Dorothy Day: a marriage of work and writing

Dorothy Day in her apartment, c. 1965

“Whenever I groan within myself,” Dorothy Day wrote, “and think how hard it is to keep writing about love in these times of tension and strife…I think to myself, ‘What else is the world interested in’.” It is one of those rare questions that is encouraging even if you cannot answer it.

Dorothy Day was, by all accounts, a small woman. One could easily argue that she was not very Catholic, too: she held a common law marriage with a man she rarely speaks of, she bore just one child, converted to the faith later in life after years as a bohemian in Greenwich Village (she bummed around New York City with the playwright Eugene O’Neill and other poets of that scene), worked and traveled a lot, and struggled to pray. And yet, Dorothy Day is most certainly a saint, and not to mention, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

She was born on this day in 1897 and she lived a truly singular life, which she wrote most beautifully about in her memoir, The Long Loneliness, first published in 1952. Day was a student, a nurse (serving World War I veterans in NYC for one year), a mother, a journalist, writer, and the founder (along with her beloved ministry partner, Peter Maurin) of one of the most significant Catholic organizations and publications: The Catholic Worker.

It is difficult to understate the genius and importance of the Catholic Worker, which is both the name of the organization and the publication founded by Day and Peter Maurin in 1933, right in the heart of the Great Depression. The Catholic Worker is unique and under-recognized (ignored, even?) in the complicated and overgrown landscape of Christian organizations. The Catholic Worker was and is a published newspaper, a group of hospitality houses, farms, and intentional, autonomous living communities where poor and rich and middle class live, work, and learn.

In these homes and living communities, Day and her team allowed for a complete rebuke of American individualistic capitalism. A refuge from the grind and pressures of a collapsing economy and spirituality, Catholic Workers envisioned a life of shared possessions, common work, small living, and collective futures. In a time of increasing violence, segregation, and industrialization, Day had a vision inspired by Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, which was marked by voluntary poverty, fellowship with the poor, contemplative prayer, small scale work, and communal study. It was also, by many account, a bit of a disaster organizationally (and which American non-profit isn’t?).

If this sounds communist or socialist, it was and it wasn’t. While Maurin described their work as a “utopian, Christian communism,” they were, according to the historian Eugene McCarraher, “closer in spirit to Riskin and St. Francis than to Marx, Debs, and the Fabians” (McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon, pg. 475). They perhaps would have largely agreed with the likes of Lewis Mumford (who lived a nearly identical lifespan as Day, but never met her, 1895–1990), who “perceived that Marxists shared with capitalists an enchantment with the paleotechnic drive for colossal productive power” (McCarraher, 487). These visionaries — Day and Mumford — were too critical of utilitarianism (which both Marxism and Capitalism serve), and their ontology of love and theology of the imago Dei meant that a wholehearted celebration of either socialism or communism or capitalism was never possible.

Day and the Catholic Workers, perhaps like Martin Luther King Jr., saw all forms of political rule in opposition to the rule of the Kingdom of God, which requires all people to live in humility, honor, and honesty, no matter their class. Day experienced first hand the “loneliness” of work inside the Kingdom of God. She said that many young people would come work for them because of their seemingly leftist bent, but then be disappointed as “they disagree[d] with us on various matters — our pacifism, our opposition to the death penalty [and abortion]…our interest in small [Catholic] communities.”

These young people would leave because they accused Day and her organization of being “impractical,” as it could not align with one political party, system, or platform. “They are right,” she wrote, “We are impractical…as impractical as Calvary.” She says, yes, we feed the hungry and clothe the naked and fight for workers’ rights, “but there is a strong faith at work; we pray. If an outsider who comes to visit doesn’t pay attention to our praying and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point of things” (The Reckless Way of Love, pgs. 51–52). To serve the Kingdom of God is to alienate oneself from any Kingdom of Man.

The Catholic Worker rejected both the bohemianism that Day came from and the upper-class capitalism that drenched New York City, the founding location of her organization. This refusal to be in one political ideological camp is what makes Day’s work and writing so incredibly important, prophetic, and lucid — and also so perpetually ignored.

The Catholic Worker — its organization and publications — “upheld the most serious sign of contradiction yet offered to the covenant theology of capitalist enchantment in America,” according to McCarraher. They “attempted to wed the intellectual and the peasant: milk cows in the morning, plow in the afternoon, study and discuss Aquinas in the evening” (McCarraher, 476). They refused to be entirely social or entirely spiritual — they married worship and justice, prayer and work, spirituality and soup. Since its inception, the Catholic Worker is commonly associated with farmers’ and workers’ rights and intellectual Catholic theology. The premier minds of theological intellect usually find their way to the Worker. In their hospitality houses, anyone could come for roundtable discussions on major works of theology, literature, and philosophy. To this day, chapters of the Catholic Worker regularly hold lectures, book clubs, and online discussions for various intellectual endeavors. The organization also, admittedly, does not always work: not every peasant wants to talk about Augustine and not every intellectual wants to pull weeds.

And that’s just a small part of the work of Dorothy Day. It was her writing that has perhaps garnered more attention: bestselling books, a newspaper column and journalism that nearly single-handedly propelled her publication (before vanity websites connected to Bill Simmons or Ezra Klein, there was Dorothy Day) into phenomenal, international distribution and success. And it is her writing that is commonly credited (especially her autobiography) for many people converting to Christianity. She wrote with unbelievable honesty, unmatched wit, and prayerful, contemplative care.

But it strikes me, as I revisit her work this month in light of her birthday, that Dorothy Day’s writing is impossible without her life — and vice versa. Day’s life involved lots of cooking, cleaning, organizing, planning, accounting, and farming. Some of the greatest writing — especially theological writing — comes from somewhere. It comes from a community, a place on the earth where God is not just working in the writer, but in the writer’s shared life.

Dorothy Day was obsessed with St. Teresa of Avila, the famed medieval spiritual writer of The Interior Castle. “She charmed me completely,” she wrote (Day, The Long Loneliness, pg. 161). Teresa, like Day, was an avid traveller, a social worker, a contemplative activist (she opposed much of the Reformers and the Spanish Inquisitors), and, of course, a writer. These two women — of profoundly different ages — strike me as an important reminder for all who seek to write about God. They wrote inside a community, a tightly held fellowship, and lived an interesting life that included a proximity to the poor and opposition to all forms of worldly power. They pissed off the right and the left, the religious and irreligious, and they stood on the solid rock of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 7:24–27). Day wrote with a singular, unapologetic focus on the things of Jesus Christ. I think this is probably because she saw so much of everything else’s emptiness through her long life that the world held no weight when compared to the community of Christ. Make no mistake, she would struggle with this — the church of Jesus never lives up to its name — but she saw something so rare and beautiful in the gospel that she could never see inside anything else. What she saw, in her words, was “love.”

“The reckless way of love” was the way of Jesus: dogged commitment to Christ and to one another, despite the circumstances. For decades leading up to her death, she lived in the same small apartment in the Catholic Worker offices of New York City, where she is said to have owned a tea kettle, a table, and a significant library. This apartment building and office saw various friends of hers throughout her final years, people she wrote about, stayed committed to, prayed for, and, of course, argued with. This is the way of the kingdom of God: living in right relationships with God, self, one another, and creation (Matthew 22:36–40). It’s all we have, according to Day. “The only answer in this life, to the loneliness we are all bound to feel, is community,” she wrote, “The living together, working together, sharing together, loving God and loving our brother, and living close to him in community so we can show our love for Him.”