The Duty of Delight: The

Diaries of Dorothy Day

Edited by Robert Ellsberg

Marquette University Press, 2008

669 pages, $42

To order:


(414) 288-1564 

Dorothy: In Her Own Words

On a warm October afternoon in 1979, I was standing with Dorothy Day (1897–1980) in front of Maryhouse on East Third Street, one of the two Catholic Worker shelters or houses of hospitality for the poor and homeless in Manhattan.

As we were talking, a Hell’s Angel (our neighbors) roared down the block on his motorcycle. I complained to Dorothy that I heard them from my basement room at three in the morning and that I thought they did it on purpose. Gaunt and leaning on her cane, Dorothy, always a wonderful story teller, started as if on cue.

“We once had,” she said, “a young enthusiastic volunteer who thought she would make everything nice on the block.” With a sardonic smile, she went on, “You know the type.” I nodded. “Well,” Dorothy continued, “she baked a cake and brought it down to the Hell’s Angels.”

She concluded, “Some people are so damn sentimental!” We both laughed.

Dorothy was not sentimental, as these diaries attest. This volume, named for a phrase she liked from John Ruskin’s book The True and the Beautiful, is culled from nearly a thousand pages of diaries, journals, notebooks and columns beginning in 1934, seven years after her Augustine-like conversion to Catholicism, to just a week before her death on Nov. 29, 1980. There are wide gaps, but one gets a vivid picture of Dorothy’s daily routine — the ordinary and the dramatic, the bizarre and the mundane, the hurts and hopes, the frustrations and joys that make life life. But then hers was no typical life.

Her road to conversion was neither sudden nor easy. Living in a common-law marriage to a man named Forster Batterham, in 1926, Dorothy had their baby daughter baptized.

The next year she converted, which effectively ended her relationship, as Forster was an atheist and vociferously anti-Catholic. But as she wrote in her book Union Square to Rome, she never regretted her decision; after a life of aimlessness — unhappy love affairs, an abortion, writing for leftist magazines, drinking, and friendship with Eugene O’Neill and others — she “wanted to be poor, chaste and obedient.”

In December 1932, a man some 20 years older than she named Peter Maurin, a French émigré, former Christian Brother, and vagabond drifter, arrived at her East 15th Street apartment, sent by an editor from Commonweal. Well educated and read, Maurin began instructing her in the richness of Catholic thought, history, spirituality and the lives of the saints. In May 1933, the first issue of The Catholic Worker newspaper was published. Maurin saw Dorothy as a latter-day Catherine of Siena who would make the “encyclicals click” and promote the common good, the works of mercy, and a Chestertonian distributist economic system.

These diaries give a glimpse, always incomplete because, even in diaries, much is withheld. But then, much is revealed, sometimes unwittingly, of Dorothy’s personal and spiritual life, as well as the life in the Catholic Worker houses and farms, which only a Dostoyevsky and a Fellini could adequately capture. She notes the jealousies of the staff, the jockeying for positions (Dorothy did not suffer sycophants lightly), the anger, the noise, the resentments, the smells, the tiredness and tears, as well as the serendipity and simple enjoyments. She wrote, “Without the religious motive, it was a waste of time.”

Regularly, she reprimands herself, “Do not judge lest ye be judged,” and “forgive seven times 70.” She complains about her paltry speaking fees compared to those of Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward.

Certainly, one of the greatest trials in her life was Christmas Eve 1967, when her daughter, Tamar, and her nine grandchildren informed her that they had all left the Church. Dorothy tersely writes, “But this throwing aside the sacraments, the skepticism, the dissipation … It is their bitterness about religion that hurts.”

During the height of the Vietnam War, she was critical of the peace movement: “Jesus was not concerned with joining the resistance; he was laying down principles that made for true peace.”

There are some annotations, but more would have been helpful. For instance, in an October 1973 entry, she writes, “We lent (gave) a priest $10,000.” We aren’t told for what, although the priest in question drove a red Alfa Romeo. And then the annotation for John Coster, the Catholic Worker lawyer in the 1970s, fails to mention that after Coster died it was discovered that he had been embezzling thousands of dollars from the organization over the years.

A week before she died, Dorothy commented, “It takes so long to die.” She was not afraid; there was no sentimentality. Christ was ever present to her. She had accepted his grace and lived that grace, indeed a life of heroic virtue, an example for our time, and for all time.

Geoffrey Gneuhs writes from New York, where he worked at the Catholic Worker in the late 1970s.