PART 38 The spirit of Saint Francis

Dorothy Day’s active life was built, following her conversion to Catholicism, on the foundation of her deep spiritual life. A vital means of sustaining this were the retreats which she went to every year. “It is not only for others that I must have these retreats,” she wrote. “It is because I too am hungry and thirsty for the bread of the strong. I too must nourish myself to do the work I have undertaken; I too must drink at these good springs so that I may not be an empty cistern and unable to help others.”

There was something of the spirit of St. Francis in everything which Dorothy did in these years. But as with the original spirit of that great soul, it was not always easy to get agreement among his followers on how to put it into practice. On one occasion, in the early years in which Dorothy’s retreats became a vital part of the work they were doing, some differences of opinion arose among her workers in Pittsburgh. On the evening on which a retreat was about to start, a few young people broke off from the main house of hospitality. It seemed to them to be “too organized” so they decided to start a little house of their own nearby. Dorothy felt these saw themselves to be the “spirituals” of the movement, the perfectionists. On the issue of the retreat, they felt they didn’t need it since they already lived a retreat. “But”, she tells us, not without a little irony, “they ended up by coming at midnight, after imbibing at a few taverns along the way. But the important thing is that they came.”

Dorothy Day noted that there is “a Bohemianism of the religious life among young people as well as Bohemianism in the labour movement, and it too smacks of sentimentality. The gesture of being dirty because the outcast is dirty, of drinking because he drinks, of staying up all night and talking, because that is what one’s guests from the streets want to do, in participating in his sin from a prideful humility. This is self-deception indeed!”

Retreats for Dorothy were nothing like that retreat which James Joyce described through the words of Stephen Daedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which she had read many years before. They were, among other things, a way for her to keep her feet on the ground, to keep in touch with “the one thing necessary” about which Jesus spoke to Martha and Mary. For her, “The five days of complete silence during the retreat were a feast indeed. Every day we had four meditations of an hour each and after each we went to the chapel to pray.” Some of these retreats were now given by Fr. John Hugo, a young priest from Pittsburgh. She recalled him speaking to them of the “foolishness” of God’s love, of the story of the prodigal son, of the folly of the Cross, of “the light in which we see light.”

“Those first meditations were not the usual meditations on the four last things, heaven, hell, death and the judgment which are given at missions in parish churches. There was not much talk of sin in this retreat. Rather there was talk of the good and the better. The talk was of the choice we had to make and not that between good and evil. We have been given a share in the divine life; we have been raised to a supernatural level; we have been given power to become the sons of God.” That was the key to life.