When Dorothy Day lived in New Orleans, years before her conversion, working for a morning newspaper called The Item, on nights when she had no assignment she would go to church when she heard the cathedral bells: “It was the first time I had been present at Benediction and it made a profound impression on me. The very physical attitude of those about me made me bow my head. Did I feel the Presence there? I do not know.”
She was comforted and directed by some lines she remembered from the Imitation of Christ, a book she was reading repeatedly even though she did not yet believe in Christ: “Who, humbly approaching to the fountain of sweetness, doth not carry thence some little sweetness? Who, standing by a copious fire, doth not derive therefrom some little heat?”
The Imitation of Christ “is a book that followed me through my days,” Dorothy wrote. She read it “a great deal” after she had her child Tamara out of wedlock and while she was still praying for “the gift of faith,” she writes in From Union Square to Rome, her spiritual autobiography and an apologia written for her skeptical brother. Even after years of being a Catholic she still read it often and “receive[d] great comfort” from it.
Reading The Imitation of Christ reveals the fundamental thrust of her spirituality. The devotional classic is the key source for understanding the interior life of Dorothy Day.
A manual for daily devotion and living an austere, ascetic life, it was part of the spiritual reading of such disparate persons as St. Thomas More, St. Ignatius of Loyola, John Wesley, St. Therese de Lisieux, and Thomas Merton. Thomas à Kempis composed it originally anonymously. Humility is the virtue of this manual as humility is the basis of faith.
Modern critics of the Imitation (including Hans Urs von Balthasar and René Girard) fault it for being anti-world, for being too rigorous and ascetical and ignoring other aspects of Christ’s life, teaching, and ministry. Dorothy was well aware of such criticisms, yet, she read the Imitation for the rest of her life.
The Imitation’s Influence
The Imitation of Christ is divided into four books: “Helpful Counsels of the Spiritual Life,” “Directions for the Interior Life,” “On Interior Consolation,” and “On the Blessed Sacrament.” In each can be found elements Dorothy practiced in her own life. Sometimes the influence can be seen in her writings, sometimes in her life.
Book I emphasizes withdrawal: “[W]hoever follows me will not walk in darkness.” It calls for patience, solitude, and silence and for the endurance of the vacuities and vicissitudes of earthly existence. These were central to Dorothy’s spirituality. She loved retreats because they afforded her days of silence, something not available in the hectic life of the New York Catholic Worker houses. The Imitation stresses the pilgrim nature of the Christian life and iin later years she titled her column in the Catholic Worker newspaper “On Pilgrimage.”
Book II discusses grace: “Grace will always be given to the truly grateful.” Gratitude was deeply important to Dorothy. She wrote in From Union Square to Rome that “Gratitude brought me into the Church and that gratitude grows, and the first word my heart will utter, when I face God is ‘Thanks.’” On her tombstone at Resurrection Cemetery on Staten Island are the words “Deo Gratias.”
In Book III the author constructs a dialogue between Christ and a faithful soul. Jesus recognizes that few turn to him but that “the man who trusts in Me I will never send away empty.” Dorothy’s entire focus was on Christ. Today, following our reductive and decadent, solipsistic culture, the self is the popular mode. This was not so for Dorothy.
Throughout the Imitation there is a call for self-denial and to embrace the cross of Christ: “Unless you renounce all that you have, you cannot be my disciple.” Dorothy saw that trusting in Christ meant serving his poor.
In Book IV the dialogue continues. The subject is the Eucharist and “with how great reverence Christ is to be received.” Though she’s known to the wider world for her social activism, most important to Dorothy was her faith in Christ and his presence in her life, especially in the Mass. Dorothy received Holy Communion every day with great humility, reverence, awe, and gratitude. She said, and believed, that “the Mass is the most important thing that we do.”
Present in the Sacrament
Dorothy has a rather lengthy discourse on the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist in her apologia. “If you and I love our faulty fellow-human beings, how much more must God love us all?” she asks her brother, who did not think God loved us, if he existed at all. How do we know God loves us? she asks.
We know it because He is here present with us today in the Blessed Sacrament on the altar, that He never has left us, and that by daily going to Him for the gift of Himself as daily bread, I am convinced of that love. I have the Faith that feeding at that table has nourished my soul so that there is life in it, and a lively realization that there is such a thing as the love of Christ for us.
She admits that “it took me a long time as a convert to realize the presence of Christ as Man in the Sacrament. He is the same Jesus Who walked on earth, who slept in the boat as the tempest arose, Who hungered in the desert, Who prayed in the garden, Who conversed with the woman at the well….Jesus is there as Man. He is Flesh and Blood, soul and Divinity.”
The Mass too often has become a casual affair centering on the priest and the congregants, not on Christ and the supernatural. Dorothy, taught by The Imitation, approached the Sacrament “with a sincere and undoubting faith and with a humble reverence.” She continues the passage just quoted:
We are not, most of us, capable of exalted emotion, save rarely. We are not capable always of feelings of love, awe, gratitude, and repentance. So Christ has taken the form of bread that we may more readily approach Him, and feeding daily, assimilating Christ so that it is not we but Christ working in us, we may be made more capable of understanding and realizing and loving Him…. If you sat and thought forever and ever, you could not think of any way for Christ to remain with us which would bring us closer to Him.
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.