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Dorothy Day: the perfect saint for our time

Dorothy Day, co-founder of The Catholic Worker newspaper, is depicted in a stained-glass window at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in New York (CNS)

When I blogged about the book Saints for the Family earlier this week, I was naturally referring to saints who had families themselves or who had a particular spiritual message for human families. Yet it goes without saying that Christian “families” come in different shapes and forms. I am thinking here of a book I am currently reading: Dorothy Day: An Introduction to her Life and Thought by Terrence C. Wright (Ignatius Press).

For Dorothy Day (1897-1980), whose cause for canonisation is going forward, “family” meant the Houses of Hospitality she helped set up in the US before and after the war under the guidance of her mentor Peter Maurin. In 1939 she wrote about the communal life in these Houses of Hospitality (in which she herself lived, sharing her room with a guest): “We believe it is most necessary to give a sense of family life to those who come to us. We believe a sense of security is as necessary as bread or shelter.”

She went on to explain, “There are all nationalities among us and all ages, from 18 to 72. Some have been with us for five years and probably will die with us. Some are with us for only a few months…Many are unemployable and we must take care of them as we would a member of the family who cannot find work.”

This description only briefly suggests the heroic commitment Dorothy and her co-workers made in the practical love they showed to “the least of My brethren”: people who sometimes had chronic mental illness, people who had lived like vagrants and were wary of washing, people who did not observe any of the social niceties that most of us think essential for domestic harmony.

Wright’s book is only a short introduction to the life and apostolic work of this extraordinary woman. Unlike the conventional idea of sanctity and saints, Dorothy’s life shows triumphantly how God can transform any life, if he is allowed to do so; in other words, if the person opens themselves (often after a long struggle with pride and self-sufficiency) to the influence of divine grace.

Dorothy grew up with a secret longing for spiritual truth which she successfully ignored for a number of years in which she had an affair, was deserted by her feckless lover, had an abortion – “the great tragedy of her life” – twice attempted suicide, made a brief unsuccessful marriage and then entered into a common-law relationship which, paradoxically (God can use any circumstance to effect transformation, however seemingly unpropitious) was the direct cause of her conversion.

Living in a beach house on Staten Island during her last relationship, she unexpectedly became pregnant and felt that God had given her a second chance at motherhood. Not yet a Catholic she wanted baptism for her baby daughter, Tamar, while knowing that it would mean the end of her relationship to the anarchist and free spirit, Forster Batterham, with whom she had set up home.

Dorothy wrote later that it only slowly dawned on her that “worship, adoration, thanksgiving, supplication – these were the noblest acts of which men were capable in this life.” From her earliest years she had had a strong social conscience; now her Catholic faith gave her the spiritual underpinning to live out this deep humanitarian impulse and to love those at the bottom of the social heap for the rest of her life.

For Dorothy the acute question was, was it possible “to promote and live according to the ideas of Catholic Social teaching and philosophy in a way that would serve others and promote the common good?” Gradually she, Peter Maurin and others hammered out their unique response to the corporal works of mercy. The Catholic Worker, the newspaper she began, edited and wrote continually for – her primary vocation, she knew, was to be a writer – is still published today. There are Houses of Hospitality to be found around the world, as well as farming communes. The zealous and humourless “Green” advocates of today would be taken aback at the thought that their latter-day respect for the earth was anticipated nearly 100 years ago by lay Catholic in the US.

For Dorothy Day, now “Servant of God”, canonisation cannot come soon enough – not to deposit her in the ranks of the “pious”, which she always resisted – but to show how we are all called to be saints, not just those we consider “holy”.