We are all interested in lives of the saints – those extraordinary men and women who show the rest of us what it really means (and costs) to follow Christ all the way. I thought of them as I read and wrote about the newly canonised St John Henry Newman. This scholarly Englishman, whose collected writings fill many shelves, is very different from the American pacifist and champion of the poor, Dorothy Day, but they would have recognised each other in their devotion to the truth (they were both converts) and their determination not to compromise over the teachings of Christ.
I have been thinking of Dorothy Day (whose cause is underway), having read earlier this year Robert Ellsberg’s A Living Gospel: Reading God’s Story in Holy Lives (Orbis Books). His opening chapter concerns Day, whom he knew personally as a young man and about whom he has written extensively. He kindly agreed to answer questions on his memories of this heroic woman.
I was keen to know how he first met Day. Ellsberg tells me that he first encountered her when he was 19: “I had taken leave of absence for a year mid-way through college and had found my way to the Catholic Worker in New York City. I wasn’t a Catholic at the time and was mostly attracted by the Worker’s peace witness and the fact that this was combined with direct service to the poor.”
He recalls living for a year in St Joseph’s House, a “house of hospitality” on New York’s Lower East Side. “Volunteers at the Catholic Worker lived in community with the poor and homeless they served, in a spirit of voluntary poverty. This meant not just material poverty but lack of privacy, quiet, personal space; it meant noise and sometimes chaos. Exposed to all the madness of the streets it could also mean the potential for violence.”
“And yet”, Ellsberg assures me, “it was not a depressing atmosphere; in fact, there was a lot of humour and joy. The day began with a simple meal for the hundred or more people who had gathered outside the door each morning. Otherwise, every day held surprises: tasks to be done, interacting with people, whether visitors or the “guests” who lived in the house, or preparing the Catholic Worker newspaper (about 100,000 copies per month) for mailing.”
And what were his impressions of Day herself? Ellsberg recalls, “She was then in her late 70s and carried a great deal of quiet authority so that people tended to be on their best behaviour in her presence. She took a great deal of interest in young people and had a gift for detecting their abilities and encouraging them to do things they never thought possible. In my case, after a few months she asked me to serve as managing editor of the newspaper. In that capacity I had quite a few opportunities to meet with her, though she considered herself largely in “retirement”.”
Ellsberg adds, “Despite her age, she had a very youthful spirit. She was always open to adventure. In her 70s she was arrested picketing with the farmworkers; she confronted the Inland Revenue over her refusal to pay federal taxes (that supported preparations for war); she opened a new house of hospitality for homeless women – Maryhouse – where she eventually settled and where she died on November 29 1980. That was just after I returned to college, following five years in the community.”
He explains to me that “during that time I had become a Catholic. I only learned later on from others how much my conversion had meant to her – at a time when she feared that many young people were drifting away from the faith that motivated her.”
What had he learnt from his youthful association and friendship with Day? Ellsberg tells me that after her death he compiled an anthology of her writings – “and 25 years after her death, when her personal papers were available, I was invited to serve as editor of her diaries and letters and thus came to know her in a different way.” He reflects, “I realised that Dorothy’s faith was not just the context for her work for peace and justice; it was the air she breathed. In her diaries you see someone who lived her life in the conscious presence of God. Whereas I had been attracted to the Catholic Worker because of her heroic peace witness and her frequent arrests in the cause of peace and justice, I saw that most of her life was spent in very ordinary ways, but that this was her arena of holiness: practising love, patience, forgiveness in very small everyday ways.”
Ellsberg is at pains to emphasise to me that “the fact that these qualities did not necessarily come easily to her made her actual practice all the more heroic. I took the title for her diaries from a phrase she liked: “The Duty of Delight”. The title of her letters reflected a similar spirit: “All the Way to Heaven” – which comes from a line of St Catherine of Siena that was one of her favourites: “All the Way to Heaven is Heaven, because He said, I am the Way.”
What are Ellsberg’s last (and lasting) memories of Day? He reminisces, “Our last meeting occurred in her room at Maryhouse, as I was returning to college. Dorothy always considered the Catholic Worker to be a kind of “school” where young people might find their vocation. It was certainly that for me. My vocation was not to remain at the newspaper, but it was there that she pointed me in the direction of my life’s work as a writer and editor – indeed, her editor!” He adds: “I had become a Catholic – and really that experience was the foundation of everything that came afterwards in my life.”
“From Dorothy I acquired a fascination with saints and holy lives – resulting eventually in six books and a daily column I have written for going on ten years for the publication, “Give Us This Day”. In fact I have a front-row seat on her cause for canonisation, beginning with my conversations with Cardinal O’Connor of New York in 1997, up to today, serving as a member of the Historical Commission charged with preparing her cause for Rome.”
Ellsberg concludes by pointing out that for him, “The lessons from Dorothy Day began almost 45 years ago. And they are still going on.”
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