Why Dorothy Day Matters

Why Dorothy Day Matters June 14, 2018
A painting of Dorothy Day. Flickr.

In a piece entitled “Dorothy Day: The Model You Want,” a friend once wrote:

I suspect that Peter, also Chase, Bishop Barron, and I, see something more in Day than just fidelity to the Church. We see goodness and heroism. We see a desire to take Jesus at His word far greater than we manage. Instructions we treat as metaphors — turn the other cheek, go the second mile, give someone your second coat — she lived out at great cost to herself. (David Mills)

David is right, of course. Dorothy’s radicalism, her unbashful commitment to the idea that Christianity could be both pious and revolutionary, played a key role in my becoming Catholic. I’ve often felt that she’s unassailable, uncondemnable; whether you like her politics or not, you shall know them by their fruits. Who could call the product of her life’s labor rotten?

David is, of course, also right to point out that such an expectation is untenable:

Yet, because we can’t have nice things, some Catholics make fun of Dorothy Day for her politics. They attack her as a crank, a fool, a fanatic, at best a naive and gullible utopian and anti-American. She’s their poster child for absurd liberalism. Her great faith and her heroic life count for nothing with them. (David Mills)

Dorothy probably would’ve considered herself a “crank, a fool, [and] a fanatic.” The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom has the priest intone: “Holy gifts for holy people.” Also, we sing: “One is holy. One is Lord: Jesus Christ.” Something tells me an old bag-lady (as I once heard her described by a priest who knew her) wouldn’t mind being called a crank and a fool when there is only one who is holy, who can make any of us even remotely holy.

But re-reading David’s piece, coupled with one of my own periodic bouts of melancholia got me thinking: there’s another reason she matters, to my anyway. One could say this in any number of ways: she reminds us to commit ourselves to the poor, she reminds us that all people—no matter how sinful, man, woman, child, old, or young—have a role to play in salvation. But, for me, in the moment, she matters for a very particular reason.

Dorothy Day reminds us of the truth of what conservative Canadian philosopher George Grant often liked to repeat: “It always matters what each of us does.”

It’s very easy (for me anyway) to become discouraged. I tell myself I will do the right thing. I tell myself I’ll treat others well. I tell myself I’ll be loving, kind, courageous, and joyous. But life has a way of getting in the way. I may consecrate myself to this goal in the morning only to find my eagerness transformed into disgust—disgust at others, at the world, and, inevitably, at myself for allowing myself to be disgusted. Others remain locked outside; I pervert the words of the liturgy in my own mind: “yes, one is holy. There’s little hope for the rest of us.”

But then there is Dorothy Day—cranky, wrinkled, yes, a fanatic. She tried. She matters because she tried, because she refused to give an inch, because she put herself out there day after day among the filthy, the huddled masses, and, harder, among those with whom she disagreed, with the isolated and cynical, the self-serving and self-righteous. And yet she emerged, dare I say, holy.

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