No Silly Valentine: Falling in love with Dorothy Day
Published: January 31st, 2021
Oklahoma City – I’m not sure the exact day or hour that I fell in love with Dorothy Day, without ever encountering her in the flesh. She died in 1980.
Her political inclinations and economic views are about as different from mine as can be imagined. But in her spiritual reflections, I found the heart of a sister.
Not an opponent or an “other,” but a friend.
A woman, I believe now in Heaven, whom I love.
Her: a journalist, avowed socialist, pacifist and founder of the Catholic Worker movement.
Me: a journalist, supporter of capitalism, advocate for a strong national defense, Reagan conservative and registered Independent since 2016.
As the years advance, she inspires and comforts me. As she grew in wisdom and understanding, she had the depth of relationship with God I seek (and sometimes glimpse) for myself.
Roman Catholics have a tradition of intercessory prayer.
We petition those who have gone before, believed now to reside at the Throne of Grace, to pray and intercede for us.
More than ever, my prayers ask for insight in matters of faith: What would Dorothy do?
I seek her company not for instruction in economics or politics – but about trusting God, and loving people I find not only disagreeable but downright infuriating.
From a Sacred Scripture translation upon which many Oklahomans and Americans rely:
“[K]eep my words, and lay up my commandments with thee. Keep my commandments, and live; and my law as the apple of thine eye. Bind them upon thy fingers, write them upon the table of thine heart. Say unto wisdom, Thou art my sister; and call understanding thy kinswoman. …” Proverbs 7: 1-4 (King James Version)
I seek Dorothy Day’s wisdom as my spiritual sibling, a friend in times of need.
My search reached greater maturity on a recent and rainy Heartland Saturday, in words from ‘The Reckless Way of Love’, a collection of her notes:
“Pouring rain today. I stayed in, resting – feeling exhausted. Sorrow, grief, exhaust one. Then tonight the prayers, the rosaries I’ve been saying were answered. And the feeling that prayers are indeed answered when we cry out for help was a comfort in itself. I had the assurance that they were answered, though it might not be now. I would not perhaps see the results.”
She certainly had behavioral warts. Who does not? She understood her need for a Savior, a real alternative to this fallen world. Another priceless and honest “Day-ism”:
“I see only too clearly how bad people are. I wish I did not see it so. It is my own sins that give me such clarity. If I did not bear the scars of so many sins to dim my sight and dull my capacity for love and joy, then I would see Christ more clearly in you all.”
“Prayer is as necessary to life as breathing”
Over and over, Dorothy Day is my “Valentine” — in magnificent consistency:
“Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up. If we love each other enough, we will bear with each other’s faults and burdens. If we love enough, we are going to light that fire in the hearts of others. And it is love that will burn out the sins and hatreds that sadden us. It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other. No sacrifice and no suffering will then seem too much.”
And: “The frustrations that we experience are exercises in faith and hope, which are supernatural virtues. With prayer, one can go on cheerfully and even happily, while without prayer, how grim is the journey. Prayer is as necessary to life as breathing. It is drink and food.”
Dorothy could be sad and depressed. In latter years, she missed male companionship that had once been a given, but reached for joy: “We may be living on the verge of eternity – but that should not make us dismal.”
She fused petition with emphatic truth:
“I do know how small I am and how little I can do and I beg you, Lord, to help me, for I cannot help myself. … But we are sowing the seed and it is up to him to bring the increase. It is all in his hands, and we must keep ourselves in peace, first of all. That is where peace begins. He is our peace.”
[For a previously posted personal reflection on faith, see:
Christians believe that fortunate Disciples came to know Jesus in the breaking of bread.
I came to know Servant of God Dorothy Day through reading and reflection – and by volunteering at a ‘House’ (a small food warehouse, actually) adjacent to a school where I taught for three years.
A Novel helped me find her
It was not until I read “Mustang” by novelist John J. Dwyer that I truly felt as if I understood Dorothy Day, as much as one can understand through empathetic reading.
[For a full review of Dwyer’s book, see:
The hero of Dwyer’s novel is Lance Roark, raised a western Oklahoma Mennonite but ultimately an aerial combat hero during World War II.
Dwyer includes a vignette rooted in truth about the leading characters.
Here is my sketch:
American warriors bone-weary of conflict and emotionally drained, encounter, over cups of coffee, a messenger of peace. It is 1945. One of the seasoned combat veterans around the table at a New York City diner is John F. Kennedy, in perpetual pain from wounds suffered in the Pacific Theater of conflict. Lance and others listen as JFK converses with a woman sitting among the war-scarred vets to talk, commiserate and challenge.
The woman is Dorothy Day, arguably the most important American anti-war activist of the middle Twentieth Century. Even with a flask of liquor in his pocket, Lance sticks to coffee as he becomes absorbed with the conversation.
Kennedy defends the almost-over war, and the lady tells him and the others “there are Pearl Harbors every day … in America and throughout the world.”
Kennedy responds, referencing an incident where a co-worker saved (with non-pacifist action) Day from harm, earlier in the day, at a nearby Catholic Worker House.
Conversation deepens. Day evokes (Kennedy would have understood the reference) early Christian writer Tertullian: “The Lord, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.”
For every spoken and unspoken point the brave in the diner make to defend war, she charitably offers Christ. In mere paragraphs (three pages in print), Dwyer captures eternal human debates within Christianity, including Catholicism.
Kennedy explains the reason for war.
She answers with love:
“I know … Jack. I also know your worst injuries are unseen – your back, your pain, walking at all. And I know … about your brother.” (The latter is a reference to the oldest Kennedy brother, Joseph, killed in aerial combat.)
She tells the future president, “We love our country, dear Jack.” To love God, “we must be about the works of mercy rather than the works of war.”
The discussion ends. She walks away, nothing of the superior or distant liberal intellectual in her words or actions. She spoke to men of combat with respect and affection – an equal in every sense.
In Dwyer’s imaginative rendering, the half-century-old lady “slogged through the snowbound night, a cheap scarf over her uncolored hair.”
Lance had disagreed with every point she made, but then recalls, in a shock of recognition, where and when he had first read and heard about Dorothy Day.
During a sojourn of peace at home, Lance’s dear mother had remarked (pointing to a magazine article) that Day was “the most like Jesus of any woman I ever saw.”
In Dwyer’s imaginative yet authentic story, JFK tells his comrades: “I think we shall have wars until such a day as the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.” (Dwyer used a turn of phrase from one of Kennedy’s speeches.)
The shock of Recognition
My shock of self-recognition?
These sentences: I am drawn both to the Warriors and the Days.
Her writings are a work of mercy, her literary legacy an act of love.
In the real world today, dialogue, not demonization, is needed.
That is a two-way and multi-lane street. Demands for unilateral rhetorical disarmament by conservative combatants in the culture war will not yield social justice or societal peace.
And this: One day, I hope to see my Savior, face-to-face. I will then see clearly.
And, if such things are possible in Heaven, I will ask my Lord and My God:
“Can I talk to Dorothy Day?”
NOTE: A member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, McGuigan is founder of CapitolBeatOK.com, an online news organization, and publisher of The City Sentinel newspaper, an independent, locally-owned and non-partisan publication.