The radical and faithful witness of Dorothy Day

Jared Staudt

Saint Dorothy Day? A former communist who had an abortion does not fit the mold of the normal candidate for canonization; yet her conversion witnesses to the power of God’s grace. Day’s commitment to social justice, combined with her deep faith and devotion, led the Archdiocese of New York to open her cause for sainthood in the year 2000. Personally, I have been deeply inspired by Day and the Catholic Worker Movement she founded with Peter Maurin. Together, Day and Maurin powerfully witness that that it is possible to live the Gospel in a radical way even in the difficult circumstances of our society.

Dr. Terrence Wright, who teaches at the Archdiocese’s St. John Vianney Seminary, recently wrote a short and accessible book: Dorothy Day: An Introduction to Her Life and Thought (Ignatius, 2018). Wright recognizes that “because of her life, her writings, and her political stands, Day remains a controversial figure, but she also serves as a challenge to Catholics and non-Catholics alike to reflect on Christ’s call for us to serve the least of our brothers” (14). He also notes that many people have the mistaken view of Day as a dissenter from Catholic teaching, even though she was “a Catholic who thinks that the teachings of the Church are right,” even on controversial topics (13).

Like St. Augustine, Day suffered through the social and spiritual problems of her time, yet found God in their midst. She felt acutely the social crisis of the early twentieth century, which drew her to Communism, but her own broken relationships kept her yearning for deeper fulfillment. After becoming a mother, she made the difficult choice of breaking with her past and entering the Church with her daughter, Tamar. It was not until she met Peter Maurin in 1932 that she realized how her passion for social justice could shape her life as a Catholic. Maurin introduced her to the Church’s social teaching and inspired her with a threefold plan to communicate this teaching through the Catholic Worker newspaper and roundtable discussions, to open houses of hospitality, and to gather people for work and retreats on farms.

Wright explores both the intellectual and spiritual foundations of Day’s life and work. Inspired by the Church’s teaching and the Catholic tradition, especially monastic spirituality and hospitality, Day and Maurin sought a personalist response to the social crisis. They took both subsidiarity and solidarity seriously in affirming the dignity of each person they served, rather than seeking an institutional response. Maurin recognized the spiritual problem of “the state doing things for people instead of people doing things for each other” (57). Therefore, the Catholic Worker Movement embraced voluntary poverty, as well as common work and prayer, to live with the poor, fighting “for justice or human rights [not] in the abstract but . . . in the concrete local scene” (79). Ultimately, Day founded a spiritual movement, drawing from the liturgy and the works of mercy to serve “our neighbor’s whole being, body and soul” (101).

Part of Day’s radical witness, explored at length by Wright, her pacifism, places her outside the Catholic mainstream, as she pointed to the injustice of modern warfare and encouraged Christians to embrace the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. Wright relates how “Day’s position was based primarily on two Catholic principles. First is the teaching that all human beings are members or potential members of the mystical body of Christ. . . This teaching also led her to see violence against any member of the human community as violence against Christ and against oneself. . . . The second teaching that shaped Day’s pacifism concerns ‘the counsels of perfection'” (122-23). This controversial stance reveals the heart of Day’s spiritual vision: to follow Christ’s teaching radically in the modern world.

As Wright acknowledges, many in the Catholic Worker Movement today have not remained faithful to Day’s spiritual vision and to the Church. Nonetheless, her personal witness and founding of the Movement remain important for inspiring new Christian responses to today’s challenges. I strongly recommend Wright’s book as an entrance into the radical and faithful witness of Servant of God Dorothy Day.

COMING UP: Meeting Christ in the Mass and sacraments

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As Catholics, we recognize Jesus’ Eucharistic presence to be the source and summit of our faith. Nonetheless, we can take His presence at Mass and in the tabernacle for granted. We pray through our liturgical rituals, but our words and gestures can lack meaning when we simply go through the motions. When we use the beautiful ritual of the Mass and sacraments to guide our prayer, however, they can lead us into a deeper encounter with Christ.

Two recent books can help us to understand the Mass and sacraments better and to approach them with fresh eyes: Christopher Carstens’ A Devotional Journey into the Mass: How the Mass Can Become a Time of Grace, Nourishment, and Devotion (Sophia, 2017) and Msgr. Nicola Bux’s No Trifling Matter: Taking the Sacraments Seriously Again (Angelico, 2018).

Carstens takes us on a “devotional journey into the Mass” to approach it in “a more profoundly spiritual way” (29).   He writes with a broad sacramental vision which embraces not only the Mass but also the symbols surrounding it. A great example of this comes from the first chapter, “how to enter a church building,” which reflects upon how to approach the physical building of the church itself. “So the door to the parish church, which stands before us now — is no ordinary entrance. It appears different because it is different: it is a mark of God’s house and a sign protecting those within, as at that first Passover. It is an entrance into the Great King’s city and His Temple . . . where we touch God, as in Jerusalem” (13-14). Carstens uses a “sacramental principle” to help us recognize “how God communicates with us through sensible signs” (9).

This devotional journey takes the reader through the stages of the Mass to perceive the deeper reality that we access through faith. In order to reap the fruit that God wants to give us at Mass, Carstens teaches us that “proper disposition . . . is paramount” (88). Through all of the outward actions, signs, and rituals, God aims at “something deeper:  . . . the heart of man. . . . the undivided love of man” (60; 61). For this reason, in the need for intimacy with God, “silence is an essential ingredient for both individual and corporate prayer” (35). The participation and prayers we offer at Mass should foster our relationship with God. The “conversation should take the form of prayer — a prayer of surrender” (92). Taking a devotional journey through the Mass, with Carstens’ help, should prepare us to enter into this conversation of surrender more fully each week.

Msgr. Bux, an Italian priest and professor, takes us deeper into the sometimes-forgotten history, theology, and liturgy surrounding the Mass and the sacraments. He walks us through each of the sacraments, building upon the teachings of the saints (especially St. Ambrose and Padre Pio), but also the difficulty of experiencing the spiritual reality of the sacraments in the modern world. He also leads us deeper into the Mass, “the greatest and most complete act of adoration,” noting the “interdependence between the Eucharist and the other sacraments: . . . they flow forth from the Eucharist and flow together into it as to their source” (86). The centrality of the Eucharist comes from the fact that through it we enter the heart of God.

The other sacraments reinforce this contact, as “we touch Christ” through them. This entry into the divine life begins at baptism and deepens in confirmation. Bux supports restored order confirmation, speaking of the need for strengthening and equipping for battle at an earlier age, rather than giving into the flight that usually occurs after it is received in the teenage years. When it comes to confession, Bux speaks of how “Christ pardons everyone who recognizes himself to be a sinner,” though the sacrament aims at “sincere, overwhelming interior repentance that brings the soul to be reconciled with the Creator” (103; 104). He also speaks beautifully of how through the sacrament of marriage, “spouses participate in the power of [Christ’s] love” in their love for each other. “Their love, responsible fecundity, and humility, their attitude of mutual service and their mutual fidelity, are signs of Christ’s love, present in them and in the Church” (166).

Both authors teach how to appreciate and enter into the Mass and sacraments more fruitfully, so that, in Bux’s words, we can experience “a prolongation of the liturgical life of the Church” in our own lives (196).