The Dorothy Day Effect
One of the periodicals I regularly read has a regular column written by various people as they reflect on their favorite books or a book that profoundly affected their lives. These are always interesting reads for me, since I know most of the books on which they comment. Of course, most of the books are classics or books that had become very popular in their day. So in some cases, it is a trip down memory lane for me.
Recently, the column featured a piece by Julie Hanlon Rubio. She was reflecting on her long love affair with Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness. I liked the title of her reflections: “Arguing with Dorothy Day challenges my quest for a Christian life.” The article comes replete with a great picture of the silver haired saint herself. I like to call Dorothy Day a saint, although the Catholic Church has not canonized her. I don’t know whether they ever will move her through the process of becoming a saint, but to me she already has made it.
I have also read a fair amount of Dorothy Day’s works. She is probably best known as the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. This included a series of houses in urban areas that fed the homeless and generally worked on behalf of those whom society has left behind. Dorothy was a convert to Catholicism, but became a staunch woman of piety. Her deep faith was nurtured in some very traditional ways, like daily attendance at mass, etc. But the radicality of her faith was lived out in ways that did (and do) challenge those of us with a much less committed faith.
When I read Dorothy Day I feel like a spiritual lightweight! But she makes me want to be more and to do more. Although she did not die until 1980, I never met her. As I look back on my life, I probably could have met her with just a little intentionality. But that’s the beauty of books. In that literary sense I have “met” her. And I have hung out with her, listened to her and watched her. And Rubio says, this challenges my quest for a Christian life.
I don’t want to cite many passages from Rubio’s column, but only want to use the last section of her reflection on Dorothy Day. Rubio begins her conclusion with these words. “Even though I have found a certain peace in my much less radical life choices, I confess to being perpetually unsettled by the beauty and hardship of Day's life.” That expresses nicely my own sentiments. Dorothy Day can be perpetually unsettling with the beauty and hardship of her life. That does not mean it is a bad thing. In fact to be unsettled by the beauty of someone’s faith is a good thing. I appreciate it, although I am unsettled.
Then Rubio commences her final reflections. I quote her final words. “This is what I love about Dorothy Day: her relentless quest for a moral life shaped by a vision of radical discipleship and by novelists whose stories captured what is true and beautiful, and what it costs to be a Christian. Because I started reading her nearly 30 years ago, and keep reading her even now, my quest to live a Christian life is much more difficult, and for that I remain ever in her debt.” Let’s unpack Rubio’s reflections.
I like the way Rubio describes Day’s relentless quest for a moral life shaped by a vision of radical discipleship. It is clear that Jesus and other religious giants did see that a moral life was core to the spiritual journey. And in the case of Dorothy Day’s take on Christianity, it was a moral life shaped by her vision of radical discipleship. She thought she was doing nothing more than following the lead of Jesus and how he shaped his life. That was her commitment and that is her challenge to all of us who are tempted to domesticate and water down the message.
Like Rubio, I have probably been reading Dorothy Day for thirty years. I had to laugh when Rubio confesses that her reading of Day made her own quest to live the Christian life more difficult. With a domesticated Jesus and a watered-down message, it is easy to be a disciple. All we have to do is mutter a prayer now and then and maybe toss a few coins into the coffer or help a good cause from time to time. But Dorothy Day makes that approach pitiful---as it indeed is.
Rubio concludes the little reflection with a perfect take on Dorothy Day. As challenging and troubling as she is, Day is the kind of saint that forever puts us in her debt. Fortunately, reading her presents and represents the challenge that won’t go away. And we can thank God for that---assuming we, too, want to be children of God and disciples of the way that Jesus followed. That is the Dorothy Day effect.