" Catholics. I don't think that Dorothy Day would be too happy with it.


  10. Whoops, didn't make clear that the comment two up was posted by me because Jim Forest, who wrote it, couldn't for some reason get through.

    Jim, a prolific author and speaker, was a dear, long-time friend of Dorothy Day's. In fact, All the Way to Heaven is dedicated to him.


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