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Dorothy Day: Worker

A recent edition of the autobiography, The Long Loneliness, has a picture on the cover of Dorothy Day in old age walking through the woods in the fall. The publisher's subtitle at the bottom of the picture calls her book "The Story of the Greatest Woman of Our Time." This is quite a statement to make, but it is particularly interesting because Dorothy Day is not exactly a household name, but she is well-known in certain circles, especially among people who are trying to do the same kind of work that she did.

Since her death at the age of 83 in November of 1980, there has been a renewed interest in the work and philosophy of Dorothy Day. The Argentine who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, said that in order to learn about peace, we need to study the life of Dorothy Day. He included also the lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton. The well-known psychologist and educator, Robert Coles, includes Dorothy Day among his "teachers" in the development of his philosophy and his values in life. It was her teaching of nonviolence that has moved so many people. She was a social reformer who believed that our social problems could and had to be resolved nonviolently. But she did not always think this way. Her life, if anything, was a life of change. She was a radical and a Communist in her early youth, later converted to Catholicism and took the Christian message of love to heart in her work for the poor and the workers. A look at her life and the changes in her thinking documents this development of her worldview of peace and nonviolence.

Dorothy Day was born in 1897 in Brooklyn, New York. Her father was a Calvinist and a firm believer in the Protestant Work Ethic. Her mother was Episcopalian, and it was in this church that Dorothy was first baptized and confirmed. For all the years she was growing up, her father worked as a newspaperman, and this affected the family in a number of ways: for one thing, they moved a lot, so Dorothy often found herself in new situations and having to make new friends. Her father also worked nights and slept days, so the children had to be quiet in order not to disturb his sleep. To occupy themselves, the children read a great deal, and from a very early age they wrote stories, essays, and even created a family newspaper. This marked the beginning of Dorothy's later career as a writer.

When she was six years old, the family moved to California, living first in Berkeley, and eventually settling in Oakland. Her most vivid memory of their life in the Bay Area was of the tremendous San Francisco earthquake in 1906. She remembered being awakened in the early morning hours by a roar in the earth and the sensation that the roof was going to cave in. Their house was cracked from roof to floor and many things were broken, but no one in the house was hurt. The next day, hundreds of refugees from the city came across the Bay, seeking shelter in the less-damaged East Bay. Dorothy found something in all this activity that she liked very much. She liked the way in which everyone was so kind and loving to those less fortunate than themselves, and she felt for the first time the joy of doing good for others. The Oakland residents very generously gave away their food and clothing, and her mother cooked pots and pots of soup. Dorothy realized that human beings could be truly good and unselfish. She looked back on this example from her childhood as a reminder and an inspiration over her long life of service to the poor and the suffering.

Because of the earthquake, her father's newspaper company burned to the ground, and he lost his job. The family moved to Chicago to find work. In between trying to write a novel, Mr. Day did odd jobs, and the family lived for several years on a very meager income. They lived in the working class neighborhood not far from the factories, and the families of hard-working industrial workers made up her new companions. For the first time Dorothy became acquainted with Catholics, for many Poles, Italian, and Irish workers lived in these Chicago neighborhoods. Her next-door neighbors were a family of nine children. She played over at their house often, and their mother used to tell the children the stories of the lives of the saints. Dorothy went back to her own house and asked her mother why they never prayed or sang hymns in their home. Her mother was rather at odds about how to deal with this pious little girl.

One day, Dorothy went running through the house of her neighbors, looking for her playmates, and ran by accident into their mother's room. The mother was kneeling and praying. A rush of love and gratitude and happiness flashed through little Dorothy at this sight, an emotion that she was never to forget. She was moved by the woman's love of God seen through this simple act of prayer. Religion, for the young girl, had authority and meaning at this stage of her life. She had the simple faith of a child; there were no questions, no doubts. She herself longed to become a saint and wrote stories on how to do so with her young friends.

At the age of 15, Dorothy read a book that was to change her life-Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. It was a book about the frightening factory conditions in Chicago at that time, and it opened her eyes to the life of Chicago around her. She would walk the streets and neighborhoods of her city and think about the characters in this book, and she felt somehow that her life was linked with theirs. She was moved by the suffering of her neighbors and friends who gave so much of themselves to their horrendously difficult and dangerous factory jobs. She writes in her autobiography that she received "a call, a vocation, a direction to my life" through this book, wanting from that time on to devote her life to helping the poor and the workers.

At the age of 16, she received a scholarship to go to the University of Illinois, having academically surpassed all the other pupils in the county school district. She was very happy to leave home, looking for adventure. She did not really have plans to study anything in particular, but she was, she writes, seeking experience. She was young, and the world was waiting for her. Her schooling was to lead her to a fierce desire within herself to radically change many things about the world.

While at college, she read many books that inspired her: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and the worker stories of Jack London. These books added to her interest in working conditions, and she became absorbed with the idea of radicalism and the class war. She sought friends who shared the same interests, joining a group of young Socialists on campus. Her favorite slogan at this time became the Marxist slogan, "Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!" and she would shout this whenever the situation availed itself, much to the consternation of her parents at the dinner table.

The philosophy of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy made her cling to her faith, but her new interest in workers' problems seemed in contradiction to her old religious feelings. Religion seemed to preach meekness and peace and joy, but there was so much suffering in the world that needed to be changed. She did not want to be meek, she wanted a revolution. And being religious seemed to interfere with social reform. One of her professors one day pointed out to his students that we should remember that religion throughout the ages brought comfort to many people. She interpreted this to mean that people who were weak needed religion. And she wasn't weak, she was strong! So she pushed, very consciously, all religious feeling from her heart. Religion, after all, was the opiate of the people.

After two years at the university, she left to become a full-time reporter on the Marxist paper, The Call. The year was 1915. There had recently been some changes in working conditions. Many places now had the reduced ten-hour work day, and there had been some increase in the hourly wage. But there was still so much work to be done, and there was great hope among young people that they would be the ones to change the world. Dorothy became attracted to the IWW at this time-the International Workers of the World, or the Wobblies, as they are more often called. Their idea was that one great union of the workers of the world would eventually solve the world's problems. They believed in direct action-organized unions, strikes, and pickets. They were perhaps the most passionate of the labor groups, very dedicated and organized. A real folklore developed around them, and they even had a book of songs which added to their appeal and ability to inspire. The Little Red Songbook, as it was affectionately called, was written to "fan the flames of discontent" among workers about their unfair and unsafe working conditions. Like the Marxists, the Wobblies thought religion was used by the rich to subjugate the poor. Themes from their songs often reflected this view. One famous refrain repeats: "You'll get pie in the sky when you die." In other words, the rich tell the poor workers not to complain, not to worry, to be good, pious and humble about their lot in the world, and when they die they will go to heaven and find all the comforts they could ever want. The group refrain in response to this reasoning is sung with vigor: "It's a lie!" The revolutionaries of the time felt that religion was used as a means of justifying the great injustices waged against workers, and so rejected all forms of it. They imagined a world free from hunger and pain, where one did not have to rely on God. The workers' union was everything.

Dorothy lived the life of a radical bohemian in New York during the 1920s. She was constantly writing, working for the Communist paper, The Masses, and trying to write The Great Novel, as were so many young idealists in the city at that time. She belonged to a group of young intellectuals who shared political and artistic ideals, and through this group came to know Eugene O'Neill, Hart Crane, and even Trotsky. All her friends were Communists, Socialists or Wobblies. She stayed out late every night in discussion at local cafes, walking the streets of New York, and singing songs of revolution.

On March 21,1917, she joined in the momentous celebration in Madison Square Garden, where thousands rejoiced in the victory of the workers in the Russian Revolution. All who hungered for economic justice saw the revolution as a "cry for world peace and brotherhood."

That same year, Dorothy was arrested and jailed for the first of twelve such occasions in her life. She had gone to the White House to picket for women's voting rights and was arrested with thirty-five other suffragettes of all ages. At their trial, the leaders were given six months imprisonment, the older women fifteen days, and all the others-herself included- thirty days. As soon as the verdict was declared, the women announced they would go on a hunger strike. A most moving rendition of the suffering they endured is found in the chapter entitled "Jail," in her autobiography. For ten days they ate nothing, using their twice-a-day visit to the hallway bathroom to drink as much hot water as they could to ease the hollow pain in their stomachs. A few of the older women grew sick, and the officers in charge force fed them through hoses down their throats. The press got hold of the story, and the attention that it raised was not good for the court's position. The strikers were all released on the eleventh day. But Dorothy was never to forget the deep sense of desolation that she felt, as she lay alone all day and night in her cell. Never had she felt so alone, and never had their cause seemed so hopeless to her. She had endless hours to think about the suffering and plight of all human beings, and found that she could find solace in no thought on her own. A guardsman gave her a copy of the Bible, and she found comfort in the lofty human spirit of the Psalms. She began to think that maybe human beings needed help from a source higher than themselves, and that there were times when the spirit of the workers' union was not enough.

When Dorothy was 26, she fell in love. He was a young revolutionary like herself, an anarchist as well as an atheist. He loved nature more than anything, and he supported himself by fishing and odd jobs. They lived together in a bungalow by the ocean, he working, she writing. When Dorothy writes of her time spent with him, she refers to him as her husband, although they never did legally marry. They considered marriage to be a thing of the establishment and too bourgeois. They were together for several years and had a child. His influence on her life was something of an irony, for it certainly would not have been what he intended. He loved nature and creation so much, Dorothy writes, that he inspired in her a love for the Creator. She was often in awe of his relationship with the sea, the outdoors, his garden. Through him she saw so much beauty in the world that she again felt those yearnings to know more about the beginnings and creation of all life. She felt an overwhelming need to love God who had created a world that she grew to love so much. Natural happiness with the man she loved brought her to the love of the supernatural. Her husband could not understand her renewed interest in spiritual matters, and interpreted her intentions as nothing more than that of an irrational woman. She even found herself going to Sunday Mass at a nearby country church, and this caused a great deal of conflict between the couple.

When her daughter was born, Dorothy's spiritual desires grew more intense, and she declared her intention to raise her child within a life that incorporated the spiritual. She felt that the greatest gift she could give to her daughter was the gift of faith. She wrote: "I was not going to have her floundering through many years as I had, doubting and hesitating, undisciplined and amoral." Dorothy began reading in order to find the answers to the questions she was asking about life, finding especially inspiring William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience and The Imitation of Christ by St. Ignatius. She spent many hours talking to a kindly old nun who lived near her church, and she eventually decided to have herself and her child baptized. This decision would have its high costs, and Dorothy knew this. But her new love for the spiritual life was so great that it could not be denied. After her child's baptism, the father of her child left them. Dorothy's life was to take an entirely new direction.

Dorothy continued to pursue her interest in writing, finding in it an outlet for the difficult period of loneliness that she was going through as a young, single parent. She went to Mexico for several months to do journalistic research, and acquired there some distance from her former life which helped her overcome her sorrow. She also wrote a novel that had minor commercial success. It was read by a Hollywood producer who wanted to make a movie of it. Dorothy was hired to go to Los Angeles to oversee the production of the film and to do editing of screenplays. She went eagerly to California, anticipating many good, new changes. But she did not find the kind of work she really wanted to do, and ended up moving back to New York within a few months.

There she supported herself doing various freelance jobs, writing mostly for Catholic publications, especially for the Jesuit magazine, The Commonweal. Throughout this period, she maintained her interest in the labor movement and in liberal causes, but she began to feel a distance from some of her former associates. They regarded her conversion to Catholicism as something very peculiar indeed, and had no understanding of her desire for a spiritual life. A real break with her old way of life occurred when Dorothy went to Washington to cover a Communist rally. Throughout the march, Dorothy was struck by the distance between her philosophy and the Communist ideology. She was a Catholic now and there were fundamental differences in the two systems of thought. She knew that she was no longer one of them, and yet she loved their zeal and their unselfish desire to help the poor and the suffering. She felt that her spiritual work until then had been selfish and personal, a time of solitary reading and introspection. And here she saw her Communist brothers in struggle, not for themselves, but for others. She longed to find a way to blend her love for religion with her love for social work. She went to the national shrine that night to offer a special prayer, "a prayer which came with tears and with anguish, that some way would open for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor." When she arrived back in New York, she found the answer to her prayers.

Waiting for her was Peter Maurin-Peter, the French peasant -whose spirit and ideas were to dominate the rest of her life. He was a short, stocky man in his mid-50s, as ragged and rugged as any marching worker that she had ever encountered. She liked him immediately. He explained to Dorothy that the editor of The Commonweal had told him to come and see her because, it was said, "We think alike." And think alike they did. Their conversation that day was to lead to a lifelong collaboration and mutual admiration. Peter had a vision, an idea for a society "where it is easier for people to be good." He wanted to engage Dorothy in his plan for a better world.

Peter Maurin wanted to create an organization of Catholics who were concerned with the problems of the working poor. This group would center around many activities, including round-table discussions where ideas would be generated, houses of hospitality where direct help to the poor could be given, and a newspaper that would spread ideas throughout the country. Dorothy thought these were all very good ideas, and it is amazing how, within a few short months of their acquaintance, everything fell into place. Since Dorothy was the writer, she took over the newspaper, with Peter Maurin as the chief advisor. A few young college students started in on the plan, and together they raised money for a first issue of their paper, which at first was going to be called The Catholic Radical and which became The Catholic Worker. The first issue came out on May Day, 1933, the traditional Workers' Day. Dorothy and a few volunteers went into Union Square to sell their paper for one penny a copy, giving reading access to even the poorest of workers. In Union Square stood representatives of all the various radical groups, from the Communists to the Wobblies, while off to one corner the enthusiastic Catholic Workers shouted the virtues of their paper. The Reds were, no doubt, amazed to see Catholics out among them, but much to everyone's surprise, the paper really attracted attention. The first issue of 2,500 copies sold out almost immediately, and within three months The Catholic Worker sold subscriptions to 25,000 readers. In three years, the circulation was 150,000. The basic social philosophy of this paper struck a responsive chord among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

The social philosophy held by The Catholic Worker differed from some of the other worker movements of the time. They held the philosophy of strict pacifism, which included opposition to war as well as a rejection of the violent revolutionary class struggle. They also had an acceptance of private property, finding that owning and working one's own land was an important need for human beings. They believed that the less government interference the better; more important than government handouts was the guarantee of a job. Their slogan was "Work not wages," for to them work was vital to human dignity. They valued manual labor highly as well, recognizing that no matter how industrial the world would become, there would always be work that needed to be done by hand.

The Catholic Workers grew strong as a group, attracting many volunteers as their paper expanded. They incorporated into their work a means of direct action for the poor, which was comprised of houses of hospitality in almost every major city of the country, giving shelter to the homeless and soup to the hungry. Twelve farms were established which provided food for the houses and where families had the opportunity to be on retreat for a few days at a time to recollect and reevaluate their lives.

Living a spiritual life was always basic to the approach of Dorothy Day, and her regular column, "On Pilgrimage," was full of her beautiful observations and discoveries. To live, said Dorothy, was to be on pilgrimage. But the journey of life was not an easy one. Life, Dorothy recognized, was "the long loneliness," but it was a loneliness that could be endured. The solution was love- love for the poor, the tired, the hungry, the suffering of the world. It was the love found in the Christian idea of the Mystical Body of Christ, the recognition that in each and every human being was the reflection of the divine nature of Christ.

From its very beginning, The Catholic Worker maintained its editorial stance of absolute nonviolence, and this extended even throughout World War II, a war which most people found justifiable. Dorothy Day wrote many articles during this period about the need for non-violent action in dealing with world conflicts. The Catholic Workers, for example, were among the first groups to protest at the German embassy against the Nazi regime's treatment of the Jews. But going to war was another matter. Christians have always believed in the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," yet they have always found justifications for not following it. Dorothy Day felt that it was vital for the world to reach the point where we would have no compromise about war. Nonviolence, according to Dorothy Day, was "the acceptance of suffering." Suffering, especially unjust suffering, when endured as an offering, has a transforming effect on the world: it creates a force, an energy, as did Christ's unjust death. But in general people could not understand this mystical approach to suffering, and The Catholic Worker lost thousands of subscriptions during World War II. There were times when Dorothy wondered if they should have maintained their hard editorial line. She wrote in The Long Loneliness, "We have always acknowledged the primacy of the spiritual, and to have undertaken a life of silence, manual labor, and prayer might have been the better way."

In the sixties, the Catholic Workers were early in their protest of the Vietnam War and became advisors for the growing antiwar sentiment. They were also a major part of farm labor protests, and Dorothy Day herself was in many a march with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.

The houses of hospitality, retreat houses and farms are found throughout this country today, and The Catholic Worker newspaper remains the best-priced paper at still only one penny a copy. It is interesting to ponder the changes that came about in a young woman's life that led to such a transformation-Dorothy Day transformed not only herself but also all those lives that she touched. And Dorothy Day touched thousands. Her spirit will be with us always, for she left in her writings not only the solitary voice of one passionate, idealistic woman, but also the cries of all those who suffer and labor in the world, the poor and the workers.

References and recommended readings

Dorothy Day. From Union Square to Rome
Silver Spring, Maryland, 1940.
________. Loaves and Fishes
New York: Harper and Row, 1963.
________. The Long Loneliness
New York: Harper and Row, 1981.
________. Meditations
New York: Newman Press, 1970.
________. On Pilgrimage: The Sixties
New York: Curtis Books, 1972.

Reprinted from Walking with Contemplation.

For a related story click here:  Meetings with a Remarkable Woman