Dorothy Day: Patron Saint of …. Holy Foolery?

A member of one of the country’s newest Catholic Worker communities reflects on the life and ongoing witness of Servant of God Dorothy Day.

Rose Hill Catholic Worker farm, 1964-1978, Servant of God Dorothy Day.
Rose Hill Catholic Worker farm, 1964-1978, Servant of God Dorothy Day. (photo: Public domain)

In his work, The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky makes a simple point: The Gospel of Christ is so radically distinct from the logic of the world, that one who is animated by it will inevitably be taken for a fool — or at least a walking paradox, nonsensical according to the world’s accepted categories and terms of debate. 

If this was the case in Dostoevsky’s late-19th-century Russia, awash as it was in the Orthodox faith, then it certainly holds true in our present-day post-Christian America.

While The Idiot gave us Prince Myshkin as an exemplar of this character type, a more contemporary and close-to-home illustration might be Dorothy Day — or at least that’s what was suggested by Tyler Hambley

Hambley is a member of one of the country’s newest Catholic Worker communities, the movement co-founded by Day, whose cause for sainthood is currently under consideration. When asked what patronage Day might be assigned, Hambley didn’t point to one of the social causes the Servant of God is most often associated with — her pacificism, service to the poor, or political anarchism. Instead he pointed to the deeper disposition that underlay and informed all of Day’s various pursuits: her “holy foolery.” 

Day’s “holy foolery” was highlighted by Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez in a recent speech that distinguished a Catholic response to social injustices from ascendent secular social movements. In Day, Archbishop Gomez says, Catholics have an important witness for how they “can work to change our social order through radical detachment and love for the poor grounded in the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, and works of mercy” — a corrective sign to both those who attempt to pursue authentic justice apart from God, but also those, including Catholics, who remain indifferent to the plight of the poor and the marginalized. 

Day’s “holy foolery” has had a significant impact on Hambley, first through his encounter with the Catholic Worker community in Durham, North Carolina, while a divinity student at Duke University. 

Today, Hambley lives at the Maurin House, a new Catholic Worker community just north of Minneapolis, with his wife and children, and the Millers, a family the Hambleys became friends with at Duke who have experienced a similar journey of conversion under Day’s inspiration. Animated by “a philosophy so old that it looks like new,” the Maurin House was established when the Hambleys and Millers bought houses with adjoining backyards, tore down the fence, and built a chapel for communal prayer. Today, they hold public prayers and meals twice a week, lead studies on Catholic social teaching, and have recently acquired and opened an adjoining “hospitality house,” where the homeless and poor are invited to live amongst and as a part of their community.

To better understand Day, her life, and her witness, the Register spoke with Hambley.


How —and in what ways — has Dorothy Day impacted you and the way you live the Gospel?

Well first, I like how you framed that: It’s not just that Day impacted the way I think or feel, she has impacted the way I live. That’s crucial because, of course, Our Lord didn’t just give us nice things to believe or different emotions to experience, he gave us a contrast society — the Church — a people living differently relative to the world around them. 

Doctrine is important, but doctrine abstracted from a form of life (or a form of life that betrays doctrine) is not the Gospel; Jesus gave us a Kingdom to be performed, and a deliciously peculiar one at that! 

I’ve been involved with Catholic Worker communities influenced by Day off and on for almost 10 years. I’m a convert to Catholicism, but I would credit my conversion largely to the impact of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. 

I went to a Protestant divinity school where a great emphasis was placed on the strange political community that the body of Christ is capable of producing when our prayers and the liturgy are allowed to shape our political imaginations. Press that far enough and you’ll eventually run into the Catholic witness of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. Day saved me from a faith subservient to a debilitating and self-serving individualism by showing me not only a people through time — the Catholic Church — that could claim me as its own, but also what that body of people are capable of living out when pressed into action together. 

Lastly, my wife and I have been married 17 years, but we spent the first 10 of those years on birth control. We didn’t think anything of it. It was only once we were introduced to a Catholic Worker form of life, and we gradually learned to welcome — and be welcomed by — the homeless person on the street, that we found it inconsistent to not also be open to the stranger who may come to us by way of the womb. We now have three children with a fourth on the way. 

I’m a stay-at-home dad. That’s how I know Our Lord has a sense of humor. But I’m not alone! I have a community of people around me who root me in the faith, and I have to credit Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker for turning my world upside down — in a good way! Besides, Jesus wanted us to come to him as little children and he also said the poor will inherit the kingdom of God, so I’m kind of living the high life right now being around children and the poor all the time.


Day seems to be one of those paradoxical figures, who includes dimensions within her that we don't normally see together in one person — or that at least don't fit into one of society's prescribed “molds.” Why is that? What do you think are some of those alleged “paradoxes” and how is Day able to hold them together in a way society seems to say we can't?

As a woman she was the informal leader of a radical movement in the Catholic Church. She was a Greenwich Village Bohemian who’d had an abortion and been arrested for social unrest prior to her conversion to a Church that is now in the process of canonizing her. 

As a Catholic, she was a Christian pacifist, a Christian anarchist and a friend of the poor, but she was also a daily Massgoer (pre-Vatican II Latin Mass!), a devotee of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a fierce advocate of the silent spiritual retreats of Father John J. Hugo. 

I think Day is often misapprehended as being some kind of “progressive” or “social justice” advocate. Her Catholicism is seen as accidental or secondary to her other commitments, even her “Christianity.” 

The truth is, Day was so Catholic she didn’t let anything else around her determine the faith for her. Including her attendance at Mass, she prayed 3-4 hours a day and was convinced such devotion was inseparable from a Catholic Worker way of life.


Following up on that, in what ways do you think Day’s life is a proposal or even a guide for overcoming so many of the false divides that plague America including — sadly — the American Church, be it the “social justice” vs. “pro-life” divide, the tension between fidelity to the hierarchical Church and demands for accountability and reform, or even the divide between prayer and action?

Simply put, Day changes the subject! The problem with Christian witness in America today is it’s overly determined by America! By that I mean, we Christians allow our political and moral agenda to be set by the “world” around us. 

But what counts as “world”? We tend to think the “world” is already a given — something easily identifiable just out there, but Day displays to us how you can only know what the world is — arranged as God’s good creation — once you’ve been trained in the storied performance through time called the Church! Again, Day was so thoroughly Catholic that the false divides you mention got exposed for what they were — parodies of the Truth.


What is it about Day that you think draws so many people to her? What do people find in her that they’re not necessarily finding elsewhere? And how does she inspire such radical, counter-cultural commitments? 

Two things: First, many of us in modern society are a lot more lonely and a lot more unhappy than we care to admit — even to ourselves. In spite of the glitz and glam of our cities, our entertainment options, the amount of money and stuff we fill ourselves with, and our social media, modern life evermore isolates people and isolates them relentlessly. 

Day charts a course for building intimate friendships in the context of thick communal commitments. In other words, she helps us see how to be human again. 

But secondly, Day’s Catholic Worker makes the Gospel come alive as an adventure to be lived out. It’s a dramatic “contrast society,” making its way amidst powerful forces. Think Israel in exile in Babylon. On the one hand, folks like the prophet Daniel were willing to work for and contribute to the welfare of the city they were in, but on the other hand, they knew when to tell Nebuchadnezzar that his version of welfare was different from God’s.


There are a lot of factors in society that draw our attention away from our immediate circumstances, and try to concern us, for instance, with what’s happening on Fox News or CNN rather than in our own town. What do you think would be Day’s guidance in this kind of environment? Would she, for instance, be on social media?

It’s interesting you mention Fox News and CNN because, of course, Day was a journalist by training. The Catholic Worker newspaper was a kind of alternative news of the day, or rather an alternative, Gospel-inflected lens through which to view the material and social world. So Day understood implicitly that there is no politically neutral news outlet. The question is: Whose news? Which objectivity? 

In that vein, I think Day would direct us to the great Catholic social principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, having us focus on personalist interactions. That’s a fancy way of saying we need to attend to the particular people and places that touch our lives, but that will involve digging deep into all the ways such people and places are hidden or obscured from us. 

Who produced the food you put into your mouth? Were they paid a fair and just wage? Was it a small business or a global conglomerate putting small businesses out of business? These are important questions to have answered. 

Similarly, I think Day would have seen social media as — ironically enough — hindering personalism. You have to be a person first before you can meet persons. Being a person involves the gifts of the flesh and blood God gave us. Even writing letters involves one’s own hand and being fully present in a space. Day wrote letters not tweets!


Because she’s such a multifaceted person, it seems aspects of Day are broken off and used to champion all sorts of different, and sometimes even mutually exclusive, causes. What do you think are some of the biggest misunderstandings of Day and how would you encourage people to correct them?

I guess I don’t see her as being multifaceted, per se. She just lived a faithful Catholic life within an extremely complex twentieth century. It’s us who are fragmented, hurried and harried, compartmentalized, etc.


Thought experiment: Day is canonized and you’re advising the Pope on the matter. What do you recommend as her official patronage and why?

Hmm … maybe, Dorothy Day, patron saint of holy foolery?


Let’s close with some recommendations. If someone’s reading this and is intrigued by the life and mission of Servant of God Dorothy Day and wanted to know her more deeply, what would you encourage them to read? And, perhaps more importantly, what would you encourage them to do?

As far as what Dorothy wrote herself, both Loaves and Fishes and The Long Loneliness are good memoirs of life in the Catholic Worker. I would also recommend digging up Dorothy’s articles in The Catholic Worker itself. I believe Marquette University keeps those digitally archived. 

For what most influenced Dorothy, you can’t go wrong with Peter Maurin’s “easy essays.” Check out The Forgotten Radical Peter Maurin: Easy Essays from the Catholic Worker. Finally, a book that draws on Day and the Catholic Worker that I often recommend is Stumbling Toward Justice: Stories of Place by Lee Hoinacki. That one is so good, I’ve seen a number of people completely change their lives after reading it.

The first thing I would tell folks to do is to pray together! I know, that sounds pious and trite. But I’m not talking about saying some sentimental night prayer. Pray like Dorothy Day prayed. Turn the words of the Church’s corporate prayers into dynamic speech acts capable of doing real social and material work. 

At morning prayer, for example, our little community often says the suffrages: “Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten; Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.” What would it look like to render that speech true? For us, it has meant buying a house to use exclusively for community and hospitality with the poor. 

Or, take the passing of the peace at Mass. We often just throw up the deuces to one another and then forget about it. What would it mean to actually make the words, “And peace be with you,” a true and living speech act throughout my week? Well, I’d probably have to work a little harder for reconciliation with those around me. I might even have to think hard about the violence my material life causes others. How much was that kid paid who sewed together my Nikes on the other side of the world? How many small bookshops have I helped put out of business by shopping Amazon? 

The point is, once you take up the Church’s speech as a regular, performative practice between you and some friends, you’ll certainly find a challenge ahead of you — inconvenient for sure — but you’ll also find a grand adventure. Dorothy Day certainly did! 

This interview was edited for style and length.

Dorothy Day is pictured in 1916.

Dorothy Day, Mongolia, Synod on Synodality, and Politicized School Curricula (Sept. 2)

Students are back in school or soon will be. And parents of public school students are, in some places, on high alert to safeguard their children from politicized agendas — especially in regards to gender identity in their school curriculum. Senior editor Joan Desmond has been following the latest developments in parental rights in California and across the country and she joins today. But first, we turn to news from the Vatican. Roman holiday — the traditional August escape from hot and humid Rome — is over and Pope Francis has picked up a busy schedule with a four-day trip to Mongolia, continued preparations for the synod, the signaling of support for the cause of Dorothy Day and confirmation that a sequel to Laudato Si is in the works.