In what amounts to something akin to a miracle, Dorothy Day was the centerpiece of a short Op-Ed piece that appeared in a recent issue of The New York Times. The piece, “The Passion of Dorothy Day,” by Lawrence Downes, is a reflection offered by someone struck by the intimacy and vulnerability of the woman whose life has changed the lives of so many. Spurred by the recent publication of Day’s correspondence, Downes shares how the early letters of the Catholic social activist (and saint-in-the-making) reveals an entirely human side of Day often overlooked by those so understandably drawn to her social-justice model.
The late letters show the Day we remember: the sociable yet ferocious old lady, friend and inspiration to César Chávez, Eunice Shriver, Thomas Merton. The earliest ones, from the 1920s, show her determination in the face of all obstacles. She lived in a shack on Staten Island, fished and collected shells, cooked and cared for her little girl. She struggled as a freelance writer, moving as family and finances demanded.
All the while she lavished love without shame on a partner who made little use of it. But no matter: there was more where that came from, a passion that grew in amplitude and influence far beyond just one dead-end romance. Sainthood and the single woman. Sanctity without incredulity. Sexual love without regret. That’s the totally ordinary, amazing thing about Dorothy Day.
Downes’s column reveals an admiration for the holy woman whose life is not as clear-cut as so many hagiographic depictions of saints’ lives often are. Instead, what we are able to see is a very special part of the life and heart of a woman who gave of herself entirely for the service of others and, at one time, sought to more directly validate her relationship with another — the father of her daughter. In that process, Day shows the love of a passionate human being, drawn into the mystery that captivates us all — Love.
The final line in Downes’s piece, “That’s the totally ordinary, amazing thing about Dorothy Day,” is what captivates me about Day. It is indeed her ordinariness — if one could ever really describe Dorothy Day as ordinary — that is so amazing. She was no pristine and sinless image of some generic ‘virgin and martyr,’ but instead a real person, a person like you and me, who has loved and lost, and who seeks to ultimately and simply do what is right.