The National Catholic Review
Michael Baxter

In the early 1960s, Dorothy Day started sending her papers to the archives of Marquette University, where they remained sealed until a quarter century after her death in 1980. Two years ago, Marquette University Press published The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, edited by Robert Ellsberg. The Selected Letters form a companion volume. We are indebted to Ellsberg for completing this monumental, two-part project.

Most of Day’s correspondence was carried on amid the burdens and chaos typical of the Catholic Worker. In the first letter after its founding, she asked Catherine de Hueck, founder of Friendship House, for prayers: “we need them especially for the House of Hospitality.” Six months later she apologized to a supporter: “Thank you for your kind note, and do excuse me for not writing before. Many troubles piled up and I could not.” The troubles never ceased: unpaid bills, conflicts at the farm, hassles from the Health Department, inquiries from the chancery. Early on, Day readily sought a spiritual advisor, Joseph McSorley, a Paulist priest, yet clarified that his guidance pertained to faith and dogma, not social issues, in accord with the freedom of the laity in temporal affairs.

As an editor, she wrote to supporters and critics, Catholic newspapers and journals, college and seminary professors and prominent authors. As a founder, she wrote co-workers with requests, directives, encouraging advice and updates on travels. Curiously, there is only one letter to Peter Maurin, but several about him, including one on the intellectual sources on his social vision.

With the ’40s came the war, and Dorothy’s circular letter insisting that Catholic Worker houses take the pacifist stand. They were difficult but invigorating years, as Day’s vocation was deepened by “the retreat” given by the Rev. John Hugo. “I am completely sold on this retreat business. I think it will cure all ills, settle all problems, bind up all wounds, strengthen us, enlighten us...make us happy.”

Hugo’s emphasis on pruning the natural in order to grow in the supernatural life provided a reliable way to present the Catholic Worker mission, especially its pacifism. In 1941 she acknowledged to a “priest critic” that the use of force may be justifiable from “the natural standpoint,” but “we look upon the striving toward perfection as...a basic precept, an essential law of Christianity and for ourselves we must refuse to bear arms against our enemies.” This theology sustained her throughout her life. Ironically, after its supernaturalist approach found affirmation in the Second Vatican Council’s universal call to holiness, it ceased to attract many in the movement. In 1966 she reported that only 14 of 50 people at the farm attended a Hugo retreat, “and most were in opposition, wanting to argue points on the last day...we can only say, ‘abandonment to divine providence.’”

Many of Day’s letters bear the tone of a matriarch of a vivacious, unruly family. Letters to Ammon Hennacy, whose antiwar witness she found heartening, show disapproval of his inveterate anticlericalism. She was distressed when Karl Meyer “lost his faith,” as she wrote to Nina Polcyn, although she assured Meyer, “Of course you are always part of the CW family. We’re proud to have you and love you.” A pattern of admonition and support marks the letters to younger co-workers, encouraging their witness, bemoaning lax sexual practices, stressing the importance of prayer and the sacraments. She was heartened by a steady flow of new people into the movement.

Dorothy was also a matriarch in the natural sense. The letters to her daughter reflect their ups and downs through the years. At a low point, she chided Tamar for selfishness. Later, after Tamar’s marriage ended, she encouraged her. She also wrote her grandchildren, sometimes signing off as “Granny.” And in July 1968 she wrote to Tamar’s father, Forster Batterham, giving news on the family. Only a few letters to him come after that, as they stayed in touch by phone and visits.

But there are many letters to Forster written before the Catholic Worker began. These are found in the opening section, under the title “A Love Story.” The first comes in April 1925, as their relationship began. “I miss you so much,” Dorothy wrote from Staten Island, “I was very cold last night. Not because there wasn’t enough covers but because I didn’t have you.”

The next letter comes five months later, with calculations of the birth of their child. Three others follow. Then there is a gap until March of 1928, after Tamar’s baptism and their break-up. From Day’s book The Long Loneliness, one gets the impression it was a clean break, with Forster refusing to marry on anarchist principles and Dorothy finally putting an end to it. From the 31 letters to Forster after March 1928, we get a fuller picture. Repeatedly, she asked him to marry her.

It was a tortuous relationship, with periods of silence, resolutions to end it, momentary intimacies, followed by regrets and, at length, by Dorothy’s lonely realization it was not going anywhere. In her last letter to Forster from this period, she wrote: “I want to be in your arms every night, as I used to be, and be with you always.... We always differed on principle, and now that I am getting older, I cannot any longer always give way to you just because the flesh has such power over me.... Imaginatively, I can understand your hatred and rebellion against my beliefs and I can’t blame you. I have really given up hope now, so I won’t try to persuade you any more.” This letter is dated Dec. 10, 1932, a day or two after she first encountered Peter Maurin.

This previously unreleased correspondence records a poignant story of unfulfilled longing, unrequited love. It reminds us that detachment—the kind that Hugo urged—is acquired less by inspired resolutions, more by practicing wisdom as it is revealed in the unfolding of one’s life. The fruits of detachment were grasped by Dorothy only gradually, well after the movement began. But they certainly came. Six years after the letter to Forster quoted above, she reported to the Health Commissioner that burdensome regulations could shut down the Catholic Worker, which had “provided 49,275 nights lodging these past three years; 1,095,000 breakfasts of bread and jam and coffee; 131,400 lunches and suppers.” Each of those meals and overnight stays entailed an act of love to someone hungry, thirsty, with no place to go—to Christ. The seed had fallen to the ground and died, and had borne much fruit. “All is grace.”

Michael Baxter teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame and is director of the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

Comments

Phil Runkel | 12/17/2010 - 10:40am
A minor correction to a fine review: Only a comparatively small, if significant, portion of Dorothy Day's papers remained sealed until 2005-her diaries and family correspondence.