Patrick J. HAYES, Department of Religious Studies, Iona College
Recently in Worcester, Massachusetts, in recognition of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Catholic Worker (CW) movement, over 250 gathered to celebrate what has been a unique and vital effort for the cause of peace and the plight of the poor in America. Kicking off this memorial moment was an address by Robert Ellsberg who, at age 19, first encountered the CW co-founder, Dorothy Day. Sitting across the table from her at St. Joseph House, the first of the CW communities that now number around 200, Ellsberg—who was not yet a Catholic—hoped to impress Day with a question that he thought would surely prove formidable: “How do you reconcile Catholicism and anarchism?” Looking at him squarely and with pursed lips, she said simply, “It’s never been a problem for me.”
There is levity like this strewn all around Day’s diaries, which Ellsberg has edited in what promises to be an important contribution to the history of American Catholic life and thought. Barred from publication until 25 years after her death, the diaries were quickly placed in Ellsberg’s hands and now reveal a woman of considerable depth and holiness. The diaries span the years 1934 to 1980, just days before her death in November 1980. Ellsberg supplies a very useful timeline and introduction on Day’s range and charm. The result is a precious book—one that will teach the reader on multiple levels. Not only do we get much greater insight into the life of the Catholic Worker—the people, places, intrigues, and obstacles of the movement—we find emerging a far more personal account of the spirituality of the everyday and indeed, of Day’s acceptance of self-sacrifice that is the ‘duty of delight.’
The diaries do not conceal anything, but instead complement Day’s rather large corpus on political questions as well as portray someone whose spirituality tended to remain consistent in the aftermath of her conversion. She loved liturgy and a well spoken priest’s homily or a thoroughly engaged choir were worthy of note. She delighted in her daughter Tamar. She also sought out quiet, for an hour or two if she could, and busied herself with prayer or spiritual reading. She found regular comfort in St. Therese of Lisieux’s “Little Way” and looked to Thomas a Kempis or St. Francis of Assisi or Cardinal John Henry Newman’s sermons from time to time. Her reading habits tended toward Russian literature, but she also tried to keep pace with contemporary American fiction. In the midst of it all, she did dishes and gave lectures and got arrested and tended her grandchildren. It is no wonder she laughed when she learned that the dossier kept on her by J. Edgar Hoover labeled her as “erratic.”
There are several questions that the diaries, unfortunately, do not answer. What, for instance, did Catholic Workers do in 1935 when they marched on the port of New York City to protest the docking of the Bremen, which sailed under the Nazi swastika? How did it affect Day to learn of the assassination of Mohandus Gandhi in 1948? In what way did Humanae Vitae press itself into her consciousness, as it did for other Catholics? We cannot find adequate replies to these and a host of other questions simply through an examination of the diaries. Little fragments of answers are to be found elsewhere, though not always. There is plenty that remains mysterious.
However, the diaries show that Day carried an uncompromising alertness to cultural and political and religious trends, the likes of which can be found in few other lay people of her era. Her acquaintances were numerous and well placed. Upon his ascendancy to become Ambassador of France to the Vatican, Jacques Maritain graciously received a number of copies of The Catholic Worker newspaper and promised to put a select few into the hands of the pope. Among peace activists, she knew the Berrigan brothers well—both Phil and Dan—and all actively supported their interests (I couldn’t help but look for the entry on my own birthday, May 19, 1966, and found she had breakfast with then Fr. Phil Berrigan that morning—it was the Feast of the Ascension). She received communion from the hands of Pope Paul VI. She hashed over economic theory with Michael Harrington, discussed literature with Evelyn Waugh, cashed checks from Congresswoman Clare Booth Luce and shared coffee with thousands of people who will go down as nameless, but who nevertheless kept her grounded.
The diaries also open up little windows into her soul. In 1937 she wrote on suffering through toothaches and bilious attacks and poison ivy, noting how each illness may at first seem petty and undignified when compared to wounds received in battle. “But in reality it takes heroic virtue to practice patience in little things, things which seem little to others but which afflict one with unrest and misery.” The ability to handle these uncomfortable distractions, she says, is the “sacrament of the present moment” (26). In November 1944, we find her talking to herself: “The only visible sign of Christianity is brotherly love. Where is it now? We must be convinced of Jesus. Try to reproduce his life.” (86) She prayed on the hillside of Tepeyac, where it is said that Our Lady of Gaudalupe came to St. Juan Diego. She prayed near the tomb of St. Peter in the Vatican as any pilgrim might. She found God in nature, whether in the Vermont woods or at the beach in Staten Island. Its beauty would save the world, she believed.
How will these diaries be used to judge Day? Now that the diocesan phase of her cause for sainthood has been opened, over some objections within the CW community, will the diary’s pages scuttle her chances to be raised to the altars? Ellsberg, who is a member of the Dorothy Day Guild, does not believe so. To the contrary, he says, the publication of her diaries should dispel any lingering questions over her sanctity, which found her lifting up her daily life as an offering to God. Even her radical engagement in political questions was but an exercise in attempting to find Christ in the world. I am in agreement with this assessment, even while acknowledging Day’s own admonition against making her a saint, which she feared would make her and her life’s work irrelevant. To lionize her piety is hardly a capitulation, but an act of love and a suggestion to others to follow her example in the way of perfecting oneself—using the very human traits with which we are all endowed to raise ourselves up to God.