Dorothy Day and My Vocation

Book Review: The Long Loneliness, by Dorothy Day

In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy describes her life based on her internal focus for three time periods: Searching, Natural Happiness and Love is the Measure.

During her early days of searching, Dorothy includes information about her background and family, which shed light on the direction of her life. Her mother was raised Episcopal but her family really didn’t go to church. She, her three brothers, and sister were raised with a great sense of moral right and wrong. But the religious activities of Dorothy’s friends and neighbors made her curious about church and faith so she went to church with Methodist neighbors when she was eight. Later, an Episcopal parish priest persuaded her mother to let her brothers sing in the choir and Dorothy attended with them. In the Episcopal church, she came to love the use of Latin for the Psalms and songs of the choir.  After the family moved from California to Chicago, she became interested in Catholicism because of stories of the saints she heard from neighbors.

Dorothy attributes her love of words to her father who was a journalist and editor. He did not allow the children to listen to the radio or read “trash” novels but insisted they read Shakespeare, Dickens, Cooper, Poe and other classics. As a teenager, Dorothy read the sermons of John Wesley and was attracted to the piety of his messages.

The beginnings of her interest in assisting the poor were her experiences of the community taking care of one another after a particularly destructive earthquake in California. Within her family, her father had a Southern, racist view of black people and distrusted people he considered foreigners or whose ideas he couldn’t understand. As did many people during the time of Dorothy’s coming of age, her father considered these people dangerous to America. However, Dorothy wanted to be kind to the poor and wanted others to join her point of view. She was deeply concerned that others didn’t seem to care about the poor and thought the poor should just work harder.

When she went to college, she joined the socialist party, increased her awareness of class wars taking place in Europe and rejected religion. She left the university after two years when her family moved to New York and took a job with a socialist newspaper named The New York Call. Her work took her to Washington and Boston where she covered worker strikes, pickets, riots, and protests. She was arrested during a picket in Washington, D.C. and participated in a 10-day hunger strike while in the workhouse.

During World War I, Dorothy wanted to do something to help the ill and injured so she became a nurse at King’s County Hospital in Brooklyn. After the Armistice, she lived in Europe and Chicago and continued to write for the Communist Party. In Chicago, a Catholic roommate helped revive her interest in religion and she began to read books on Catholicism.

Dorothy called the middle portion of her life natural happiness. She bought a house on Staten Island beach and lived in a common law marriage with Forster, an anarchist biologist. During this time, she began reading the Bible and Imitation of Christ, praying daily and attending mass. Her interest in the supernatural and unseen caused conflict in her relationship with Forster because he was more interested in the natural and seen aspects of life. While she was pregnant with their little girl, she decided that she wanted to have the baby baptized into Catholicism even though she knew this would probably end her relationship with Forster. After having the baby back in New York, Dorothy was baptized into the Catholic church. She still wrote for the Anti-Imperialist League and critiqued the Catholic church as having a great interest in charity but not much action for justice.

In the final section of her book, Love is the Measure, Dorothy describes how her work for social justice and her Catholic faith became her new vocation. She met Peter Maurin, also a Catholic, who had a vision of the people gaining control of their work by returning to the land and producing what they needed to live. Together, they started the Catholic Worker in 1933, a newspaper directed at speaking out against wrongs against workers and calling other Catholics to join in this pursuit. The couple also wanted to feed and house people and used the newspaper to raise funds for soup kitchens and to open houses and farms of hospitality where people could live in voluntary poverty, participating in the care of the community. Dorothy continued to join and write about pickets and worker activity but joined that work with care for the individual, which she considered the most important, in the hospitality houses. She and Peter felt that community was the answer to the social problem of loneliness and considered the family style communal living as an exchange of gifts in the spirit of St. Ignatius.

 Application to My Vocation

Just as Dorothy Day did in the third part of her life, I have come to believe that love is the most important aspect of life. Dorothy looked back on her early days writing and working for the Socialist Party and questioned whether this was truly “love of our fellows” personally or whether she “loved them in the mass and [was] moved by the account of their suffering (page 87).” Once I actually became engaged with people from a different social location than myself, I was compelled to think of individuals and families with distinct issues and problems they were trying to solve and the systems that worked against any resolution rather than groups of people labeled “the poor.” Their stories helped me see that being poor is very hard work and very demoralizing as you work through the labyrinth of paper work and conflicting requirements for receiving the help you desperately need.

Like Dorothy, I have become more and more aware of my privilege as a white, middle class, heterosexual, Christian woman with a college education and a professional career. Dorothy describes her, and my own, location as having been “born in a certain environment, were enabled to go to school, endowed with the ability to compete with others and hold our own (p 204).” As I looked at the people within my own church and community, I came to identify with Dorothy’s statement that there is an “ugliness of life in a world which professed itself to be Christian (page 42).” We, like Dorothy in the early years, did not know the meaning of love and spend most of our time critiquing one another’s actions and opinions and not acting like Christ at all in our interactions with each other and with our neighbors. We “love” those who are like us. Even within our class or professional strata, we really only like those who agree with us, have the same skin color or political viewpoint.

In today’s world of the internet and social media, Dorothy Day would have reached millions rather than hundreds of thousands around the world with her writing. She believed in the “power of the press and also that the simple maxim “go to the people” meant literally going to them (page 203). She investigated and wrote the stories of people experiencing the struggles of the political and economic times in which she lived.  Perhaps compassion and solidarity can be increased in our time with more attention to listening and sharing the voices of those who are struggling.

I was like most of the Christians I saw around me who, as Dorothy describes in her own time, were “willing to give to the poor” but didn’t “feel called upon to work for the things of this life for others (p 188).” It was relatively easy to buy sacks of toys at Christmas or supplies and backpacks for children returning to school. We would collect ingredients for “meal in a bag” without thinking about whether they would like what we picked. Would we have eaten what we gave them? Would the children have picked what we chose for the design on their backpack? How did the parents feel when the children knew the presents came from outside the family and what patterns of living were we perpetuating? We saw people as objects to help from our abundance.

I have become increasingly concerned about the buy-in of Christian people, myself included, to the capitalist concept of people being less important than productivity and profits as well as the belief that what material goods you have acquired reflects your worth to society. Reading Dorothy’s statement that her attraction “to the poor had a sense of guilt, of responsibility, a feeling that in some way we were living on the labor of others (page 204)” made me reflect on my own motivation for wanting to work with women at the margins. What do my lifestyle and day to day actions say about my solidarity with the poor?

Dorothy Day was willing to do more than see the issues of the poor and workers fighting for fair working conditions. Even providing money and support for these causes was insufficient for Dorothy. She pledged herself to voluntary poverty, sharing all that she had to others who did not have food or a place to live. She felt it necessary to “give up one’s privacy and mental and spiritual comforts as well as the physical” and to share in their suffering (page 214). Instead of building a professional journalistic career for money and prestige, she used her talent and money she earned to make sure the voices of the poor and workers that she cared so much about were heard. She spent the last years of her life without privacy, sharing her living space and food with anyone who needed it and encouraging a life of reciprocal love and care.

Shaping Future Work

As I suspected, Dorothy Day’s third part of life is in many ways a model for the work I want to do now. Unfortunately, the previous parts of my life have not prepared me as well as her intense involvement with labor movements of her time prepared her for intense solidarity with the poor. While I have considered the result of most of my work over the years as benefiting people’s lives, the profitability of the corporation, and therefore the capitalist who owned the corporation, was the primary driver of everything we did. I want to do work where the primary purpose is a better, more wholistic life for women and children. I feel called to own much less and be grateful for what I have rather than constantly acquiring the latest thing. But I am not sure, at this point, how far I would be willing to go towards poverty to achieve solidarity with those I seek to serve.

Dorothy said that, in her early work “we never met any whose personal morality was matched by a social morality or who tried to make life here for others a foretaste of the life to come (page 71).”  In my earlier years, my faith community was definitely more concerned with saving people’s souls than whether they could achieve “abundant life.” Many of the non-profits I have worked with in more recent years have a large part of their support coming from or may even be spin-offs from churches. They believe, as Dorothy Day did, that we should have “respect for the poor and destitute as those nearest to God (page 204).” From a feminist theological perspective, however, I worry that we are encouraging abundant life without taking into consideration that body, mind, and spirit are one and true wholeness of life cannot come without attention to each of these. We are caring for the body of the poor and struggling, and perhaps their mind through types of “life skill education” but we do not talk about God or spiritual life for fear of being accused of proselytizing or losing funding. Within the supporting churches, I see an opposite issue of teaching spiritual practices and principles but many times neglecting to teach the mind and body skills required to live into true life in the spirit. I see my work in this area to be centered around encouraging the church to adopt a theology and praxis that touches the whole person in mind body and spirit for their members and for those they try to serve.

To this point in my life, I have not felt called to participate in marches and other external actions to protest the actions of church or state as Dorothy Day did on a regular basis. I am intrigued, however, with her use of story telling to make people aware of the realities of people’s lives. As I continue to work with individuals and families and hear their stories, perhaps I can be instrumental in making their voices heard. Can I find ways to combine the academic theological and ethical with the life stories of people I work with to put a face to the issues of our day and help people to see the image of God in each other? Can listening deeply to people’s stories help them endure the hard work of building their lives?

Learning the art of civil conversation and the praxis of loving each person I meet will require dependence upon the Holy Spirit to continually renew my mind from the messages of the culture that call me to work for the gratification of my ego and the kudos for a job well done. I will need to continually try to uncover and live out the theology I wish to share of how to be a whole person who loves God, self and neighbor.

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