Tuesday, March 30, 2010

In Praise of Dorothy Day

This is my fourth “in praise of …” posting, and I am now happy to be able to pay tribute to Dorothy Day (1897-1980), a person I have long admired and recently learned a lot more about.
Last week I finished reading Love Is the Measure: A Biography of Dorothy Day (1986) by Jim Forest. It was a very helpful book that greatly increased my understanding of Day’s life, thought, and actions. On the evening of the same day, I enjoyed seeing “Haunted by God: The Life of Dorothy Day,” a one-woman performance by Lisa Wagner-Carollo staged in the Mabee Theater at Rockhurst University.
Dorothy Day is best known as the co-founder (in 1932) of The Catholic Worker—a newspaper that from the beginning has sold for one cent a copy—and the Catholic Worker (CW) movement, which has established houses of hospitality for the poor in many American cities. When June and I visited the CW-related Holy Family House on E. 31st Street in Kansas City a couple of years ago, we were quite impressed with the loving service being rendered there.
I have long admired Dorothy Day because of her commitment to the poor and mistreated people of the world. Forest points out that she often said, “Those who cannot see Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.” And then he remarks: “She was a Christian missionary, not to heathens but rather to fellow Christians, hoping to convert them to a faith they thought was theirs already” (p. 105).
Dorothy Day was not baptized as a (Catholic) Christian until she was thirty years old, but she increasingly became a believer who tried to live out what she understood to be the teaching of Christ and the Bible. She often cited the words of St. John of the Cross, “Love is the measure by which we shall be judged,” and the title of Forest’s biography of her was from that statement.
I also have long been a “fan” of Dorothy Day because of her unswerving commitment to pacifism. Forest reports, “Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declaration of war, The Catholic Worker published a banner headline which indicated that Dorothy’s pacifist commitment was unshaken” (p. 102). The headline was,
As I was reading Day’s biography while at Windermere (see the previous posting), during the (to me) offensive general session, I was thinking not just WWJD (what would Jesus do, or say) but WWDD (what would Dorothy do, or say). Although I was not able to come up with a good answer to my questions, I am sure she (or he) would not have been silent in face of what seemed to be the glorification of war.
So, I want not only to praise Dorothy Day, I want to continue to think about WWDD as I try to try to decide what Christ wants me to do in the many situations where there is an absence of peace and social justice.
Here is a picture of Dorthy Day in her latter years.


  1. Another person of passion whose life and work work is worth thinking on. However, like Theotokos, she was still just a part of the Story, so I will continue to use WWJD as the standard of evaluation.

  2. Thanks again Leroy, good thought. I find it funny though, “Those who cannot see Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.” quote. Why are we afraid of these wonderful folks, whose questions can help all of us dig deeper in our faith, I am sorry she said this, but RC, they are hung up about some things. I have been following daily some interesting atheists sites, they have some helpful links for all spiritual paths. Yes, some are over the top, but look at C-Street and all those wonderful xian political leaders...hm and we are up set with Obama's former pastor? He is one of my hero's. Keep up the reflections brother, they make me think in areas I have not dusted out for awhile...happy holy week, dance and sing, and a blessed Easter to you and yours! peace ko shin, Bob Hanson

  3. Dear Leroy, I'm glad you liked Love is the Measure. Now that Dorothy's journals and letters are available, I'm in the process of revising and expanding the book. Most of what you read will be as it was but there will be a lot of new material. She was an amazing lady. It's encouraging to see how important a role she still plays -- thirty years after her death -- in many people's lives.

    Jim Forest

  4. Leroy,
    Thanks for the good words about Dorothy Day. For those who are interested, there is a film of her adult life, Entertaining Angels (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116212/). Day was marginalized because of her early and enduring advocacy of communism/socialism (arising from her concern for the poor). The poor cannot be regarded only through a capitalist lens (wherein they are the lazy, the unmotivated, the sinners). Dorothy Day practiced a Christian faith that was beyond capitalist. My question is why is this significant Christian of the 20th century unknown to most believers? What was it about her that kept her on the margins? Andy Pratt

  5. I was surprised, and happy, that Jim Forest, who lives in Holland and is the author of the biography of Dorothy Day that I made reference to, somehow found my blog posting and made the above comments.

  6. My esteemed Thinking Friend in Kentucky made the following comments in an e-mail:

    "I applaud your strong affirmation of Dorothy Day, Leroy. Like all the saints I have ever heard of or read about, she did not live an life unmarked by flaws. But she set all of us an extraordinary example in loving like God loves. I've only known her secondhand through her close friendship with Thomas Merton and Jim Forest (although I've read her autobiography, 'The Long Loneliness'), but I have immense admiration for her consistent pacifist witness, even though I fudge on that issue, unable to see how we could have handled the Third Reich without the use of military power. But I think she (and the Peace Churches) came closer to doing what Jesus himself taught than the rest of us have ever done."