On holiday last week I read House of Hospitality by Dorothy Day (published by Our Sunday Visitor and distributed by Gracewing, £15.99). It is actually the 75th anniversary edition of the book, first published in 1939 and describing the five years, 1933-1938, of the start of her newspaper, The Catholic Worker, and House of Hospitality for the poor and unemployed of New York. For those who haven’t encountered Day before, she is one of those extraordinary people whose holiness is a reminder of how Christians are meant to try to live – and why I am a Catholic. I hesitate to describe her as a saint – although her cause is being investigated – because it used to annoy her when people called her this during her life, as a convenient label to imply that love of one’s neighbour was for her but not for them.
Dorothy, who died in 1980, knew she was a sinner and that whatever she achieved was the result of God working through her to show what can be done when one trusts him completely. A convert in 1927 and living on her own with a baby daughter after her lover rejected her new-found faith, she spent the next five years doing various and sometimes menial jobs to pay the bills. As she recounts in her book, it was on 8th December 1932, while at Mass in Washington, that she prayed to know how to realise her vocation to work for the poor. “When I got back to New York, Peter Maurin was at the house waiting for me.”
Maurin, from a French peasant background and with “the simplicity of a saint or a genius” in Dorothy’s words, taught her the meaning of voluntary poverty: living as simply as possible in houses of hospitality alongside those in need, in order to help them lead lives of dignity and hope rather than quiet desperation. This was a tall order, especially in New York during the years of the Great Depression and Dorothy’s book is full of the daily, constant, practical difficulties of the task.
With a few dedicated co-workers their principle was to turn no-one away who asked for help. Renting a few rooms in tenement houses, they pledged themselves to feed, clothe and support back on their feet anyone who turned up on their doorstep. Their income came from voluntary donations, subscriptions to Day’s newspaper, The Catholic Worker, and from money she made lecturing to promote their cause. Often they teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and it was only by daily recourse to St Joseph that they managed to put food on the table and find blankets and beds for the homeless men and women who came to them. “A pot of stew and a pot of coffee were kept going on the coal range in the kitchen and all who came in were fed”, as Day relates.
Often she gave up her own bed and shared one with her young daughter. The tenements were always very noisy. Day writes candidly of “the foul smell of unwashed bodies” and the utter lack of privacy. The social problems of those to whom they gave hospitality often seemed insurmountable: “Just because I feel that everything is useless and going to pieces and badly done and futile, it is not really that way at all. Everything…is in the hands of God” she writes – but such trust in Providence was learned the hard way.
Fiercely rejecting the Communist ideology of class warfare behind the pickets and strikes of the workers in New York, Day wanted her houses of hospitality (and the community farms her movement started in rural areas) to show Christians their own responsibility towards their needy neighbours and that voluntary poverty is a Gospel imperative rather than a way of life for a few zealots. “No matter how good the social order, there will always be the lame, the halt and the blind who must be helped” she observed.
Yesterday at a parish lunch I met a woman who had begun instruction to become a Catholic but who was hesitating as to whether to continue. She was finding she had some theological difficulties. “Why be a Catholic?” she asked me. I told her about Dorothy Day and the book I was reading; how Day had found the strength for her apostolate in daily Mass and regular Confession as well as prayer to Our Lady and St Joseph, and how it is reading about people like Day that brings the Faith alive.
In a week that has seen the folly of the US Supreme Court in attempting to redefine marriage, we need the example of Dorothy Day’s selfless love of her neighbour more than ever. Her book is a reminder that the way to heaven is not that of the chattering classes but the way of the Cross.