“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing”: Fyodor Dostoevsky and Dorothy Day.
While the words of the gospels, secular and official saints, countless Sunday homilies, and writers like missionary Gladys Aylward’s, Madonna House founder Catherine de Hueck Doherty’s, and English journalist and convert G.K.Chesterton’s writing have sparked many to respond in words, far fewer have responded in deeds.
Dorothy Day did.
A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement by Marquette University history professor Dr. William D. Miller chronicles her lifelong fight for truth, justice, and the free-giving agape way.
“Whatever I had read as a child about the saints had thrilled me,” Day wrote. “I could see the nobility of giving one’s life for the sick, the maimed, the leper….But there was another question in my mind. Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place?…Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?”
She dedicated the last 50 years of her life to being such a one.
The Catholic Worker movement that she and Peter Maurin began on May 1, 1933, May Day of the Communists and likewise the feast of Jesus’ mother Mary’s husband St. Joseph The Worker, was designed to work in three ways to embody their “personalist” philosophy: hospitality houses that fed and clothed the poor; communitarian farms that broke away from capitalism; and a newspaper that was a voice for those goals and others, like pacifism and integration.
In this 1973 biography of Day and history of the Catholic Worker movement, inseparably entwined like the red rose and green briar of the folk song, historian Bill Miller (“Dr. Miller is so quiet and dignified a person [that]it is hard for me to call him Bill,” Dorothy told her diary on April 13, 1978. “I must read his book.”) wrote “The particular kind of economic and social anarchism that she and her friends did espouse was one that had been set forth in the 1930s by a group of English Catholics who styled themselves “Distributists.”
Hilaire Belloc, Chesterton, and Father Vincent McNabb urged a rejection of machine technology and urban civilization in favor of a system where the value of creative work would take precedence over mass-production goals. This would be done by a return to simple, self-contained agrarian, handicraft society, which, in view of the industrialist-capitalist crisis at hand, seemed plausible.”
She converted to Catholicism in 1927, two years after the birth of her daughter Tamar, whose father refused to marry her. For all her ructions with the Catholic hierarchy, she never turned away from the Church: “Where else shall we go?…Though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother.”
Day credited the French-born peasant-philosopher Peter Maurin, who she met in 1932 when he was 55 and she 20 years younger, as the movement’s catalyst. Moving to America in 1909, he incarnated the first beatitude: Blessed are the poor in spirit for they shall inherit the earth…and heaven.
In Day, Maurin found a talented writer who would be the voice of the movement. Sold, as it is still, for a penny a copy, the Catholic Worker newspaper articulated views that were often unpopular. Day lost many subscribers for her pacifistic platform during World War II and subsequent wars, campaigning against nuclear weapons and the Cold War with Russia. She was jailed, investigated by the FBI, vilified as a Communist, shot at by Ku Klux Klansmen.
“Neither revolutions nor faith is bought without keen suffering,” she said. “For me Christ was not to be bought with thirty pieces of silver but with my heart’s blood. We buy not cheap in this market.”
She understood that following her call meant not only charity, the corporal works of mercy, but also a political confrontation with and resistance to the forces that spawned the need for such charity.
“She represented a new kind of political holiness—a way of serving Christ not only through prayer and sacrifice but through solidarity with the poor and in struggle along the path of justice and peace,” wrote Robert Ellsberg in his 2005 book Blessed Among All Women.
Criticism of her views did not seriously disturb her. “The servant is not greater than his master” was her response.
Born in Brooklyn in 1897, she had both journalism and travel in her blood. Her newspaperman father had never settled in one place for long, and Dorothy would wander the country on long bus and train journeys which inspired some of her most luminous prose.
Baptized as an Episcopalian, she had little exposure to religion. In college, she rejected Christianity. She dropped out of both and began writing for radical newspaper. Her friends were fellow anarchists, communists, artists, and intellectuals whose creed was Karl Marx’: “Religion is the opium of the people.”
Day’s turning point came in 1926. Living on Staten Island with a man she loved deeply, she became pregnant. Her pregnancy sparked a mysterious conversion. Experiencing a “natural happiness” that illuminated her awareness of her aimless Bohemianism, she turned to God and decided that her child would be baptized as a Roman Catholic, which was to be when daughter Tamar was born in 1927.
The immediate effect was the end of her common-law marriage. The man she loved wanted no part of marriage or religion.
For five years, Day wandered in the wilderness of single motherhood and alienation. The Catholic church talked the talk of the Sermon on the Mount’s beatitudes of service to the poor, the abused and the humble, Bob Dylan’s’ “countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones and worse.” But it walked the walk of the big business establishment’s status quo.
Then in 1932, she met Peter Maurin, an itinerant philosopher and political activist. The Catholic Worker movement was conceived. It lives on yet at the age of 81.
Miller’s book is at its best recounting the early days of the Catholic Worker houses and farms and the colorful characters who populated them. By its principled stance against accepting any government assistance, the movement’s task became more difficult but more uncompromising than it would have been if federal or state aid had been accepted.
Reissued in a 2005 paperback edition by Marquette University Press, with photographs from Marquette’s archives and errata corrections by archivist Phillip Runkel, A Harsh and Dreadful Love chronicles this great and ongoing experiment with living out the mandates of the Sermon on the Mount in modern times.
Miller later published the more comprehensive and less hagiographic Dorothy Day: A Biography in 1982, two years after her death. This earlier book is as much the story of the life of the Catholic Worker movement as of its foremost figure.
One of Miller’s sons, Frank, was a friend of mine at Marquette and thereafter.
He said that once when he was young, his father said that Dorothy Day was coming to visit them and that all the Miller children should be on their best behavior.
“I was so young that I thought he meant Doris Day,” Frank recalls. “I wondered why [Hollywood star] Doris Day would be visiting us.”
She was very quiet and self-contained. You got the sense that you could put any food before her and she would be satisfied. There was a gentleness, a grace about her that was unforgettable.
Frank Miller later lived and worked in Casa Maria, the Milwaukee Catholic Worker house.
Day died in 1980; she was 83. In her obituary, she was hailed as “the most influential, interesting, and significant figure” in the history of dedicated social justice and American Catholicism
She did not read A Harsh and Dreadful Love until 1978, writing in her diary “March 18: Cleaned one bookcase, discarding or giving away some books. Reading for the first time Miller’s book. Good.”
She bridled at Miller’s proposed use of a Rockefeller Foundation grant to help the Catholic Worker history to Marquette, where, nonetheless, they now reside.
“April 12: Dr. Miller in morning, will take our archives with him,”
Robert Ellsberg writes:
“The enigma of Dorothy Day was her ability to reconcile her radical social positions (she called herself an anarchist as well as a pacifist) with a traditional and even conservative piety. Her commitment to poverty, chastity, and obedience was as firm as any nun’s. But she remained thoroughly immersed in the secular world with all the ‘precarity’ and disorder that came with life among the poor.
“Her favorite saint was St Therese of Lisieux, the young Carmelite nun whose ‘little way’ indicated the path of holiness within all our daily occupations. From Therese, Day drew the insight that any act of love might contribute to the balance of love in the world, any suffering endured in love might ease the burden of others; such was the mysterious bond within the body of Christ.”
Born in 1933, the Catholic Worker movement lives on, with over 150 communities worldwide, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Oxford, England.
The one in Peoria is gone, displaced by the arson of a resident and her son.
As Dostoyevsky wrote and Day reiterated, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing.”
But what other kind of love will work in a world too often harsh and dreadful?
Only courageous and conscientious love like the kind Dorothy Day embodied seems fitting.
Works cited besides A Harsh and Dreadful Love by William D. Miller, revised and reissued in paperback in 2005, include Blessed Among All Women by Robert Ellsberg, 2005, and The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, edited by Ellsberg, 2008