This article was originally published on March 31, 2017.
This article is taken from the introduction to a collection of Dorothy Day’s writings, The Reckless Way of Love: Notes on Following Jesus.
I picked up a button about a decade ago with a quote attributed to Dorothy Day on it: “If you have two coats, you have stolen one from the poor.” I loved this saying, loved the strength of conviction, the easy black-and-white application. I read more about Dorothy and became smitten. Her severe face and warm hands and intense sound bites were so soothing to my soul as I first read of her life and work and the Catholic Worker movement she helped start. I affixed that button to the front of my one orange-plaid corduroy coat and tromped around my neighborhood during the cold, gray Portland winters, hoping others would read it and be changed. If I am honest, a part of me wanted others to know how radical I was, how I had eschewed the things of the world, how hard I was trying to follow Jesus.
Now, years later, I have three coats: the orange-plaid corduroy still (even though the pockets have ripped), a raincoat (since I live in Oregon), and a longer, warm coat I bought for the three winters I spent in the Midwest. My Dorothy Day button now lives in a junk drawer, because I can’t bear to wear it if it isn’t true. Should I give one of my coats away? To whom should I give it? I live and work in a refugee and immigrant community; there are dozens of people I know who could use a coat. How do I pick? How do I navigate the enormity of the needs of the world, and my own response to them? I still don’t know. And yet, even as I think these thoughts and feel like a failed radical, the words and life of Dorothy Day mean more to me than ever.
I take some comfort in knowing that Dorothy struggled with these same questions and contradictions throughout her life. Her feelings, I suspect, were complicated, since she was a unique and complex woman. She was driven, proud, dogmatic. She lived with fierce conviction in solidarity with the poor. She was also unsure, doubtful, and depressed from time to time due to the enormity of the suffering surrounding her. From a young age, Dorothy showed evidence of both her passion for justice and her quick mind. She was an activist, a sharp student, a curator of deep conversations. Her biographer, Robert Coles, noted that she was quick to dismiss her early life, preferring to talk instead of her conversion to Catholicism and how she met Peter Maurin, with whom she cofounded the Catholic Worker’s newspaper and houses of hospitality. But the threads of her personality, strong convictions, and engaging writing style were already all there, and her years of struggle and wandering no doubt contributed to her profound empathy for those who suffer.
In her writings you can find diverging thoughts – she writes of always hiding her sadness, and also of the importance of feeling the full force of emotions. These contradictions reassure me, reminding me that she is human like me, and invite me into her journey. Instead of holding her up as a saint to admire, her writings instead portray an ordinary person simply trying to walk the road of following Christ. In documenting this continual journey, Dorothy Day ended up talking constantly about struggle and cultural isolation. As she writes in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”
Community is a buzzword these days, primarily for people who don’t quite understand how taxing true interdependence can be. As someone impatient with platitudes, I have always been drawn to Dorothy Day’s kind of community. I was electrified by the way she wrote about the poor and the suffering and the proper response of the Christian (self-sacrificial love). And I was challenged by the example set by her houses of hospitality, where the homeless and desperate could stay and people could live and work side by side.
Robert Coles remembers how, the first time he met Dorothy, she was chatting with an intoxicated older woman. She looked up and saw Coles waiting and asked him, “Were you waiting to talk to one of us?” Already quite famous, she didn’t assume Coles wanted to talk to her more than he might want to talk to her neighbor. With that simple question, Coles says, “she cut through layers of self-importance, a lifetime of bourgeois privilege, and scraped the hard bone of pride” (Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion, xviii). Dorothy Day had absorbed the beliefs of her beloved Christ so deeply that she truly lived as if everyone was of equal importance in a world that applauds hierarchy and prestige.
I am not Catholic, and yet Dorothy Day’s attitude to faith has impacted me greatly. I grew up in a conservative church that emphasized personal piety and correct doctrine, but at some point those no longer seemed sufficient as guidelines for life lived in community. Living and working with refugees, the challenges that the poor face soon overwhelmed me – they were the splash of cold water that woke me from my stupor. It was then that I discovered Dorothy Day’s books, and she became a guide into a wild new world of following Christ on a downwardly mobile path.
And oh, would I need some wisdom and guidance for that journey! For years I had been too busy “working for the Lord” to spend much time learning from others, especially others who were different from me. I’m a doer. I like to get my hands and feet in the mess of the world. This, I’ll admit, is why the writings of Dorothy Day reached out and grabbed me initially. I identified with her iron will and the practical ways she strove to meet the real and tangible needs of those affected by poverty and war.
What made her such a radical? Was it the kerchief she wore in her hair? Her intense writing style? Her involvement in politics while refusing to be conscripted into any political party? Was it her lack of material possessions or her firm belief in the inherent dignity of all people? Or her commitment to the church despite her differences and disappointments? I thought it was a combination of all of these things when I first discovered Dorothy in my early twenties. Now, over a decade later, I have a different answer: her radicalness stems from the transformative love of Christ she experienced throughout her very long and sometimes very lonely life.
One of Dorothy’s rules of life was to seek the face of Christ in the poor.
Wherever she turned, Dorothy saw Christ up on his cross. One of her rules of life was to seek the face of Christ in the poor. She found him there, and in so many other places. Christ was the person in line for soup and bread; Christ was the drunk woman having the same conversation over and over again; Christ was the enemy combatant; Christ was the priest she disagreed with; Christ was the young person begging for spiritual direction; Christ was in every reader she wrote for, including me, including you.
Dorothy Day’s eyes were first opened to the inequalities of our world when she saw the long lines of people waiting for bread during the Great Depression. Mine were opened the day I realized my refugee neighbors had only been given eight months of assistance by the government and were now expected to be assimilated as fully-functioning members of society. For non-literate, tribal, rural, Muslim Africans plopped down in the middle of Portland, this was ludicrous at best and heartbreaking in reality. I was nineteen years old and dove headfirst into helping these refugee families navigate life in America. I moved into their community and tried to hitch my life to theirs. I ran homework clubs and art classes and English classes. I asked churches and friends and family members to get involved. But life moved on. Volunteers stopped showing up. People weren’t as grateful as I had hoped they would be. Countless hours in waiting rooms and on hold trying to navigate bureaucracies did not feel exactly radical. I tried to help everyone as best as I could, but I was failing miserably.
“She is one of our many failures,” writes Dorothy Day in a letter to a friend, referencing a woman who left the house of hospitality, most likely to more drink and chaos. Life in community with broken people will always include such disappointments. But they can be met with resilience, and with a faith in the eternal significance of a life lived with the suffering. Such a life will never be easy or tidy; the work is endless and will always stretch on before us.
So how do we go forward? If I am honest, at first I was a bit impatient with Dorothy Day’s writings. “Where is the work?” I thought. “Where are all the inspiring stories of her interactions with the poor, the causes of equality that she championed, her countercultural lifestyle choices?” I was, and remain, hungry to hear stories of God’s kingdom coming at the margins of society; I want first-person accounts of the glories and heartbreaks at the frontlines. But in Dorothy Day we find someone who at first blush does not seem all that radical. Instead, she is a woman who reads the Scripture constantly, prays, goes to church, partakes in the sacraments, bakes bread and mops floors, writes letters to her friends. She seems very pious, very devout. She comes across as a borderline mystic, sometimes even a bit ethereal, someone who uses religious imagery constantly.
But we know how entrenched her life was in the lives of the very people Jesus said would be blessed – the poor, the sick, the sad, the oppressed – and her spiritual reflections reflect that reality. They spring up from a place of love, not distance. Dorothy Day was not just a radical at the frontlines, writing screeds and organizing protests (although she did all that too). She was a woman bound to daily service in community, deeply committed to rhythms of prayer, reflection, and solitude. She was someone who wanted to live for Christ her entire life, and so she dedicated hers to growing in awareness and understanding of the love of Jesus.
It still astonishes me that it can be this simple and yet so hard to obey.
It still astonishes me that it can be this simple and yet so hard to obey. The love of Christ is everything. Not the work, not the needs, not the good intentions. It is entering into the wound of love of Christ on the cross, and being transformed by it. Dorothy writes: “How can we ever give up thinking and longing for love, talking of it, preparing ourselves for it, reading of it, studying about it? It is really a great faith in love that never dies.” Her “work” was her relationship with Christ.
This should cause us to question ourselves. Why am I exhausted by mothering small children while trying to create places of welcome in my neighborhood? Why have so many of my friends who have worked hard to bring justice into the world also faltered, their light dimmed after a few short years? How many other would-be disciples could say the same? What is it we truly want for this one life we are given? A frustrated life of service where we drag ourselves along by the bootstraps? Or a sustainable life that is constantly renewed by the inexhaustible love of Christ and our connection to him?
Dorothy Day invites us into the latter. She calls on us to lay down our burdens and instead link arms with other Christ-followers throughout the centuries. The famous images show her fierce and strong and often alone, but in reality she was connected to a great number of saints – through her books and her prayers and her interactions with her neighbors. Here she found the strength to move forward until the very last moment. She did not view herself as an individual, or a radical, or a prophet; she was one of a great many people whom Christ loved. And like a gorgeous, broken vessel, she was filled with that love day after day and spilled it out wherever she went.
Even now the cares of the world weigh on me. The suffering of people is real and devastating, especially for immigrants, refugees, people of color, and those who are not valued as productive citizens. I am surrounded by these people, and here I sit with three coats hanging up in my closet, wondering at what I am to do.
And yet even now, I know. I will pray for faith, and for love, and for peace. I will fight to carve out space in my life for Christ above all else, to be in community with him and the ones he loves. I still long to be like Dorothy Day, but not in the ways I used to. I don’t want to be radical anymore; instead I long to be sustainable, to remain steadfast. I want to walk faithfully in the direction of my Lord, and I don’t want to stop until my very last breath. As Dorothy writes, “Our arms are linked – we try to be neighbors of his, and to speak up for his principles. That’s a lifetime’s job.”