Dorothy Day’s life and writings have long influenced my personal life. A friend once described her to me as a living saint, a person whose life focused both on reaching out to the poorest and on non-violence. After becoming a Catholic, I followed her travels and thoughts in her column, On Pilgrimage, in the Catholic Worker newspaper. Now, all these years later, I remain in touch with her when I stop in at her former room at Maryhouse on Monday evenings. There I give Communion to her friend and co-worker, Frank Donovan, who turned 93 on July 20. That second-floor room remains much as it was in Dorothy’s time.
It was only when I read her diaries, though, published in 2008 as The Duty of Delight, that I began to realize the spiritual depth of her life. Reflecting on her spiritual life has helped me navigate my own. Her close-to-constant prayer, even in the midst of all the physical demands of a Catholic Worker house, amazed me. She wrote one day in her 60s: “I wake up at 7. Often I that I have started praying before I am really awake, just as I fall asleep praying.” Nor did she view prayer as requiring solitude: “I do not have to retire to my room to pray, it is enough to get out and walk in the wilderness of the streets.” The presence of God in her life was almost physical: “God is closer to us than the air we breathe,” she wrote in her old age, in 1971. Around the same period, she could speak of a “strange experience of being penetrated by God.” A decade earlier, she had this to say of a similar sensation: “Woke this morning with [a] feeling, very strong, I belong to Someone to whom I owe devotion. Recalled early love and that joyous sense of being not my own but of belonging to someone who loved me completely.”
The reference above to “someone who loved me completely” was probably to Forster Batterham, the father of her one child. But love in its broader sense she saw as the key to loving all people: “Love is a matter of the will.... If you will to love someone and try to serve him as an expression of that love, then you will soon come to feel that love.” She liked to quote her priest friend John Hugo, who said, “You love God as much as the one you love the least,” to which she added, “So all our life is a practice to learn to love God.” It was a demanding practice indeed. In a reference to St. Francis of Assisi’s Little Flowers, she wrote in the 1940s, “To be hated and scorned by one’s own—this is poverty, this is perfect joy.”
But despite her sense of the abiding presence of a loving God, Day was acutely aware of her own failings, like anger and resentments that “muddy the heart.” She knew her failings and could say, “I am ashamed of my own tart tongue,” which could inflict hurtful wounds. She commented, for example, on her remorse at having offended a member of the community “by my brusqueness.” At the time she was feeling unwell, and so added, “Must keep away from people when I’m under the weather.” Here was a person who knew her ups and downs intimately. Her struggles in this regard are reflected in this: “Two things we have to learn, not to judge others and not to mind others judging us.”
Her sense of voluntary poverty led her to make her room available when she was away on speaking trips, but the theft of beloved personal objects saddened her. Her daughter had given her a handwritten book, which disappeared once during one of her trips. “So many of my treasures are taken from me when one’s room is used continually in one’s absence,” often by poor visitors whom Peter Maurin, the Catholic Worker’s co-founder, called “the ambassadors of God.” Dorothy too saw such visitors as ambassadors of God and loved them accordingly. She wanted others to do the same.