The Duty of Delight
For almost fifty years, through her tireless service to the poor and her courageous witness for peace, Dorothy Day offered an example of the gospel in action. Now the publication of her diaries, previously sealed for twenty-five years after her...
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For almost fifty years, through her tireless service to the poor and her courageous witness for peace, Dorothy Day offered an example of the gospel in action. Now the publication of her diaries, previously sealed for twenty-five years after her death, offers a uniquely intimate portrait of her struggles and concerns.
Beginning in 1934 and ending in 1980, these diaries reflect her response to the vast changes in America, the Church, and the wider world. Day experienced most of the great social movements of her time but, as these diaries reveal, even while she labored for a transformed world, she simultaneously remained grounded in everyday human life: the demands of her extended Catholic worker family; her struggles to be more patient and charitable; the discipline of prayer and worship that structured her days; her efforts to find God in all the tasks and encounters of daily life.
A story of faithful striving for holiness and the radical transformation of the world, Day’s life challenges readers to imagine what it would be like to live as if the gospels were true.
After leading a bohemian life as a young woman, Day turned to the Catholic church knowing it meant the end for her common-law marriage to a devout atheist. As a woman with socialistic, anarchistic leanings, Day met Peter Maurin, a man rooted in Catholic traditions, and together they founded the Catholic Worker. As a journalist, Day wrote about topics ranging from labor disputes to pacifism to motherhood. A social activist, she was last arrested at the age of 75 as a participant in a strike by the United Farm Workers. As part of the Catholic Worker movement, she helped to establish over a hundred Houses of Hospitality. Living in poverty among the poor, Day detested being called a saint. She also authored The Long Loneliness, On Pilgrimage, From Union Square To Rome and Peter Maurin.
In The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day described her early habit of keeping a diary: “When I was a child, my sister and I kept notebooks; recording happiness made it last longer, we felt, and recording sorrow dramatized it and took away its bitterness; and often we settled some problem which beset us, even while we wrote about it.” Though somewhat irregularly, she maintained this habit throughout her life. Sometimes her reflections were prompted by happiness, and sometimes by sorrow. But mostly her diary entries were an expression of her intense interest in life, her need to observe and take note of what was happening around her and to track her own responses.
Unfortunately, the diaries from her early life were lost. Thus, we have no contemporary record of the years described in her memoirs or in an earlier (and much regretted) autobiographical novel. That part of her life included a mostly happy childhood in New York, Oakland, and Chicago; a brief college career; a return to New York in 1916, which put her in touch with many of the leading radical journalists and activists of the day; her arrest with suffragists in Washington and her friendship with an assorted lot of socialists, anarchists, and literary Bohemians; her association with the playwright Eugene O’Neill; an unhappy love affair; and what she later described as years of restless searching. She acknowledged, in her books, that there was much that she left out. As she later noted in her diary, “Aside from drug addiction, I committed all the sins young people commit today.” Though that story lies outside the scope of this volume, the memories and associations from her early years would continue to surface and shape the rest of her life.
In her first memoir, From Union Square to Rome (1938), she quoted verbatim from a journal she kept while living on Staten Island in 1925 with her “common- law husband,” Forster Batterham. From that text, later revised in The Long Loneliness (1952), we get an immediate impression of the peace and happiness that preceded her conversion to Catholicism.
I have been passing through some years of fret and strife,
beauty and ugliness, days and even weeks of sadness
and despair, but seldom has there been the quiet beauty
and happiness I have now. I thought all those years I had
freedom, but now I feel that I had neither real freedom nor
even a sense of freedom.
She wrote particularly about her experience of pregnancy and the feelings of gratitude she felt—a gratitude so large that only God could receive it. But that happiness was not to endure. Her decision to have her daughter Tamar baptized in the Catholic Church, followed by her own conversion in 1927, involved a wrenching separation from Forster, who would have nothing to do with marriage or religion. That sacrifice was the decisive turning point in her life. But it left open the question of just what she was supposed to do next. She had found a new home in the Catholic Church, but little sense of community. For five years she struggled to support Tamar on her earnings as a writer, but all the while she yearned to find some way of connecting her new faith with her abiding commitment to social justice.
In December 1932 she went to Washington, D.C., to cover a communist- inspired “Hunger March of the Unemployed.” On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception she visited the National Shrine and there prayed that “some way would be opened up for me to work for the poor and the oppressed.” And when she returned to her apartment in New York she found Peter Maurin waiting for her. Maurin, a French- born peasant- philosopher, twenty years her senior, had learned her name from the editor of Commonweal magazine. Even before their meeting he had determined that Dorothy Day would be the one to implement his vision.
Dorothy often described their encounter and her debt to Peter Maurin, noting that it took some while for her to comprehend that his plan was the answer to her prayer. Maurin proposed a movement that would implement the radical social message of the gospels. Without awaiting funding or authorization from the bishops, they would start a newspaper and begin at once to build “a new society within the shell of the old.”
Five months later, the Catholic Worker newspaper was launched. At a communist rally in Union Square on May 1, 1933, Dorothy and a few volunteers handed out papers to demonstrators and curious passersby. In an editorial she described the paper’s mission:
For those who are sitting on park benches in the warm
For those who are huddling in shelters trying to escape
For those who are walking the streets in the all but futile
search for work.
For those who think that there is no hope for the future, no
recognition of their plight—this little paper is addressed.
It is printed to call their attention to the fact that the Catholic
Church has a social program—to let them know
that there are men of God who are working not only for
their spiritual but for their material welfare.
Peter Maurin, typically, was not on hand for this occasion. His role, as he conceived it, was to enunciate principles, leaving the practical implementation to others—that is, to Dorothy. But his vision shaped the emerging movement in many ways, not least by his positive vision of an alternative society—a future that would be different, as he put it, “if we make the present different.”
The present certainly cried out for an alternative. This was the heart of the Great Depression when millions around the country were uprooted, unemployed, or hanging on by their fingertips. New York City was filled with hungry, hopeless people “walking the streets in the all but futile search for work.” For Dorothy this represented not just an economic problem but also a profound spiritual crisis—for each one of these people bore the image of Christ.
Before long the Catholic Worker opened a soup kitchen, and then a shelter for the homeless. Maurin had challenged the U.S. bishops to open “houses of hospitality” in every diocese to meet the needs of the vast numbers of unemployed and homeless. When a homeless woman arrived at the Catholic Worker office one day asking where to find these houses of hospitality, Dorothy’s response was to rent an apartment, and then a house. This was the first of many such houses of hospitality around the country. They became the heart of the Catholic Worker—centers for practicing the “Works of Mercy”: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked. It was a program drawn from the gospels. As Jesus said, “Inasmuch as you did these things to the least of my brethren you did them to me.”
It is at this point, in 1934, that Dorothy’s diaries begin. Already the Catholic Worker was becoming a movement; the paper’s circulation was steadily climbing and new houses were emerging around the country. There turned out to be quite a large audience eager for a paper addressing social issues from a Catholic perspective. Seminaries and churches around the country ordered bundles. Idealistic young people, unemployed workers, and a wide assortment of colorful characters were drawn to the cause, attracted perhaps by the spirit of community, or Maurin’s philosophy of voluntary poverty, or by the sense of adventure that Dorothy conveyed in her columns. Her diaries from these early days reflect the giddy, improvisational atmosphere of the Worker, when Providence, chance, or a knock on the door might determine what would happen next.
There was no formal “rule” to life in a Catholic Worker house. Dorothy likened it to a family—sometimes offering a foretaste of heaven and at other times just the opposite. And over this sometimes fractious family Dorothy was the unquestioned matriarch. Everyone looked to her for leadership, sympathy, and inspiration, while readily blaming her for anything that went wrong. Meanwhile she promoted an ethic of personal responsibility, recalling Peter Maurin’s exhortation to “be what you want the other person to be.” Because the Worker’s doors were open to everyone—the poor, the crazed, the needy in every sense—community life was frequently marked by disorder and confusion. At one point, she writes,
In town the usual crosses, Carney calling us all racketeers,
calling the spiritual reading pious twaddle; Mr.
Breen with his vile accusations; the misery of Minas and
the Professor; Kate’s illness; the suit against us, the bills
piling up and the unconscious discouragement in people
like Frank and Jim—these things to be topped by such a
lack of understanding of the personalist idea from those
you expect the most from, lays me low.
And yet things got done. The paper was published and mailed out. Thousands of meals were served each week. And the world received a remarkable spectacle of the Gospel in action.
In its early years the Catholic Worker featured a good deal of topical reporting about strikes, evictions, and labor struggles. Almost every issue contained a number of Peter Maurin’s lapidary “Easy Essays.” Often there might be excerpts from one of the pope’s social encyclicals. And there were always a number of talented writers. But it was Dorothy’s writing—personal, engaged, rooted in the everyday—that defined the spirit of the paper.
Her literary influences ranged from Jack London to Anton Chekhov. But ultimately the style was her own. She described it as “epistolary.” Her column, she wrote, was “a letter to friends.” “Writing,” as she explained, “is an act of community. It is a letter, it is comforting, consoling, helping, advising on our part, as well as asking it on yours. It is a part of our human association with each other. It is an expression of our love and concern for each other.”
Meanwhile, in her diaries, she wrote a different kind of letter—addressed to herself—describing the events of the day as well as her own personal struggles. In the beginning, these private ruminations overlapped a good deal with her articles in the paper. But over time the public and private voices began to diverge. For long stretches her diary—written in spare moments—might consist of little more than a log of her daily activities. But at other times it offered an opportunity to work out problems or to reflect on matters of private concern. In these diaries she might confide her loneliness and discouragement, or describe her physical ailments, scold herself for a failure of charity, or note some insight or an act of kindness that reminded her of God.
For those who have studied Dorothy Day’s published writings, the voice in these diaries is mostly familiar. In her column, “On Pilgrimage,” she regularly described her travels, her activities, and her reading of the “signs of the times.” And yet certain themes stand out here, such as the intense discipline of her spiritual and sacramental life. She attended daily Mass, which usually meant rising at dawn. She prayed the monastic hours from a breviary, a practice she adopted even before becoming a Benedictine oblate in 1955. She devoted time each day to meditating on scripture, saying the rosary, or other spiritual exercises. None of this is particularly remarkable. And yet the matter- of- fact recital of such habits underscores the fact that her daily life was spent in continuous reference to God. As she writes, “Without the sacraments of the church, I certainly do not think that I could go on.”
At the same time her diaries reflect her often complicated relationship with church authorities. In one of her early entries she describes a visit from a monsignor who reported the Cardinal’s approval of the Catholic Worker (“a modern miracle”). The archdiocese, he reported, “would give us an Imprimatur if they thought it would not hinder us in our work.” But later, as the Worker’s pacifist and anarchist tendencies emerged, there was no more talk of an Imprimatur. In fact, in 1951 she describes being called to the chancery and informed that “we would either have to cease publication or change our name.” (She finessed that ultimatum by noting that ceasing publication “would be a grave scandal to our readers and would put into the hands of our enemies, the enemies of the Church, a formidable weapon.”)
Among the more personal themes in her diaries is the relationship with family members, such as her younger sister Della, her daughter Tamar, and her many grandchildren. Though she had limited contact with other members of her immediate family (who disapproved of her religion, her radicalism, and her notoriety), she remained constantly in touch with Della, who lived within easy visiting range. Despite their differences (Della was a dedicated proponent of Planned Parenthood), Dorothy called on her sister nearly every week, often staying overnight to enjoy some rest and recuperation.
The most significant relationship in her life was undoubtedly with her daughter Tamar, who was seven when the Catholic Worker was founded. Dorothy’s diaries show her anxiety about raising a child in this uncertain environment, and the difficulty of balancing the needs of her daughter and the demands of the larger household. When Tamar married at 18 and began her own family, Dorothy took naturally to the role of mother- in- law and grandmother. She was a frequent visitor in Tamar’s home—often for months at a time—in West Virginia or later in Vermont.
One year, while Tamar pursued a degree in practical nursing which took her away from home, Dorothy moved in and cared for her grandchildren for four months. And so her days were spent in getting children to school, driving them to football practice, helping them with their homework, confronting them about their chores or their adolescent moods, and putting them to bed—in other words, the daily work of any parent or grandparent. She worried about their welfare and happiness; she suffered terribly when her grandson Eric was drafted and sent to Vietnam; she was “prostrate” with grief when one of her great- grandsons was killed in a car accident. Such episodes belie the common impression that Dorothy’s unusual life in the Catholic Worker placed her outside the concerns of “ordinary” family life.
At the same time her diaries cast new light on her relationship with Tamar’s father, Forster Batterham. In her published memoirs she wrote of him with respect and enduring affection. She credited him with a major role in her conversion to a faith he could not share. But there was no indication that they ever saw one another again. In fact, over time, Forster began to reappear in her life.
In 1959, remarkably, he asked for her help in caring for his long- time companion, Nanette, who was dying of cancer. And so, for several months, Dorothy spent much of each day with the couple on Staten Island, helping with housework, offering companionship and consolation. On the day before she died, Nanette asked to be baptized—an ironic and poignant repetition of the summer of 1927 that had ended with Dorothy’s own conversion. And once again, after Nanette’s death, Dorothy and Forster went their separate ways.
But now they stayed in closer touch. Forster would call to inquire after their “progeny.” She would visit him when he was in the hospital. He gave her a radio for her room. In later years he would frame art prints to decorate the walls of the Catholic Worker. And toward the end of her life, as she notes in her diary, he took to calling her every day.
These are a few of the personal stories that emerge in these diaries. They are set against the daily domestic dramas of the Catholic Worker that occupied so much of her life. Her public activities, already well documented in her other writings, receive less attention. And yet her diaries do reflect her response, over a period of nearly five decades, to the vast changes in America, the Church, and the wider world.
As the diaries begin, in the 1930s, we see her vital interest in strikes and labor struggles and the problems of the Depression. She met with union leaders, labor priests, and bishops who undoubtedly saw in the Worker a Catholic counterweight to the appeal of communism. Later, as her pacifist convictions became a defining feature of the Catholic Worker, she would occupy a more marginal position, far outside the Catholic mainstream. In the 1940s, as the world went to war, Dorothy devoted more attention to her own spiritual life. But then in the 1950s, facing the perils of the cold war, she embarked on a new style of activism, courting arrest several times (and serving jail sentences of up to thirty days) for her protests against civil defense drills in New York City. With the publication of The Long Loneliness she began to achieve a new profile as a voice of conscience crying in the wilderness.
Her journals from the 1960s reflect the turbulence of the times. We see her traveling to Cuba on the eve of the Missile Crisis, fasting for peace in Rome during the Second Vatican Council, facing bullets with an interracial community in Georgia, and standing in solidarity with young men burning their draft cards. Suddenly Dorothy had become the spiritual godmother to a new generation standing up against war and the established disorder. Despite her age, Dorothy understood the idealism of youth, the yearning for freedom, and the instinct for the heroic. And yet she recoiled from the spirit of nihilism and the self- indulgence of the “counterculture.”
With the 1970s she welcomed signs of a renewed interest in community and the efforts to build a society, as Peter Maurin used to say, “where it is easier for people to be good.” As she grew old, she prepared to let go, to entrust the vision to a new generation. And yet her old feistiness remained. We see her staring down the IRS with her refusal either to pay taxes or to register as a charitable organization. We see her, at the age of 75, being arrested on a picket line with the United Farmworkers.
And through her diaries we see her gradually slowing down, adjusting, after a heart attack, to the end of her restless travels, eventually settling into the confinement of her room at the CW shelter for homeless women on East Third Street. In her youth she had received a great “revelation”—that for anyone attuned to the life of the mind, the future held the promise of unending fascination. And now she could observe, “No matter how old I get ... no matter how feeble, short of breath, incapable of walking more than a few blocks, what with heart murmurs, heart failures, emphysema perhaps, arthritis in feet and knees, with all these symptoms of age and decrepitude, my heart can still leap for joy as I read and suddenly assent to some great truth enunciated by some great mind and heart.”
That intense interest in life continued, as she took in the world around her and rummaged increasingly in the “rag- bag” of memory. She had always been a “compulsive” writer, “ever since I was 8 years old when I wrote a serial story on a little pad of pink paper for my younger sister’s entertainment.” And writing was virtually the last thing to go. Toward the end her newspaper columns reverted to short, breathless excerpts from her diary—just enough, she said, “to let people know I am still alive.” She kept writing until a few days before her death on November 29, 1980.
David O’Brien, writing in Commonweal after her death, famously called Dorothy Day “the most significant, interesting, and influential person in the history of American Catholicism.” The truth of that pronouncement has become clearer with the passage of time. She has been the subject of biographies, plays, documentaries, a Hollywood film, and even a number of children’s books. She has been inducted into the “Women’s Hall of Fame” in Seneca Falls, New York, and is widely recognized as the radical conscience of the Catholic Church in America. But certainly a significant measure of her legacy came in 2000 when the Vatican officially accepted her cause for canonization, and she received the formal title “Servant of God.”
If Dorothy Day is one day formally canonized, this diary will offer something quite unusual in the annals of the saints— an opportunity to follow, almost day by day, in the footsteps of a holy person. Through these writings we can trace the movements of her spirit and her quest for God. We can see her praying for wisdom and courage in meeting the challenges of her day. But we also join her as she watches television, devours mystery novels, goes to the movies, plays with her grandchildren, and listens to the opera.
Many people tend to think of saints as otherworldly heroes, close to God but not exactly human. These diaries confirm Thomas Merton’s observation that sanctity is a matter of being more fully human: “This implies a greater capacity for concern, for suffering, for understanding, for sympathy, and also for humor, for joy, for appreciation for the good and beautiful things of life.”
To be human is constantly to fall short of the ideals one sets for oneself. Dorothy Day was no exception. There are frequent reminders in these pages of her capacity for impatience, anger, judgment, and self- righteousness. We are reminded of these things because she herself points them out. (“Thinking gloomily of the sins and shortcomings of others,” she writes, “it suddenly came to me to remember my own offenses, just as heinous as those of others. If I concern myself with my own sins and lament them, if I remember my own failures and lapses, I will not be resentful of others. This was most cheering and lifted the load of gloom from my mind. It makes one unhappy to judge people and happy to love them.”) And so we are reminded, too, that holiness is not a state of perfection but a faithful striving that lasts a lifetime. It is expressed primarily in small ways, day after day, through the practice of forgiveness, patience, self- sacrifice, and compassion.
Dorothy’s favorite saint was Thérèse of Lisieux, popularly known as the “Little Flower.” St. Thérèse died at the age of 24 in 1897—the year of Dorothy’s birth—in a small Carmelite convent in Normandy. At first glance these two women, the contemplative and the activist, would appear to have little in common. Nevertheless, Dorothy was powerfully attracted to her story and even wrote an account of her life. St. Thérèse taught the value of the “Little Way”—a path to holiness that lay in performing all our daily tasks and duties in a spirit of love and in the presence of God. Dorothy embraced this teaching. She believed that each act of love, each work of mercy might increase the balance of love in the world. And she extended this principle to the social sphere. Each act of protest or witness for peace—though apparently foolish and ineffective, no more than a pebble in a pond—might send forth ripples that could transform the world.
The title of this book, “the duty of delight,” comes from John Ruskin, the nineteenth- century English critic. Dorothy incorporated his phrase in the epilogue to The Long Loneliness and later considered using it as the title for one of her books. She repeated it frequently in her diaries—often after a recital of drudgery or disappointment. It served as a reminder to find God in all things—the sorrows of daily life and the moments of joy, both of which she experienced in abundance.
As for sorrows, these included: ill health; the aches and pains of aging; the loss of old friends; the struggles to pay the bills and put out a monthly paper; real estate woes and the ordeals of home maintenance; loneliness and anxiety; squabbling among community members. After returning from one trip, she writes, “I have had this completely alone feeling. . . . A time when the memory and understanding fail one completely and only the will remains, so that I feel hard and rigid, and at the same time ready to sit like a soft fool and weep my eyes out.”
Then there were the sorrows of poverty: noise, foul odors, poor food, and the outbreak of violence among the drunk or insane; the various kinds of lice and bedbugs; constant insecurity and the world’s disdain. (“In this groaning of spirit, everything is irksome to me. The dirt, the garbage heaped in the gutters, the flies, the hopelessness of the human beings around me, all oppress me.”) And then there were the sorrows of the world, which weighed so heavily: war and hatred, fear, corruption, the despair and cynicism of the young, the contempt for life, and other offenses against human dignity. All these things are noted in her diary.
But there were also the moments of joy: the Saturday afternoon opera; the magic spell of a book; “the soft sound of waves on the beach”; the chatter of happy children; the sights and solitude of a long bus trip; the beauty of church and the liturgy, with its appeal to all the senses; the language of Scripture; the experience of community at its best; the excitement of a new venture; signs that a new generation was responding to the vision of Peter Maurin and to the faith on which she had staked her life.
. . .
I knew Dorothy Day in the last five years of her life, 1975–80, when I came to live at the Catholic Worker in New York City. I was 19 at the time of our meeting, and my first impression was that I had never met someone so “old” who showed such apparent interest in me and my opinions. I was immediately won over. After one of our conversations I dared to show her some notes from my own diary. (Did I suppose she would be edified by my two- week- old impressions of life at the Catholic Worker?) The next day I missed her; she had gone back to the farm upstate. But she had left me a note: “Good thing to keep a journal,” she wrote. “Please ask Frank [Donovan] to find you a copy of a book in my room, Prayer Is a Hunger, which describes writing as a form of prayer. Love, Dorothy”
St. Teresa of Avila defined prayer as “nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with Him Who we know loves us.” Certainly, for Dorothy, writing was a form of prayer. That is especially evident in the writing published here for the first time. It is striking how many entries in her diaries refer specifically to prayer and how often she directly addresses God as the intended reader of her heart. After years of reciting the prayers of the Office the language of the Psalms had become her daily bread.
But ultimately her words, whether written or spoken, derived their meaning from the consistency, courage, and faithfulness of her life. These diaries provide a unique window on that life, and on the witness of a woman for whom, in the end, everything was a form of prayer.