David Chislett encourages us to read the letters of Dorothy Day
One of the 20th century Christians I greatly admire is Dorothy Day (1897–1980), an influential worker among the poor, and co-founder of the American Catholic Worker Movement. In 1933, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin started The Catholic Worker newspaper. They then set up ‘Houses of Hospitality’ and many other means of reaching the marginalized with the love of Christ.
Although not without religious leanings in childhood, by the time she had become a journalist, Dorothy was an agnostic. In fact, she was living a bohemian life, which included two long-term affairs and an abortion. She says that after the birth of her daughter in 1926 she began to feel drawn towards God. Eventually converted in 1927, Dorothy wrote these words in From Union Square to Rome describing this part of her journey:
‘Many a morning, after sitting all night in taverns, I went to early Mass at St Joseph’s Church on Sixth Avenue. It was just around the corner from where I lived, and seeing people going to an early weekday Mass attracted me. What were they finding there? I longed for their faith. My own life was sordid and yet I had occasional glimpses of the True and the Beautiful. So I used to go and kneel in the back pew of St Joseph’s.’
Many years later, Dorothy wrote about her journey in terms not so much an embrace of a new philosophy of life as an overwhelming discovery of God’s love. Also, she found God’s love, not primarily in a private way, but in the community of faith and love, the Church. Right from the time of her conversion, this undergirded everything she did and everything she taught. As she wrote in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness:
‘The final word is love. At times it has been a harsh and dreadful thing and our very faith has been tried through fire. We cannot know God unless we love each other and to love him we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship. We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.’
The ‘cause’ for Dorothy Day being declared a saint by the Church is in progress.
In 2012, Dorothy’s letters were published, having been sealed for 25 years after her death. Under the title All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day, the letters date from the early 1920s until the time of her death, giving the reader a glimpse of her daily struggles, her hopes, her costly sacrifices, and her unwavering faith.
One of the letters was written to Charles Butterworth, a graduate at Harvard Law School who joined the Catholic Worker community, serving as business manager. For years it bothered him that he had not been to jail. The opportunity arrived when some FBI men came to the community hunting for an army deserter. Charles found the man in the kitchen and told him about the visitors. The deserter escaped out the back way and Charles was arrested.
Here is Dorothy’s letter to him:
‘“Thou lovest justice and hatest iniquity, wherefore God, thy God, has anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy companions.”
May this be true of you this day.
Standing before a judge, appearing in court, is harder than a jail sentence. Whatever happens, I know God has you close to him. As for me, I know you were right to do exactly as you did, and do not worry about the overtones and exactitude of expression of what has already taken place. God takes care of everything, and rights our mistakes, makes straight our paths.
This morning at six I was reading St. John’s passion and when Jesus was brought before Pilate, he was “asked about his disciples and his doctrine.”
He certainly answered nothing about his disciples—he just said he had been preaching openly.
Our lives are open to all. We belong to a Kingdom not of this world, tho we are in it. May you be a constant reminder, a witness, of this other Kingdom, this glorious and beautiful Kingdom where we are willing and obedient and joyful subjects.
Remember St Catherine of Siena said, “All the way to Heaven is heaven, because He said, ‘I am the Way.’” So may heaven be in your heart this day. We love you very much, and as for me, you have done so much to make me happy since you came to us, that mine is a very grateful love.
In Jesus caritas, Dorothy.’
Fr David Chislett is the Vicar of All Saints’ Benhilton.
His blog can be read at www.fministry.com