Third Address: The Servant of God Dorothy Day

This is the third and last of three addresses by Fr Christopher Snook delivered at Evening Prayer in the Chapel in the last week of August. This address was delivered on Wednesday, August 28, 2019.

Like Mother Maria, Dorothy Day (who is the last of our three figures this week) was an ardent radical, anarchist and bohemian in her early youth whose sense of the ascetic demand of love for one’s neighbor came to characterize her entire life, so much so that she could write: “it is with the voice of our contemporaries that [Christ] speaks, with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers, and children that he gazes; with the hands of office workers, slum dwellers, and suburban housewives that he gives. It is with the feet of soldiers and tramps that he walks, and with the heart of anyone in need that he longs for shelter. And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving to Christ. We can do now what those who knew him in the days of his flesh did.”

Born in 1897 in Brooklyn, New York, Dorothy Day spent her early teenage years in Chicago, where her father worked for a local newspaper. It was in Chicago, walking her baby brother through the working-class tenements of the south east (of whose existence she had been made aware by Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle), that Day felt her life inextricably connected with the lives of the poor. In her late teenage years, she moved to New York, where she worked as a journalist for a number of politically radical papers before becoming a nurse. Eventually, a youthful love affair led to a pregnancy and an abortion, all of which Day discussed in her first largely autobiographical novel. In 1925 she fell in love with a British socialist and eventually became pregnant again. As one biographer notes, for Day this pregnancy “filled her with an overwhelming sense of God’s mercy that was to remain with her for the rest of her life.” Having assumed that the medical complications attendant on the termination of her earlier pregnancy had rendered her incapable of having more children, Day looked upon the birth of her daughter as nothing less than a miracle. As the young child grew, she found herself praying constantly in gratitude and thanksgiving. Day decided eventually to have the child baptized in the Roman Catholic Church and was herself baptized the following year. (A little child, as the prophecy says, shall lead them). Her reception into the Roman Catholic Church effectively ended her romantic relationship though she maintained a friendship with her daughter’s father throughout her life. 

December 8, 1932 was a next decisive moment in Day’s life. She spent much of the day at prayer in the shrine to the Immaculate Conception in Washington, where she asked God to provide her a means of using her gifts as a writer to care for the poor. The next day she returned home only to find Peter Maurin in her home. Maurin was a largely self-educated son of peasants from France with whom Day would go on to found the Catholic Workers Movement the following year. It was Peter Maurin who encouraged Day to begin the Catholic Worker paper which became the vehicle for the movement and it was Maurin who helped articulate the Church’s tradition of social teaching for Day and, eventually, for Bishops throughout the United States. Through Maurin’s influence, Day was able to discover that her radical political and social commitments had a home within the life and teaching tradition of the Church, on the one hand obliging all Christians to seek the transformation of unjust social structures, but more especially obliging them to active love of neighbour – love to the end, as Mother Maria put it last night, and without exception. 

Under Maurin’s influence, communal farms were set up modeled in part on the kibbutz of Israel. In addition to the founding of the Catholic Worker’s paper, Maurin called for the establishment of houses of hospitality for the poor where souls could practice the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Day described these homes to a visiting social worker who asked how long people were permitted to stay: “we let them stay forever,” she told the shocked worker. “They live with us, they die with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after they are dead. Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather, they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.” Catholic social teaching presupposed that such houses would be present in every Diocese, and so Maurin traveled and taught, calling Bishops throughout the United States to open them. He also urged Christian families to sanctify a room in their houses and apartments for Christ – that is, a Christ room to welcome anyone in need of housing, food, and spiritual respite. 

From one perspective, Day’s life reads as a series of extraordinary and heroic initiatives, a kind of relentless series of charitable works. But as Day herself noted, and as others note about her, this would be to miss entirely the character and meaning of her life. “We feed the hungry, yes,” she writes, “We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes, but there is a strong faith at work; we pray. If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn’t pay attention to our praying and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.” As one acquaintance observes: “I have never known anyone, not even in monasteries, who was more prayerful than Dorothy Day. When I think of her, I think of her first of all on her knees praying before the Blessed Sacrament. I think of those long lists of names she kept of people, living and dead, to pray for. I think of her at Mass, I think of her praying the rosary, I think of her going off for confession each Saturday evening.” Prayer was fundamental for Day because the work of her life was not about the simple eradication of worldly poverty, but what she called a revolution of the heart: “It is the living from day to day,” she observed, “taking no thought for the morrow, seeing Christ in all who come to us, and trying literally to follow the Gospel that resulted in this work.” The daily adoration of Christ in prayer was the means by which she could adore him present in her neighbour and allow her neighbour to serve the same Christ in herself. 

It would be easy to move through this aspect of Day’s life quickly – her praying life – despite her own advice to the contrary. But of course, the life of prayer as embodied daily in this University Chapel seeks precisely the same revolution of the heart as did Day – a life of practical love emerging from and returning to a contemplative resting in God. Jean Vanier speaks at length about the urgency of prayer and solitude for the sake of our life in community, though he emphasizes less those occasions of corporate prayer which structure and order our life, and more especially moments of personal devotion and silence when, as he says, we rest in the arms of the Father like a child. Noting that we can risk in our life together the extremes of a false solitude (which we embrace in order to avoid each other) or a false business, which we embrace out of fear and insecurity, Vanier demonstrates how solitude and community depend upon one another. In a lengthy reflection on personal prayer, Vanier cites his great contemporary, Fr Henri Nouwen:

Solitude, writes Nouwen, is essential to community life because in solitude we grow closer to each other. In solitude we discover each other in a way which physical presence makes difficult, if not impossible. There we recognize a bond with each other that does not depend on words, gestures or actions and that is deeper and stronger than our own efforts can create. Solitude and community belong together; each requires the other as do the centre and circumference of a circle Solitude without community leads us to loneliness and despair, but community without solitude hurls us into a ‘void of words and feelings.’ 

For Dorothy Day, the revolution of the heart occasioned by prayer and service looked like or required two things that she was taught by her mentor and dear friend, Peter Maurin. Firstly, Maurin insisted that love demands personal sacrifice: “We cannot see our brother in need without stripping ourselves. It is the only way we have of showing our love.” Though it is tempting to think that the opportunities to strip ourselves are few and far between give the number of government institutions that care for those in need, Maurin and Day were convinced that the establishment of the welfare state, for all of the good it accomplishes, was in many respects a failure. This was manifest by the sheer number of people who became part of their lives only after having fallen through the cracks of the various institutions established to tend to those in need. 

To agitate for political reform, to insist on justice, to protest war, capital punishment etc– these were part and parcel of Day’s vision. But government legislation could not provide community, solidarity, works of mercy and love. Indeed, at her most extreme, Day argued that the tendency to see the State as the agency required to deal with life’s most pressing questions can result in a kind of slavery. And so she writes: “…we in our generation have more and more come to consider the state as bountiful Uncle Sam. ‘Uncle Sam will take care of it all. The race question, the labor question, the unemployment question.’ We will all be registered and tabulated and employed or put on a dole, and shunted from clinic to birth control clinic.” To spend any time in the North End of Halifax is to discover precisely the capacity of the poor to endure the daily humiliations of being in one way or another institutionalized, dealt with often by caring people, but in a context that can only read the weak and powerless as problems to be solved. 

For Day and Maurin, the State simply cannot understand the mystical principal at work in social life (even if, in some sense, it is predicated upon it) – that we are members one of another. Face to face personal encounter and the long term commitment to involve one’s life with others – not as objects to be served, but as Christ to be adored – this is how the deep problem of alienation is tended to. Love, to the end, without exception. 

The habit of personal sacrifice was intended to combat what Maurin describes as the contemporary culture of acquisitiveness which emphasizes, whether through the ideology of austerity, or fear mongering, or the cultivation of new and ever-more extravagant desires, the endless gratification of personal appetites. As Day herself notes in her Advent self-examination, the habit of acquisitiveness was a constant temptation for her. She made these notes as she explored the state of her soul: “Meanness about giving time to others and wasting it myself. Constant desire for comfort. First impulse is always to make myself comfortable. If cold, to put on warmth; if hot, to become cool; if hungry, to eat; and what one likes -- always the first thought is of one's own comfort...” The problem of this orientation of soul is not only that it blinds us to the needs of our neighbours, but that it also leaves a soul endlessly preoccupied with the prospect of losing or not being able to acquire what it perceives is needed to satisfy an almost infinite variety of wants. 

The second habit that Maurin and Day insisted upon as an extension of personal sacrifice is voluntary poverty. This, indeed, is the key to Maurin’s thought and fundamental to the Catholic Worker Movement’s early houses of hospitality, farms and paper. It is also, I think, the most difficult and challenging aspect of Day’s legacy while at the same time being perhaps the most liberating. Voluntary poverty is the practical expression of authentic personal sacrifice. Such sacrifice requires not that we give to others simply what is left over of our abundance, but that we give first and foremost from the abundance itself. The early days of the Catholic Worker movement were radical in their embrace of this vision. As Day notes, they were convinced that God would supply their needs provided they were generous and sacrificial. As quickly as they gave away food, and furniture and clothing – even from their own backs – just as quickly these things materialized again. Voluntary poverty loosens the soul’s grip on the things of the world, and for this reason Day and Maurin would argue that it is key to freedom. It begins for many by giving away a crust of bread, a piece of clothing, a cup of water, but it becomes deeper as we learn to give away time and privacy, as we surrender our indignity when we are interrupted or when unexpected demands arise. This, for Day, was a constant battle: “We hold on to our books,” Day writes, “our tools, such as typewriters, our clothes, and instead of rejoicing when they are taken from us we lament. We protest at people taking time or privacy. We are holding on to these goods.” 

The repetition in our lives of Christ’s own self-emptying; the repetition in our lives of the manger and its poverty; the repetition in our lives of the hidden life of Christ in Nazareth – this constitutes a poverty that is the essence of freedom. “We must keep on talking about voluntary poverty,” writes Day, “and holy poverty… It is only if we love poverty that we are going to have the means to help others. It we love poverty we will be free to give up a job, to speak when we feel it would be wrong to be silent. We can only talk about voluntary poverty because we believe Christians must be fools for Christ. We can only embrace voluntary poverty in the light of faith.” 

For this poverty to be authentic and not simply romantic, it presupposes a willingness to live with the fundamental reality of all poverty – an intense and anxiety-inducing precarity, the sense that things may crumble. As one priest notes in an article by Day, the desire to build and grow and get bigger which often animates parish and community life is fine as far as it goes, but the first casualty of this yearning is as often as not the poor. To be in solidarity is to live together on the edge that induces or compels or requires of us, faith. And so Day offers us a way of seeing, even here at the College where fears of institutional instability often plague us -- whether of the chapel’s life or of the College’s – Day offers us a way of loving this precarity as a an instance of identity with the poor. Indeed, taken rightly, the instability of institutional life is in fact a manifestation of their reality – they are transient. 

But let me conclude this too long reflection: Dorothy Day’s autobiography is titled, The Long Loneliness. The title is the secret at the heart of her life of personal sacrifice and voluntary poverty. As she writes, “We have all known the long loneliness…” That is, we all know the agony of isolation, of being misunderstood, of seeming a riddle even to ourselves. “…we have learned”, she writes, “that the only solution [to the long loneliness] is love and that love comes with community.” She goes on to write: “To love with understanding and without understanding. To love blindly, and to folly. To see only what is loveable. To think only on these things. To see the best in everyone around, their virtues rather than their faults. To see Christ in them.” To come to this place of love, even to wish to come to this place, is already to be on the way to community. 

Day then offers us this evening two more words to add to the insights of Alfred Delp and Maria Skobstova, words that together I think might shape our life together this year and might, I hope, inform a deeper consideration of Jean Vanier’s work. Her first word is the call to personal sacrifice as the sign of love. Her second word is that we love voluntary poverty – love, to use her term, the precarity of institutional life because in so doing we love the vulnerability of Christ in the manger and Christ in one another. 

Of course (and I really conclude here) in all of this talk about community we must keep in mind that community is not an end in itself. Rather, the end we seek is the place of perfect love and communion, the place of homecoming and reconciliation. The image of this is alive for us, Vanier notes, not only in the hardship and trials of life together but above all in our celebration. And just as accounts of the Kingdom of God are dominated by images of feasts, so too our life with one another should be punctuated by feasts, where our earthly tables remind us of a greater glory and a greater meal yet to come. Vanier writes: 

I have always loved what the King said to his servants in St Matthew’s Gospel: ‘Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find’. We are not made to be sad and to work all the time, to do nothing but obey the law and struggle. We are all invited to the wedding feast! Our communities should be signs of joy and celebration. If they are, people will commit themselves with us. Communities which are sad are sterile; they are places of death. Of course our joy on earth is far from complete. But our celebrations are small signs of the eternal celebration, of the wedding feast to which we are all invited.