The story of Dorothy Day, warts and all

  • September 21, 2011

Jim Forest’s beautifully written and poignant All is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day reveals the founder of the Catholic Worker movement as no ordinary saint, if her cause for beatification and canonization opened in 2000 proves successful.

The book does not gloss over any of the controversial aspects of her early life. Before becoming Catholic, Day sought an abortion, hoping losing the child would save her love affair with the baby’s father. Afterwards, she returned to their apartment to find the man had left, leaving behind only a letter urging her to forget him and a small amount of money that he had originally intended to pay a bar bill, Forest writes.

Four years later, she was delighted to become pregnant while in another relationship that, because of his atheism and her entering the Catholic Church, she realized she must end.

Day was someone who struggled with her faith in her early life, made some terrible mistakes, but then did something extraordinary with her life for the love of God that touched the lives of hundreds of thousands.

Seventeen years after Day’s death in 1980, her granddaughter wrote in The Catholic Worker, the newspaper Day and Peter Maurin founded in 1933 at the height of the Depression: “To have known Dorothy means spending the rest of your life wondering what hit you. On the one hand, she has given so many of us a home, physically and spiritually; on the other, she has shaken our very foundations.”

Forest, who not only worked with Day but had access to her writings and private papers in the preparation of the book, writes, “Whenever I think about the challenges of life in the bright light of the Gospel rather than in the gray light of money or the dim light of politics, her example has had its influence. Every time I try to overcome meanness or selfishness rising up in myself, it is partly thanks to the example of Dorothy Day... Every time I give away something I can get along without — every time I manage to see Christ’s presence in the face of a stranger — there again I owe a debt to Dorothy Day.”

This book may inspire in the reader a similar sense of indebtedness because it gives such a realistic, compassionate view of a woman who had a powerful presence and a deep faith, but suffered for it and experienced much loneliness and misunderstanding.

Though considered a beacon of the Catholic left because of how her commitment to poverty, justice and peace shaped her life, Day might not be so easy to place on the political spectrum today. Her life exemplifies how Catholic social doctrine is neither left nor right. She transcended politics, though she actively engaged in protests, whether for workers, for civil rights for African Americans or against the Vietnam War.

Influenced in her early life by socialism and Communism, Day never became one. Her pursuit of radical Christian charity did not spring from a collectivist vision. Day firmly believed that Christian charity needed to be up close and personal. The Catholic Worker movement, beginning with a few apartments in the tenements of Manhattan, was based on a New Testament model of sharing and hospitality.

Day was no statist. She described herself as an “anarchist” and a “pacifist.”

“For her the term ‘anarchist’ (literally, a person without a king) meant taking personal responsibility, not expecting the government to solve every problem,” Forest writes, noting that Day was always writing “It’s better to do things from the bottom up rather than the top down.”

All is Grace does not duck how controversial Day was. The Catholic hierarchy was extremely anti-Communist for most of the 1900s so her past associations were a cause for suspicion and her radical pacifism was also not popular, especially during the Second World War when Catholics were among the first to enlist in the fight against Nazi Germany.

She was not afraid to go to jail for causes she believed just, embracing civil disobedience. She spent time in jail for publicly refusing to take part in a 1955 nationwide nuclear war drill that forced Americans to stop and seek shelter as air-raid sirens wailed. Forest explains that she thought taking part in these drills would normalize nuclear war by making it seem survivable.

Forest is especially effective in following Day’s slow conversion to the Catholic faith — a slow love affair that shows how God the Father gently drew her to the Church, through longings that she eventually found satisfied only in Christ. He deals sympathetically with her love affairs with men, two who were especially significant to her. He writes of her sometimes lonely life after her conversion to the Catholic faith and her challenges as a single mother raising her daughter Tamar while writing and spearheading the Catholic Worker movement.

Forest does an excellent job of providing a context for her ideas and the kind of poverty she encountered in the Depression when even employable men and their families faced eviction and could not find enough to eat. The more than 100 black-and- white photos provide a context for Day’s life anchored in the history of 20th-century America. Forest’s biography provides an intimate portrait of a complex, insightful woman who was willing to endure great personal discomfort to follow Jesus and find Jesus’ face in the poor, even those who were  difficult people and who even Day admitted were hard to love.

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