Dorothy Day

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PART 37: SPIRITUAL ACTIVIST

Dorothy Day, in most of the summaries of her biography which you will read, is described as a “social activist”. She was certainly that. Her early life, before her conversion to the Catholic faith, was a maelstrom of activity – picket lines, marches, in and out of prison, and deeply involved in what is now called performative journalism. That is, journalism which is not just happy to report the news, but agenda-driven journalism which wants to also make the news.

Her conversion, however, brought about a radical change to all that she did. It was not that she stopped doing much of what she had already been doing. It was that the depth and meaning of the motivation for what she was now doing was fundamentally different. Everything was now rooted in that faith which, as she believed, God had gifted to her. This in its turn brought new demands on her time. She knew that to keep this faith alive, and to help all her co-workers keep the flame which maintained their zeal burning, a life of prayer, a life in which where was a living conversation with God, had to be maintained. Therefore, spiritual activities had to be worked into her day.

So, in addition the organizational work, the works of manual service, which the production of The Catholic Worker, the hospitality houses and the farms all involved, there was Mass every day, listening to the preaching and teaching from the priests who helped them grow in their faith.

Father Pacifique Roy, the Josephite priest from Quebec, at one period was their key support for this work. He gave them “days of recollection”, usually at a Dominican convent or a Visitation convent outside of Baltimore. There was nothing soft about the lifestyle he proposed for all who came to hear him. “He urged fasting upon us. Prayer and fasting always went together, he said, so he put us on bread and water for the day. It was not literally bread and water. After Mass in the morning we had black coffee, with no sugar in it, and a few slices of bread. At noon we had bread and water. In between we sat and listened to talks on the love of God”

Who attended these? Some from the houses of hospitality, some who bought and read about them in The Catholic Worker, students, teachers, workers and unemployed. “Those were beautiful days, Dorothy recalled years later. “It was as though we were listening to the gospel for the first time. We saw all things new. There was a freshness about everything as though we were in love, as indeed we were”. In the evening they would go back to the city to the basement of Fr. Roy’s rectory and to enjoy “a delicious dish of roast groundhog.”

All this made more demands on their time, on her time. But this did not mean pressure. For this she also had the answer, drawing on the faith she had been given. “The same principle always worked. If We are rushed for time, sow time and we will reap time. Go to church and spend a quiet hour in prayer. You will have more time than ever, and your work will get done. Sow time with the poor. Sit and listen to them, give them your time lavishly. You will reap time a hundredfold. Sow kindness and you will reap kindness. Sow love, you will reap love. ‘Where there is no love, if you put love, you will take out love’—it is again St. John of the Cross.”