An Encounter with Dorothy Day by Douglas Lavine

I

It was the fall of 1972, and my 22-year-old self had a problem. I was a student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in search of a subject for the master’s thesis I was required to write. My first idea, to explore the booming genre of fantasy writing, failed to inspire my faculty advisor, Frederick T. C. Yu, dean of the school. It failed, truth be told, to inspire me too. Forty-seven years later, I can still remember the sense of urgency I felt when Dean Yu told me to go back to the drawing board.

What about the coterie of Catholic radicals who were so often in the news? I had become intrigued by Father Daniel Berrigan, SJ, whom I had seen speak in Syracuse a year or two before when I was a student at nearby Colgate University. He was articulate, soulful, charismatic, and strikingly handsome. I knew he was an outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam and had served time in federal prison for his involvement with the Catonsville Nine, a group of antiwar protesters who had poured homemade napalm on draft files in Catonsville, Maryland, in May 1968.

I had also heard of his brother, Philip, and others who had a vibrant and, it seemed to me, radical view of their responsibilities as Christians. I was and I am a Jew, and I was proud of the Jewish tradition of social justice that had been engrained in me, borne out of centuries of oppression, degradation, and mass murder culminating in the Holocaust, but had always thought the Catholic Church was a staid institution promoting traditional ideas and conservative values. Who were these people, and where did they come from? Dean Yu thought writing about them was a fine project and gave me the green light. The idea of exploring this foreign terrain was exciting.

My research led me to contact Jim Forest, a man who I was told had also served time protesting the Vietnam War. I tracked Jim down and interviewed him. He was, I learned, a writer and a devout convert to Catholicism who had spent years with the Catholic Worker newspaper. He had served in the navy before becoming an antiwar activist and member of the Milwaukee Fourteen, whose members had burned draft files in Milwaukee in September 1968.

Listen: Dorothy Day on the History of the Catholic Worker

I had never really paid attention to the Catholic Worker movement and barely knew what it was. Jim told me all about the movement, its newspaper, and the “Catholic Left,” as it was then called. He explained to me that the Catholic Worker movement had been started by Dorothy Day and a French itinerant priest named Peter Maurin. The more he talked to me about various figures in the Catholic antiwar movement, the more apparent it became that they had all been heavily influenced by the Catholic Worker and that they viewed Dorothy Day as a sort of spiritual godmother. (I am sorry to say that I have fallen out of touch with Jim, who now lives in the Netherlands, but readers of this journal may be familiar with books he has written about Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Daniel Berrigan, all of whom he knew. He also introduced me to the work of two other men he knew, Henri Nouwen and Thich Nhat Hanh, before they became mainstream spiritual luminaries.)

I did my homework and read Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, interviewed people who knew her and who had been involved with the Catholic Worker movement, and developed a general sense of who she was and how her life had evolved. Coincidentally, I was permitted by the journalism school to take one elective each semester. One day as I entered the campus main entrance at 116th Street, I looked to my left and saw a dark-haired man wearing a beret, waiting to cross the street. It was Daniel Berrigan. I learned that he was teaching a course through Woodstock Seminary on the Book of Revelation, and that I could take it. I did, later in the school year, and as I had gotten to know Jim, so I got a taste of this remarkable poet, teacher, and prophetic figure.

Listen: Dorothy Day on Loneliness

The more I learned about Dorothy Day, the more interested I became in her journey. Who was this woman who had been espousing anarchist, communalist, and human liberationist doctrines for over 40 years? who had been marching and going to jail for protesting wars, nuclear weapons, racism, and exploitation? who had been actually living an alternative? Who was this 75-year-old woman who had been publishing the Catholic Worker newspaper since May 1933, and who had established houses of hospitality around the country providing food, shelter, and clothing to drunken, destitute, sick and scared and alienated people, hobos and tramps, counterculture dropouts, soldiers from various wars with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anyone else who had heard about “the work,” as, I later learned, she called it? I decided to find out.

II

I am not, and do not purport to be, an expert on Dorothy Day, her life, or the Catholic Worker movement. Ohers knew her personally, meticulously researched her life, wrote books about her, and worked with her. Many of the things I recount have been written and reported elsewhere. But I have twin goals in writing this article. First, I want people—especially younger Catholics—to know that they can claim her as a part of their heritage in a time when issues of social justice are front and center. And second, I want in my own small way to bring life to this remarkable woman. As many readers undoubtedly know, the process of considering whether Dorothy Day should be formally recognized as a saint has begun. This is a woman who surely deserves to be recognized in the centuries to come.

Dorothy Day was born in Bath Beach, Brooklyn, on November 8, 1897, and spent most of her early years in Staten Island and New York City. As a child, she and her siblings moved to California, where she experienced the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The family picked up and moved to Chicago. Young Dorothy spent her girlhood years there and gained an awareness of the misery of big-city slums. Her college career consisted of two years at the University of Illinois at Urbana, and it was during this time that she read all of Dostoevsky’s works, which she would quote throughout her life.

During this time she became a socialist, and moved to New York where she landed a five-dollar-a-week job as a reporter for the radical New York Call. She reported on the labor and peace movements, among many other things. After leaving the Call to write for The Masses, another radical paper, she had her first prison experience during the administration of President Woodrow Wilson—10 hungry, soul-searching days in a Washington, DC, jail as the sentence for a protest by suffragettes seeking to gain women the right to vote. (Her last arrest would occur over half a century later, as part of a United Farm Workers demonstration.)

Listen: Dorothy Day on the Lordstown Strike

Back in New York, Day became a drinking buddy of a young playwright named Eugene O’Neil, had an abortion, and then a child out of wedlock. She later denied assertions that she could drink the man who would become one of America’s most fêted playwrights “under the table.” She tried nursing for a year, traveled in Europe for six months, and then made her way back to New York City, where she did odd jobs. In The Long Loneliness she writes of her feelings of emptiness and despair and her desperate search for meaning and purpose during this time. Gradually, she left her atheism behind and became fully committed to the Catholic Church. But she maintained her radical stance for the rest of her life.

In 1924 she bought a beach bungalow on Raritan Bay on Staten Island, where she spent many hours walking and sitting on the beach, contemplating the beauty of the water and the mysteries of life. She began to develop an intensified interest in religion, to the chagrin of many of her radical friends. She started to pray daily and began going to Mass regularly. In March 1927, she gave birth to a girl, Tamar, but her decision to baptize the child and convert caused a split with her partner, Forster Batterham, an anarchist who opposed any ties to institutional religion. She lived in Staten Island until 1931, when she moved with her daughter to an apartment on 15th Street in Manhattan.

One day in 1932, following a protest, Day returned to her apartment where, as she describes in The Long Loneliness, she found a

short, stocky man in his mid-fifties, as ragged as any of the marchers I had left. The man introduced himself briefly: “I am Peter Maurin,” he said. He pronounced Maw-rin, with the accent on the first syllable, deliberately anglicizing the word. “George Schuster, editor of The Commonweal, told me to look you up. Also, a red-headed Irish communist in Union Square told me to see you. He says we think alike.”

A French Catholic who eschewed civil and religious conventions, Maurin lived an itinerant life in emulation of the Gospels, proselytizing about the need to live simply and help the poor, avoid the accumulation of money and material things, and rely on the generosity of others for food and lodging. But most interesting, perhaps, was his mode of written communication. He expressed his views in what he called “Easy Essays,” short, poem-like statements encapsulating his philosophy on all manner of subjects.

Listen: Dorothy Day on Hospitality

Peter and Dorothy were an odd couple, a match made in heaven, and from their meeting the Catholic Worker movement was born. Prompted by Maurin’s view of what the Gospel demanded of its followers, Dorothy began to put her religious and political beliefs into action. The first issue of the Catholic Worker was sold on May Day 1933, and by 1935 the paper had a circulation of 35,000.

Day had a strong background in journalism, and her writing for the paper was captivating and poignant. The sanctity of the individual human being, and the imperative to fight poverty, oppression, and cruelty, were her ever-present themes. She abhorred violence, and staked out the extreme position—which she believed her faith required—that violence was never justified. An example of the blunt expression of her views is what she wrote after the United States dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945.

Many, probably most, Americans thought the decision was justified as a way of ending the war against a militaristic, fascistic regime that, it was believed, would fight to the last man, resulting in the deaths of thousands upon thousands of American soldiers. I remember asking two men who had served in the war what they thought of President Harry Truman’s decision to drop the bombs. They were both fine, thoughtful men, progressive in their politics. Both had served on battleships where, they assumed, they would be part of a force tasked with invading Japan. And both said that Truman’s decision had probably saved their lives. I have visited Hiroshima and saw the spot where the bomb exploded, vaporizing thousands of people. One of my most vivid memories is seeing a set of concrete steps on display in the museum memorializing the bombing. On the steps, the shadow outline of a human being is burned into the concrete.

Listen: Dorothy Day on Protests and the Media

Day found the decision to drop the bombs to be an abomination. In her column in the September 1945 edition of the Catholic Worker, she wrote:

Mr. Truman was jubilant. President Truman. True man; what a strange name, come to think of it. We refer to Jesus Christ as true God and true Man. Truman is a true man of his time in that he was jubilant. He was not a son of God, brother of Christ, brother of the Japanese, jubilating as he did. He went from table to table on the cruiser which was bringing him home from the Big Three conference, telling the great news; “jubilant” the newspapers said. Jubilate Deo. We have killed 318,000 Japanese.

That is, we hope we have killed them, the Associated Press, on page one, column one of the Herald Tribune, says. The effect is hoped for, not known. It is to be hoped they are vaporized, our Japanese brothers—scattered, men, women and babies, to the four winds, over the seven seas. Perhaps we will breathe their dust into our nostrils, feel them in the fog of New York on our faces, feel them in the rain . . .

III

Back in 1973, I knew I had yet to learn. I knew that to do justice to my thesis, I would have to speak to Dorothy Day myself. I was able to arrange to spend five days at the Catholic Worker farm in Tivoli, New York, where she often stayed, and was promised an interview with her.

I still remember looking out the window during the bus ride up to Tivoli, located a little more than 110 miles north of Manhattan in the Hudson River Valley. The whole trip, I wondered what was in store for me. The idea of speaking with a living legend made me nervous. I learned later that Day hated being viewed as a saint or a holy woman. “Don’t call me a saint,” she once said. “I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

Listen: Dorothy Day on Women in Prison

When I arrived, I found a simple but clean country environment. I don’t recall how many visitors were there, but there were quite a few. They were required to do work and in return were provided safe surroundings, a bed to sleep in, and food to eat. Interacting with them, it was plain to see that most—all men, as I recall—were more than just “down on their luck.” Today they would be referred to as homeless or unhoused. But in those days, many people would have simply called them bums or hobos—rootless, emotionally and mentally adrift, and maladapted. Some of them were suffering from what we would now recognize as PTSD, scarred by their service in World War II, the Korean War, and perhaps other wars and conflicts.

I recall one incident in particular. One of the men complained that he was in a bad mood because it was President Richard Nixon’s birthday. In an attempt to make conversation, I said something innocuous, such as, “That’s no reason to be in a bad mood.” He exploded and started screaming. “How dare you tell me what kind of a mood I should be in!” he shrieked at the trembling culprit—me. “You sir, are a man of leisure. I know your kind. I, on the other hand, am a working man—five years in the army and five years on the road before coming here!”

That was my introduction to hobo culture. I learned that different men—again, mostly men—traveled different “circuits,” staying in the same places every year, and connecting up with other men of the road. There were places that would offer them a bed or a floor and some food. Many had exotic nicknames, like Minnesota Mike or Chicago Charlie. This was a whole world I knew nothing about.

Listen: Dorothy Day on Human Fellowship

After a few days, I had seen Dorothy Day but had not yet talked with her. I was starting to get nervous that my brief stay would come to a close with me missing out on the reason I had come.

But then, a day or two before I was scheduled to leave, I was told she would meet with me for an interview. As I gathered my thoughts and mentally reviewed my knowledge of her life, I wondered if she would come across as self-righteous or saintly or otherworldly. I have come to understand that there is a huge difference between holding and expressing, with passion, principled beliefs, and worshipping them. To put it otherwise, think there is a certain tendency in crusaders of the left, right, and center to engage in what I would call the idolatry of their own beliefs—a righteous sense that they alone know the truth, and that others would accept the truth if only others could see things as clearly as them. They may think they can shame or bludgeon people into accepting their views, rather than rely on the normal tools of persuasion—logic, lucidity, respect for the facts, and empathy for the listener’s point of view. Because I do not believe that, in most instances, there is only one truth, and even if I did, that any mortal can have a full grasp of it, I have always been put off by people, no matter their beliefs or political persuasion, who think there is only one way to perceive truth—their way. True believers, I think, are among the finest—and the most potentially dangerous—people in the world.

But I can say that, as we sat down at a wooden table and she permitted me to record our session, Dorothy Day exhibited no fanaticism. She stated her views with a calm and quiet voice, clearly and resolutely but without a hint of self-righteousness. When World War II began, she had resolutely stuck to a pacifist position, even as Hitler conquered Europe and left a murderous trail of death and genocide in the wake of his jackbooted armies. She felt that Hitler was no more to blame than the French or British leaders who had imposed on Germany the onerous Treaty of Versailles. She told me that “the blame rests upon the peoples of the entire world, for their materialism, their greed, their idolatrous nationalism, their refusal to believe in a just peace, for their ruthless subjection of a noble country—Hitler is incidental; the war must have come sooner or later under the circumstances.” But her pacifistic view was personal, she stated; she bore no ill will toward those who had chosen to fight. This made me sigh with relief, because I believed, and still do, that those who had fought in World War II had saved the world from the unthinkable horror of Nazi rule. In fact, I wonder if I and my family would have survived if the Nazis had prevailed—not to mention the Jewish remnant in Europe, as well as millions of innocent non-Jewish men, women, and children.

Listen: Dorothy Day on World War II

I found Day to be passionate but soft-spoken. Though she was 75 when I interviewed her, her recollection of people and events was precise, detailed, and, in a word, stunning. She had a wonderful sense of humor and a gentle, beautiful, playful laugh, sweet and innocent and almost childlike. She was down-to-earth, unpretentious, and asked me a number of questions. She was patient as I kept her up well beyond her intended bedtime.

She had had amazing friends. I knew she had been close with Mike Gold, a well-known radical and the author of a famous book, Jews Without Money, but she told me she had been engaged to him for two years, much to the chagrin of his observant mother. Once, when she was disheartened, Gold boosted her spirits by telling her, “Dorothy, you must have faith in people.” She was close with Eugene O’Neil for only about three months. He had a turbulent love life and a drinking problem—no secret. “He was not a very cheerful person,” she stated pithily.

She had read more books in her life than anyone I have ever known. I was surprised at her deep connection with Jews and Jewish writers. She had many of Elie Weisel’s books and loved Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, which reminded her of the tales of the Zen masters and desert monks. She was an honorary member of the 28th Street Bal Shen Tov synagogue in New York. Once, while speaking in Pittsburgh, she was heckled by followers of the rabidly antisemitic Father Charles Coughlin who called her a “Jew lover.” “One time when I said Jesus was a Jew, they said, ‘He’s a long time dead.’ What kind of answer is that?” she recalled.

Listen: Dorothy Day on the Book of Hosea

There was enormous common sense and wisdom in everything she said. Her conversation was peppered with trenchant aphorisms: “We don’t know the suffering of others.” “The history of the world is chaos and despair.” “Man is put here to make choices, and then he has to live by the consequences, but God never forsakes him.” The church, she said, is always going to have “cowardice, the failure, the corruption. And yet over and over again you’re going to have the saints, too.” She felt that people “hung” the entire Catholic Worker movement on her because she was a woman “and also because they can minimize it.” When I related to her the story of the man who had yelled at me—iterations of which she had probably experienced countless times over the decades—she said something I will never forget: “We always have to remember, you know, that all of these men were once helpless little babies in their mother’s arms.”

IV

The interview became the basis for my master’s thesis, which I submitted in a slightly modified version to the National Catholic Reporter. The editors got back to me and said they liked it, but asked if I could edit the piece so there was a little less of me and a little more of Dorothy Day. Embarrassed, I made changes and sent it back in.

My story appeared on the cover of the June 8, 1973, issue. The headline read “40 Years of Works of Mercy.” Gracing the front page was a beautiful picture of Dorothy taken by Bob Fitch, a renowned photographer of the antiwar movement. It shows a side view of Dorothy, her white hair braided around her head, sitting at her desk, carefully placing a piece of paper into her typewriter. Inside is a wonderful picture of her wearing a cap and heavy coat, walking in the woods and trailed by a tiny white cat.

Listen: Dorothy Day on Forgiveness and Beauty

Several weeks ago, while self-quarantining because of the Covid-19 pandemic, I did what many of us confined to our homes have probably been doing. I went through old boxes and started throwing out things that I no longer needed. In one of the boxes was a large manila envelope dating to the time I was at Columbia. It was labeled “Tapes of interview with Dorothy Day.” I had thought it was lost, but there it was. And then, for the first time in 47 years, I listened to my interview with Dorothy.

I am delighted that Today’s American Catholic has decided to share these never-before-heard audio clips from that interview. Reading an interview can be stimulating and informative, but hearing the voice of the interviewee brings it alive in a very different way—particularly when the interviewee is someone of the historic stature of Dorothy Day. Hearing some of these little gems will, I hope, give the reader a better sense of who she was as a very real human being.

An entry for June 6, 1973, in The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day (ed. Robert Ellsberg, Orbis Books, 2008) mentions that a “fellow writing a paper for Columbia” had published an interview in the National Catholic Reporter. Her comment: “More personality cult.” Ouch! That is as close, I am sure, as I will ever get to sainthood. Not very close.

Listen: Dorothy Day on Church Renewal

As I think back, I wonder if I could ever discern a halo around this amazing woman’s head during my brief encounter with her. I know nothing about saints and what qualifies a person to be one. She seemed to me to be thoroughly human and very down-to-earth, after all, in her appearance, her speech, and her demeanor. But I have no doubt that her deep devotion to God, her stubborn, lifelong insistence on helping her fellow human beings, and her fierce devotion to her vision of the Gospel is what made her quite a bit more than the average grace-filled person, no matter what their faith.

I consider myself very lucky to have met Dorothy Day, and I will never forget my brief but illuminating interaction with her. It was, to be sure, one of the greatest and most memorable experiences of my life.

Douglas Lavine resides in West Hartford, Connecticut. His essay “The Spiritual Lessons of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address” appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Today’s American Catholic.

2 replies
  1. Lynne Centore
    Lynne Centore says:

    How fortunate for you and the readers of TAC that you rediscovered your tapes interviewing Dorothy Day. Revisiting them after almost 50 years must have been a wonderful reminder of the opportunity you had to speak with the founder of the Catholic Worker as well as a woman destined for sainthood.
    What I found so refreshing in reading your article was the opportunity I had to take a visual pause from the written word, touch the sound bar, close my eyes and listen to you and Dorothy converse on her life and passions.

    Thank you for sharing the article, the audio, and a piece of your past.
    Lynne Centore

    Reply
  2. Gene Ciarlo
    Gene Ciarlo says:

    Douglas…
    You are a humble man and a seeker of truth. I appreciate your openness, honesty and simplicity. Like Dorothy.

    Reply

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