Dorothy Day and the Challenges of a Prophet

Dorothy Day is oftentimes remembered for saying, among so many other things, that she did not want to be called a saint. Fair enough, but the problem with that request is that sanctity and holiness of life are not things a person gets to decide for him or herself. Day’s life, her writings, her direct and prophetic example stand out to so many, including me, as a model for Christian living. I am particularly edified and at times challenged by her reflections on what it means to be a Christian voice in the modern world and the concrete actions that are concurrently demanded of such a life.

One passage from her writings struck me today as instructive. In one of her Catholic Worker¬†columns she writes about the internal struggle she faces when receiving the invitation to speak and travel places. Day explains that her spiritual director once told her, “Go where you are invited,” but she still finds herself asking: “Why do I go around speaking where I am invited when there is so much to do at home?” A good question indeed. This, in a broader sense, makes me reflect on the challenges to all Christians in their particular conditions of life. The struggle for Day was one unique to her, but one that speaks to each of us. The struggle for Thomas Merton as a cloistered monk, certainly one who wasn’t speaking around the country as much as he was invited to or could have was unique to him, but one that speaks to each of us. I find myself wondering what wisdom is to be found for me in these words as I reflect on the mission, responsibilities and tasks that compose much of my own life.

Here is a passage from one of Day’s 1974 columns that I have been thinking about today.

Today I must go up to a convent, an Academy of the Sacred Heart, and, at the liturgy of their annual reunion, give a ten-minute homily. What an impossible assignment.

How could I in those few minutes deliver the message — give what was in my heart? ¬†“Thy will be done,” is the topic assigned me. And “God’s will is that all men [sic] be saved.” All men. All the unworthy poor, the drunks, the drug-ridden, the poor mentally afflicted creatures who are in and out of our C. W. houses all day. And yet Jesus told us what we were to do — feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, “worthy or unworthy.” Oh, how much could be done if there were a House of Hospitality in every neighborhood, in every parish! Lowering the tone of the neighborhood? We have heard this everywhere. In some cities we have been driven from pillar to post by it, forced to move many times. A long history could be written — Detroit, Rochester, etc., etc.

“Whose who have the substance of this world and close their hearts to the poor…” Am I going to make this kind of a judgement today on Fifth Avenue, I, who have so much of the substance — books, radio, heat and hot water, food and clothing? (I could¬†complain of crowding, of too much of the substance of this world all around me in shopping bags, clothes, suitcases, under the bed, over the bed on shelves, sometimes hardly a passage through a dormitory to my own cluttered room which is office, library, and guest room, too, when I am away).

I think the honesty of her reflections continue to challenge me, to give voice as if some text of modern social-justice Psalms that provide the words to the questions of my own experience. May they likewise challenge and inspire you, and may we find ourselves living the Gospel better and responding honestly to the questions of our hearts in the guidance of the Spirit.

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4 Responses to “Dorothy Day and the Challenges of a Prophet”

  1. Dan, thanks for writing about Day. I still consider her one of my greatest teachers and heros. I once met a nun who worked directly with Dorothy Day. I asked her if she had any memories she could recount. She shared that she was always taken by Dorothy’s ability to remain calm and even playful in the face of consternation. She recalled how once, when sitting around a table for a meeting about some pressing issue, Dorothy abrubtly stood up during a more trying moment of the conversation and proclaimed, “Well, it’s time for onion bagels.” I often think of that line when I am angry at myself for not better managing my own anxiety more effectively.

  2. Did you see that she’s been credited with a miracle recently? I remember that when I was converting to Catholicism, one of the [very few] concrete instructions I was given by my priest was to pray to Dorothy Day.

    http://www.cjd.org/paper/miracle.html

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