Dorothy Day, widely hailed as the most influential Catholic laywoman of the 20th century, co-founded the lay Catholic Worker movement.
By 1932, Dorothy's checkered past — the Bohemian nightlife, the flirtation with Communism, the abortion, the common-law marriage — was behind her. After converting to Catholicism in 1927, she'd left Forster Batterham, the love of her life, because of his refusal to sanction the baptism of the daughter they'd conceived together. The separation was wrenching, the hardest thing, she later said, that she would ever do.
On the feast of the Immaculate Conception of that year, she visited the National Shrine and prayed that "some way would be opened for me to work for the poor and the oppressed." When she returned to New York City, the French peasant-intellectual Peter Maurin was waiting on her doorstep. On May 1, 1933, the Catholic Worker was born: first a newspaper, then a Bowery soup kitchen, then the first "house of hospitality" from which a worldwide lay movement would eventually blossom.
Peter Maurin's role was to "enunciate principles"; Dorothy's was to implement them. She railed against our "dirty rotten system": an economy based on war, the rich who fed off the poor. Her vision of a new system was based on sacrifice, penance, prayer, personalism, and pacifism.
During the Second Vatican Council she took a steamer to Rome and fasted for peace. She suffered many stints of civil-disobedience jail time with no complaint and none of the self-promoting breast-beating of today's social media. She sheltered, fed, and lived with the marginalized and the mentally ill. Her compassion was for others, not herself; for those who are poor not voluntarily but involuntarily: poor in spirit, poor in choices, poor in inner resources.
She built her life on a bedrock of daily devotions: the divine office, rosaries, vigils, prayer, fasts, and, always, the Mass. For all her radicalism, she was as observant as any Medieval nun. For all her activity, she was at heart a mystic. "Physical and spiritual senses need to be 'mortified,' subdued, disciplined," she observed. That was at the age of seventy-eight.
In between, she wrote: essays, editorials, letters, her autobiography, The Long Loneliness. She was offered (and turned down) twelve honorary doctorates. The cause for her canonization is underway.
But perhaps the highest accolade was conferred by Mr. Breen, a cantankerous "guest" who arrived at the New York house in his seventies. "I am at my wit's end," wrote Dorothy to a friend in July 1935. "He sits at the lower window like a Cerberus and growls and curses at everyone who comes in for a bite of food or for some clothing.... And he, after all, is Christ."
Mr. Breen stayed until his death, in 1939.
"As long as I live," he once wrote her, "I shall always be proud of having had you as my boss and my friend. Your little glimpses into my mind on personal responsibility a few days ago remade me and I have, thank you, ceased to hate people as I was wont to."
Heather King. "Servant of God Dorothy Day." Magnificat (June, 2016).
Reprinted with permission from Magnificat.
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Heather King is a sober alcoholic, an ex-lawyer, a Catholic convert, and a full-time writer. She is the author of: Parched, Redeemed: Stumbling Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace That Passes All Understanding, Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Poor Baby, Stripped, Holy Days and Gospel Reflections, and Stumble: Virtue, Vice, and the Space Between. She lives in Los Angeles. Visit her website here.Copyright © 2016 Magnificat
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