A few months after Dorothy Day (1897-1980) passed away, I was interviewed for a New York City TV station by what I would describe as a “liberated” or “feminist” nun.
She asked me, “What is the legacy of Dorothy Day?”
A perfectly good question, I thought, and responded without hesitation: “Her faith.”
It was obvious from the interviewer’s facial expression that that was not the answer she wanted. It was clear she would rather have heard something like: “her pacifism” or “her activism” or “her condemnation of capitalism” or “her advocacy for the poor.” Pace the nun.
If you read letters in All the Way to Heaven, it is transparent that Day’s Catholic faith was the flesh of her being and the spirit of her life. For her, in a very radical sense, Jesus Christ truly was “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
Throughout her long life, she was indeed a very engaged person in the great issues concerning economic justice, peace; her life centered on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy rather than materialism. These letters reveal a person whose faith never wavered, though certainly she endured discouragement and tears. Her life as a laywoman and mother was, to use her expression, a pilgrimage, in which she deepened her relationship with Christ through the sacraments and the saints and living in community with those seeking shelter, companionship and love.
The letters begin in 1923, four years before her conversion to Catholicism, with a letter to Margaret Sanger (Day later was a staunch defender of Catholic teaching on sexuality) and conclude with a letter in early 1980 to her longtime friend Nina Polcyn Moore. She recounts: “Living in a house of hospitality is no joke … never a dull moment. … A fire started in the room above me, and our sprinkler system went on. I got deluged.”
She goes on in this letter stating, “We have a wonderful staff. … Mass is in our auditorium” where “several old ‘shopping-bag women’ pull out their pallets, as it were, and sleep thru the Mass.” She concludes, recalling her trip with Nina to Russia and Poland many years before, “What good lives you and I have had!”
Also in this volume are several letters of Day to Forster Batterham, her common-law husband in the 1920s by whom she bore their daughter, Tamar. After her conversion, Day ended the relationship because he wouldn’t marry her in the Church. He was an atheist who wanted nothing to do with her faith or the institution of marriage and family life. She pleaded with him for the next few years, begging to no avail. Her last letter to him was in December 1932, in which, in a thoughtful, mature manner, she articulates her positive understanding of sexuality, love and marriage. These letters would be a great resource for any contemporary course on Catholic morality.
That same month another man entered her life: Peter Maurin, of whom she later wrote: “He showed me the way. … His vision would dominate the rest of my life.” Maurin (1877-1949) was an émigré French peasant, ex-Christian Brother and vagabond philosopher — 20 years Day’s senior — who had a clear mission. He needed a latter-day Catherine of Siena to promote his vision of a society based on the Church’s social teaching.
A chance meeting of an unlikely pair, some might say, but “providential” would be more accurate. Aristotle pointed out that chance is “the intersection of two lines of causality.” In this case, the causality was the grace of God.
In a 1954 letter to a graduate student writing a thesis, Day explained how he was her teacher: “Peter Maurin is most truly the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. He brought to us Romano Guardini, Jacques Maritain, Eric Gill, Belloc and Chesterton. … I was the active principle in the partnership, I admit, but, then, women are always the practical ones, the housekeepers.”
Day’s letters are replete with allusions to the saints, to theologians, philosophers, poets, novelists, popes and bishops.
In one letter from 1967 — a time of upheaval in America, the Church, society and culture, and in the Catholic Worker movement itself — she wrote: “[T]o me the faith is the strongest thing in my life, and I can never be too grateful enough for the joy I have had for the gift of faith, my Catholicism.”
She had the special gift of making a salient point indirectly, telling a story or alluding to some authority. For example, in 1966, an official of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for the Revision of Canon Law sought her input (rather extraordinary for that time). She responded, admitting she knew nothing of canon law but was happy “that you are consulting the laity, as Cardinal [John Henry] Newman suggested.”
To Caesar Chavez, she wrote (1974) that, during her morning prayers, including the 63rd Psalm, she had thought of him: “I feel so sure of your mission that God is with you and is using you and that before the world you are an example of nonviolent action.”
Of Mother Teresa, she wrote (1976) to a friend, “I love her dearly and regard the time I spent in Calcutta with her as one of the peak experiences of my life.”
Pope Benedict XVI has written that the “true apology of the Christian faith, the most convincing demonstrations of its truth against every denial, are the saints and the beauty the faith has generated.” Day recognized this throughout her own life. For her, the extraordinary was ordinary, and the ordinary was extraordinary. She embraced with joy and hope the call to holiness. For, as St. Catherine of Siena said, “All the way to heaven is heaven.”
Geoffrey Gneuhs, an artist living in New York, has been associated with the Catholic Worker movement since 1974 and served as chaplain in the late 1970s, as well as an associate editor. He is on the executive committee of the Guild for Dorothy Day.
ALL THE WAY TO HEAVEN
The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day
Edited by Robert Ellsberg
Marquette University Press, 2010
408 pages, $35
To order: Marquette University Press