Happy Birthday, Dorothy Day

A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement

by William D. Miller
Liveright, 354 pp., $8.95

I assume that all readers of The New York Review of Books Know something about the activities of the Catholic Worker movement, even if they have never read its newspaper or visited one of its hostels or communal farms. So, since the philosophical outlook that inspired it was Peter Maurin’s Christian “Personalism,” most of what I have to say will be “personal” in a lay sense. Let me begin by saying that I am eternally grateful to Dorothy Day for conveying to me the nicest poetical compliment I have ever received. She had been in jail in the old Women’s Prison at Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue for protesting against air-raid warnings. There the prisoners got a shower once a week. It so happened that a poem of mine had recently appeared in The New Yorker, of which the last line ran: “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” One of Dorothy Day’s co-in-mates was a whore who went off to her weekly shower quoting it. “My God,” I thought, “I haven’t written in vain.”

Those who joined the movement deliberately chose, like St. Francis and his followers, a life of poverty. The problem about such a choice is that, while it is possible to choose poverty rather than riches, to live on nothing at all is, in any modern society, impossible. A communal farm—the Catholic Workers had several—may become self-supporting, but the land has first of all to be bought. As for their hostels, which looked after the poor, deserving and undeserving, these, obviously, could only be run at a financial loss. This meant, especially since it refused to accept ads for its paper, that the Catholic Worker movement was dependent for its survival upon the voluntary donations of others, most of whom were probably better off.

Somehow or other these contributions always managed to arrive, often, it must have seemed, miraculously, in time to stave off catastrophe. I once made a contribution myself. My conscious motive in doing so was my admiration for what the movement was doing to help the down-and-out, but unconsciously, I fear, I was trying to allay my conscience for not doing likewise. I don’t think God has ever called me to a life of voluntary poverty, but if He did, I know I should resist violently. I am far too worldly, far too fond of my creature comforts. Moreover, I cherish my privacy. Hard as I should find the monastic life, I should find it a great deal easier than working in a Catholic Worker’s hostel where, it seems, one is never alone for a second.

Dorothy Day and her colleagues were often accused of being “soft” on communism, even of being communist agents, and she certainly had no hesitation in working with communists if she felt they had a just cause. She recognized clearly enough the difference between the communist sense of community and her own:

Communism has said, with the evidence …

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