Dorothy Day often said “it is by little and by little that we are saved.” Her own conversion to the Catholic faith involved many small realizations that brought her closer and closer to the Church. One of the unique features of Dorothy Day’s writing is her descriptive and concrete approach to things, including her conversion. She starts out with events and experiences. She tells the story of the common working person and the struggle to provide for the family. Her social consciousness of class struggle impelled her to become involved in Marxist and communistic causes. Young Dorothy was a social rebel and formally non-religious except that she saw a beauty in everyday things which drew her to the possibility of Christ and his Church. She would always continue to be a social rebel but came to embrace the Catholic Church and then later, once she was aware of them, the social justice principles of the Church. Her conditioned aversion to religion was embodied in the comment of Marx that called religion the opiate of the masses. The beauty and sacredness of the everyday broke her from this perspective. For the rest of her life she would proclaim indwelling of God in the world as the “sacrament of the present moment.”
Dorothy Day writes of her long conversion in From Union Square to Rome and The Long Loneliness. Her intention was to disclose an honest account of her journey to God and His Church, how God continually blessed her despite her sins and shortcomings. One of the interesting things I find in her conversion is the constant role of beauty opening her up to the prospect of the Gospel. She attributes her love of the poor as one of the redeeming qualities that kept her open to heed the Lord’s voice. “Because I sincerely loved His poor, He taught me to know Him.” She sees her own narrative journey infused with grace. She recognizes her desire for God and how that desire was sometimes wasted on selfish endeavors.
What I cannot do in this bit of writing is describe the role of beauty in Dorothy Day’s conversion any better than she did herself. Her reflection richly describes the movements of her soul corresponding to pivotal points of her life. Where applicable I include her own descriptions of her journey.
Those who are sincere and humble can come to God not merely through positive experiences of beauty, truth, and goodness but also through negative experiences of sin, suffering, and a series of disgust that indicates our limitations while affirming our affinity for God. Dorothy Day is one of those souls who traveled the depths of the suffering before willfully giving her life to God.
While it is often true that horror for one’s sins turns one to God, what I want to bring out in this book is a succession of events that led me to His feet, glimpses of Him that I received through the many years which made me feel the vital need of Him. I will try to trace for you the steps by which I came to accept the faith that I believe was always in my heart...Though I felt the strong, irresistible attraction to good, yet there was also, at times, a deliberate choosing of evil. How far I was led to choose it, it is hard to say. How far professors, companions, and reading influenced my way of life does not matter now. The fact remains that there was much of deliberate choice in it. Most of the time it was “following the devices and desires of my own heart.” Sometimes it was perhaps the Baudelariean idea of choosing “the downward path which leads to salvation.” Sometimes it was of choice, of free will, though perhaps at time I would have denied free will. And so, since it was deliberate, with recognition of its seriousness, it was grievous mortal sin and may the Lord forgive me. It was the arrogance and suffering of youth. It was pathetic, little, and mean in its very excuse for itself. – From Union Square to Rome
Dorothy grew up without a religious affiliation. She wrote, “In the family, the name of God was never mentioned. Mother and Father never went to church, none of us children had been baptized, and to speak of the soul was to speak immodestly, uncovering what might better remain hidden.” But she did have joyful experiences of community in times of disaster and uncertainty. Dorothy recalls a generally happy childhood. Mindful of the varieties of her experiences, Dorothy spent a great deal of time torn between the hopelessness of the human condition and intimations of something infinitely greater that can lift the human spirit. She had genuine compassion for others and felt called to serve others. This desire found momentary fulfillment in the political radicals of her day who sought to better the condition of workers.
When what I read made me particularly class-conscious, I used to turn from the park with all its beauty and peacefulness and walk down to North Avenue and over west through the slum districts, and watch the slatternly women and the unkempt children and ponder over the poverty of the homes as contrasted with the wealth along the shore drive. I wanted even then to play my part. I wanted to write such books that thousands upon thousands of readers would be convinced of the injustice of things as they were. – From Union Square to Rome
In college Dorothy felt utterly alone when separated from the comfort of her family. Reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, she felt compelled to believe in God but also felt alienated from the Christians around her. Reflecting on the conditions of others less fortunate than herself, she learned about Marxism and class struggle. For the most part she was open to religion until she came to see religion as a crutch for the feeble minded.
It seems to me that I was already shedding that faith when a professor whom I much admired made a statement in class—I shall always remember it—that religion was something which had brought great comfort to people throughout the ages, so that we ought not to criticize it. I don’t remember his exact words, but from the way he spoke of religion the class could infer that the strong were the ones who did not need such props. In my youthful arrogance, in my feeling that I was one of the strong, I felt then for the first time that religion was something that I must ruthlessly cut out of my life. I felt it indeed to be an opiate of the people, so I hardened my heart.
– From Union Square to Rome
By twenty-five years of age, Dorothy had a list of political activist’s credentials as she worked with left-wing journals, joined the International Workers of the World that attempted to unite workers to overthrow the employing class, participated in pickets that resulted in jail time, and dabbled with communism. The first time she was imprisoned, Dorothy recalls meditating on Psalm 130 while in solitary confinement which created in her an experience of profound solidarity with those who were oppressed and suffering from their own sin and the sins of others. Her second arrest came during a raid where police were looking for communist radicals as a part of Palmer’s red scare. Dorothy was in the building to help nurse a friend back to health when police barged in, arrested her, and wrongfully accused of her of being a prostitute.
It was as ugly an experience as I ever wish to pass through, and a useful one. I do not think that ever again, no matter of what I am accused, can I suffer more than I did then from shame and regret, and self-contempt. Not only because I had been caught, found out, branded, publicly humiliated, but because of my own consciousness that I deserved it. – The Long Loneliness
Shortly after the incident, she reflected:
I could get away, but what of the others? I could get away, paying no penalty, because of my friends, my background, my education, my privilege. I suffered but was not part of it. I put it from me. It was too much for me. I think that for a long time one is stunned by such experiences. They seem to be quickly forgotten, but they leave a scar that is never healed. – The Long Loneliness
Such experiences of solidarity fueled Dorothy Day’s passion for the poor. The dramatic experience of shame for Dorothy allowed her to realize her own capacity to become lost, even if only temporarily, in despair with resigned acceptance of injustice. However, she was able to leave the circumstances while many others had no clear way out. Dorothy had long since been committed to justice and speaking for the rights for others who cannot speak for themselves. In her college years and shortly thereafter, her idea of injustice reflected a worldview that directly conflicted with the Catholic Church. By way of practice and belief, much separated Dorothy from the Church. She lived a Bohemian lifestyle, wrote passionately about free love, had had two common law marriages and procured an abortion. Of course none of these kept her from continually seeking the truth and her spiritual awakening was just the beginning.
In 1925 the twenty-eight year old Dorothy day found out she was pregnant again. During this time Dorothy enjoyed a certain “dull contentment” in her common law marriage with Foster and her joyful anticipation for a new born child. Her time spent walking up and down the beaches in New York filled her with gratefulness for the beauty of nature. Dorothy began to pray more consciously at this time in a spirit of thanksgiving for her blessings.
I am surprised that I am beginning to pray daily. I began because I had to. I just found myself praying. I can’t get down on my knees, but I can pray while I am walking. If I get down on my knees I think, “Do I really believe? Whom am I praying to?” And a terrible doubt comes over me, and a sense of shame, and I wonder if I am praying because I am lonely, because I am unhappy.
Then I think suddenly, scornfully, “Here you are in a stupor of content. You are biological. Like a cow. Prayer with you is like the opiate of the people.” And over and over again in my mind that phrase is repeated jeeringly, “Religion is the opiate of the people.”
“But,” I reason with myself, “I am praying because I am happy, not because I am unhappy. I did not turn to God in unhappiness, in grief, in despair—to get consolation, to get something from Him.”
And encouraged that I am praying because I want to thank Him, I go on praying. No matter how dull the day, how long the walk seems, if I feel low at the beginning of the walk, the words I have been saying have insinuated themselves into my heart before I have done, so that on the trip back I neither pray nor think but am filled with exultation. – From Union Square to Rome
Her words speak to the reality that the heart has reasons unknown to the mind as Blaise Pascal mentions. Dorothy became discouraged whenever God became merely a thought of her intellect, yet her heart longed for communion. During this time, Dorothy began attending Mass regularly on Sundays, and this put a tension in her relationship with her husband. Foster was greatly skeptical of all religious institutions and notions of the supernatural. As a biologist he loved nature passionately, but as a absolute anarchist, he rebelled against institutional notions of family, government, and religion. Foster opposed economic inequality and escaped through his love of the outdoors. Dorothy believed her love for Foster opened her up to recognize God. The very things that satisfied Foster made Dorothy hungrier for truth. Foster opened Dorothy’s eyes to the mystical quality of creation and this beauty drew Dorothy out of herself and into contact with something greater.
His [Foster’s] ardent love of creation brought me to the Creator of all things. But when I cried out to him, “How can there be no God, when there are all these beautiful things?” he turned from me uneasily and complained that I was never satisfied. We loved each other so strongly that he wanted to remain in the love of the moment; he wanted me to rest in that love. He cried out against my attitude that there would be nothing left of that love without faith…
I could not see that love between man and woman was incompatible with love of God. God is the Creator, and the very fact that we were begetting a child made me have a sense that we were made in the image and likeness of God, co-creators with him. I could not protest with Sasha about “that initial agony of having to live.” Because I was grateful for love, I was grateful for life, and living with Foster made me appreciate it and even reverence it still more. He had introduced me to so much that was beautiful and good that I felt I owed to him too this renewed interest in the spirit of things. —The Long Loneliness
Dorothy struggled with her spiritual identity, but she could not speak to Foster about it. She became more and more convinced of God’s presence. They interpreted the same everyday beauty very differently. Once Tamar Teresa was born, Dorothy Day resolved to have her baptized in the Catholic Church. However, real fear surrounded her relationship with Foster:
A woman does not want to be alone at such a time. Even the most hardened, the most irreverent, is awed by the stupendous fact of creation. Becoming a Catholic would mean facing life alone, and I clung to family life. It was hard to contemplate giving up a mate in order that my child and I could become members of the Church. Foster would have nothing to do with religion or me if I embraced it. – From Union Square to Rome
Dorothy Day traveled to the local residence of the Sisters of Charity to seek baptism for her child. Sister Aloysia assisted Dorothy with the process and encouraged Dorothy to become Catholic as well. Sister Aloysia brought reading materials and instructed her Catechism lessons. Belief in Catholic Doctrine did not come easy to Dorothy. Even after her daughter was received in the Church she still fought with the decision to become Catholic herself. Even more so, she struggled to reconcile the Church with the class of workers. During this time Dorothy was completely oblivious to the Social Doctrine of the Church annunciated in papal encyclicals. Yet one day she became too troubled in her delay to wait any longer that she sought out a priest and joined the mystical body of Christ. Following her conversion Dorothy had quit her job with the Anti-Imperialist League because of its communist affiliation. Her common law marriage was ended with Foster and she embarked in a life long struggle to serve the poor and speak for the everyday worker. Dorothy was troubled that although the Catholic Church did a fair amount of charity work She did not seem to challenge society to change in the way that would reduce social injustices from happening in the first place.
I wanted to be poor, chaste, and obedient. I wanted to die in order to live, to put off the old man and put on Christ. I loved, in other words, and like all women in love, I wanted to be united in my love. Why should not Foster be jealous? Any man who did not participate in this love would, of course, realize my infidelity, my adultery, and so it is termed over and over again in Scripture.
I loved the Church for Christ made visible. Not for itself, because it was so often a scandal to me. Romano Guardini said that the Church is the cross on which Christ was crucified; one could not separate Christ from His Cross, and one must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the Church…
Not long afterward a priest wanted me to write a story of my conversion, telling how the social teaching of the Church had led me to embrace Catholicism. But I knew nothing of the social teaching of the Church at that time. I have never heard of the encyclicals. I felt that the Church was the Church of the poor, that St. Patrick’s had been built from the pennies of servant girls, that it cared for the emigrant, it established hospitals, orphanages, day nurseries, houses of the Good Shepherd, homes for the ages, but at the same time, I felt that it did not set its face against the social order which made so much charity in the present sense of the word necessary. --The Long Loneliness
Dorothy Day’s life testifies to the grace of God. Soon she became very familiar with the social justice principles of the Church with the help of Peter Maurin and sought to put them into concrete practice in the Catholic Worker movement. Dorothy Day became an active contemplative. Her work for the poor was as constant and rigorous as her religious devotions. She believed in the power of prayer and lived with a simplicity that relied on the providence of God. She taught that to be humble we must be hospitable and open our hearts to the needs of others by being dependent upon God. Her life constitutes a beautiful whole that challenges the social conscience of our time. Reading Dorothy Day will open your eyes to the poor. She invites us to love Christ and perform the Spiritual and Corporeal Works of Mercy. Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day had a sacramental vision that sought to create a “society where it is easier for people to be good.”
It is no use saying that we were born two thousand years too late to give room for Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts. –Room for Christ; December 1945