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The Saint of Mott Street

Every major culture known to us has honored persons held to be sacred. Some of these people are wonder-workers, who have supernatural powers—seers and sacred healers. Some have liberating exemptions—they seem less dependent on their bodies or on physical comfort than the rest of us are. The most spectacular exemption is demonstrated by martyrs—they escape the need to live. This awes those less willing to sacrifice themselves for some value beyond life itself. William James observed the phenomenon:

No matter what a man’s frailties otherwise may be, if he be willing to risk death, and still more if he suffer it heroically, in the service he has chosen, the fact consecrates him forever. Inferior to ourselves in this way or that, if yet we cling to life, and he is able “to fling it away like a flower,” as caring nothing for it, we account him in the deepest way our born superior. Each of us in his own person feels that a high-hearted indifference to life would expiate all his shortcomings.1

Not even martyrdom is enough of itself to make the slain hero a leader. Some martyrs were not leaders before they died for their beliefs. Their posthumous influence does not create followership, though admiration may cause emulation. Other people may lead lives that are slow martyrdoms—“witnessings,” as the word means in Greek—by devotion to a cause beyond most worldly cares. They; too, are not necessarily leaders. The Catholic church may canonize reclusive saints, giving them an influence on the believers who pray to them. But the cultist who wears a hairshirt in honor of Saint Thomas More is, in terms of mere psychological mechanics, like the fan who refuses to wear an undershirt because Clark Gable wore none in the movie It Happened One Night. Some saints can be “holy” without having any earthly influence recognized outside the circle of such admirers. As William James said of Teresa of Avila:

In the main her idea of religion seems to have been that of an endless amatory flirtation—if one may say so without irreverence—between the devotee and the deity; and apart from helping younger nuns to go in this direction by the inspiration of her example and instruction, there is absolutely no human use in her, or sign of any general human interest.2

This is what many people think of as “the saint,” holy perhaps, as idiots are in some cultures, but of little use as a leader in the rougher world of human needs.

Yet there are other saints who do earthly work as well as bear heavenly witness. They usually put the heavenly witness first in their own minds; but the world honors them for services performed here below. To continue quoting James:

When we are in need of assistance, we can count upon the saint lending his hand with more certainty than we can count upon any other person. 3

One does not have to be a Catholic to honor Mother Teresa for her mobilization of care and nursing and feeding operations among the poor. Ruskin called such people “working saints”—to be distinguished from the kind who “with their cloudy outlines disguise, or with their impossible virtue deaden, human response.”4

What sets the saint apart from others who perform useful services is that the saint looks beyond the service performed, toward some transcendent goal or reward. Even the godless do not equate Mother Teresa with the United Way. When the saint performs the world’s work, it is done as a donkey draws a cart, by turning his back on it. To see that this is a separate type of leadership, we have to distinguish it from mere wonder-working or good-doing in themselves. The charismatic leader, like King David, performs divine deeds—but David was not a moral saint, even to his ardent followers. The philanthropist does good, but one can doubt whether he or she is good in any superlative way. The saint, by contrast, draws followers for what he or she is as well as for what he or she does. The hint of higher possibilities in life, of a larger sphere of aspiration, is what James found in such leaders:

The world is not yet with them, so they often seem in the midst of the world’s affairs to be preposterous. Yet they are the impregnators of the world, unifiers and animators of potentialities of goodness which, but for them, would lie forever dormant.5

Such people are “outsize,” for better or worse, escaping the boundaries that hold the rest of us constrained by self-regard, convention, or fear. The protection against their challenge is to dismiss them as outstandingly crazy. Most saints met that response at some point. Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, found it in her own home, in her father’s nagging contempt for what she had become. He wrote in 1937, when his daughter was forty years old:

Dorothy, the oldest girl [of his five children] is the nut of the family. When she came out of the university she was a Communist. Now she’s a Catholic crusader. She owns and runs a Catholic paper and skyhooks all over the country, delivering lectures. She has one girl in a Catholic school and is separated from her husband [sic]. You’ll probably hear of her if you have any Catholic friends. She was in Miami last winter and lived out with [cousins] Clem and Kate. I wouldn’t have her around me.6

Day was hurt by her father’s rejection of her, which was unwavering from the time she joined the Socialist Party in her teens. She obviously admired her father, a dour Irish writer who worked on novels and plays but made his living as a racetrack journalist. All three of his sons followed him into journalism—as did Dorothy. His daughter was the only one for whom he expressed no pride or support.

This was not because of any noisy rebellion in the girl’s past. She was always quiet and accommodating; but from infancy she kept a certain space between herself and others. This went oddly along with a desire to observe people close up. As a child in San Francisco she used to walk strange neighborhoods, wondering what the people who lived there thought. She would go into churches, to see how people behaved there. One of her vivid early memories was of the San Francisco earthquake in 1904, when she was eight—not only of her wheeled little bed rolling about on the floor, but of an influx of strangers brought together in a community of disaster. She observed her mother, for the first time, giving clothes to those whose homes had perished in the quake.7

After the quake, her family moved from San Francisco to Chicago, where Dorothy grew up taking long walks along Lake Michigan. All her life she sought the shores of lakes and oceans, which she found conducive to meditation. Later on, she would reserve serious thinking for rides on the Staten Island ferry. At seventeen, she won a writing scholarship to the University of Illinois in Urbana, where she quickly searched out campus radicals—perhaps in part because they were the most exotic parts of the student body. She always went to “other neighborhoods” of the mind, to observe different lives, discontented with what was at hand. She was reading Dostoevsky, and thought he might be causing her discontent. “Maybe if I stayed away from books more this restlessness would pass,” she wrote to a friend. 8

Her best friend at the university was Rayna Simons, a radiant Jewish rebel who ended her short life in Moscow. When Day’s family moved to New York after her sophomore year in Urbana (1916), Dorothy went along, ready to plunge into radical journalism—not, as her father no doubt informed her, a remunerative part of the profession. As soon as she had income from the socialist publication Call, she moved out of the family house and took her own apartment. She joined the International Workers of the World and worked for the Anti-Conscription League.

Since radical journalism was underpaid, it was dependent on (and open to) cheap labor. When she moved to The Masses, edited by Max Eastman and Floyd Dell, Day was the dependable one, ready to make up the magazine when others were off making speeches. She was sometimes the editor-in-chief because she was the only editor on the premises. She learned every aspect of getting a journal out on a shoestring, a skill that would be important when she launched The Catholic Worker sixteen years later.

The magazines she worked for sent her to cover slums, strikes, and radical meetings. She interviewed Trotsky during his New York visit. She went to Washington with those opposing World War I. But her most important trip to Washington was not undertaken as a journalist, and it led to her first imprisonment. She went with a friend, Peggy Baird (Hart Crane’s best woman friend), to join suffragist demonstrations outside Woodrow Wilson’s White House. Day was not a suffragist—like Mother Jones, she thought of the vote as a reformist measure, not a radical one. But she was ready to protest the treatment of suffragists in jail. She was arrested with others. When bail was put up for them, they went out and got arrested again. On the third arrest, they were sentenced to thirty days in jail. Day went on a hunger strike with the other women thrown into the Occoquan Work House. Authorities were force-feeding the hunger strikers, afraid that some prominent women might die on their premises. On the sixth day of the strike, the fasters were put in a hospital for intravenous feeding. On the tenth day, the strikers won all their demands and were sent back to a regulation prison to finish their sentences.

Returned to the jail with ordinary prisoners, Day was stunned by the raw sexuality of the women. When the prisoners bathed in communal tubs on Saturday night, preparing for their Sunday visits from men, “I saw sex and felt it at its crudest and was ashamed that I should be stirred by it.”9 The debility of her fast at Occaquan had sent the twenty-year-old Day into a black depression, out of which she began to pray (she still considered this a form of weakness). Returned to the regular prison she tried to forget her “lapse” into faith.10

Back in New York, she was an uncooperative government witness against her colleagues on The Masses, which had been closed for seditious libel during the war. She acquired a new circle of friends, more literary than political, which included the writers Malcolm Cowley (soon to be Peggy Baird’s husband), Max Bodenheim, Mike Gold, Kenneth Burke, Allen Tate, Hart Crane, and—most important to her—Eugene O’Neill. Tate, a Southern Agrarian, praised life in the country—the agrarians had picked up some ideas from the Catholic “Distributist” movement in England, a movement that would later claim Day as one of its victims. But at this point, she warmed more to O’Neill the playwright—to his mysticism about the sea, to his maudlin recitals of Catholic poetry when he was drinking with Day and others in their Village hangout (Jimmy Wallace’s bar).

  1. 1

    William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Library of America edition (1987), p. 330.

  2. 2

    James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 316. Cf. James’s description of the adolescent Jesuit saint Aloysius Gonzaga (p. 322):

    When the intellect, as in this Louis, is originally no larger than a pin’s head, and cherishes ideas of God of corresponding smallness, the result, notwithstanding the heroism put forth, is on the whole repulsive.

  3. 3

    James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 335.

  4. 4

    John Ruskin, Roadside Songs of Tuscany, in Library Edition (George Allen, 1907), Vol. 32, p. 72.

  5. 5

    James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 325.

  6. 6

    William D. Miller, Dorothy Day: A Biography (Harper and Row, 1982), p. 311.

  7. 7

    Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (Harper & Brothers, 1952).

  8. 8

    Day, The Long Loneliness, p. 34.

  9. 9

    Day, The Long Loneliness, p. 83. The suffragists were not allowed to bathe, in those days of segregation, since black women had been in their communal tubs.

  10. 10

    Day, The Long Loneliness, p. 83: “I had seen myself too weak to stand alone, too weak to face the darkness of that punishment cell without crying out, and I was ashamed and again rejected religion.”

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