In his last public audience, given on Ash Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI observed that we are always tempted to set aside our faith and thus conversion must be “a response to God that must be strengthened several times in life.” He mentioned three twentieth century examples of people who searched for God in quite different circumstances—some harrowing—in different cultures, and from different religious backgrounds: a Dutch Jewish woman who died in Auschwitz, a Russian man who subsequently became an Orthodox monk, and Dorothy Day.
He spoke of Dorothy’s “ability to oppose the ideological blandishments of her time, to choose the search for truth and open herself up to the discovery of faith.” In her autobiography, “she confesses openly to having given in to the temptation that everything could be solved with politics. ...”
The journey towards faith in such a secularized environment was particularly difficult, but Grace acts nonetheless as she pointed out, “It is certain that I felt the need to go to church more often, to kneel, to bow my head in prayer. A blind instinct, one might say, because I was not conscious of praying. But I went, I slipped into the atmosphere of prayer.”
He went on to say: “God guided her to a conscious adherence to the Church, in a lifetime spent dedicated to the underprivileged.”
Dorothy’s conversion was a long journey in which she rediscovered Christ. Recounting her story, Benedict cited the Book of Revelation: “Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.”
There are two key elements in his observations of her that could be said of anyone desiring to lead a God-centered life: grace and the acceptance of grace. Grace is offered and abounds. But each individual has free will to act, to accept, or to ignore, to reject. Not to do so is to be deceived by the great deceiver, Satan, in effect to deceive oneself. As then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said in 2000: the great deception of our age, of postmodernity, is that “human life can be realized by itself.”
Some years ago I was on a retreat at Regina Laudis Abbey in Connecticut. The foundress and abbess, Mother Benedict Duss, was a formidable, no-nonsense person. I asked her to pray that I would receive grace, and she bluntly stated: “You will. You just have to act on it!”
Dorothy Day is a saint for our time because she acted on the grace she received. Crucially, she took personal responsibility not just for the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, but for a life of holiness for which she’s known but, as her mentor and friend Peter Maurin taught, she took responsibility for living a life centered on Christ, the Incarnation of God.
Her primary spiritual source was, of course, the Scriptures. She was particularly fond of the Psalms. Five Christian writers especially inspired Dorothy: St. Augustine, Thomas aˋ Kempis, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and St. Therese de Lisieux, whom Dorothy came to appreciate later in life. She mentions them in her story of conversion, her own apologia, From Union Square to Rome, first published in 1938, some ten years after her conversion. It was an apologia written for her brother John, a skeptic and atheist, fourteen years younger than she.
St. Augustine’s Confessions, his powerful, eloquent, and moving story of his early life, had a strong impact on Dorothy both for its literary style and its theology and spirituality. She had read The Confessions, a book that’s been described as “a vast hymn of praise to the goodness and praise of God,” before her conversion. (She read the other sources after.)
Her own conversion was Augustinian in proportion. As a young woman she wandered and searched, living a dissolute (though not dissolute by today's standards) bohemian life in Greenwich Village, becoming a journalist and writer, and bore a child out of wedlock. He had wandered and searched, taught school for a while in Rome, became a Manichaean, then was greatly influenced by the Neoplatonists, and fathered a son out of wedlock.
His words helped her understand “the feelings and actions of even my earliest youth,” she wrote. When she was about six, she was twice caught stealing. I remember, she wrote in From Union Square to Rome, “how it ate into my vitals, how I watered my bed with my tears, how disgraced I felt, and black the world seemed to me, laden with guilt as I was. I do not think St. Augustine’s words were too strong when he wrote as he did in his confessions.”
Later in her diaries (published as The Duty of Delight) she explained that she titled her book about her life The Long Loneliness because “I tried to point out, with St. Augustine, that no matter how crowded life was with activity and joy, family and work, the human heart was never satisfied with until it rested in God, absolute Good, absolute Beauty, absolute Love.”
In the contretemps with her brother John, Dorothy had to confront his objections in her apologia. She, like Augustine, appealed to her own lived experience in her coming to faith, to a belief in the supernatural, and to the acceptance of grace. These for her were realities; moreover, she recognized like Augustine that her experiences, her yearnings for sexual intimacy, for love, for companionship, these natural desires—which are good, because they are created by God—led her to God and to a life of grace. Her writing is introspective, self-reflective, analytical, self-critical, and intuitive. Her apologia, like Augustine’s Confessions, ultimately is full of wonder and gratitude.
“For you cannot pace the floor of a barred cell, or lie on your back on a hard cot watching a gleam of sunlight travel slowly… across the room,” she explained to her brother,
without coming to the realization that until the heart and soul of man is changed, there is no happiness for him. On the other hand you have not felt the ecstasy, the thankfulness, the joy, which called the Psalmist to cry out, ‘My heart and my flesh rejoice for the living God. My soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord‘ (Ps. 83:1).”
The Desire to Live Like Christ
St. Augustine also influenced the course of her life, the desire to live like Christ that led her to found the Catholic Worker movement and to live her extraordinary life of self-sacrifice. As she wrote in her diaries near the end of her life, “I believe with St. Augustine that we are all members or potential members of the Mystical Body of Christ. In other words, that we are members of one of another, and that if the health of one member suffers, the health of the whole body is lowered.”
She never convinced her brother. But as Augustine concluded The Confessions: “How can one man teach another man to understand this? What angel will teach an angel?” But she convinced herself and the fruit of that has been an example of holiness for the world. As Augustine continued: “This must be asked of you, sought in you, knocked for at you. So, so shall it be received, so shall it be found, so shall it be opened. Amen.”
Geoffrey Gneuhs is a painter and writer and served as the chaplain of the Catholic Worker community at the end of Dorothy Day's life, and preached her funeral homily. Among his books are St. Thomas Aquinas: A Biography for Young Readers. He serves on the board of the Center for Economic and Social Justice.