Review: Praying with Dorothy Day
Personal holiness and social transformation: the vision of the Catholic Worker Movement
by Cornelius Conwell


Origins of the movement
Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1897 and grew up in a conventional middle-class family with a loose Protestant allegiance. Virtually from childhood she felt drawn towards a more transcendent religious faith - one which pointed beyond the immediate physical realm - while at the same time reacting passionately against the very this-worldly phenomena of poverty and social misery. In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she recalled her days of youthful spiritual turbulence:
"There was a great question in my mind. Why was so much done in remedying social evils instead of avoiding them in the first place?...Where were the saints to try and change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?" (quoted, Praying with Dorothy Day, p.15.)
These two orientations - the mystical and the political, as it were - determined the course of Dorothy's life and eventually found expression in the Catholic Worker Movement which she founded with Peter Maurin in the early 1930's. Her conversion to Catholicism did not result in a purely inward turn and an abandonment of earlier political commitments. Dorothy was not the sort of "rebel" figure, all-too familiar in our own day, who discovers "spirituality" and makes his or her peace with the status quo.
Rather she saw the Catholic faith as the answer to the "great question" which had obsessed her up to that point. Catholicism, in its fullness, was the path towards both personal sanctity and the transformation of society, and Dorothy proclaimed it as such, in words and deeds, until her death in 1980.
Her journalistic output continued over five decades, along with other writings, but the Christian personalism which she always claimed she learned from Maurin also drew her into acts of practical protest and resistance - against the atomic bomb in the fifties, for instance, and in favour of civil rights in the sixties. On one occasion she was imprisoned for a month; at the age of seventy-six she was jailed for ten days for participating in the (nonviolent) demonstration on behalf of the United Farm Workers in the San Joachin Valley in California.
A model of radical Christian faith
James Allaire and Rosemary Broughton are members of two Catholic Worker communities, Dan Corcoran House in Winona, Minnesota and Romero House, Toronto. Their book Praying with Dorothy Day, part of the Companions for the Journey series which includes Ss. Benedict, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila and dozens of others, introduces the reader to the radical, lay Catholic spirituality pioneered by their mentor:
"Dorothy Day provides a contemporary model of the quality of holiness," they write. "Solidarity with and service to God's poor, promoting and being willing to suffer for justice, acting in charity, living in community, integrating faith and action through prayer, sacred ritual, and meditation" (p.33).
They list the main characteristics of Dorothy's spirituality as Love of Scripture, Solidarity with the Poor, Personalism - her commitment to the freedom, dignity and equality of all human beings before God - Prophetic Witness, Peacemaking, A Sacramental Sense, and Gratitude. Then, in the course of fourteen chapters, each comprising a single meditation divided into discrete sections, they reflect upon these characteristics with reference to events in Dorothy's life and passages taken from her writings. Through the suggested exercises of prayer and meditation the spiritual outlook of the reader is gradually formed along distinctively Catholic Worker lines.
Everyone is called to sainthood
At the moment there is a great deal of discussion, not always well-informed, about lay participation in the Church's mission, the "priesthood of all believers” and the ramifications of the baptismal - i.e. basic Christian - vocation. Only seldom however does any of this seem to refer to the universal call to holiness proclaimed by Vatican II, and even less does it point to a way of life based on the Sermon on the Mount.
For Dorothy and her legacy "the baptismal vocation" is indeed the fundamental one. At a time when the pursuit of sanctity was often seen as the preserve of clergy or those in vows, Dorothy asserted that Christian faith entails a "permanent revolution": all the faithful, clergy and lay, are obliged to continually deepen their level of conversion to God and to embrace the tough demands of discipleship and imitation of Christ.
She believed that all human beings, ultimately, are called to sainthood. Her famous remark that she herself did not want to be "dismissed" as a saint referred more to the effete and unreal models of saintly personality which were prevalent during her lifetime. Dorothy saw communion with God as the true goal of every human life and for that reason insipid and escapist forms of piety never ceased to irritate her.
Catholic Worker spirituality: outside the mainstream
The themes of the separate chapters in the book relate closely to one another, illustrating the coherence of Catholic Worker spirituality as a whole. One subject-area leads into another. Allaire and Broughton are not only thoroughly rooted in the Church's Tradition of faith; they insist we must be uncompromising in putting the faith into practice.
The current cosy world of parish liturgical ministries is therefore very far from their minds. At the same time there is no hint of dissent from orthodox doctrine or any of the generalised anti-Church feeling often found among today's strangely cheerless activists. Nor is there any of the self-indulgent religiosity marketed by modern retreat houses for our contemporary spiritual epicures. In the Church as presently constituted Catholic Worker ideals occupy their own unique space, some considerable distance from the mainstream.
How many retreatants, for example, return from their weekend in the country having been given Peter Maurin's advice (borrowed from St. Jerome, in fact) that their house should contain a "Christ Room" for those in need?
Allaire and Broughton explain: "As an attitude, hospitality implies a basic openness to others, a willingness to admit that what I have is yours too in your moment of need" - recalling Catherine of Sienna's view that we must consider our possessions loaned to us by God. "As a concrete act," they go on, hospitality means "welcoming people to our table to share food and conversation, providing them clean clothing, offering a bath and a bed...Hospitality takes time" (p.48).
Or take another distinctive Catholic Worker theme, simplicity or "voluntary poverty":
"Dorothy knew that voluntary poverty is a profound critique of the prevailing American [though not only American] way of life with its emphasis on security, acquisitiveness, material possessions, and wealth in general. She also knew that Catholic Worker poverty would challenge her own church, so often scandalously wealthy. And finally she knew that those who choose voluntary poverty, Catholic Worker-style, enter a purifying experience not unlike the early Christians who sought holiness by venturing into the desert. Voluntary poverty profoundly challenges anyone with some security and a superfluity of possessions" (pp.76-77).
Other chapters deal with such themes as Conversion, the Mystical Body of Christ, the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy and Christian peacemaking: Dorothy took a consistent pacifist stance throughout her life, which at times alienated her from many fellow-Catholics. In all these subject-areas the choice of quotations from Dorothy's writings, and from Peter Maurin's, is one of the book's strongest features, reflecting the authors' deep familiarity with their sources. There is a section at the end listing several useful books for further reading.
Conclusion
As the title suggests, Praying With Dorothy Day, like all the other volumes in the Companions series, is mainly intended to help believers deepen their habit of personal prayer. But in fulfilling this task the book also serves as a short, highly accessible and comprehensive guide to the spirit of the Catholic Worker Movement.
If more laypeople took their cue from this gospel-centred spirituality, rather than from the dreary managerialism offered by our present church leadership, the future of the Catholic faith in Britain would look a lot brighter than it does. Still, we are assured that the gates of hell will not prevail against us and it is never too late to turn things around. For anyone who, amid the current wreckage, would like to make their own contribution, James Allaire's and Rosemary Broughton's inspiring book must be one of the best places to start.
(Praying with Dorothy Day by James Allaire and Rosemary Broughton, St. Mary's Press, Christian Brothers Publications, Winona, Minnesota, ISBN 0-88489-306-5).
And see:
http://www.catholicworker.org/index.cfm: the Catholic Worker Movement Homepage with links to Dorothy Day’s and Peter Maurin's articles and essays.
http://www.cjd.org/: Casa Juan Diego, the Houston Catholic Worker house, with a “newspaper” eloquently articulating the Catholic Worker philosophy.
http://www.geocities.com/londoncatholicworker/: London Catholic Worker: “a Catholic Worker community of hospitality and resistance in the world’s second imperial city”.
http://www.dublincw.community.ie/: Dublin Catholic Worker: “The radical Christian is one who wrestles with the anarchist question – ‘How do I live a life without exploitation?’ and the pacifist question – ‘How do I live a life without violence?’”