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Understanding Sanctity with Dorothy Day

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November 8th, 2021 marks the 124th birthday of Servant of God, Dorothy Day. The title “servant of God” is given to those whose cause for canonization has officially been opened, but who have not yet made it through the process for canonization. Accordingly, there is no memorial or feast day assigned to these heroes of our faith. At first blush, it may be a bit odd to number Dorothy among those so revered by the Church. To the reporter who labeled her a living saint, Dorothy replied: “Don’t call me a saint! I don’t want to be dismissed that easily!” (Terrence Wright, Dorothy Day: An Introduction to Her Life and Thought, 142).

Her works of mercy, particularly her care for the poor, co-founding of the Catholic Worker, and social activism are indeed extraordinary feats that ought to be admired and applauded. Nevertheless, we might be tempted to see Dorothy’s response as dismissive or perhaps disrespectful of the saints which the Church holds in the highest esteem and calls the faithful to love with reverence and devotion. But, as her granddaughter Kate Hennessy affirms, Dorothy’s statement was not to diminish the saints, but, on the contrary, was an attempt to ensure the saints were not misrepresented as other-worldly figures, out of touch with our lived human experience and out of reach for those of us on this side of eternity. “The saints were so crucial in how she understood the world. What she was saying is, ‘Don’t put me on that pedestal, put me in that corner. You need to do the work, too’” (Hennessy, Catholic Voice Oakland, 2018).

The messiness and grittiness of doing the work are important for they demonstrate a life authentically and courageously lived in imitation of Christ, Who far from clinging to His divine prerogative, deigned to become one of us and enter into the chaos and messiness of human life to bring healing to every facet and dimension of it (Phil. 2:5-11). And that reality mattered very much to Dorothy. In her Preface to her biography on St. Therese, Dorothy writes, “At the time I did not understand that we are all ‘called to be saints,’ as St. Paul puts it. Most people nowadays, if they were asked, would say diffidently that they do not profess to be saints, indeed they do not want to be saints” (Therese, Preface, pg. xiii). When her confessor at the time, Father Zachary, who was also preparing her to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation provided Dorothy with a copy of The Story of a Soul, the autobiography of St. Therese (ibid.), Dorothy was irritated to say the least: “[Therese] was very young and her writing seemed to me like that of a school girl. I wasn’t looking for anything so simple and felt slightly aggrieved at Father Zachary. Men, and priests too, were very insulting to women, I thought, handing out what they felt suited their intelligence; in other words, pious pap” (ibid., xiv).

Dorothy would come to develop a deep love for St. Therese, as is most clearly evidenced in her desire to write a biography of her life. However, what she intensely disliked in the telling of the lives of the saints was a tendency to make them so otherworldly that they become unrelatable. She gives us some insight into what she means by the “pious pap” that is generally fed to us in On Pilgrimage, a compilation of her 1948 diary entries:

In all secular literature it has been so difficult to portray the good man, the saint, that a Don Quixote is a fool; the Prince Myshkin is an epileptic in order to arouse the sympathy of the reader, appalled by unrelieved goodness. There are, of course, the lives of the saints, but they are too often written as though they were not in this world. We have seldom been given the saints as they really were, as they affected the lives of their times. We get them generally, only in their own writings. But instead of that strong meat we are too generally given the pap of hagiographical writing. … Too little has been stressed the idea that all are called. Too little attention has been placed on the idea of mass conversions. We have sinned against the virtue of hope (By Little By Little, On Pilgrimage, p.216)

Dorothy resisted the white-washing of the lives of the saints because she believed it was a sin against hope, which should not be surprising in the least. If the lives of the saints are portrayed in such a way as to be unattainable, then we would not see our reflection in them and, consequently, fail to seek to imitate them. The same is true of the life of Christ. If we focused only on His divinity and discount or disregard His humanity (e.g., Docetism heresy), then we would not fully appreciate the Incarnation. Our lived experience in this broken world demonstrates to us that we need real saints; real people willing to pour out their lives for the sake of others. Dorothy reflected on this:

Disabled men, without arms and legs, blind men, consumptive men, exhausted men with all the manhood drained from them by industrialism; farmers gaunt and harried with debt; mothers weighed down with children at their skirts, in their arms, in their wombs, children ailing and rickety– all this long procession of desperate people called to me. Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery? (The Long Loneliness, pg. 45).

Indeed, living out the Christian life in all of its messy and majestic incarnationality is precisely the cause that Dorothy gave her life to. In her article in the February 1940 Catholic Worker, she writes, “The vision is this. We are working for ‘a new heaven and a new earth, wherein justice dwelleth.’ We are trying to say with action, ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ We are working for a Christian social order…” (By Little By Little, Aims and Purposes, pg. 91) Such work is not achieved by merely worldly actions, such as bread lines for the poor, which are important. Instead, a new Christian social order is only accomplished by the cooperation with Grace and the constant reorientation of the human heart toward God. Accordingly, Dorothy continues:

Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul. Hence the leaders of the work, and as many as we can induce to join us, must go daily to Mass, to receive food for the soul. And as our perceptions are quickened, and as we pray that our faith be increased, we will see Christ in each other, and we will not lose faith in those around us, no matter how stumbling their progress is (ibid., pg. 91-92).

Living in community at Maryfarm, Newburgh, one of the first agronomic universities which supported sustainable farming and community living, provided ample opportunity to see Christ in others, particularly those whose “progress is stumbling,” such as Mr. O’Connell the gatekeeper. Dorothy writes, “According to St. Benedict, there should be a benevolent old man at the gate to receive the visitors, welcome them as other Christs, exemplify hospitality” (By Little By Little, Mr. O’Connell, pg. 129). “Benevolent” is an adjective unlikely used by others to characterize the Maryfarm Gatekeeper. Mr. O’Connell “never missed a visitor. If they were shabby, he shouted at them; if well dressed, he was more suave” (ibid.). He would describe those living at the farming commune as “‘Thieves, drunkards, and loafers, the lot of them’ … And if anyone living on the farm had any skill, it was: ‘What jail did ye learn that in?’ One man who became Catholic after living with us for a year was greeted with taunts and jeers each time he passed the cabin door. ‘Turncoat! Ye’d change yer faith for a bowl of soup!’” (ibid.). When Mr. O’Connell became ill, the community cared for him, providing him with new living quarters and delivering food to his room. As he regained his health and the farm received visitors, Mr. O’Connell complained that the community never fed him or provided him with clothes. Charitable as the sympathetic visitors were, Mr. O’Connell received packages addressed to him. Dorothy writes in her diary: “What to do about M.’s having six pairs of shoes, a dozen suits of underwear when others go without, Peter for instance. Is it right to let him get away with taking all the tools and probably selling them for drink? Where does the folly of the Cross begin or end? I know that love is a matter of the will, but what about common sense?” (ibid., 131). Not without struggle, Dorothy is able to see the reflection of Christ in Mr. O’Connell: “it was even as though he were a scapegoat, bearing sins of ingratitude, hatred, venom, suspicion for all the rest of us, all of it gathered together in one hardy old man” (ibid.). He was an instrument of God’s grace that drew others out of themselves to grow in “wisdom and faith and love” (ibid., 132).

As other saintly women before her, Dorothy recognizes the Grace of God actively working in her life and the lives of others through her encounters with difficult characters. We recall St. Catherine of Siena’s abusive patient, Sister Thea Bowman’s bigoted convent, St. Therese’s cruel sisters, and Mother Teresa’s crude persecutors as she begged on behalf of the poor. Unafraid to expose themselves to such abuses, these saints not only sought to imitate Christ, but also to see His reflection in those they served, especially the most troublesome. And it is this seeing with divinized eyes, which is sustained by the sacraments particularly the Holy Eucharist, that enables them to actively engage in the messiness of real life rather than cower away from it. Dorothy puts it this way:

He made heaven hinge on the way we act toward Him in His disguise of commonplace, frail, ordinary humanity…For a total Christian, the goad of duty is not needed– always prodding one to perform this or that good deed. Is it not a duty to help Christ, it is a privilege…Not because these people remind us of Christ…but because they are Christ, asking us to find room for Him, exactly as He did at the first Christmas (By Little By Little, Room for Christ, pg. 97).

Your sister in Christ,

Vanessa

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