A conversation with a Quaker: sacraments, suicide and Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day: a saint for sinners (Photo: CNS)

I had an interesting lunchtime conversation with my Quaker friend, S, yesterday. She is drawn to Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker in the US, whose Cause for sainthood is currently being promoted. S tells me there are four foundational tenets of Quakerism: to promote peace, simplicity, equality and Truth. Day was an unwavering pacifist, an unpopular stance to take during the Second World War; her own life was one of utmost simplicity, shared with random homeless people who happened to fetch up in the office of the Catholic Worker; she believed we are all equal in the eyes of God; and as a convert she followed Truth into the Catholic Church. It seems she was also a Quaker without knowing it.

I recommended S to read The Long Loneliness, Day’s autobiography, commenting that she was a fine writer. “Well she would have been – she was a journalist,” replied S. “Not all journalists are fine writers,” I replied enigmatically. I think what I meant by this is that some journalists – such as Dorothy Day or George Orwell – combine moral indignation and verbal eloquence to a degree that transcends the daily round in Grub Street.

Day is a saint for sinners. An early affair led to an abortion – something that she deeply regretted all her life. It also made her determined to give life – and the supernatural life begun at baptism – to her only child, Tamar, the fruit of a relationship with the socialist and anarchist, Forster Batterham. The baptism of her daughter led Day into the Church and caused a permanent estrangement from Batterham, though she never stopped loving him. S listened to all this sympathetically. “She was looking for good magic,” she told me. “The Sacraments aren’t magic,” I responded.

The conversation moved to Mother Teresa. “She suffered from severe depression,” S said. I disagreed: “She suffered from a dark night of the soul which is a spiritual state not a psychological one.” S could not see the difference: “If she had been properly diagnosed and then prescribed medication, she could have had a happier life,” she maintained. “But she was able to hide her personal sense of abandonment by God from everyone but her confessor, and she taught her nuns always to smile as they worked in the slums; that’s hardly a depressed life,” I argued. “Ah, people often smile when they are feeling suicidal,” S replied knowingly. “Mother Teresa was not suicidal!” I protested.

The conversation moved to suicide. “Jesus committed suicide on the Cross; he deliberately chose death when he could have kept his head down and survived,” S told me. “To lay down your life out of love for your friends is different from suicide,” I replied, adding a rather random example: “When Gerard Manley Hopkins was nursing victims of typhoid fever in the Dublin slums he did not intend to die.” “But he deliberately exposed himself to deadly germs, knowing the likely result? That’s suicidal,” S said emphatically.

S only has an hour’s lunch break from her job so we had to break off our talk at this point. I can see we will need a long conversation of many lunch breaks before we make common ground on some subjects.