Thursday, July 10, 2008

"Diaries shed light on a reluctant saint" July 7, 2008 The Episcopal Life

The Episcopal Life

July 7, 2008

Diaries shed light on a reluctant saint

By Jerry Hames and Daniel Burke

[Episcopal Life] Those who have been inspired by the work of Dorothy

Day, founder of Catholic Worker Houses of Hospitality, farming

communes and retreat centers, now know more about her intimate,

spiritual thoughts from her personal journals which were published

last month.

The Sermon on the Mount characterized all of her work, finding

expression in her practice of nonviolence and solidarity with workers

and the poor. For Dorothy Day, to be a Christian meant not only

participating fervently in prayer and liturgy, but also finding Christ

in others.

She was born in Brooklyn , New York , in 1897, the third child of Grace

and John Day . When her family moved to Chicago , she was baptized in

the Episcopal Church. At the University of Illinois at Urbana , she

became interested in radical social causes as a way to help workers

and the poor. In 1916, she left the university and moved to New York

City where she converted to Roman Catholicism, worked as a journalist

on socialist newspapers, participated in protest movements and

developed friendships with many famous artists and writers. She died

in 1980.

In one passage in her diary she laments her "great depression of

spirits" on a sunny Sunday in 1938, as flies swarm around piles of

garbage and drunks and the insane, who visit the Catholic Worker house

in Pittsburgh for food and shelter, surround her and oppress her.

"Job is to hide it from others," Day notes, "to accept it as penance,

reparation, and to pray constantly for an increase in my heart of the

love of God and man."

A 'Servant of God'

Over the course of the 20th century, few people practiced a love of

the divine, and the divine in others, as assiduously as Day did. The

co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement 75 years ago made "works of

mercy" -- feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and comforting the

sick -- the center of her life.

For that, the Vatican named Day a "Servant of God" in 2000, placing

her on the path to sainthood.

She's been called "the most significant, interesting, and influential

person in the history of American Catholicism," and been made the

subject of numerous biographies, plays and documentaries.

Titled "The Duty of Delight" ( Marquette University Press, 669 pp.,

$42), the diaries span from 1934 to just days before Day's death in

1980, and offer a uniquely intimate look at a modern, saint-like

figure grappling with the joys and struggles of everyday life.

"Given her place in the history of American Catholicism, the complete

journals of Dorothy Day is bound to be a spiritual classic," said the

Rev. James Martin, an editor at the Jesuit weekly America and the

author of "My Life with the Saints."

"It shows how many plain, old human problems she had to face ... that

holiness makes its home among humanity," added Martin.

As matriarch of the Catholic Worker movement, including its "houses of

hospitality" scattered throughout the U.S. , Day's problems abounded.

Bed bugs bit, volunteers bickered and bill collectors threatened. As

wars raged, fellow Catholics questioned the movement's unbending


The journals reveal Day's determination to press on, following the

"little way" of her heroine, St. Therese of Lisieux. For nearly five

decades, she rose at dawn to attend Mass, prayed the monastic hours,

wrote anguished letters to God, examined her conscience and labored to

"be gentle and charitable in thought, word and deed."

An exemplary Christian

Day herself chastised those who would call her a saint. The difference

between a saint and a holy person, said writer Paul Elie, is that "a

saint makes other people want to be like her." And by that criterion,

Day is already among the elect, said Rosalie Riegle, a former Catholic

Worker who has written a biography of Day and a history of the


Day's diaries, "very clearly show an exemplary and contemporary

Christian, one we can and should use to guide our own path," Riegle

said. "I know I personally have been having more conversations with

God since reading 'The Duty of Delight.'"

Robert Ellsberg, himself a former Episcopalian and convert to

Catholicism worked with Day the last five years of her life and edited

this compilation of her diaries. He said her record tells an important

story. "I think you come away with an even deeper appreciation for

what it took for her to remain faithful to her vocation for all those

decades," Ellsberg said.

Writing in America , Ellsberg said that when he joined the Day's

community in 1975, he was not motivated by explicitly religious

interests. "Like Dorothy, I had been raised in the Episcopal Church,

but I had pretty much drifted away from organized religion. What drew

me to the Catholic Worker [community] was Dorothy's lifetime of

consistent opposition to war, and the fact that her convictions were

rooted in solidarity with the poor and those who suffered.

"Ultimately, I came to appreciate not just Dorothy's antiwar

convictions but the deeper tradition and spirituality that sustained

her. I understood nothing about Dorothy if I did not realize the

importance of the sacraments, prayer, liturgy and the communion of

saints, in which her witness was rooted. When I understood that, I

felt a need to become a Catholic myself."

He said he chatted with her in her room one day when he drew up his

courage to admit that he was thinking of becoming a Roman Catholic.

"She was very quiet for a few moments, and I wondered whether she had

heard me. Finally, she asked, 'well, you're an Episcopalian, right?'"

"Yes," I replied, "that is how I was raised."

"That's what I thought," she said. "My father said only policemen and

washerwomen were Catholics and that if I wanted to go to church I

could always be an Episcopalian. So I did go to the Episcopal Church

as I was growing up and I suppose it did me some good.... But I always

felt the Episcopal Church was a little well-to-do."

She squinted, Ellsberg said, "the way she did whenever she was saying

something a little mischievous."

Now, Ellsberg says, seen from a distance of more than 25 years, he

believes that Dorothy Day was more than just a hero for radical

Catholics. "At a time when the church is so greatly divided between

ideological factions, Dorothy was truly a saint of 'common

ground'—someone who held in tension a great love for the church along

with deep suffering over its sins and failings."

-- Jerry Hames is editor emeritus of Episcopal Life. Daniel Burke is a

writer for Religion News Service.

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