Best Personality Profile: Second Place
Dorothy Day and Her Little Way by Robert Ellsberg
Editors Note: Each year, the Catholic Press Association puts out a call for entries of books, newspapers, magazines, and other publications to its Catholic Press Awards program. “Dorothy Day and Her Little Way” won second place for Best Personality Profile! The awards honor the accomplishments of Catholic journalists and publishers and affirm their commitment to spreading the Good News. For Liguori, they affirm our commitment to the mission of the Redemptorists. Judges comments: Wondering what else could be written about Dorothy Day, this turned out to be highly interesting and very well written. Excellent beginning that pulls readers in and the ending ties it up nicely.
On June 15, 1955, a siren sounded, signaling a nuclear-attack drill. The entire population of New York City obediently sought shelter in basements and subway stations, or, in the case of schoolchildren, under their desks. According to the authorities, this first in a series of civil-defense drills was a “complete success.”
Well, almost. It was marred by a middle-age, white-haired woman and twenty-six others who refused to play this war game. Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and her companions instead sat in City Hall Park, where they were arrested and later sentenced to jail. The judge who imposed bail likened the protesters to “murderers” who had contributed to the “utter destruction of these three million theoretically killed in our city.”
Of course, three million—the theoretical casualties of a nuclear strike in New York City—would hardly have measured the potential devastation. Actual plans for nuclear war involved casualties in the hundreds of millions. Unknown at that time were the effects of “nuclear winter,” the catastrophic side effect of a nuclear exchange that might have destroyed all life in the Northern Hemisphere. As Dorothy Day saw it, the illusion that nuclear war was “survivable” and therefore “winnable” made such a war more likely. To participate in an exercise for doomsday, she believed, was an act of blasphemy. And so she went to jail.
On that clear spring day in 1955, it had been more than twenty years since Dorothy Day had founded The Catholic Worker. It was first a newspaper and then a movement consisting of houses of hospitality in New York City and slum neighborhoods across the country. In such communities, the works of mercy—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless—were combined with a commitment to social justice and Day’s vision of a society “in which it is easier to be good.”
Many admired her work among the poor, including subscribers in the heart of the Depression who sympathized when The Catholic Worker questioned an economic system that produced so much poverty and desperation. But in those early years, few joined Day in her conviction that the way of Jesus was incompatible with any kind of killing. And on the day of that first civil-defense drill in New York City, the number of Catholics who agreed that this was a crime against God and humanity could evidently fit inside a single police wagon. But for Day, all of her convictions fit together. The Catholic Worker movement was an effort to live out the radical implications of the teaching of Christ: that what we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do directly to him.
For almost fifty years, until her death in 1980, Dorothy lived by these convictions. As a result, she received a fair amount of criticism. Some called her un-American. She was charged with being weak, irrelevant, and foolish. In reply, she stated, “We confess to being foolish and wish that we were more so.” Some accused her of being a secret Communist. Before her conversion to Catholicism in 1927, she had in fact participated in left-wing movements and befriended Communists and other agitators.
In the 1950s, J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, placed her name on a list of dangerous radicals to be detained in the event of a national emergency.
And yet the tide has turned. In 2000, John Cardinal O’Connor submitted her cause for canonization to Rome, where, upon its acceptance, she was named a Servant of God. In 2012, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops joined Timothy Cardinal Dolan in endorsing this cause, a long process that may conclude one day in her becoming St. Dorothy. If so, she will certainly be a saint with an unusual backstory, including her arrest on behalf of women’s suffrage, her bohemian youth, and an abortion following an unhappy love affair. All this occurred before her conversion to Catholicism. Yet even the circumstances of her conversion are unique in the annals of the saints. This occurred while she was living on Staten Island with a man she loved and discovered she was pregnant. In gratitude, she found herself praying and wishing to have her child baptized—a step she eventually followed, though it meant a painful separation from her common-law husband.
The Catholic Worker came five years later, after a long, lonely search for her vocation. While covering a labor march in Washington, D.C., in December 1932, she had prayed at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception that God would open up some way for her to use her talents on behalf of the poor. And when she returned to New York, she met Peter Maurin, an itinerant Frenchman, whose personalist philosophy seemed an answer to her prayer. He inspired her to start a newspaper to promote the social vision of the Gospel. And in the houses of hospitality that opened, Day and the Catholic Workers practiced what they preached—living among the poor, practicing the works of mercy, and trying to live out the radical implications of the love of God and neighbor.
Day did not believe she could solve the problems of the Depression by feeding a few hundred hungry people. Nor, years later—when she refrained from following the civil-defense drills and went to jail—did she believe that such gestures would bring an end to war. She was, however, a firm believer in the “Little Way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux—her favorite saint (who died, coincidentally, the same year as Day’s birth, 1897). Thérèse had devised a spirituality that consisted of performing all the small deeds and obligations of our daily life in a spirit of love and in the presence of God. In this way, our everyday life, with its constant opportunities to practice patience, forgiveness, and compassion, could become an arena for holiness. Thérèse furthermore believed strongly in the spiritual connections that bind all members of the mystical body. There was no telling what effect our prayers and small sacrifices could have around the globe on people we might never meet.
Day studied and practiced these teachings. Her diaries, published as The Duty of Delight, record the discipline of her spiritual life—daily Mass, saying the rosary, rising early to read the Office. But they also record the constant discipline required to curb her anger and impatience and to practice charity in her dealings with those around her. Living in a fractious community consisting in large part of what Dorothy often called the “insulted and injured,” this was a truly heroic task. It was the exercise of her faith in these small ways, and the effort she put forth to live her daily life in the conscious presence of God, that equipped her for the more dramatic forms of public witness.
At the same time, like St. Thérèse, Day believed strongly in the power of small means and obscure actions. She wrote a book about Thérèse because, she said, she wanted to call attention to the social implications of her teachings: the significance of all the little things we do—or fail to do. This included the protests we make. Appearing foolish while standing on a street corner with a sign for peace, or handing out a leaflet, or going to jail for a few days: these were simply a few “loaves and fish.” But God could take such small gifts and multiply them.
Writing to a young man in prison, Day wrote, “We know how powerless we are, all of us, against the power of wealth and government and industry and science. 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.” Vigils, fasting, prayer, and marches were all indispensable, she wrote. But in the end, “All these means are useless unless animated by love.”
Like the holy people she admired and emulated, Day didn’t like to be called a saint. A surprising number of people are familiar with the line attributed to her: “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed that easily!” She did not like to be used as an excuse for other people to let themselves off the hook. “Dorothy could do things that we could not”—people might say. “After all, she’s a saint.”
She was more conscious than anyone of her own failings. Often, in her diaries, she refers to the temptation to walk away from the movement. But then, she adds: “Some such thought as that of St. John of the Cross would come, ‘Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love,’ and makes all right. When it comes down to it, even on the natural plane, it is much happier and more enlivening to love than to be loved.”
For me, the fundamental significance of Day’s “cause” rests not just in her own example of holiness but in the way she held up the vocation of holiness as the common calling of all Christians. She did not believe holiness was just for a few—or for those dedicated to formal religious life. It was simply a matter of taking seriously the logic of our baptismal vows—to put off the old person and put on Christ; to grow constantly in our capacity for love.
She lived out her own vocation in the Catholic Worker movement. But she set an example for all Christians, especially lay people, reminding us that the Gospel is meant to be lived and challenging us to find our own unique path of faithful discipleship.
And what about those civil-defense drills? Dorothy was arrested in successive annual drills and served two thirty-day sentences. But by 1961, she was joined by 2,000 other protesters. The drills stopped.