In my last blog post, I shared the beginning of Dorothy Day’s journey toward faith and her distinct leaning toward social justice. It was the integration of these two aspects of Dorothy’s understanding of the world that shaped both her work and life. There was something about her desire to know God and her view of people on the outside that brought her mission in life into focus.
A primary driving force for Dorothy was seeing those who were oppressed in the systemic divide created during the industrial revolution and the depression. The world experienced great suffering as the gap grew between those in power, business owners, and their workers. Unions were viewed as an affront, linking them to feared socialism. This was a tumultuous time where people were either thrown into poverty or looking out for their own self-interests. Those who were different from others were seen as the enemy. The church navigated this growing divide between the haves and the have-nots with a thrust toward evangelism, “saving souls,” over taking care of basic needs.(1)
Dorothy continued fighting for social justice through journalism and protests. This mission in her life gave her purpose, but she desired to love and be loved. She became involved in a controlling romantic relationship, but when she became pregnant, her boyfriend wanted to end it. Dorothy had an abortion to try to keep him, but he ended the relationship anyway. Dorothy became depressed and suicidal. As she looked back over her life, she could see that her desire to love and be loved was a guiding influence in her search for God. After her abortion, she continued to have gynecological problems and feared she would never be able to become pregnant again.(2)
Dorothy moved to Staten Island after selling the movie rights to her first book.(3) She sought a restful space to continue to write. During this time, she met and fell in love with Forster, an anarchist and biologist. Forster did not want to commit fully, so they were never married. He cared for Dorothy yet lived as if he was single. In spite of this, Dorothy experienced a greater happiness than she had understood was possible. Living with Forster awakened in Dorothy an understanding of her desire to be loved, leading her to pray.(4) It seemed living with Forster awakened her desire for more of God. Forster was against religion and argued that Dorothy’s preoccupation with faith was “morbid escapism.”(5)
This was an arrangement that Dorothy could live with until she became pregnant. At 29, she felt she would never be able to become pregnant again, and she experienced this as a precious gift. She wanted to raise her child with religion and was also aware of the cost if she did so. She didn’t want this baby to wonder and wander through life, as she had, without knowing about God.(6)
After Tamar Teresa, named after Teresa of Avila, was born, Dorothy was in conflict over what to do. Yet, she knew all along what choice she would make.(7) A nun helped her go through the process to have her baby baptized, learn about Catholicism, and to become baptized herself. Forster left her many times during this time. Dorothy became sick with the stress of wanting two things that couldn’t coexist, following her desire toward God and living with Forster.(8) She was falling in love with God and desired to be united to her Love, as obedient, chaste, and poor.(9)
After Forster left, she left Staten Island and took up journalism jobs once again. She became incredibly lonely, realizing that neither child or husband met her need for deep community. Through this time, her spiritual life deepened.(10) She discovered that women, even all of humankind, desired community. One experience that supported this understanding was becoming severely ill with the flu in Chicago. There wasn’t a supportive community available to her as a single parent in illness.(11)
Dorothy continued to be passionate in her stand against social justice issues and was bothered by the absence of Catholics in the struggle. She participated in a hunger strike in 1932, a march organized by the Communist-led Unemployed Councils; demanding relief and condemning evictions.(12)
In her confusion, Dorothy met a Peter Maurin. He had been told Dorothy was someone he needed to meet, and he became a teacher and mentor for Dorothy. In reality, they were a gift to one another. Peter brought the background Dorothy needed in Catholic history and a vision forward for the Catholic Worker Movement. Dorothy brought the energy and perseverance necessary for the work ahead.(13)
Peter’s vision was “building a new society within the shell of the old.” He saw more for the world, and he believed that the way to God was through humankind. Humankind could do great things, if only it were open toward God. The gift rooted deeply in both Peter and Dorothy was their understanding of seeing and loving the Christ in others.(14)
Together they formed the Catholic Worker Movement, developing a paper to help inform the worker and the unemployed. They taught the importance of living in community like Jesus did, individual action for social justice, pacifism, and voluntary poverty. In their teaching, they spoke against many of the political issues facing 20th Century America.
In the first issue, Dorothy writes that the purpose of the paper was to inform the reader that there was a social program in the Catholic church concerned not only about the readers’ spiritual but also their material welfare. Dorothy continues to ask the question of the possibility of being radical within a belief in God. That one would not need to become an atheist to care about others. The first edition was published by donations and scrimping from their monthly expenses.(15) The paper to this day is still run on donations, and a copy may be purchased for a penny.(16)
In 1933, when the paper started, there were 13,000,000 unemployed people.(17) Dorothy saw a need and worked diligently, within her faith of God, to meet people in their need. In Dorothy’s desire for God, she was moved to live out the incarnation with people, those who were oppressed on the sides of society. She was not content to only help those in need. She desired to be right in the midst of life with those who were on the outside. In my next post, we will take a look at her ministry as it developed.
(1) Nancy Koester, Introduction to the History of Christianity in the United States, Kindle (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), loc. 4892-4916.
(2) Miller, Dorothy Day: A Biography, 138–40, 181.
(3) William D. Miller, Dorothy Day: A Biography, 1st ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982),163.
(4) Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day (Chicago, Ill.: Thomas More Press, 1989), 135, 139-142.
(5) Miller, Dorothy Day, 188.
(6) Day, The Long Loneliness, 165.
(7) Ibid., 165–67.
(8) Miller, Dorothy Day, 190.
(9) Day, The Long Loneliness, 177–78.
(10) Ibid., 187–88.
(11) Miller, Dorothy Day, 208, 211.
(12) Albert J. Raboteau, American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 71.
(13) Day, The Long Loneliness, 202.
(14) Ibid., 203-204.
(15) Dorothy Day, “To Our Readers,” Catholic Worker Movement, May 1933, http://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/articles/12.html.
(16) Raboteau, American Prophets, 77.
(17) Day, The Long Loneliness, 218.
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!