A Saint for Difficult People

From bohemian to radical to Catholic activist, Dorothy Day devoted her life to the poor, however unlovable.

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One way to understand the saints—the radiant, aberrant beings next to whom the rest of us look so shifty and shoddy—is to imagine them as cutting-edge physicists. Their research, if you like, has led them unblinkingly to conclude that reality is not at all what, or where, or who we think it is. They have penetrated the everyday atomic buzz and seen into the essential structures. They have seen, among other things, that the world is hollowed-out and illumined by beams of divine love, that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and that sanctity—should you desire it—is merely to live in accordance with these elementary facts.

Whether or not the Catholic Church makes it official—and the cause for her canonization rumbles on—Dorothy Day was most definitely a saint. Is a saint, because her holiness has suffered no decrease in vitality since her death, at age 83, in 1980, and her example, her American example, is more challenging and provocative today than it ever was. Day was about people, especially poor people, especially those whom she called with some wryness “the undeserving poor,” and the paramount importance of serving them. For her, what the Church defines as Works of Mercy—feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, sheltering the homeless, and so on—were not pious injunctions or formulas for altruism but physical principles, as inevitable as the first law of thermodynamics. Pare her right down to her pith, strip away all her history and biography, and what do you get? A fierce set of cheekbones and a command to love. That’s the legacy of Dorothy Day, and it is endless.


Her history and biography, nevertheless, are intensely interesting, particularly as revisited by her granddaughter Kate Hennessy in Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty. What a story. Although the chronology, and even the spiritual progress (so far as we presume to discern it) are straightforward—from bohemianism to radicalism to motherhood to Catholicism to a life, a mission, of purely focused sacrifice and activism—the images are kaleidoscopic. There’s Greenwich Village Dorothy, cub reporter, in the teens of the 20th century: “cool-mannered, tweed-wearing, drinking rye whiskey straight with no discernible effect.” She’s with her buddy Eugene O’Neill—the Eugene O’Neill—in a bar called the Hell Hole. O’Neill, with “bitter mouth” and “monotonous grating voice,” is reciting one of his favorite poems, Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven”: I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; / I fled Him, down the arches of the years. By way of response, Dorothy sings “Frankie and Johnny.”

There’s young Dorothy lying in darkness on a work-farm bunk in Virginia, on a hunger strike, having been arrested, beaten, and terrorized for joining a picket line of suffragists. (“I lost all consciousness of any cause,” she would write of this episode in her memoir The Long Loneliness. “I had no sense of being a radical, making protest … The futility of life came over me so that I could not weep but only lie there in blank misery.”)

There she is in 1922 in Chicago, following an abortion, a failed marriage, and two suicide attempts, “fling[ing] herself about” and in love with the pugilistic, alpha-male newspaperman Lionel Moise.

And there she is in December 1932, on East 15th Street, with Peter Maurin knocking at her door: Maurin, the street philosopher who, Hennessy writes, “didn’t say hello or goodbye, and every time he arrived … began talking where he had left off.” He told Dorothy that he had been looking for her.

Maurin is the pivot character in this story. More even than the birth of Tamar, Day’s daughter (and Hennessy’s mother), whose out-of-wedlock arrival in 1926 jump-started her conversion to Catholicism, Maurin’s entrance marks the great shift in the narrative of Dorothy Day. A self-described peasant, 20 years older than she was and originally from France, he was a liminal figure, a kind of intellectual jongleur, who gave his ideas—a very personal hybrid of radical politics and Catholic social teaching—to the air in extraordinary, rippling singsong. (He claimed that the word communism had been “stolen from the Church.”) A crank, perhaps. Some people, notes Hennessy, found him ridiculous.

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But not Day. In his inspired eccentricity, Maurin gave her a hinge between the natural and the supernatural, and in his exhausting monologues she heard a program for action. With him she almost instantaneously founded the Catholic Worker movement, the entity (Hennessy calls it “the great American novel”) to which she would henceforth give herself in serial gestures of the heart and commitments of the body. The movement was first a newspaper—The Catholic Worker, which Day edited for 40-odd years—and then in short order a number of “houses of hospitality,” some urban, some agrarian, all autonomous, dedicated to the provision of welcome (and food, and shelter) for the chronically unwelcome. The newspaper continues to be published, and more than 200 Catholic Worker houses and communities are currently active in the United States.

A lot of gas has been spewed recently—green, heavy, showbiz-wizard gas—about the overlooked person, the forgotten man. Dorothy Day lived with the forgotten man, and he was a huge pain in the ass. His name was Mr. Breen, and during his residency at the Catholic Worker house on Mott Street he was a vituperative racist and a fire hazard. His name was also Mr. O’Connell, who stayed for 11 ill-natured years at Maryfarm, the Catholic Worker farming commune in Easton, Pennsylvania, slandering the other workers without mercy, hoarding the tools, and generally making of himself “a terror” (in Day’s words) and “hateful, venomous, suspicious ” (in Hennessy’s).

One gets the sense from Hennessy’s book, and from Day’s own writing, that she reserved a special respect for these very difficult people, because it was with them—so thornily particular—that she was obliged to put flesh on all those airy abstractions about justice and generosity. This was, so to speak, where the rubber met the road. Loving Mr. Breen, loving Mr. O’Connell—that involved great vaulting maneuvers of self-negation. Dealing with them day to day was a high moral science. How tolerant could or should one be? At what point was one simply indulging one’s own goody-goodiness? “This turning the other cheek,” she wrote in her memoir Loaves and Fishes, “this inviting someone else to be a potential thief or murderer, in order that we may grow in grace—how obnoxious. In that case, I believe I’d rather be the striker than the meek one struck.”

Meekness was not in her nature. Her obedience, her submission—to the Church and to the poor—was as headlong and headstrong in its way as her benders with Eugene O’Neill had been. But it made her whole. Or rather it joined her to the whole. In The Reckless Way of Love, a new miscellany of her spiritual writings, Day quotes one of the mottoes of the Industrial Workers of the World, otherwise known as the Wobblies. “The old IWW slogan ‘An injury to one is an injury to all,’ ” she writes, “is another way of saying what Saint Paul said almost two thousand years ago. ‘We are all members of one another, and when the health of one member suffers, the health of the whole body is lowered.’ ” Which happens to be a perfect synthesis, Peter Maurin–style, of fist-in-the-air communitarianism and Christian dogma. But it also directs us to the mystical body of Dorothy Day—the Catholic Worker movement, in all its aspects and expressions—and to her own nonmystical body, so present in Hennessy’s book: her body in pleasure, in pain, under political punishment, in motherhood, and finally surrendered in the luminous drudgery of service.