Were most of us to write what we did each day, it would be the most boring writing in the world. But Dorothy Day's On Pilgrimage, which she wrote during 1948, recounting her daily experiences are filled with reflections on the saints, her friends, her childhood, the many books she had read, and the times in which she lived. She says at the end of the book that she wrote to support herself and her work. "There are bills to pay at the inn, of course," she writes, "and they are one of the reasons which led me to send this manuscript forth in the care of St. Joseph, patron of all families" (p. 256).
Her reflections are sad, funny, ridiculous, tragic, and sometimes full of mystery and suspense, but always interesting. "The kitchen is a busy place," she says on one March day, "filled with babies, baby goats, kittens, three adults. Around supper time it is bedlam. It reminds me of the riotous picture presented in that Christmas card . . . of milk maids milking, lads [sic] a leaping, drummers drumming, pipers piping, etc." (119-120). Her underlying theme seems to be that life is sacramental. She has a long chapter on sex, for example, in which she condemns both those who do not wish to discuss it at all, and those who loudly denigrate the marriage act. The love of two people in marriage is the highest form of human love, she says, and can be compared to the love between God and the human soul.
In the first months of the year she was living with her daughter and son-in-law and writes of their struggles to eke out a living on a rented farm in West Virginia. She writes of baking bread and pies, hanging the wash on the line, feeding the babies, taking her pregnant daughter to the doctor. Interspersed with these things, she writes about what she is thinking, stories from the New Testament, the psalms or authors like Eric Gill and Peter Maurin. She reflects on her own childhood, her schooling, and her parents. She recalls that when the priest at her baptism asked, "What do you ask of the church of God," she did not know whether she "had faith or believed, or just wanted to believe.... I knew that if I wanted to understand, if I wanted to get rid of all my doubts, I would never be ready" (p. 108).
What stands out is her "dailyness," her deep submergence of herself into human life and human situations, her thoughtful acceptance of every situation she found herself in. And yet the book is not about her, but about the human condition. She is most keenly aware of the lack of social justice all around her. She was intensely aware, in 1948, of poverty, war, and the world situation in general. When she is in New York, she relates stories about helpless people who lived on the farm in Newburgh. And when she reflects on world poverty she writes "[T]he great cause of war is maldistribution, not only of goods, but of population" (151).
In some ways, Day's words contradict her actions, as for example when she says that one has to die to the natural to achieve the supernatural, and when she speaks of "spiritual weapons," meaning devotion to the Sacred Heart and the rosary. But when it came to fairness, her words could be echoed now with absolute relevance: "Poverty means having a bare minimum of clothes, seeing to it that these are made under decent working conditions, proper wages and hours, etc." (247-48).
There are some things about the book that one wishes could have been different. Most frustrating is that there is no index, which makes it difficult to reference authors or places. Also there are no footnotes to let the reader know the whereabouts of places or what the books are that are being discussed. The 64- page introduction is especially disconcerting when it portrays Day as a cardboard figure without friends or emotions.
For those who lived during the 40s and 50s, reading Dorothy Day is a soul-searching experience. When we look back from this 21st century vantage point, we ask ourselves why we didn't help more than we did, why we didn't find ways of dealing with the problem of poverty. Day had a vision of a just world that most other people did not have. We didn't see that the world was changing. We emphasized the importance of keeping rules instead of marshalling our forces for social change. Dorothy Day continues to be an inspiration for those who take advantage of the opportunity to read her.