Dear Dorothy Day,
I can remember the day at the end of November in 1980 when you died. You were 83 years of age and living in New York; I was a callow youth of 18 helping homeless people in the inner parts of Melbourne and trying to find my way in the world. Actually, the homeless were the ones helping me but it took ages to realise that.
Your death struck a deep nerve in that neck of the woods. Some people said that your inspiration had led to them sharing community with the poor. This is a more radical idea than simply helping the poor. Many remembered your visit just a few years earlier.
You began life as a journalist and used those skills to great effect, not least in starting a newspaper called The Catholic Worker that is still being published and sold for the original price of one penny. You brought an astringent wit and a resourceful spirituality to the injustices at the heart of society. Your autobiography, The Long Loneliness, (1952) is a wonderful book. It gives the indelible impression that a significant part of your formation came through reading literature. You loved Dickens, Hugo, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, the latter fuelling your lifelong commitment to non-violence and total opposition to war.
The Long Loneliness speaks about your vocation to motherhood. It makes little reference to an abortion you had as a young woman, a deep wound that you spoke about more openly later. You felt you had to make a choice between a relationship and a child and ended up losing both. You then prayed that you might become a mother but ‘for a long time I had thought that I could not bear a child.’
In the 1920s, you lived with a scientist called Forster Batterham. Again you became pregnant (‘I will never forget my blissful joy’) but Batterham was not so happy. He thought it was wrong to bring children into ‘such a world as we lived in’. He was also uncomfortable with your discovery of faith in God. You wrote, ‘Forster saw man in the light of reason and not in the light of faith.’
You left him and brought up Tamar as a single mother. It was a hard slog. Within a few years you had met Peter Maurin, twenty years older than you. His ideas helped you find the direction in life that ended up providing direction for countless others.
I put you on a kind of pedestal. So I was glad eventually to meet Chris. As a young man in search of something to guide his life, Chris had ended up spending time at one of the houses of hospitality in New York.
Chris was given a bed in a room directly underneath the one in which you slept. He said that he found it hard to get any rest because you coughed all night long.
You had been a career smoker and by this stage your lungs were feeling the effects.
Chris reminded me that you were a real human with foibles and limitations. You can’t be properly human without getting on the nerves of at least someone. You yourself said that you didn’t want to be called a saint because, ‘I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.’
At the end of The Long Loneliness, you wrote:
‘We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.’
This year marks the centenary of the time in 1917 when you were first imprisoned for social protest and joined others on a hunger strike. In The Long Loneliness, you describe how terrified you were. You were only 20. But fear, however real, did not rule your life. May we all be as energised by the radical call of the Gospel.
Michael McGirr is Dean of Faith and Mission at St Kevin’s College in Melbourne and author of Finding God’s Traces.