| Women of Prayer and Justice|
Session 1: Dorothy Day (1897-1980)
prepared by Eleanor Lincoln, CSJ and Catherine Litecky, CSJ
Women at the Well Ministry, St. Paul, MN
Icon by Robert Lentz
cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know
each other. We know [God] in the breaking of the bread, and we know
each other in the breaking of the bread, and we are not alone anymore.
Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust where
there is companionship.
From the Postscript of The Long Loneliness, the Autobiography of Dorothy Day, (Harper and Row, 1963)
you begin this retreat, spend a few moments simply looking at the
picture of Dorothy Day's face. Read her words over several times. What
do her picture and her words tell you about her? Ask God to bless you
as you begin to reflect and pray about the words and actions of Dorothy
as they touch you personally. Pray for the grace to be a person of
prayer and justice eager to face the challenges of life with courage and
Many contemporary people have had the privilege of
meeting Dorothy Day. At the time I heard her lecture in the 1970's, she
struck me as a serene, contemplative woman at ease with herself and
attentive to others. I remember how privileged I felt to be in the
presence of a woman who lived the message of the gospel so completely.
her death in 1980 people have come to realize even more that she was
indeed a mystic, a woman who gained wisdom through love by accepting
God's love for her. She returned that love in her life of prayer and in
doing works of justice.
Numerous biographies and collections of
her writings are available in libraries and bookstores along with her
autobiography The Long Loneliness. She tells us that the word
“loneliness” as used in her title means a longing for God, a longing
which continued to deepen as she grew older.
you have chosen to make this retreat indicates that you too long for a
deeper relationship with God. During this time think about recent times
in your life. Are you aware of having been touched by God during times
of prayer or perhaps at a time of happiness or a time of sorrow? If you
have felt the nearness of God, thank God for that grace.
of the psalms and other prayers used in the liturgy express longing for
God. “As the deer longs for running waters, so my soul longs for you, O
God” (Psalm 42:1) or a favorite psalm of Dorothy Day: “Bless the Lord,
O my soul; and all my being, bless [God's] holy name” (Psalm 103:1).
she came to be the mystic and saint she is considered to be now,
Dorothy Day led a wild, bohemian life. As a young journalist, she wrote
for a socialist newspaper, the New York Call. Her personal life in her
twenties gave little indication of her future path. After her first
marriage failed and she had an abortion, she was devastated emotionally
and physically. She left New York for California to recuperate. There
she wrote movie scripts and a novel (which was largely
autobiographical.) After her conversion this novel caused her real
embarrassment and anguish, and she wished it were possible to destroy
every copy of it.
Growth in spirituality gives
us a new awareness of our sins and failings and of the constant need to
ask God for the grace of forgiveness. One helpful way to become aware
of our sinfulness is to take some time to reflect on the thoughts and
actions of each day, trying to discover our motives. We thank God for
the good things we have done and ask God's forgiveness for our offenses.
We then can ask God to help us to begin the next day anew by reciting
Psalm 51 which begins, “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in
the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me
from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me.”
Day's conversion required great personal sacrifice. After her failed
marriage and abortion she entered into a common law marriage with a man
who was an anarchist and atheist. She loved him deeply and referred to
this time with him as one of natural happiness. However, in the
surprising way of God, she began to feel drawn to prayer and the life of
faith. Her happiness knew no bounds when their daughter, Tamar Teresa,
was born. Dorothy had decided during her pregnancy to have her child
baptized even though she knew her husband would leave her if she did.
He did leave when she chose, to his dismay and that of her friends, to
become a Catholic.
A conversion experience often
brings joy to those who choose to accept a life of faith or to follow a
call to leave others behind. It also can require great courage to
leave the familiar for the unknown.
Have you had to make
decisions that meant leaving behind beloved persons or comfortable jobs
in order to grow in your love of God and service to others? Pray for
the strength and courage to be able to make difficult decisions to help
you come closer to God as you try to serve others.
Dorothy's conversion experience was depicted poignantly in a movie, Entertaining Angels,
which dealt with her early life, her conversion, and the establishment
of The Catholic Worker newspaper and movement with Peter Maurin. In the
movie, Moira Kelly plays Dorothy and the role of Peter Maurin is taken
by Martin Sheen.
It was during the depths of the depression in
the early 1930's that Dorothy Day, together with Peter Maurin whose
vision of a Catholic social order resonated with her own, began the
Catholic Worker movement. Peter, a French peasant, teacher, and
philosopher who lived a life of voluntary poverty in the spirit of St.
Francis of Assisi, taught Dorothy the history and meaning of Catholic
social justice teachings. Together they spread these teachings on social
justice in The Catholic Worker newspaper which first appeared on May 1, 1933 and sold for a penny a copy.
shortly before she died, Dorothy continued to write a column, “On
Pilgrimage,” in which she shared her rich insights on prayer, justice,
and hospitality. The circulation of the paper rapidly grew as its
message touched the hearts of many Christians eager to embrace the
teachings of Jesus on love of God and of neighbor.
of the importance of putting into practice the teachings of Jesus in
Matthew's gospel (25:31-46.) The idea of this passage is familiar to
Christians: Whatever you do to my brothers and sisters in need, you do
to me. In the houses of hospitality which were established all over the
country many needy people were then, as now, fed, clothed and
sheltered. For Dorothy Day the love of Jesus must be shown in action.
Rarely has anyone lived out so completely this message of Jesus.
Dorothy's example of gospel living is still lived out in houses of
Read reflectively the gospel passage in
Matthew 25: 31-46. Ask yourself how you are putting into practice what
Jesus asks of all Christians. How could you feed the hungry, give drink
to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the
ill, or visit those in prison? What one action could you take today?
Day lived out her belief that works of mercy, which also might be
called acts of loving kindness, are to be done out of a love sustained
and nurtured by prayer. Over and over again she insisted that prayer is
the foundation and motivating force of the Catholic Worker movement.
Jim Forest, who worked with Dorothy at the Catholic Worker house and
later became managing editor of the newspaper, wrote that she taught him
that justice begins on our knees. He added that he never knew anyone
who was more a praying person than Dorothy Day.
that throughout all of her life she had somehow been haunted by God.
Like St. Augustine in his dissolute young life she had experienced a
restlessness for God. She desired fullness of life for herself as well
as for everyone else and her prayer always embraced neighbors close at
hand and far away.
Dorothy's spirituality was rooted in the
Word of God. She loved praying the psalms and reading the letters of
St. Paul. A friend of mine whose life and work have been inspired by her
association with Dorothy said that Dorothy constantly repeated this
verse from Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, O my soul and all that is within
me bless [God's] holy name.”
Like St. Paul she saw Christ in
others, especially those most in need. In her words, “The most radical
thing we can do is to try to find the face of Christ in others, and not
only those we find it easy to be with” (quoted from an article by Jim
Forest in U.S. Parish, August, 1995). Living from day to day, taking no
thought for the morrow, seeing Christ in all who come, and trying
literally to follow the gospel shaped her ministry.
worked principally as a journalist and author of eight books, expressing
her faith and spirituality. Her writings helped support herself, her
child, and the Catholic Worker movement. She addressed many of the
causes of injustice and violence affecting people who were poor or
She gave witness by joining protests, picket lines,
and boycotts in support of obtaining justice for workers. She sometimes
spent time in jail for her convictions. She was in jail for the last
time at age 76 because she participated in a non-violent demonstration
in support of the United Farm Workers.
All of her life she was a
pacifist, often meeting with opposition to her anti-war stands. She was
among those in the 1960s who formed Pax Christi, an organization that
continues to work for peace.
Her journals show that in all of these causes and conflicts she never lost sight of her search for God.
who knew Dorothy Day in person speak of her authenticity and integrity.
Writer-editor Robert Ellsberg writes that there was no distinction
between what she believed, what she wrote, and how she lived. Others
agreed that what they saw was what she was. She had an extraordinary
well-developed sense of humility, of the truth of herself.
spirituality was strongly shaped by her reading, and she read a great
deal. She credits the novels of Dostoyevsky and others for sustaining
her in her search for God. As she grew older, she loved reading the
lives of the saints, and, in a sense, walked in their company. That
company included Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich,
and especially Therese of Lisieux.
She found herself drawn
especially to the “little way,” a phrase used by St. Therese to describe
her approach to God. This “ little way” meant that the power of love
can change the world. Dorothy Day understood that change occurs not in
large dramatic events but in how we live moment by moment.
few minutes now to reflect on what you have learned about Dorothy Day,
woman of prayer and justice. How does her life inspire or challenge
you? Pray with her: God, help us to put love into action and do all for
Go on to the next Women of Prayer and Justice retreat:
Therese of Lisieux
|Session 1: Dorothy Day|
Session 2: Therese of Lisieux
Session 3: Teresa of Avila
Session 4: St. Catherine of Siena
Session 5: Blessed Julian of Norwich
Session 6: St. Hildegard of Bingen