M.Div. Candidate, University of Notre Dame
Editorial Note: As we begin our run up to the feast of All Saints, Rebecca Guhin will be offering a series of reflections on models of sanctity in the Christian life including Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and John Dunne, C.S.C. Today, she will treat Dorothy Day.
“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”
– John 12: 24-26, 32
What is holiness? How are we each called to be saints? Where do we begin? Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and our local icon, Fr. John Dunne, CSC, answer these questions with their lives. A founder of the Catholic Worker movement, a monk hidden away in a Kentucky monastery, and a Notre Dame professor and priest, these individuals are holy not because they followed a pre-planned rubric for saintliness, but because they were and are truly themselves. Merton wrote, “The problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self” (New Seeds of Contemplation, 31). The simplicity of this definition of sanctity is coupled with the complexity of actually finding oneself: how do we know who we really are, or what we are called to do? The stories of these three “little” lives help us to see the way in which delight in one’s vocation, self-abandonment to God’s loving plan, and poverty as a way to wholeness each play into a slow but graced journey to God.
Worker of Mercy, Woman of Prayer
“When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers with that burning love, that passion, which led to the Cross, then we can truly say, ‘Now I have begun.’”
– Dorothy Day, Loaves and Fishes
In his introduction to her autobiography, Robert Coles said Dorothy was disinterested in the title of saint because, really, she wanted to be considered “a humble person of faith who tried her best to live in accordance with the biblical teachings she kept pondering,” particularly, “the Sermon on the Mount” (Long Loneliness, 6). In her humility, she was quite devoted to the saints, and rather than placing them on a pedestal that excused her from the challenge of sanctity, she identified with this call and tried to live it out in her daily life. Citing de Lubac, Dorothy agreed, “Christianity must generate saints—that is, witnesses to the eternal. … The saint does not have to bring about great temporal achievements; he is one who succeeds in giving us at least a glimpse of eternity despite the thick opacity of time” (SW 102). In Dorothy’s life, we do glimpse eternity: we see a person trying to highlight and live into a kingdom that is already and not yet, whether it be through friendly conversation over a cup of coffee, marching for the worker on a picket line, or before the Eucharist in adoration, she points us to God and Thy will, on earth as it is in heaven.
The development of Dorothy’s faith illustrates beautifully the slow work of grace in our lives, the way in which God touches us in each of our “long lonelinesses” and calls us toward Himself, the source of our lives and our happiness. As a child uneducated in the faith, nevertheless, Dorothy said, “my heart leapt when I heard the name of God,” or even that of a saint, and despite her aversion to organized religion during her association with Leftist movements, something in Dorothy’s heart continued to long for something more (LL 12, 24).
At first, as a radical Leftist, Dorothy felt she “could not be meek at the thought of injustice,” so the Beatitudes turned her off—why worship a God that doesn’t care for the plight of the worker, with a religion that reduced “justice” to “doled-out charity”? (LL 46, 87). She “kept brushing away the hand that held me up,” and “did not know” even in jail on a hunger strike, that she had begun to pray (LL 81). However, prayer eventually became “an act of the will,” and Dorothy did not know at first whether it was simply for her personal comfort and relief from loneliness, or for more ‘noble’ reasons that she prayed (LL 85, 132). She was very much in love with a man who would father her child, but she longed for something deeper and greater, and the Hound of Heaven continued to call her home. Forster, on the other hand, “wanted [Dorothy] to rest in that love,” human love, which, for Dorothy, pointed to its deeper origin; for though she did not know “how to love God,” she knew He was her real source of peace (LL 134, 138).
Dorothy’s sense of faith became even more clear to her at the birth of her daughter, Tamar, which “awakened in my heart a flood of gratitude,” directed ultimately to God, and called up in her “the need to worship, to adore” (LL 139). Because she became convinced that “only faith in Christ could give the answer” to life’s deepest questions, providing her “order,” Dorothy decided to have her daughter baptized (LL 140, 141). Both Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux would be her daughter’s patron saints (LL 140, 141). Sister Aloysia helped Dorothy to get Tamar baptized and to develop her own faith, even as she struggled with contrasts to her Leftist roots and her increasing alienation from Forster, who rejected all religion and wanted nothing to do with her if she became a Catholic (LL 142-144, 149). Dorothy’s reception of her first three sacraments came without “consolation,” and it was Father Zamien who later encouraged her to receive communion daily, as a reminder of God’s love for her (LL 148, 161). Surrendering her natural love of Forster, which pointed her to the supernatural love of Christ, taught Dorothy the importance of both the natural and supernatural loves. This enabled her to embrace both her natural concerns, like the injustices inflicted on the poor, as well as God Himself, the supernatural source of the love that overflows, a love that enabled Dorothy to live out her vocation as a founder of the Catholic Worker movement.
It began, then, with the next (and lasting) man in Dorothy’s life, the idea man and good friend behind the Worker movement, Peter Maurin (LL 172, 273). A saintly influence on Dorothy Day, he helped her see what made this the Catholic Worker, and he used the saints as guideposts through history, formed deeply by the Catholic tradition (LL 172, 273, LF 12). He advocated the Works of Mercy as “the most direct form of action there is,” including both the temporal and spiritual works (LF xvii). Thus, his program was three-fold, including “[r]ound-table discussions,” “houses of hospitality,” and “go[ing] back to the land” (LF 22-23). They wanted “to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us” (LF 215). This requires complete self-emptying, and like the little boy in the loaves and fishes story, it requires giving all that we have, and trusting in grace to enlarge and transform these small gifts of self (LF 215).
Peter did not worry about the money they would need; he said the saints themselves would rely on prayer, so they simply needed to begin (LL 173). Dorothy learned from Peter, and through this movement’s beginnings, to depend on God, to continue to surrender, as she had already, and that prayer and voluntary poverty could be active forces of love in the world. She confirms, in her story of the movement, “somehow everything works out. It works out naturally and it works out religiously” (LF 92). Her example for this kind of life they would lead was that of Christ Himself, born into a humble carpenter’s family, whose “teaching transcended all the wisdom of the scribes and pharisees, and taught us the most effective means of living in this world while preparing for the next” (205). He spoke these words to the poor, and the Catholic Workers tried to see Christ in each person who passed through the door (LL 205; SW 96). Dorothy wrote, in a Christmas issue of their newspaper, The Catholic Worker:
“It would be foolish to pretend that it is always easy to remember this. If everyone were holy and handsome, with ‘alter Christus’ shining in neon lighting from them, it would be easy to see Christ in everyone… But that was not God’s way for [Mary], nor it is Christ’s way for Himself, now when he is disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth” (Selected Writings, 96).
Thus, based in Matthew 25, Dorothy deeply believed that Christ lives in the poor today, and He “made heaven hinge on the way we act toward Him in his disguise of commonplace, frail, ordinary humanity” (SW 97). She knew this was her call as a Christian, so this is the way that Dorothy and her fellow Catholic Workers lived, welcoming, like the Benedictines, each guest as Christ.
Service of the poor, however, “is not enough,” the Catholic Worker movement says we are also called to voluntary poverty, lived out in community (LL 214, 243). Dorothy said of the poor, “One must live with them, share with them their suffering too. Give up one’s privacy, and mental and spiritual comforts as well as physical” (LL 214, emphasis added). This is a lofty task! It means embracing the discomforts of poverty in a community of others who are in need as well: both those experiencing unjust poverty (never condoned by Dorothy) and those who have chosen poverty for the sake of their salvation and wholeness. Peter emphasized St. Francis of Assisi’s love of “Lady Poverty,” who is a gift, not the result of injustice (Loaves and Fishes, 48, 82). Dorothy called poverty “strange and elusive,” saying, “if we are not among its victims its reality fades from us” (LF 71). Similar to Martha in John 12, who washes Jesus’ feet with oil and gets challenged for not spending that money on the poor, Dorothy says that “no magnificence is too great” for Christ in His tabernacle, but we, the people of God, are called to live simply as long as people are bound to unjust poverty around the world (LL 217).
Because this poverty is to be lived in community, it creates spaces for relationships between people of a variety of circumstances, enabling a more authentic personalism, also central to the movement (LL 224, 221). Dorothy wrote, “charity is only as warm as those who administer it,” so although Catholic Worker houses are not known for efficiency, they are certainly known for hospitality! (LF 74). She said, “The only answer in this life, to the loneliness we are all bound to feel, is community” (LL 243). Thus, “we are not a community of saints but a rather slipshod group of individuals who were trying to work out certain principles—the chief of which was an analysis of man’s freedom and what it implied… It was a practice in loving, a learning to love, a paying of the cost of love” (LF 50). Love, then, is the telos of poverty: it enables one to let go of attachments and to be more whole and holy. Yet, perhaps without realizing it, in this community “not…of saints,” Dorothy grew in holiness as she grew in love (LF 50). It provided her a freedom that enabled her to surrender in the name of her faith. Dorothy says, “It is simpler just to be poor… The thing is not to hold on to anything” (LF 89). But this freedom takes time: Francis of Assisi let go of his worldly possessions “in only one step,” but for most of us, and even most saints, it takes a lifetime of “many steps, and they are very small ones” (LF 83). Thus, Dorothy embraces Therese’s “Little Way” notion, realizing that even tiny acts of sacrifice can be salvific when we allow them to wash away our selfishness and make more room for Christ.
Like the story of Abraham and Isaac, Dorothy not only gave up her beloved Forster, she had to surrender, in different ways, her own daughter, Tamar, to various schools and ultimately to a husband of her own (LL 236, 242). Dorothy wrote, “No matter how many times I gave up mother, father, husband, brother, daughter, for His sake, I had to do it over again” (LL 239). But this openness to surrender was not only natural, it was supernatural, and Dorothy is known for her “every day” sort of holiness, her humble approach to life that enabled both detachment and real love of neighbor. On The Retreat, Dorothy would learn the importance of “supernaturalizing all our actions of every day” (LL 247). She and those in her movement made time for people, they made time for prayer, and they found, according to their Retreat leaders:
“If we are rushed for time, sow time and we will reap time. Go to church and spend a quiet hour in prayer. You will have more time than ever and your work will get done. Sow time with the poor. Sit and listen to them, give them your time lavishly. You will reap time a hundredfold. Sow kindness and you will reap kindness. Sow love, you will reap love” (LL 252).
By living in community, Dorothy thus develops in her ability to surrender even her time, the most precious of gifts. She learns on The Retreat, like the example of Osee in the Old Testament, that all her gifts are from God, not from man, due to His extravagant love for each of us, love that overflows, love that marks the “folly of the Cross” (LL 255-256).
This love calls up in Dorothy “the duty of delight” (LL 285). She writes, “If we do not learn to enjoy God now we never will” (LL 257). Dorothy “enjoys God” in her community, in her prayer, in the Eucharist. She enjoys Him in daily life knowing that, by our baptisms and through detachment as a gift from God, our lives have been and continue to be “transformed by love” (LL 257). She saw in Peter Maurin even a “delight” in “poverty,” a delight in words and ideas, a delight in the people he so genuinely and impartially loved (LL 280, 274). Thus, in her short “Postscript” description of how the Catholic Worker movement came to be, Dorothy highlighted the challenge and blessing of “the duty of delight” (LL 285). Although love can be “a harsh and dreadful thing,” “[w]e cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love each other we must know each other” (LL 285). This love, this answer to “the long loneliness,” means we need “community,” a community that began “while we sat there talking, and it is still going on” (LL 286).