Dorothy Day’s Pro Life Witness Demonstrates God’s Mercy

Dorothy Day

Public Catholic reader Manny, who has his own blog at J’s Cafe Nette posted a link to this article in the comments on my earlier post, Dorothy Day: The Woman Who Loved Much. I like Manny’s link so much I decided to put it here.

Dorothy Day’s abortion and subsequent conversion and life of sacrifice for human life and dignity are a remarkable are a powerful reminder to women who are abortion survivors that nothing … nothing … is greater than God’s all-encompassing mercy which comes to us through the shed blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The article Manny linked to and others like it can be found at The Catholic Resource Center.  Please pay them a visit and see what they have.

Here is the article in full:

Dorothy Day’s Pro-Life Memories

DAN LYNCH

I wish every woman who has ever suffered an abortion would come to know Dorothy Day. Her story was so typical. Made pregnant by a man who insisted she have an abortion, who then abandoned her anyway, she suffered terribly for what she had done, and later pleaded with others not to do the same.

Dorothy Day

“But later, too, after becoming a Catholic, she learned the love and mercy of the Lord, and knew she never had to worry about His forgiveness. [This is why I have never condemned a woman who has had an abortion; I weep with her and ask her to remember Dorothy Day's sorrow but to know always God's loving mercy and forgiveness.] She had died before I became Archbishop of New York, or I would have called on her immediately upon my arrival. Few people have had such an impact on my life, even though we never met.”

Thus spoke the late Cardinal John J. O’Connor. The remainder of this article substantially contains Dorothy Day’s actual words as edited and sometimes paraphrased by Dan Lynch. The information concerning her abortion was obtained from her biographers and her autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin. Dorothy never publicly wrote or spoke about her abortion. Her writings may be found at CatholicWorker.org.

Dorothy Day: I hobbled down the darkened stairwell of the Upper East Side flat in New York City. My steps were unsteady. My left arm held the banister tightly. My right arm clutched my abdomen. It was burning in pain. I walked out onto the street alone in the dark. It was in September of 1919. I was twenty-one years old and I had just aborted my baby.

Lionel, my boyfriend, promised to pick me up at the flat after it was all over. I waited in pain from nine a.m. to ten p.m. but he never came. When I got home to his apartment I found only a note. He said he had left for a new job and, regarding my abortion, that I “was only one of God knows how many millions of women who go through the same thing. Don’t build up any hopes. It is best, in fact, that you forget me.”

I wrote about this experience in my autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin. In my youth I had thought that the greatest gift that life could offer would be a faith in God and a hereafter. But then there were too many people passing through my life, — too many activities — too much pleasure (not happiness). The life of the flesh called to me as a good and wholesome life, regardless of God’s laws. What was good and what was evil? It is easy enough to stifle conscience for a time. The satisfied flesh has its own law. How much time I wasted during those years! I had fallen a long way from my youthful ideals. When I was fifteen I wrote, “I am working always, always on guard, praying without ceasing to overcome all physical sensations and be purely spiritual.”

But these “physical sensations” allured me. I lived a social-activist Bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village, New York City. I think back and remember myself, hurrying along from party to party, and all the friends, and the drinking, and the talk, and the crushes, and falling in love. I fell in love with a newspaperman named Lionel Moise. I got pregnant. He said that if I had the baby, he would leave me. I wanted the baby but I wanted Lionel more. So I had the abortion and I lost them both.

I later wrote in my autobiography,The Long Loneliness, “For a long time [after my abortion] I had thought I could not bear a child, and the longing in my heart for a baby had been growing.”

In 1924 I started a “live-in” relationship with Forster Batterham, an atheist and an anarchist. He believed in nothing except personal freedom to do as you please. We took up residence in a beach bungalow on Staten Island, New York. We foreshadowed the hippies of the sixties and lived a carefree lifestyle living off the land and sea — gardening, fishing and claming. I thought that we would be contributing to the misery of the world if we failed to rejoice in the sun, the moon, and the stars, in the rivers which surrounded the island on which we lived and in the cool breezes of the bay. Like Dostoevsky, I began to believe that the world would be saved by beauty. It was this beautiful, natural world that slowly led me back to God. “How can there be no God,” I asked Forster, “when there are all these beautiful things?”

However, I felt that my home was not a home without a child. For a long time I had thought that I could not have a child. No matter how much one is loved or one loves, that love is lonely without a child. It is incomplete. Soon I became pregnant again. I saw this as a miracle from God because I thought that He had left me barren after the abortion. I wrote in a letter to a friend, “I always rather expected an ugly grotesque thing which only I could love; expecting perhaps to see my sins in the child.”

On the contrary, I gave birth to a beautiful daughter, Tamar Teresa, on March 4, 1926. I remembered that the labor pains swept over me like waves in the beautiful rhythm of the sea. When I became bored and impatient with the steady restlessness of those waves of pain, I thought of all the other and more futile kinds of pain I would rather not have had. Toothaches, earaches, and broken arms. I had had them all. And this was a much more satisfactory and accomplishing pain, I comforted myself.

I thought about famous men who wrote about childbirth such as Tolstoy and O’Neill and I thought, “What do they know about it, the idiots.” It gave me pleasure to imagine one of them in the throes of childbirth. How they would groan and holler and rebel. And wouldn’t they make everybody else miserable around them. And there I was, conducting a neat and tidy job.

The waves of pain became tidal waves. Earthquake and fire swept my body. Through the rush and roar of the cataclysm that was all about me, I heard the murmur of the doctor and the answered murmur of the nurse at my head. In a white blaze of thankfulness I heard faint about the clamor in my ears, a peculiar squawk. They handed my baby to me. I placed her on my full breast where she mouthed around, too lazy to tug for food. I thought, “What do you want, little bird? That it should run into your mouth, I suppose. But no, you must work for your provender already!”

No matter how cynically or casually the worldly may treat the birth of a child, it remains spiritually and physically a tremendous event. God pity the woman who does not feel the fear, the awe, and the joy of bringing a child into the world.

I was filled with awe of my baby’s new life and in gratitude to God I wanted her to be baptized in the Catholic Church. I did not want my child to flounder as I had often floundered. I wanted to believe, and I wanted my child to believe, and if belonging to the Church would give her so inestimable a grace as faith in God, and the companionable love of the Saints then the thing to do was to have her baptized a Catholic. This was the final straw for Forster who wanted nothing to do with any commitments or what he termed as my “absorption in the supernatural”.

I knew that I was going to have my child baptized a Catholic, cost what it may. I knew I was not going to have her floundering as I had done, doubting and hesitating, undisciplined and amoral. I felt it was the greatest thing I could do for my child.

So Tamar was baptized in June. For myself, I prayed for the gift of faith. I was sure, yet not sure. I postponed the day of decision. To become a Catholic meant for me to give up a mate with whom I was much in love. It got to the point where it was the simple question of whether I chose God or man. I chose God and I lost Forster. I was baptized on the Feast of The Holy Innocents, December 28, 1927. It was something I had to do. I was tired of following the devices and desires of my own heart, of doing what I wanted to do, what my desires told me to do, which always seemed to lead me astray. The cost was the loss of the man I loved, but it paid for the salvation of my child and myself.

I painfully described this loss in The Long Loneliness: “For a woman who had known the joys of marriage, yes, it was hard. It was years before I awakened without that longing for a face pressed against my breast, an arm around my shoulder. The sense of loss was there. It was a price I had paid. I was Abraham who had sacrificed Isaac. And yet I had Isaac, I had Tamar.”

I always had a great regret for my abortion. In fact, I tried to cover it up and to destroy as many copies of The Eleventh Virgin as I could find. But my priest chided me and said, “You can’t have much faith in God if you’re taking the life given to you and using it that way. God is the one who forgives us if we ask, and it sounds like you don’t even want forgiveness — just to get rid of the books.” I never forgot what the priest pointed out — the vanity or pride at work in my heart. Since that time I wasn’t as worried as I had been. If you believe in the mission of Jesus Christ, then you’re bound to try to let go of your past, in the sense that you are entitled to His forgiveness. To keep regretting what was, is to deny God’s grace.

After my conversion, I struggled to support my child as a single parent working as a free-lance writer. In December 1932 I was in Washington D.C. covering the Hunger March of the Unemployed. Watching the ragged men marching moved my sense of social justice and I was inspired to go to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to pray. I cried out to God in anguish that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.

When I returned to New York, I found waiting for me an unkempt man with fire in his eyes. Immediately he began preaching to me in a thick French accent his grand vision for social justice. His name was Peter Maurin and together we founded the Catholic Worker Movement.

We opened houses of hospitality for the poor, the hungry, the homeless, and for abused women and pregnant mothers. We practiced the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. One day thirty year old Elizabeth came to us at the end of her pregnancy. Her husband was a drug addict. It was New Year’s Eve, the eve of the Feast of the Holy Family. He came to our house drugged and sat at supper asleep while his wife fed him.

I called the ambulance but he refused their help. He muttered, “She’s my wife. She has to stick to me. She has to take care of me.” Oh, I thought, The distortion of the idea of the Holy Family. She has to take care of him and she’s about to bear his child! But we had a little bed ready for the baby, and a box of pretty garments, and she was happy as she looked at them, and there was even gaiety in our midst as we sat around the fire and had a cup of tea in the holiday spirit.

I’ll never forget the time that I had to literally stand up against birth control. My sister Della had worked for Margaret Sanger, foundress of Planned Parenthood. When Della exhorted me that I shouldn’t encourage my daughter Tamar to have so many children, I stood up firmly and walked out of the house whereupon Della ran after me weeping, saying, “Don’t leave me, don’t leave me. We just won’t talk about it again.” To me, birth control and abortion are genocide. I say, make room for children, don’t do away with them. I learned that prevention of conception when the act that one is performing is for the purpose of fusing the two lives more closely and so enrich them that another life springs forth and the aborting of a life conceived are sins that are great frustrations in the natural and spiritual order.

The Sexual Revolution is a complete rebellion against authority, natural and supernatural, even against the body and its needs, its natural functions of child bearing. This is not reverence for life, it is a great denial and more resembles Nihilism than the revolution that they think they are furthering.

Once I asked a man why he signed a petition for the Rosenbergs who had been convicted of treason in the fifties. “It is because I am against capital punishment,” he said. In other words, he, as the rest of us, is in favor of life — life until natural death.

I was happy that I could be with my mother the last few weeks of her life, and for the last ten days at her bedside daily and hourly. Sometimes I thought that it was like being present at a birth to sit by a dying person and see their intentness on what is happening to them. It almost seems that one is absorbed in a struggle, a fearful, grim, physical struggle, to breathe, to swallow, to live. And so, I kept thinking to myself, how necessary it is for one of their loved ones to be beside them, to pray for them, to offer up prayers for them unceasingly, as well as to do all those little offices one can.

When my daughter Tamar was a little tiny girl, she said to me once, “When I get to be a great big woman and you are a little tiny girl, I’ll take care of you.” I thought of that when I had to feed my mother by the spoonful and urged her to eat her custard. Shortly before she died I told her, “We can no more imagine life beyond the grave than a blind man can imagine colors.” How good God was to me, to let me be there. I was there, holding her hand, and she just turned her head and sighed. That was her last breath, that little sigh; and her hand was warm in mine for a long time after.

[End of paraphrased article]

End Notes

Dorothy Day is the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. She is a model pro-life lay witness and intercessor. She was chosen as the 20th century’s most outstanding lay Catholic. Cardinal John O’Connor of New York introduced the cause for her canonization and said, “It is with great joy that I announce the approval of the Holy See for the Archdiocese of New York to open the Cause for the Beatification and Canonization of Dorothy Day. With this approval comes the title Servant of God. What a gift to the Church in New York and to the Church Universal this is!”

Dorothy Day, Servant of God, pray for us — for us who labor for a culture of life and a civilization of love, for the unborn, for the mothers in crisis pregnancies, for mothers who have suffered from abortions, for the poor and for the dying.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Dan Lynch. “Dorothy Day’s Pro-Life Memories.” Catholic Exchange (September 24, 2002).

Reprinted with permission of the author.

THE AUTHOR

If you would like to order Entertaining Angels, the video tape of her life, Call toll-free 1-888-834-6261 or Write to The Missionary Image at 144 Sheldon Road, St. Albans, Vermont 05478.

Dan Lynch is director of The Apostolates of The Missionary Image and Jesus King of All Nationsand board member of The Association for the Arch of Triumph. He is leading a pilgrimage cruise the Blessed Mother’s house in Ephesus and to Holy Greece and Turkey in May, 2003. Please visit his website for more information.

Copyright 2002 Dan Lynch

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  • http://hiddeninjesus.wordpress.com jessica shaver renshaw

    So moving. My mother, a woman much like her, spoke of her with great respect.

  • http://jscafenette.com Manny

    So kind of you to mention me and my blog. Thank you.

    You know why you have become my favorite blog on Patheos Rebecca? Because you interact with your commenters so well. There’s an understanding and kindness in your replies, even when you disagree, which i must say we do often. I really appreciate that.

  • Sus

    Thank you Rebecca and Manny. I ordered a few of Dorothy’s books from the library. She sounds like a lady that I need to read about.

  • Min

    Nice as Dan Lynch’s paraphrase may appear–he has pieced together different snippets of her writings– it cannot be called a work of Dorothy Day, who never took a public stand against abortion as a moral evil or even wrote an article about it. (She was conspicuously absent from the March for Life and other pro-life rallies.) For example, Day reported in her “On Pilgrimage” column in the June 1971 “Catholic Worker” that when she stumbled into a meeting where someone advocated free abortions and was asked to speak, “I left to one side the points I disagreed with and spoke of the meeting held at Graymoor last fall when Betty Friedan spoke…. The struggle as far as I could see was still a class struggle and the big issue today was world poverty.” Paul Ellie, in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” states: “In two memoirs, five other books, and some fifteen hundred articles and columns, all grounded in her conviction that firsthand experience and the art of recording it in prose are vital to religious insight, she never mentioned having an abortion; and her biographers, who knew her personally and who fondly recall their long and far-ranging conversations with her, treat the novel as the most reliable account of the experience, indeed the only one” (2003, p.9). No where in Lynch’s fabrication (or in real life) does Day say that she regrets the loss of her unborn child’s life. Others have also commented on the ambiguity of her stance; to mention the physical pains and degrading surroundings of an abortion is not necessarily to condemn abortion itself. Indeed, some people are taking the view that if Dorothy becomes a saint, and Dorothy had an abortion, then abortion is okay. The pro-life movement does have a real hero in Bernard Nathanson, MD, who deeply regretted performing thousands of abortion and spent the rest of his life working to protect the unborn–writing more than one book for the cause.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      I didn’t know abortion was wrong when I found Jesus. It took a good while before the Holy Spirit brought me to that understanding. It took a good while longer before I understood the horror of what I had done by advocating for legal abortion. When that happened, I was so grieved and remorseful, so full of shame, that I could not talk about it at all. There were people who demanded that I do some sort of public penance. They hounded me, attacked me, tried to get me kicked out of the Church. Before I converted to Catholicism (I’m getting some of the timeline a little off here, but this is a combox comment, not a book) I had the experience of having a group of prominent preachers (Protestant) in my community attack me very publicly and make it quite clear that there was no forgiveness for me.

      All this was devastating to me. I cried and cried and cried. I felt that I had no place within Christianity.

      Be careful about judging people so harshly based on what they don’t say and what you imagine they mean. Its just too easy to be wrong.

      • Min

        After I posted this, I saw that I inadvertently repeated things–I am computer semi-iliterate.
        HERE IS THE CORRECTED REPLY, please disregard the first one:

        Dorothy Day was a public person, like you. There is always forgiveness with Christ, and I’m sorry that you were not shown compassion. We can never judge someone’s heart and should pray for others. But some ACTS are so critical that charity requires that we recognize their harmful and evil effects. These evil effects occur even when the act is done by someone with “goodwill” or out of ignorance.

        Day’s failure to speak out publicly on the evil of abortion when she was constantly castigating so many other real or imagined “evils” sticks out like a sore thumb now–as it did in 1970 when New York State legalized abortion and in 1973 when the Supreme Court made it the law of the land in what one of the dissenting judges labeled a “raw exercise of judicial power.”

        I kept waiting for an article of support in the “Catholic Worker” in the 1970s. I wondered how someone opposed to all forms of “violence” would not speak out on the violent destruction of unborn humans. Day’s failure to speak out seems to indicate that her priorities were social and economic. Indeed, her fellow Catholic Workers endorse this view. In a February 8, 2013 PBS interview, Jane Sammon and Joanne Kennedy said the following: “SAMMON: The fact that Dorothy Day had an abortion, to say, well, now she’s going to be labeled the right-to-life saint—to me these diminish this beautiful spirit that was larger than any one particular part.
        JOANNE KENNEDY (Managing Editor, The Catholic Worker): I don’t want her to be the saint who had an abortion. I want her to be the mother of one and the grandmother. You know, that’s who she was.” (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/february-8-2013/the-life-of-dorothy-day/14669/

        Robert Ellsberg worked with Day for five years; edited her diaries, selected letters, and selected writings; is on the Steering Committee of the Guild for [the canonization of ] Dorothy Day; and is the Publisher of Orbis Books. He declared on November 30, 2012 that “[ Day] had an abortion, not an easy thing to do back then,” but it would be a mistake to view her as someone who would support the bishops’ fight against abortion and government-coerced funding of contraception and abortion: “She would consider that a gross manipulation of her message” (Robin Young, “Conservative Bishops Embrace Hero of Catholic Left for Sainthood,” interview on “Here and Now”; http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2012/11/30/dorothy-day-saint; hereandnow_1130_dorothy-day-saint.mp3) .

        The comments Day makes on “non-judgmentalism” in her later life (“Catholic Worker,” December 1972) are confusing at best and seem similar to the now common stance of, “I am personally opposed, but cannot impose my morality on others.”

        • Rebecca Hamilton

          It sounds as if you know a lot about Dorothy Day; a lot more than I do. However, from what you’ve written here, it also sounds as if you are judging Ms Day’s motives, emotions and deepest heart based on what she didn’t say. You also seem to be demanding that another person should have performed the penance that you have set for them over their personal sins. In this case, you want a public confession and act of personal self-mortification. You use the fact that Ms Day didn’t do these things as “proof” of your claims about the workings of her deepest heart.

          You seem to be saying that because Ms Day didn’t choose to do what you think she should have that she was not sorry for her abortion, didn’t regret it and was in fact in favor of abortion on demand. That’s a huge leap.

          In truth, many women are so grieved over having had an abortion that they cannot talk about it, especially publicly. You have no idea how cruel public discourse is on subjects like this, or how people lie and distort and deliberately try to wound you further for their own agendas and sometimes just for the sport of it. I’m sure this was much worse back when Ms Day was young than it is now.

          When the New York law passed, pro abortion propaganda was unchallenged in public discourse and anyone who spoke against it was treated as a pariah. Any woman who came out and said she was sorry for her abortion would have had to do it entirely alone and would have been ripped apart by the press, the women’s movement and most of society. I’m pretty sure her sanity and her honesty would both have been challenged. There was no support for women who did this back then. The pro life people (there was no pro life movement at that time) would have stood back and watched while she got machine-gunned. In fact, they would most likely have condemned her for having had an abortion and left it at that.

          Things have changed a lot.

          Ms Day may very well have been too wounded from her abortion to speak about it. Back then, there was no little understanding or support for post-abortive women. In fact, abortion was universally regarded as something that women did NOT suffer ill effects from emotionally. Women just had to stamp it down, ignore their emotions and pretend it had never happened. It was the only way they could survive. This allowed the grief, guilt, shame and hurt to grow inside them.

          What you are demanding would have been impossible for a post abortive woman who was still deeply wounded and suffering. Even though Ms Day was forgiven by God, she may not have forgiven herself. She may still have been suffering and hurting over what she had done.

          I’m not saying that was the case with her. I AM saying that it may well have been and it would certainly explain her reluctance to step out. Frankly Min your attitude is the sort of thing that makes it hard for us to stop abortion because it drives women away from us.

          As for Robert Ellsberg’s comments about Ms Day opposing the Church on the issues of contraception and abortion, I would guess that he’s saying what Robert Ellsberg thinks and using Dorothy Day’s name to give it gravitas. Ms Day lived until 1980, which gave her ample time to oppose these things herself, if she wanted to. If Robert Ellsberg has specific documentation (I don’t mean one confusing and nebulous line taken out of context from a letter to her neighbor about the Monday wash.) for this claim, he should produce it.

          As for her cause for sainthood, I’ll trust that to the Church. It’s not my worry.


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