When Fr. William Bausch ended his service as pastor of St. Mary’s, Colts Neck, NJ, some years ago, he gave the parish a gift– a statue of Dorothy Day, which is outside the main entrance to the present church. She’s an elderly woman sitting quietly on a bench.
Her quiet appearance may throw you off. The Jesuit poet Daniel Berrigan wrote at the time of her death in 1980: “Those of us who knew her in her later years were tempted to regard her, I think, rather thoughtlessly…She seemed to always have been as she was: serene, graced with her aura of piety and pity.”
Actually, Dorothy Day who dedicated herself to championing the poor was one of the most dynamic and challenging figures in the Catholic Church in recent times. Last Tuesday the Catholic bishops of the United States voted unanimously to push her cause for canonization as a saint.
Some might not consider her a candidate for sainthood. She was born in Brooklyn in 1897. Her father was a journalist and her family moved from place to place– the West Coast, Chicago– and she became of journalist too.
As a young woman in the 1920s she was part of the bohemian scene in New York City, a rebel with “a passion for freedom to the point of waywardness.” (Daniel Berrigan) She had a failed marriage, attempted suicide, had an abortion. After the birth of her daughter, she became a Catholic and then founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, which worked for the poor and social justice, was critical of capitalism and against war. With that kind background, I wonder how many Catholic parishes would invite her as a speaker today.
I’m delighted the bishops are pushing for her canonization. Saints are antidotes to the poison of their time. Dorothy counteracts a lot of poison. There’s the poison in the way we look at the poor and the weak in our society, for example; in our trust in war, in our belief in our political systems. She questioned those positions.
What’s more, she’s an example of the power of faith. Many today, of course, write off the Catholic Church and religion in general, as irrelevant. As a young woman she read a lot, from the Communist Manifesto to the bible. She wanted to reform the world, but as a young woman the church put her off. Christians looked like everyone else, she said:
“I did not see anyone taking off his coat and giving it to the poor. I didn’t see anyone having a banquet and call in the lame, the halt and the blind…I wanted everyone to be kind. I wanted every home to open to the lame, the halt and the blind…Only then did people really help their neighbor. In such love was the abundant life, and I did not have the slightest idea how to find it.”
Yet, remarkably, through the disguise, in the dirt that so often hides it, Dorothy found the pearl of great price. She embraced the Catholic Church.
I think Dorothy Day also contradicts the belief that people no longer search for God, that God is irrelevant. She writes in her autobiography “The Long Loneliness” “All my life I have been haunted by God…A Cleveland Communist once said, ‘Dorothy was never a Communist; she was too religious.’ How much did I hear of religion as a child? Very little, and yet my heart leaped when I heard the name of God. I do believe every soul has a tendency toward God. ‘As soon as someone recalls God, a certain sweet movement fills his heart…Our understanding never has such great joy as when thinking of God.’” (St. Francis de Sales)
She reminds us the “long loneliness”–that’s the title she gave to her autobiography– the search for God goes on in all of us.
There’s a lot poisoning our times; Dorothy offers an antidote to it. “It is a great pity that there are not many more like Dorothy Day among the millions of American Catholics. There are never enough such people, somehow, in the church. But, without a few like her, one might well begin to wonder if we are still Christians, her presence is in some ways a comfort, in some ways a reproach.” (Letter from Thomas Merton)
Her autobiography “The Long Loneliness” is worth reading and rereading. The Catholic Worker has a blog at http://www.catholicworker.org . Here a short video from CNS