Thirty two years ago Dorothy Day died quietly in Mary House in Manhattan, one of the many Catholic Worker houses which her work inspired and which welcome the poor and challenge war-makers.
The best biography I have found is Jim Forest’s All Is Grace. I have found many of her writings moving, especially the Long Loneliness, her memoir of her life, her conversion, and the early years of the Catholic Worker.
This past month Dorothy Day has once again surfaced in the press when the US bishops endorsed her cause for canonization at their meeting.
Yet, would Dorothy Day be happy about this? She once said: “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” (Another reflection on this can be found in this chapter from Jim Forest’s biography.)
Why would she say this?
First of all, she believed that we are all called to be saints. If we put people on pedestals, we may think that all this is beyond us – and that we can never aspire to be saints. But, as she would acknowledge, sanctity is not something we can do by ourselves. But, with God’s grace, we can become the holy ones God wants us to be.
Secondly, calling someone a saint can be a way of smoothing over the rough edges of that person. No saint is without imperfections, which God uses to make us holy. If we fail to recognize the limitations of saints, we may close ourselves off to our call to sanctity, with all our limitations and imperfections.
Thirdly, calling people saints can blunt their challenge to our world and to our way of life. Saints offer us a call to conversion and transformation, not just a nice story to edify us.
But to look at saints as real persons can help us recognize our call to conversion.
I remember a case where Dorothy Day did that. A few years ago I taught the “Introduction to Catholicism” class at Iowa State University. The last book the students were to read was Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness. I wanted them to see Catholicism practiced. One student later shared with me that that book led her to go to confession after many years of being away from the sacrament.
I think one of the best ways to let Dorothy Day help us to change – other than going to help out at a local Catholic Worker – would be to read Jim Forest’s All Is Grace, a biography of Dorothy Day, published in 2011 by Orbis Books. There we get a sense of the complexity of her character and a taste of her radical commitment to the poor and against war.
Day should challenge us, not only by her life with the poor but also with her radical critique of US economics and politics. But we should also let ourselves be moved by her deep piety – nurture with daily prayer and participation in the Eucharist.
We should not forget that she combined the prophetic with the contemplative.
I met her once at the Catholic Worker in New York City after one of the Friday Night Clarification of Thought sessions in the 1970s. I don’t remember what she said, since people were cleaning up. But what I most remember was her ordinariness. She came across to me as a gentle grandmother.
I also occasionally saw her when I went to Mass at Nativity Church on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, around the corner from Mary house. She and other Catholic Workers came and were nourished at the Table of the Lord so that they could serve and feed those in need.
And so, Dorothy Day, should challenge us, to make of our ordinary lives live of grace and holiness, to serve the poor, and to speak out forcefully against war.
That is the way that Dorothy Day can be canonized, not in Rome but in the lives of people of faith throughout the world.