Robert Ellsberg
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I met Dorothy Day in the fall of 1975, when I was 19. I had taken a leave as an undergraduate from Harvard University and made my way to the Catholic Worker headquarters in New York City, drawn by a number of motivations. I was eager to learn something directly about life, apart from books. I was tired of living for myself alone and longed to give myself to something larger and more meaningful. But mostly, I think, I was drawn by the hope of meeting Dorothy Day, the movement’s legendary founder, and still, at 77, editor of its newspaper. I had planned to stay a few months, but was pretty quickly hooked and remained for five yearsthe last five years of Dorothy’s life, as it turned out.

Our first meeting occurred on the first floor of St. Joseph House, the large room that served as soup kitchen, meeting hall or chapel, depending on the occasion. Dorothy, who dressed in donated clothes, took pride in the occasions when she was mistaken for one of the homeless women on the Bowery. But there was no mistaking the authority she carried, even among the down-and-out characters who made up the Catholic Worker family.

To be honest, I was initially intimidated. Knowing the importance of first impressions, I had spent a lot of time preparing to ask just the right question. But when the moment came, all I could think of was, How do you reconcile Catholicism and anarchism? She looked at me with a bemused expression and said, It’s never been a problem for me.

I withdrew to ponder that, wondering if her words contained some deeper meaning. Over time I came to realize that Dorothy just was not greatly interested in abstractions.

She was actually a very social and approachable person. She had little taste for solitude, and it was not hard to get to know her. A great storyteller, she could spin fascinating tales about the Catholic Worker, her comrades in the radical struggle or poignant details from the life of Chekhov, Tolstoy or St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She was, in turn, endlessly fascinated by other people’s storieswhere they came from, what books they liked, where they had traveled. What’s your favorite novel by Dostoevsky? was a favorite conversation starter. Whether you answered The Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment, she inevitably endorsed your selection.

A year after my arrival, Dorothy asked me to become the managing editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper. She was, as she liked to say, in retirement, and the day-to-day management of the paper and the household were in the hands of those she called the young people. I was 20. My promotion had very little to do with any qualification for the job and everything to do with the fact that no one else was particularly interested. But Dorothy had faith in people, and she was able to make them feel her faith as well, so they forgot their feelings of inadequacy and found themselves doing all kinds of things they never dreamed possible.

She did not much like the rather lugubrious art I selected for my first issue of the paper. People my age don’t want to see dark things like that, she said. They want to see cheerful things, like the ocean or the circus. Otherwise she exercised little day-to-day oversight. Each month she would give me a few sheets of entries typed up from her journal. Do what you want with it, she would say. I don’t care if you change it, cut it up or throw it away. From previous editors I learned that she was not always this detached about her writing. Part of the reason for writing now, she said, was to let her readers know that she was still alive. Indeed, if she missed a month, we would be besieged by letters inquiring as to her health.

Dorothy admired hard workers. In the war between the worker and the scholar, she liked people to be both. She did not particularly admire those who were just scholars, who sat around reading all the time. She thought that men were constitutionally prone to this kind of abstraction, which was responsible for many of the world’s problems. (Certainly my own tendencies were in that direction.)

Nevertheless she enjoyed talking about ideas, especially as they were embodied in history, novels, social movements or in people’s lives. It was Dorothy who first sparked my fascination with the lives of the saintsboth canonized figures like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Teresa of ávila, and other holy people like Gandhi, Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. She delighted in talking about their human qualities as much as their heroic deeds. Youth has an instinct for the heroic, she liked to say. And even as she grew bent with age and hard of hearing, she retained her idealism, an instinct for adventure, that connected her in a special way with the spirit of youth.

One day I applied under the Freedom of Information Act for a copy of the voluminous F.B.I. file that documented efforts over several decades to comprehend just what category of subversion the Catholic Worker was supposed to represent. Apparently at one time Dorothy’s name was placed on a list of dangerous radicals to be detained in the event of a national emergency. What particularly pleased her, however, was a profile that J. Edgar Hoover had composed: Dorothy Day is a very erratic and irresponsible person who makes every effort to castigate the Bureau whenever she feels inclined.

That’s marvelous! she said. Read it again!

There was a playful side to her. Photographs tend to make her look severe. But what stands out in the memory of anyone who knew Dorothy was her girlish laugh and sense of fun. Many of her stories were self-deprecatingsuch as the time she knitted a pair of socks, and one of the women in the house asked if she could have them to use as a gag gift for Christmas. Or the time in the 1950’s when she read a book about Chairman Mao and volunteered to lead a talk at the next Friday night meeting. Well, somehow word must have spread, because that Friday the room was filled with people from Chinatown and scholars from colleges and universities, and they must have been surprised when all I did was stand up and give a book report. You see, she said, I’m such a fool that I’m never afraid of appearing foolish.

All the same, she was fastidious and cultivated in her tastes; she loved classical music, the opera, literature, flowers and beautiful things. In her old age she liked to surround herself with postcards: icons and paintings, but also pictures of nature: trees, the ocean, arctic wilderness. She loved to quote Dostoevsky’s words, The world will be saved by beauty.

Despite all the sadness and suffering around her, she had an eye for the transcendent. There were always moments when it was possible to see beneath the surface. Just look at that tree! she would say. It might be an act of kindness, the sound of an opera on the radio or the sight of flowers growing on the fire escape outside her window: such moments caused her heart to rejoice. She liked to quote St. Teresa of ávila, who said, I am such a grateful person that I can be purchased for a sardine.

Above all she was a woman of prayer. She attended daily Mass when she was able; she rose at dawn each day to recite the morning office and to meditate on Scripture. After years of reading the Liturgy of the Hours, the language of the psalms had become her daily bread: Sing to the Lord a new song...sing joyfully to the Lord.

When I went to the Catholic Worker, I was not motivated by explicitly religious interests. Like Dorothy, I had been raised in the Episcopal Church, but I had pretty much drifted away from organized religion. What drew me to the Catholic Worker was Dorothy’s lifetime of consistent opposition to war, and the fact that her convictions were rooted in solidarity with the poor and those who suffered. Ultimately, I came to appreciate not just Dorothy’s antiwar convictions but the deeper tradition and spirituality that sustained her. I understood nothing about Dorothy if I did not realize the importance of the sacraments, prayer, liturgy and the communion of saints, in which her witness was rooted. When I understood that, I felt a need to become a Catholic myself.

We were chatting in her room one day when I drew up my courage to say, There’s something I want to talk to you about.

Yes?

Well, I began, I’ve been thinking...well, thinking is not the right word. Well, I’ve been.... I stumbled along like this for awhile and she just sat there perplexed.

Well, what is it? she pressed.

I’m thinking of becoming a Catholic.

She was very quiet for a few moments, and I wondered whether she had heard me. Finally, she asked, Well, you’re an Episcopalian, right?

Yes, that is how I was raised.

That’s what I thought, she said. My father said only policemen and washerwomen were Catholics and that if I wanted to go to church I could always be an Episcopalian. So I did go to the Episcopal church as I was growing up and I suppose it did me some good.... But I always felt the Episcopal church was a little well-to-do.

She squinted the way she did whenever she was saying something a little mischievous.

I saw her later after being received into the church in a small chapel in a tenement apartment of the Little Brothers of the Gospel. Dorothy received me with much joy, giving me an old biography of Charles de Foucauld and a cross made out of nails. No one will dare to arrest you as long as you’re wearing that, she said.

She recalled the occasion of her own first Communion in a church on Staten Island, many years before. I was all flustered with the occasion and I said to a woman, Oh, I must get home. I’ve got a baby to feed.’ And the woman said, Why, I didn’t know you were married.’ And I said, I’m not.’ And you should have seen the expression on her face, wondering whether they hadn’t made a terrible mistake!

It was one of our last conversations. That fall I returned to college to study religion and literature. So many over the years had come and gone at the Catholic Worker. She wished me well and urged me not to forget her. What is your favorite book by Dostoevsky? she asked. The Idiot, I suggested arbitrarily. Mine too! she replied with delight.

She died soon after, on Nov. 29, 1980.

That was 25 years ago. After her death I would have been delighted to see Dorothy immediately canonized and named the patron saint of peace and social justice. From a distance of 25 years, however, I see that she was more than a hero for radical Catholics. At a time when the church is so greatly divided between ideological factions, Dorothy was truly a saint of common groundsomeone who held in tension a great love for the church along with deep suffering over its sins and failings.

I think about her especially in these times we are living through, when once again the Gospel narrative seems somehow foolish and irrelevant in the face of terrorism and endless war. Once again we confront a situation in which massive violence is proffered as the only realistic solution to our problems, and a just cause is invoked to justify virtually any means.

I remember sitting with Dorothy over supper while a somewhat deranged young man pounded on the table, insisting: Dorothy, you just don’t understand. Individuals in this day and age are not what’s important. It’s nations and governments that are important.

All individuals are important, Dorothy answered, in a quiet voice. They’re all that’s important.

But she was equally discerning in her approach to peacemaking, cautioning against the temptation to be overly concerned with success. Too often, she believed, would-be peacemakers are driven by the need to be heard in the corridors of power, to be impressive and spectacular. But Christ’s victory, she always noted, was achieved by the way of apparent failure: Unless the seed falls into the ground and dies, it bears no fruit.

We do what we can, she often said. Nevertheless, she said, We must always aim for the impossible; if we lower our goal, we also diminish our effort.

One of her favorite characters was Pietro Spina, the hero of Ignazio Silone’s novel Bread and Wine, who does no more during a time of war than go out in the night and write the word NO on the town walls. If nothing else, his deed shattered the unanimity of consent; it allowed people to envision the subversive possibility of an alternative reality.

Dorothy was a great believer in what de Caussade called the sacrament of the present moment. In each situation, in each encounter, in each task before us, she believed, there is a path to God. We do not need to be in a monastery or a chapel. We do not need to become different people first. We can start today, this moment, where we are, to add to the balance of love in the world, to add to the balance of peace.

Robert Ellsberg was a member of the Catholic Worker community in New York from 1975 to 1980. His latest book is Blessed Among All Women: Women Saints, Prophets and Witnesses for Our Time (Crossroad).

Comments

Matt Anderton | 11/30/2005 - 12:07am
Thank You Father! for the attentive reflections of Robert Ellsberg, "Five Years With Dorothy Day", Dan McKanan, "A most Particular Vocation", and George Anderson SJ, "A Shield For Workers In The Southwest," (all 11/21). Dorothy Day is considered by this writer to be one of his favorite "Saints." Dorothy Day's gift of taking the Gospel to heart and responding by living out its meaning without diluting its stirrings has great resonance for me. Her call to live simply seems to be as applicable today as it was in hers.

Two points that come to mind are how Dorothy Day lived a life of service to the needy, i.e. washing the feet, and she did so with utter disregard to her own personal needs, i.e. taking nothing with her but the sandals on her feet.

Today our Church faces perhaps a handful of challenging struggles, including, among others, the financial and relational consequences of our experience of sexual abuse, and the need to provide for an aging (and ailing) population of priests. Dorothy Day's life in poverty and steadfast focus on service (comforting the disturbed and distrubing the comfortable) may serve as grist for examining where, as a Church, our attention, resources, and energies ought to be focused. Again, "Thank You Father!"

Raphael Bonanno, O.F.M. | 2/21/2007 - 12:58pm
I very much enjoyed your three recent articles (11/21), occasioned by the 25th anniversary of the death of Dorothy Day, on her person and her work through the Catholic Worker Movement.

Catherine Doherty, a friend of Day years ago, died 20 years ago on Dec. 14. The bishop of Pembroke, Ontario, will celebrate Mass in her memory. She was the foundress of the Madonna House Apostolate and one of the great spiritual writers of the 20th century. May I suggest some similar coverage or articles in America on the Baroness, as she was affectionately nicknamed? There is a Web page dedicated to her at www.catherinedoherty.org, and the postulator for her cause is the Rev. Robert Wild of Madonna House, Combermere, Ont., Canada. Catherine and Dorothy were kindred souls in their love for the poor, simplicity, deep prayer and interracial justice.

Joe Doolan | 2/21/2007 - 12:52pm
Many thanks to Robert Ellsberg for his scholarship and recent reflection, “Five Years With Dorothy Day” (11/21). This remarkable woman, arguably the greatest American Catholic of the 20th century, I include in religious education classes at our Catholic secondary college.

A visit to New York this year afforded me the opportunity to seek out her grave. It took several phone calls to the Catholic Worker to find out the precise location of her resting place. On a sunny Sunday April afternoon, my wife and I drove to Staten Island to pray at the seaside cemetery. Having visited Lincoln’s grave in Springfield, Ill., reflected before the pool-surrounded tomb of Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta and often guided family and friends through Arlington Cemetery, I eagerly anticipated the visit to Dorothy’s resting place. Americans brilliantly celebrate in symbol and stone famous people and important events, but memorial was a real surprise.

Upon entering the cemetery grounds we began our search. The Catholic brochure did not mention this famous figure. The attendant at the information center, though initially unsure of the location, finally guided us to her resting place on the side of the road. Her plaque was not different from the hundreds of other plain marble blocks resting on the grass with a simple name and two dates. I was reminded of the difference between the ostentatious Roman tombs of some popes and the elegantly simple resting places of others.

Given her commitment to the poor, the humble plaque is somewhat fitting; but for those who want to visit and pray, could there at least be a sign? It is intriguing that the Catholic community of New York does not seem to celebrate her memory in this place. If I taught in New York, I would take Catholic classes to her grave on pilgrimage.

As my 12th-year students scrutinize her life, I hope some are empowered by her unrivaled story. The works of mercy echo a Gospel call: Care for the sick, help the poor, enlighten and rebuke. I especially appreciate the last maxim, knowing her fearless denunciation of priests, politicians and presidents. We are emboldened by the spirit of great people, and their resting places elicit prayer and encourage Christian action.

Matt Anderton | 11/30/2005 - 12:07am
Thank You Father! for the attentive reflections of Robert Ellsberg, "Five Years With Dorothy Day", Dan McKanan, "A most Particular Vocation", and George Anderson SJ, "A Shield For Workers In The Southwest," (all 11/21). Dorothy Day is considered by this writer to be one of his favorite "Saints." Dorothy Day's gift of taking the Gospel to heart and responding by living out its meaning without diluting its stirrings has great resonance for me. Her call to live simply seems to be as applicable today as it was in hers.

Two points that come to mind are how Dorothy Day lived a life of service to the needy, i.e. washing the feet, and she did so with utter disregard to her own personal needs, i.e. taking nothing with her but the sandals on her feet.

Today our Church faces perhaps a handful of challenging struggles, including, among others, the financial and relational consequences of our experience of sexual abuse, and the need to provide for an aging (and ailing) population of priests. Dorothy Day's life in poverty and steadfast focus on service (comforting the disturbed and distrubing the comfortable) may serve as grist for examining where, as a Church, our attention, resources, and energies ought to be focused. Again, "Thank You Father!"