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William MillerDecember 08, 2022
Dorothy Day in her office at the Catholic Worker farm in Tivoli, N.Y., in 1968. (Photo by Bob Fitch/Courtesy of the Bob Fitch Photography Archive at Stanford University)

Editor’s note: This tribute to Dorothy Day, who died on Nov. 29, 1980, originally appeared in the Dec. 13, 1980, print edition of America.

In his philosophy of history, Nikolai Berdyaev, from whom Peter Maurin drew heavily in formulating the philosophy of the Catholic Worker movement, tended to be apocalyptic. Just before he died in Paris in 1946 Berdyaev had written that the 20th century represented “the last demonic attempts of the kingdom of Caesar to dominate and to enslave man and the world.” But in the end, there would be a victory of the Lamb over the Beast, which is the victory “of freedom and love over force and hatred.” Then, the Beast would “be cast once more into the abyss of hell and shackled, not to eternity, but to time: for hell is that which remains in time; that which, obsessed by its evil nightmares, does not pass into eternity.”

Many will agree that the outstanding exemplar of love and freedom in our time was a woman, Dorothy Day, and that she was the implacable foe of St. John’s “Beast.” Now she is dead. She is no longer of history, no longer forced to confront its tragic themes, which today seem increasingly devastating and inescapable. The triumph of such a death should be celebrated by a poet, an artist, a composer, creating something of the eternal to cast into time’s flow, reminding time that in the end it will not have its way, for here is that which escapes its devastation. For Dorothy preached love and practiced love with such ardor that one could not but believe that she had already come within a handclasp of eternity.

Dorothy preached love and practiced love with such ardor that one could not but believe that she had already come within a handclasp of eternity.

The amazing thing about her life was the improbability of it all. Psychobiographers, with all of their dexterity in fitting the person into the patterns of history’s necessity, would ultimately exhaust their categories in trying to “explain” her. If anyone, in the first 25 years of life, seemed headed for despair, it was she, yet she turned away from that fate and, having set her vision on eternity she never again looked back. If she was free, there is hope for us all, living and dead, for when time is defeated there is no past. Suffering and tragedy are erased.

The third in a family of five children, she was born at Bath Beach, Brooklyn, on Nov. 8, 1897. When she was 6, the family moved to California where her father worked as a newspaperman. The San Francisco earthquake of April 1906 terminated the venture. Resettling in Chicago, the elder Day found a job compiling racetrack results for a newspaper, the Inter-Ocean, a task he performed at nights. Having to sleep through most of the day, his relationship with the children—at least from Dorothy’s account—seemed somewhat remote, but the mother was a continuing and uniting presence in the family.

Religion in the household was a formalism that was politely and deferentially acknowledged, but at a distance. As a young girl, Dorothy worried about this courteous reserve, but as she grew older her concern for what seemed to have been a craving for something to worship was propitiated by a love of the masses, a passion, she said, that came from reading Jack London. So the idea of transcendence, as in the minds of many other young seekers, gave way to a vision of a final community of creation to be attained in time and not in eternity.

She carried this passion with her when she entered the University of Illinois in the fall of 1914. To most of the students there she must have seemed a curiosity, tall and skinny, with a pale face and large, curiously slanting eyes that were shadowed from lack of sleep. Whatever religious sentiments she had had as a child were formally abandoned. She smoked and uttered unladylike words like “damn” and “hell.” Interested in writing, she associated with a group that wrote for the campus magazine. She apparently found her classes dull because she was frequently absent from them.

Dorothy Day: “It is my vocation to agitate, to be a journalist, a pamphleteer, and now my time must be spent in these cities, these slums.”

Sometime after Dorothy began college, the Inter-Ocean ceased publication, and the Day family moved to New York. In 1916 Dorothy followed, but not to join the family. She rented a room on the Lower East Side and wheedled a job as a reporter from the editor of the Socialist journal, Call. Possibly because she never seemed the least bit interested in the intricacies of Socialist logic, she was fired. Little matter, it seemed. The United States had just embarked on its Great Crusade, so she joined a group of Columbia University students who were going to Washington to protest the draft. She was already professing pacifism.

When she returned to New York she got a job as an assistant to Floyd Dell, who, with Max Eastman, edited The Masses. The aim of this journal, as its young editors and artists saw it, was to attack conventional morality in favor of one that was more “open” and “free,” one that would conform to the new scientific and progressive spirit being fashioned by Sigmund Freud, John Dewey and others. Dorothy did no writing for The Masses; she was, in fact, a kind of office girl among whose tasks it was to deliver the morning mail to the regal Max Eastman.

The Masses was suppressed by the Government in the fall of 1917, and Dorothy, with nothing to do, impulsively agreed to join a demonstration in front of the White House in support of women’s suffrage. Seeking martyrdom, the group refused to disperse and in due course was sent to Occoquan prison, where the women made their customary declamations for their cause and refused to cooperate with prison procedures. Dorothy played her role admirably, perhaps better than anyone else. She had to be dragged to her cell by a guard while she, not yet confirmed in the doctrine of nonresistance, kicked his shins and bit his hand. For this she was put into solitary confinement for six days. This would be the first of six imprisonments for her, although those of her later life were, for the most part, occasioned by her pacifist convictions.

After President Wilson released the women, Dorothy returned to New York and spent the remainder of the fall doing odd jobs of writing and research. In the evenings she fell into the habit of sitting in on the rehearsals of Eugene O’Neill’s plays being produced at the Provincetown Playhouse at 133 MacDougal Street. After rehearsal, she would go with O’Neill to a saloon on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Fourth Street, “The Golden Swan,” where a special back room was reserved for the young writers and artists. There Dorothy spent her nights, sitting with O’Neill as he fell into a morose drunkenness. In the early hours she would walk with him to whatever room happened to be his lot, see that he was warmly covered, and then, likely as not, stop at St. Joseph’s Church on Sixth Avenue and kneel for a while. She did this from no explicit religious impulse, but only because the church was warm, and she felt soothed by its quietness.

One must strive for sanctity, for, as she wrote, to become a saint “is the Revolution,” giving the phrase her own emphasis.

She and O’Neill were nothing more than friends, although he seemed to have felt a strength in her that his nature craved. In his “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” one of his last plays to be produced, he made the character, Josie, a composite that contained elements of Dorothy. As for O’Neill, Dorothy in later life recorded in her notes that she prayed for him and thought that his suffering came from his inability to accept God’s goodness.

Dorothy was 20 years old as the year 1918 began. Troubled by a lack of purpose in her life, she began nurse’s training at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn. In her two autobiographical books, From Union Square to Rome and The Long Loneliness, she related in detail her experiences as a nurse in training, but she omits two unhappy occasions in her life that came in that period. She had a despairing love affair, quit her training after one year, and made what seemed to be a rebound marriage. Sometime in 1919 she and her husband went to Europe, joining the exodus of a number of other young Americans who sought artistic inspiration in what was presumably the more civilized culture of the Continent. And, like the others, Dorothy set herself to writing a novel.

The marriage, so far as compatibility of mind and spirit were concerned, was an outrageous one, and it brought on a quick separation, although Dorothy speaks of a happy time in southern Italy, where she wrote her novel. They returned to the United States in the summer of 1920, ending up in Chicago. For over two years she lived a disordered existence there, living in rooming houses, imprisoned briefly on the absurd charge of being a prostitute, holding nondescript jobs and otherwise finding her companionship in the company of radicals and “bohemians,” as they were called in those days.

Again wearying of her aimless existence, she went to New Orleans where she found a job writing articles for the New Orleans Item, a newspaper much inclined toward the sensational. As her assignment, Dorothy was supposed to become a taxi-dancer in a dive on Canal Street and write stories about “the girls,” which she did for a month or so. But again, before going to her evening’s work, she would stop by the cathedral, and with a rosary that someone had given her in hand, she began to pray.

In his “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” Eugene O'Neill made the character, Josie, a composite that contained elements of Dorothy Day.

Then, with no inkling at all as to what was about to happen, she got a telephone call from the Boni and Liveright publishing house telling her that her novel would be published and that it had already been sold to the movies with $5,000 on the way for her.

Now fabulously rich, she hastened back to New York where for several weeks she wined and dined old friends, but then, taking counsel of a friend, she bought a beach cottage on Raritan Bay among a colony of radicals and beachcombers. Always susceptible to all of the subtleties of nature’s beauty, she found these days, when she was taking long walks along the beach, a time of welling sense of peace and order in her life.

Some months after moving into her cottage she began a relationship with a man to whom she would always refer to as her “common-law husband,” Forster Batterham. The Batterhams were a solid middle-class English family who had come to New York from Asheville, N.C. A daughter, Lily, had married the semanticist Kenneth Burke, and it was at their place that Dorothy met Forster, then moodily languishing in the aftereffects of a protracted case of World War I flu and otherwise affirming his person by a profession of war against all conventional customs. So for two years they lived together contentedly, as Dorothy read, wrote and gathered driftwood while Forster fished in the bay.

In June 1926, Dorothy realized that she was pregnant and for her it was an occasion of great joy. She felt herself a part of that creation which of late had swelled in her consciousness as a sign of goodness and redemption. Her daughter, Tamar, was born on March 3, 1927, and it was an occasion of such happiness that she wrote an account of her experience, it was published by her friend, Mike Gold, in The New Masses. Wishing to register a sign of her dedication of her daughter to that goodness she felt, she sought out a nun and through her arranged for Tamar’s baptism.

And then she realized that there was no course for her but to be baptized herself, so on a gray December day in 1927 she went to the village of Tottenville, Staten Island, N.Y., and was baptized. Why had she become a Catholic? In her “notes,” which she irregularly kept, she tried to explain. It was not from an inward look, from an overwhelming anguish over her “sins.” “It was the glories of creation, the tender beauty of flowers and shells, the song of birds, the smile of my baby, these things brought such exultation, such joy to my heart that I could not but cry out in praise of God.”

She had, of course, felt the anguish of isolation, “the long loneliness,” that came from the continuing assault on community by time.

She had, of course, felt the anguish of isolation, “the long loneliness,” that came from the continuing assault on community by time. “Such pain comes and goes through all of life. It comes and goes so regularly as breath in the body. But there was something within me which rebelled at turning to God in sorrow, in the woe which came so often from sin, or the result of sin. Perhaps I felt a grim determination to accept suffering as expiation, that it would come, that I could not indeed escape it.”

Nonetheless, baptism only complicated her immediate life. Forster, with a growing displeasure over Dorothy’s increasing involvement with religion, had left her. Hoping that somehow she could straighten out her life by having her legal marriage annuled, she met several times with a young priest in the New York chancery office, Francis A. Mclntyre, later Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles. “He always gave me the most courteous and sympathetic attention,” she observed years later. What came of this is not clear, but one thing was: Forster was out of her life, and the next five years for Dorothy were years of wandering.

Nor did baptism solve the problem of what seemed to be the deepest craving of her spirit: how to bring that vision of community that she had affirmed in baptism into the substance of time. She knew, without the aid of a computer analysis on the subject, that somehow her Christian faith had been turned aside from history, had been distorted in its meaning, and even, by some, had been made into a sweet syrup to be poured onto all forms of bourgeois striving. As she saw her religion in 1932, it seemed to be dying. Her old friends, the Communists, were certain that time was their invincible weapon; they could bring the world to community. The fascists, for their part, were proclaiming their inerrant ability to direct time’s purposes to the fulfillment of their caesardoms, and the bourgeois world’s faith in “progress” came far ahead of their faith in God. She wanted a vocation, and at the Communist-organized “hunger march” in Washington in December 1932, her anguish reached crisis proportions. She went to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to pray for a solution. “And when I returned to New York I found Peter Maurin—Peter, the French peasant, whose spirit and ideas will dominate…the rest of my life” she wrote later.

By modern criteria, wherein a professor is judged worthy of the esteem of his associates by evidence cited in 10-page vitas and cardboard boxes of documentation, Peter Maurin could hardly have qualified to operate a slide projector in today’s college classroom. He was a French peasant who had come to America, wandering from job to job, but all the while reading intensively in church history and the radical social theorists of the 19th and 20th centuries. In time Maurin came to a synthesis of the major ideas that he had read and so carefully noted. It was a view of history at radical variance with the Enlightenment proposition that the truths of history were found exclusively in an “objective” reference, where the idea climate was obsessed with “facts” and their accumulation and organization, all to the end of quieting the lashings of history’s flow, where the morbidity of erratic change would give way to the pleasant hum of an eternal and steadily accelerating “progress.” In Maurin’s view the historian should study the object in relation to the subject. The subject was the person, and as Maurin came to see it, the church provided the vision and the way to the true fullness of personhood.

This, then, was the mission of the Catholic: The central fact of existence should not be history’s process, where persons were forced to conform to the objective; it should be a turning to a life of active love which, of itself, would redeem and end history. Peter preached a revolution, but a personalist revolution. It was not to be waged for a political or social form in the customary dress of slogans, banners and the exciting call to fight one more battle to rid history of the last barrier to the community that time had promised. To the contrary, it was a revolution that began by “putting on Christ.” It proceeded toward community rather than fragmentation. It was a revolution that began with the person and had all of creation as its object. It was this revolution that was the true mission of the church, and it was one that Dorothy with all of her ardent nature could embrace.

For the rest of her days Dorothy would refer to Peter as a saint, and there was something about the intensity of her quest and the openness of her mind to an idea that enabled her to catch the meaning of his “clarification.” She was his student, the one who knew what he was talking about, the one who did not see his selflessness, his obliviousness to all of the allurements of the object world as a kind of cosmic buffoonery, but as truly the character of the saint who lives outside of time. Maurin died on May 15, 1949, then having lived for 15 years in the Catholic Worker community.

How and when should she begin this “correlation of the material with the spiritual,” she asked Maurin in those early months of 1933. Begin now, he counseled: As a journalist, she should start a newspaper to introduce the idea of primacy of the spirit, of love into all of the affairs of time that roiled about them. They were to begin a community of like-minded persons, feed the poor, continue to read and think to “clarify” their sense of what it meant to be human, and in time to begin an agrarian commune where “the worker could become a scholar and the scholar become a worker.”

Dorothy Day: "“So I will not be afraid, and I will talk of love and write of love, and God help me, I will suffer from it, too."

So it began in May 1, 1933, the day that Dorothy Day and her friends went nervously into New York’s Union Square to sell the first edition of the Catholic Worker to the 50,000 or so Communists assembled there. The world was seething that day with gigantic rallies. In Moscow there were awesome lines of rolling weaponry and parading soldiers. In Berlin, after marching and singing all day, that night at Tempelhof airport, a million persons gathered to hear Hitler. All this, it might be supposed, springing from an irrational and frenzied seeking for community in a world where a vision of the unity of all had been obscured by a fragmenting speedup of history’s process.

For nearly half a century now, the Catholic Worker has been published monthly, its circulation usually running at around a hundred thousand. It was Dorothy’s paper; she formed the character of its message and wrote her own column, “On Pilgrimage.” Its message was Maurin’s idea: creating community, affirming peace and denouncing war; restoring true human creativity to the idea of work; and, as always, criticizing the ever-growing and baleful giantism of an economic system that ultimately would make people into blank-faced nullities who in their leisure time were positioned, like dolls, in front of a television set. The way of life that Dorothy and her friends wrote about in the Worker was practiced in Catholic Worker houses of hospitality and on Worker farms. Perhaps what they did amounted to little in the face of the rising torment of the world, but they believed that already they were ending that world.

Over the years of the Catholic Worker period Dorothy wrote reams about herself: six books and her monthly “On Pilgrimage” reports in the Catholic Worker. Why did she write so much? It was her vocation to write, she said. Her object was to make a point, to give an instruction. The same was true of her speaking appearances. She was forever on the go, even traversing the world several times, but all to the end of finding “concordances,” of telling of “the work,” and the personalist revolution that Peter Maurin had taught her.

Maurin’s revolutionary idea placed Dorothy Day, the would-be revolutionary, within the substance of the Catholic tradition. Peter Maurin had given her a vocation and an example of holiness that she would talk about for the rest of her life. Yet, in the first years of the life of the Catholic Worker movement she still seemed to be searching. Her daughter was growing, and with the strain that the Worker life imposed upon her, she may have thought of turning to a more tranquil way of life. It was in the Catholic Worker retreats, held during the war years at the Worker farm at Easton, Pa., that she found the final “clarification,” as Maurin would say, of her quest in the life of the spirit.

The retreats, held by Fathers John Hugo and Louis Farina, were based on a model created by Father Onesimus Lacouture, a Canadian Jesuit. Controversial because of their rigor and because some theologians thought they opposed nature to grace, they filled Dorothy’s heart with joy. “It was as though we were listening to the Gospel for the first time. We saw all things new. There was a freshness about everything as though we were in love, as indeed we were.” Such was the sense of community that she and her friends felt that she called it a “foretaste of heaven.” She had come to a new sense of what Peter had taught her: “Let us make a world where it is easier for people to be good.” Now she saw clearly what the “good” was that he had talked about. “For too long,” she said, “too little had been expected of us… We saw for the first time man’s spiritual capacities raised as he is to be a child of God. We saw the basis of our dignity.”

The retreats brought her to a new sense of the reality of love, and it was this that she would talk about for the rest of her days. In notes that she made during the retreats she wrote this reflection on love:

“St. John of the Cross talks of the involuntary pleasure which comes about when the soul is caressed by God and how it overflows into the senses. Is this an experience of that love? All my prayer, my own suffering, my reading, my study, would lead me to this conclusion. This is a great and holy force and must be used as the spiritual weapon. Love against hate. Suffering against violence. What is two thousand years in the history of the world? We have scarcely begun to love. We have scarcely begun to know Christ, to see him in others around us… All love is holy—the love of passion, of friendship—there is passion in it all, for passion means suffering.

Perhaps what they did amounted to little in the face of the rising torment of the world, but they believed that already they were ending that world.

“Love is so beautiful and lust so ugly. And all the world is busy portraying lust… it is in us all, self deceit may make us try to cover it up but just as the corruption of the flesh is there, the rottenness of decay, the seed of death—so also is the seed of everlasting life.

“So I will not be afraid, and I will talk of love and write of love, and God help me, I will suffer from it, too—the humiliations, the degradations, the misunderstandings because ‘what is it I love when I love my God?...’

“Love comes at any age, and the remembrance, the nostalgia is there. And yet who would go back to the agonies of youth? No, it is a happy thing, a joyous thing to think of the love to come, the love of God which awaits us, the fulfillment where we will know as we are known, when all our talents, energies, abilities will be utilized, and developed, when we will be truly loved.”

The retreats impressed upon her another conviction, hitherto held more as a formalized truth than one that applied explicitly to her. In an editorial in the Catholic Worker of this period which was printed separately in leaflet form by Stanley Vishnewski on the press the Workers had at the Easton farm, she made a point: “Called to be Saints.” On one of these pamphlets Dorothy had written, “This is the retreat.” In the pamphlet she stressed the point that “all are called.… Where are our saints to call the masses to God?” One must strive for sanctity, for, as she wrote, to become a saint “is the Revolution,” giving the phrase her own emphasis.

She said her love and gratitude to the church had increased with the years. “She taught me the crowning love of the life of the spirit.”

So, she concluded in the journal she kept, “it is my vocation to agitate, to be a journalist, a pamphleteer, and now my time must be spent in these cities, these slums.” But, she added wistfully, “how wonderful it is to be out here in…the midst of fields, atop a hill and to have samples of Heaven all about, not hell. I truly love sweet clover and thank God for it.”

Thirty years later, she could say surely that she had kept her vocational commitment. It was the afternoon session of the Catholic Eucharistic Congress at Philadelphia on Aug. 6, 1976 that Dorothy made her last speaking appearance before a large audience. Although the city at the moment was racked with alarms over the outbreak of “Legionnaire’s disease,” a large crowd had gathered to hear her. She was well into her 79th year and beset by the infirmities of age, and so many in the audience probably felt that there would be few future speaking engagements for her. And, as these people regarded her, she had already achieved a prophetic position in the life of the church.

Her appearance was one of extreme frailty, a mark that increased rather than diminished the dramatic impact she had always registered on audiences. Her eyes, with their unusual slant, seemed larger and more luminous against the white transparency of her skin. As usual, she was garbed in clothing that had probably come from the bins of the New York Worker houses. Despite all of her years of public speaking she always approached a platform appearance with a trepidation approaching terror. A week before the congress she had written to a friend that she was looking forward “with such dread… when I speak August 6 (Hiroshima Day) that I can plan nothing….”

She spoke briefly, but of the convictions that had, for a half century, been the source of that passion that made her “different,” as people would say. She spoke of the love of God and the call to take that love to all of Creation. She talked of the church. “It was also the physical aspects of the church which attracted me. Bread and wine... water (all water is made holy since Christ was baptized in the Jordan), incense, the sound of waves and wind, all nature cried out to me.” She said her love and gratitude to the church had increased with the years. “She taught me the crowning love of the life of the spirit.” But the church had also taught her that “before we bring our gifts of service, of gratitude, to the altar—if our brothers have anything against us, we must hesitate to approach the altar to receive the Eucharist. Unless you do penance, you shall all perish.”

She reminded her hearers that there, at the congress on Aug. 6, they had not registered a sign of penance, of sorrow for the event which had occurred on that day some 31 years previous. “And here we are on August 6th, the day the first atomic bomb was dropped….” There had been holocausts before, massacres, she reminded them: “After the First World War of the Armenians, all but forgotten now, and the holocaust of the Jews, God’s chosen people. When He came to earth as Man, He chose them. And he told us ‘All men are brothers,’ and that it was His will that all men be saved, Japanese, Jew, Armenian.”

Her last talk: she had been speaking for 40 years and the world now seemed to be hurtling with a new momentum toward that point where all was fragmented and time had won its final victory. Holocausts—now more than ever, from the unborn child to whole populations regarded as ideologically unsafe, all justified on the grounds of keeping time’s flow appeased.

Dorothy Day: "No matter what our wandering, we can still say, ‘All is Grace.’”

That night, following her talk at the congress, she had a heart attack. After that she remained confined, for the most part, praying daily for several hours in the morning as was her custom, reading and going to a 5:30 Mass in the chapel of the New York Worker house for women on Third Street. Occasionally, when she felt up to it, she went to the beach house on Staten Island, a small cottage not far from the location of her first house. It almost seemed in these latter days, as the discordancies of the world became more menacing, that she was no longer preoccupied with the world but was content to spend her time in prayer and in taking pleasure from the company of her daughter. Her 80th birthday on Nov. 8, 1977, was widely celebrated, and it was a moment of much pleasure for her when New York’s Cardinal Terence Cooke went to the Worker house on Third Street bearing a message of birthday greetings from Pope Paul VI. Characteristically, she spoke to Cardinal Cooke of Peter Maurin and Maurin’s idea of houses of hospitality for the poor.

Now, what can be said of this woman, always radical, but who, after becoming a Christian, had a vision of the radicalism of the Gospels so profound that it aimed at ending time itself? Was she, the pacifist, the person who wrote and spoke passionately against the injustice of a social system that deified the bourgeois values, truly of the church?

Dorothy Day, to the bemusement of some who would have had her a Marxist, a romantic liberal, a radical feminist, thought of herself and spoke of herself as a daughter of the church. Once she told a friend that if she should ever disavow the church or the path she had taken he would know that she was mad. Writing in her notebook toward the end of her life she said that she had heard so much of people who were “sick of the church, sick of religion!” For her the remedy for this had been “a faithfulness to the means to overcome it, recitation of the psalms each day, prayer and solitude, and by these means arriving or hoping to achieve a state of well being… To pray the psalms even without understanding…. then suddenly like a sudden shower, understanding a verse comes, with the light of joy like sun breaking through the clouds.”

Amidst the darkness of the world there was the church, itself darkened by its involvement in time. But she believed that time was ending and ahead was the light of “the newfound, newly realized, emphasis on the liberty of Christ, and the realization, too, that we have scarcely begun to be Christian, to deserve the name Christian.” Still there were times, “very often, when one must live on blind and naked faith.” But even then, “God sends intimations of immortality. We believe that if the will is right, God will take us by the hair of the head, as he did Habakkuk, who brought food to Daniel in the lion’s den, and will restore us to the Way and no matter what our wandering, we can still say, ‘All is Grace.’”

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