Dorothy Day was introduced to St. Teresa and St. John by her reading of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. They were both reformers of their Carmelite congregations during the Counter Reformation who called for a renewed conventual life centered on detachment, prayer, fasting, self-denial and works of penance, and contemplation—a much needed reform for many religious communities today. She was questioned by the Inquisition and he was imprisoned and tortured. They were both later declared doctors of the Church.
As St. Augustine wrote in The Confessions: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, our heart is restless until it rests in thee.” The struggle and journey of a soul is ongoing; there are moments of ecstasy (though for sure for most Christians not in the dramatic form that St. Teresa experienced) and moments of weariness, and near despair (“ups and downs,” “storms and trials,” to use St. John’s words). St. Teresa and St. John were essential to the spiritual life that was essential to Dorothy, a life that was, to use their similes, like watering a garden or climbing a ladder; it is all part of the pilgrimage for one who seeks union with God.
According to St. Teresa there are three attributes of the soul: memory, understanding, and the will. Dorothy noted in her spiritual autobiography From Union Square to Rome, “It is only by exerting these faculties of the soul that one is enabled to love one’s fellow. And this strength comes from God. There can be no brotherhood without the Fatherhood of God.”
St. Teresa wrote: “Until it [the soul] advances, it must, of course, seek the Creator through His creatures” and “[T]he entire edifice of prayer must be founded on humility.” Dorothy wrote we should “meditate more on the love of God for us, rather than our love for Him.” St. Teresa acknowledged that “[p]erfection cannot be attained quickly.” Dorothy lamented, “No one but God knows how long I struggled, how I turned to Him, and turned from Him, again and again.”
But she could take comfort and hope in how St. John in his Dark Night of the Soul treats this reality of the soul: seeking, knocking, and searching. Writing in her diary (published as The Duty of Delight) in the thirties, as she was feeling “a complete sense of failure, of utter misery,” she quotes, as if a prayer, a passage from his Dark Night of the Soul:
O spiritual soul, when thou seest thou desire obscured, thy affections arid and constrained, and thy faculties bereft of their capacity for any interior exercise, be not afflicted for this, but rather consider it a great happiness, since God is freeing thee from thyself and taking the matter from the hands. … The way of suffering is safer and also more profitable than that of rejoicing and of action. In suffering God gives strength…
In the sixties, again in her diaries, she quoted St. John’s “Where there is no love, put love and you will find love” to help explain the Catholic Worker’s calling. She quoted him again in the seventies, adding the line “You love God as much as the one you love the least,” and then a few years later, writing “One must search for beauty in the slums. That sentence from John of the Cross pops into my mind.”
St. Theresa, she wrote in From Union Square to Rome, spoke of “the shadow of death,” which was “the life she was leading, purposeless, disordered, a constant succumbing to second-best, to the less-than-perfect which she desired. But human nature will try to persuade us that the life of prayer is death, is a turning away from life.” She saw herself in the saint’s struggles and saw hope for herself in the saint’s response.
As a convert I can say these things, knowing how many times I turned away, almost in disgust, from the idea of God and giving myself up to Him. I know the feeling of uneasiness, of weariness, the feeling of strain put upon the soul from driving it, instead of abandoning it to God. But I do not know how anyone can persist in the search for God without the assistance of the Church and the advice of those confessors with the experience of generations behind them.
Trying to explain her faith to her skeptical brother, she continued: “The thing you do not understand is the elemental fact that our beginning and our last end is God.” This is a truth she learned in part from St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Accept that, and
half the struggle is won. If we wish to go on struggling, not to be content with the minimum of virtue, of duty done, of “just getting by,” then we should account it a great honor that God has given us these desires, to serve Him and to use ourselves completely in His service.
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.