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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

Dorothy Day The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist

by Dorothy Day

This edition was published in 1981 with an introduction by Daniel Berigan

Reviewed by Father David O. Brown, O.S.M.

From what perspective does one attempt to review a book? The personal, as an old man who was contemporaneous with some of the actions and deeds recounted in it. As one who was inspired by Dorothy Day? As once challenged by Ammon Hennesy? As one still moved by the wood cuts of Ade Beuthne?

Or as Daniel Berigan in the introduction of the 1981, released  immediately after her death? Or perhaps, in 2016 we may re-read and review from the perspective of the action of the Catholic Bishops in the meeting of 2014 supporting the introduction of the cause for her canonization?  Will we be able to see in those early years sightings of sainthood?  Is it clear-sighted to view her actions as a child, adolescent and young woman as signs of a deeper reality, struggling to grow in her and to transform her?

She observes that hers was a normal happy childhood. There was, however, no easy expression of affection in the family and she seemed to have been a little jealous of the Italian, Greek and other ethnic easy expressions of affection. As child and again as an adolescent when a friend took her to Mass, she confessed that she did not know what was happening but in both instances she was drawn by the attitude of worship and piety of all who attended.  This sense of worship and piety, almost as a motif, will occur time and time again even in the midst of her most chaotic activities. In her opening pages she suggest that “All my life I thought of God.”

Dorothy Day suggests that her life may be divided into two parts: before and after The Catholic Worker and before and after Peter Maurin who came into her life some five years or so after she had become Catholic.

She was born in 1897 of nominally Christian parents who had moved to Oakland California in time for the earthquake; then they moved to Chicago. Here she took instructions in the Episcopal Church for communion and confirmation. She says that she was a voracious reader even in Waller High School in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.  With a small scholarship and waiting on tables, she was able to attend the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.  Reading Upton Sinclair, she began to develop a social consciousness and so her first association with Socialists, Communists, anarchists, and atheists, mostly people  on the fringes. Their emphasis on community, she suggests, gave a direction to her life. She remarks that she scorned religious people who were religious but who did not see the injustices toward the poor.

In 1916 she moved with her father and family to New York City but did not live with them. She had her own apartment. But….”I had no work; I was separated from my fellows. Silence in the midst of city noise oppressed me.  My own silence, the feeling that I had no one to talk overwhelmed me so that my very throat was constricted; my heart was heavy with unuttered thoughts; I wanted to weep my loneliness away.”  Reflecting further she wanted to live in the appalling surroundings of New York City and “ some mysterious way I felt that I would never be freed from the burden of loneliness and sorrow unless I did.”  She read Francis Thompson’s, The Hound of Heaven as well as some of Eric Gill, Belloc, Chesterton and McNabb and had a job with The Call, a Communist paper.  She was still in her teens. Again she accompanied a friend to Mass where, she says, she knew little but was drawn by the other worshipers. “I was not praying but I was there – aware of something.” Do we see the working of grace here? The Brothers Karamazov touched her deeply even as she and the company she kept were happy about the outcome of the Russian Revolution. She reflected that they burned for justice and were revolted at charity. Only later she says she learned the meaning of charity. This was at the time of World War I and there was a shortage of nurses. She signed on. All thought she was against the war; nursing did not seem to contradict her passivism. She roomed with a Catholic who got up each Sunday for early Mass and again, while confessing that she did not know just what was happening but adds “One thing I was sure of, and that was that these fellow workers and I were performing an act of worship.  I felt that it was necessary for man to worship, that he was most truly himself when engaged in that act.” Feminists of today would object to her use of pronouns but her message is more serious. Later, living with a Catholic family in Chicago,  she observes , ”As with the sight of Mrs. Barrett kneeling beside her bed, this posture, this gesture, convinced me that worship, adoration, thanksgiving, supplication – these were the noblest acts of which men were capable in this life.” She was reading Huysmans, Dostoevsky, Pascal, James Joyce and the New Testament. 

Dorothy ends this section of her autobiography with two paragraphs about her two years on a trip to Europe with someone whom she does not identify and visited places she does not name. Dorothy divided her total narrative into three parts Searching, Natural Happiness and Love is the Measure.   Her second section takes us thought the years up to founding of The Catholic Worker.

On her return from Europe she came to Chicago again to work in the City News Bureau for a short time; then she went to New Orleans. Here someone gave her a Rosary. She didn’t know what to do with it but she held it. How strangely God works!  She returned to New York, bought a small house on the beach of Staten Island with the proceeds from the sale of a book. There her common-law husband enters her narative. In describing him she says “Foster, an inarticulate, became garrulous only in wrath.  And his wrath, he said, was caused by my absorption of the supernatural rather than the natural, the unseen rather than the seen.”  Among the neighbors along the beach was one agnostic family who had a child; the mother felt the need of religion for the child and sent the young man to Dorothy for religious instructions! 

This was more appropriate than it may seem since Dorothy now found herself praying. She prayed while she walked. She asked herself, “Do I really believe? Whom am I praying to?” She was having a baby and prayed daily, just holding the Rosary in her hand.  “It is hard to say how this delight in prayer grew in me. The year before I was saying as I planted seeds in the garden, “I must believe in these seeds that they fall into the earth and grow into flowers and radishes and beans.  …It is a miracle to me because I do not understand it….Then why not accept God’s mysteries?”

God at work once more?

Once the child was born, a crisis developed.  She must be baptized. Foster would have none of it. Moreover, Dorothy didn’t know how to have the child baptized. So, she just stopped a nun who was walking along the street and asked for help.  Sr. Aloysia instructed Dorothy in the Baltimore Catechism while giving her copies of The Sacred Heart Messenger for spiritual reading. She began to read St. Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross on her own. Eventually the child was baptized at a Church in Tottenville.  While they were at the Church, Foster had prepare a meal, and left. She locked the door on him when he tried to return. What a way to end an affair!  How difficult a choice! Could it have been made without grace? Without the support of God?

All along the instructions for the Baptism of Tamar,  Sr.  Aloysia asked Dorothy why she was not Catholic herself. So she began her instructions with some Marist priest. Whenever they visited her home, there was certain awkwardness between the priest and her Communist, atheistic and anarchist friends.  She worked at becoming more Catholic.  About this time,  Sacco and Vansetti were on trial in Boston and gaining national attention. There was such a solidarity among socialist groups against their execution that Dorothy compared it to the Mystical Body of Christ.  She wrote a regular column for Commonweal and an occasional article for America. She also continued developing her social conscience.  She quotes Cardinal Mundelein as saying, “Too often the Church is on the wrong side.”  She joined a group to protest even as she drew away from her Communist friends. She had a contract with Commonweal to write about a protest in Washington and observed that she felt like a traitor to the poor since there was no Catholic Leadership.  “Protests”; they seemed so futile but reflecting as she is writing this book she noted that all that they had protested for was now written into law.

She begins Part III of her book with the arrival of Peter Maurin at her apartment.  This was December 1932. She spends much of this part three describing Peter, his life and his dreams. In the course of their discussions she describes Peter’s role as her mentor and savior. He was the one who suggested that she write, edit and publish a paper. It was to stress a radical expression of the Church’s social policy. It was to engage the conscience of the world, to make a new world where “it would be easy to be good.” Peter wanted the paper to be called, The Catholic Radical but Dorothy insisted that it be called The Catholic Worker.  Later she would express regret that she had not called it simply The People for she said what counts are people.  This was in 1933 when hunger was a problem and millions of people were unemployed. A solution: land use!  A “Green Revolution: long before the term became ordinary.  A question arose among them: should the money they received be used to feed the poor or be put into propaganda to change the system. What they did do was to begin the “House of Hospitality” staffed mostly by young college graduates who could not find work. So the question ”What is work?” They protested the war in Ethiopia, the Mexican consulate for the persecution of Catholics in Mexico, the National Biscuit Company on behalf of its laborers. She notes that students from a Catholic high school joined in the protest of the Mexican Consulate but withdrew from the protest over labor conditions. She characterized the movement, The Catholic Worker Movement as communitarian, not communist. She pronounced a judgment on the Church with its rich rectories, although some, she conceded, did help the poor with the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. “There is so much more to the Catholic Worker Movement than concerns about labor and capital.  It is people who are important, not masses.  When I read Pope Pius XII Christmas message in which he distinguished between the masses and the people, I almost wished I had named our publication, The People, instead of The Catholic Worker.”

As she concludes her account we find that she still asking the question ”What does God want me to do?”  She goes on, “And what am I capable of doing? Can I stand out against the state and the Church?  Is it pride, presumption, to think I have the spiritual capacity to use spiritual weapons in face of the most gigantic tyranny the world has ever seen?  Am I capable of enduring suffering, facing martyrdom? And alone?”

 Once again she speaks of her own “long loneliness.” Are her questions the questions of a saint in the making?


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