Dorothy who? the pundits asked after Pope Francis included Dorothy Day in his most admired quartet of US citizens in his speech to Congress. (the others are Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr and Thomas Merton.)
Having just briefly mentioned Dorothy Day myself in the blog comments the other day, I was pleased, but not at all surprised, to learn that the radical Pope is also a huge fan of the radical social justice crusader.
She started her professional life in the early 20th century as a novelist, Hollywood screenwriter, intellectual, anarchist, muckraking journalist, and feminist. She underwent one abortion and also gave birth to an out-of-wedlock child whom she raised as a single mother among the destitute and anguished and sometimes dangerous in various makeshift "hospitality houses" in New York City after her conversion to Catholicism at the eve of the Great Depression. She combined a more than half-century career in direct social work and pacifism and labor organizing and communal farming with the founding of the Catholic Worker movement and running its newspaper. She was often out of favor with the Catholic Church hierarchy and the political establishment, particularly when she opposed the USA's entry into World War Two. She was arrested and jailed numerous times after such acts of civil disobedience as draft card burnings and blockades of Selective Service buildings during the Vietnam war.
The Catholic Worker, published to this very day, is still anti-war in the age of public acquiescence to perpetual war. It still sells for only one penny per copy plus postage, or 25 cents for a year's subscription.
A compilation of personal diaries spanning Dorothy Day's career during the Catholic Worker movement years was recently published, after having been kept under wraps, at her own request, for 25 years following her death in 1980. She was far from a perfect person, and was the first to admit that she often felt like a shrew and a slattern. She suffered from bouts of depression. She was totally human. She is still eminently "relatable".
To give you an idea of the woman, I've gathered together several particularly striking passages from her diary, the book version of which is called The Duty of Delight from a quote by the great British critic and humanist John Ruskin. Compare Dorothy Day's writings to those of MLK, Pope Francis, Gandhi and other great moral leaders of the modern world, and you will see a very common thread of humanity and empathy that transcends dogma and denomination. A fire and brimstone, holier-than-thou control freak she definitely was not.
Her off-the-cuff 1930s Great Depression jottings are particularly apt for our own times:
"As I came down the street afterward, (from visiting a friend in jail) a well dressed priest drove by in a big car. Then I passed another - also well dressed, comfortable.... Then still another out in front of most luxurious mansion, the parish house, playing with a dog on a leash. All of them well fed, well housed, comfortable, caring for the safe people like themselves. And where are the priests for the poor, the down and out, the sick in city hospitals, in jails. It is the little of God's children who do not get cared for. God help them and God help the priest who is caught in the bourgeois system and cannot get out."
"In this groaning of spirit everything is irksome to me. The dirt, the garbage heaped in the gutters, the flies, the hopelessness of the human beings around me, all oppress me."
"Toothaches, bruised faces even, received in street fighting, are ugly and grotesque. It is hard to heroically receive blows in the face from a policeman, for instance, and take it like a Christian, in the spirit of non-resistance. A spirit of hatred and a fierce desire for retaliation seems more manly, more human. Moral force being hard to see, is a thousand times harder than physical force. Strength of spirit is not so often felt to be apparent as strength of body. And we in our vanity wish this strength to be apparent. Human respect again. And yet moral force is always felt."
"I was thinking afterward how everyone dwells on our poverty. But we are not nearly poor enough. Read Steinbeck's article on squatters in California. It is not enough to present a picture of conditions. One must go there to share that poverty. Then others will help. Immediate works of mercy shows what can be done now, not waiting for the revolution or for the state. Strip oneself here first. We are going to the bean fields this summer."
"I sat up late reading a detective story. Rather depressed at first what with dirty dishes, children, Mrs. B (a complaining client) and general effusiveness.... The poor. To love to be with the poor is of course hard. There are not all poor among us, and only one poor family. Of course, dirt, inefficiency, dullness, lack of taste, beauty, culture - all these are a part of poverty. Are they poor because of this lack in them, or do these characteristics grow out of their poverty? Who can say? It will be hard to change them because we are poor now ourselves. Are we letting it get us? Are there those among us who are becoming dull, dirty, lethargic, listless, indolent, slothful?"As Robert Ellsberg, the editor of her diaries, writes in the introduction,
Dorothy Day's life at the Catholic Worker was marked by a number of remarkable episodes, and she was a witness or participant in many of the most significant social movements of the 20th century. But by and large, her life was spent in very ordinary ways. Her sanctity -- if one wishes to call it that -- was expressed not just in heroic deeds but also in the mundane duties of everyday life. Her 'spirituality' was rooted in a constant effort to be more charitable toward those closest at hand.A prisoner rights advocate and a staunch opponent of racism, Dorothy Day would have been right at home in today's social justice movements. She would also be against the man-made pollution causing climate change and the war on terror with its transformation of the world into a permanent battlefield. She would have been right up there with the only non-applause line in Pope Francis's speech to Congress:
Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world. Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.