In the introduction to her book Therese, Dorothy recounts that she first heard of St. Therese of the Child Jesus from another patient as she lay in the maternity ward of Bellevue Hospital, waiting to give birth to her daughter. In Therese, published in 1960 and the only book she wrote on the life of a saint, she wrote she felt compelled to write the book because in “these days of fear and trembling of what man has wrought on earth in destructiveness and hate, Therese is the saint we need.” St. Therese became the saint for Dorothy, a saint who embraced suffering, her own physical suffering with joy. What are we to make of her and of Dorothy’s embrace of her?
In the forties, she wrote that she had begun “to understand the greatness of the Little Flower. By doing nothing she did everything. She let loose powers, consolations, a stream of faith, hope and love that will never cease to flow. How much richer we are because of her.” Of the “social implications” of St. Therese’s teachings, she wrote in The Catholic Worker, “The significance of our smallest acts! The significance of the little things we leave undone! The protests we do not make, the stands we do not take, we who are living in the world.”
Therese was “a product of her environment,” Dorothy continued, and wouldn’t have been on the protest lines. But
she used the means at her disposal to participate in everything, to increase the sum total of the love of God in the world by every minute act, every suffering, every movement of her body and soul, done of the love of God. She used the spiritual weapons every one of us has at our disposal.
What especially struck Dorothy about Therese? She explains, “St. Therese is teaching the necessity of loving God first, and ‘then all these things shall be added unto you.’” This, she adds, “this is blind faith, a naked faith in love.” But as Therese, Augustine, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross, and Dorothy Day herself realized, it was faith in God’s love for us.
Like Therese she knew she had to die in order to live. Dorothy wrote: “We must be ready to give up everything. We must have already given it up, before God can give it back transfigured and supernaturalized.” Dorothy did. She forsook the love of the father of her child for the love of God in order to live a life centered on Christ. She lived a life of great sacrifice for others for many years.
We usually ignore the hard sayings and teachings of Christ. Of Therese Dorothy observed: “Beneath the stilted, flowery writing…she has a strong, clear sight of the temptations that surround the heart.” (She wrote in her diary that Therese “used flowery language of her day to cover the hardness of her teaching.”)
Even before Therese was canonized in 1925 she had acquired a huge following from the people, all by word of mouth. It was, as Dorothy pointed out, the “worker,” the common man, who first spread her fame. This was before mass media. There were no miracles in her lifetime: “With governments becoming stronger and more centralized, the common man feels his ineffectiveness....,” Dorothy wrote. “The message of Therese is a quite different one.”
Dorothy maintained that Therese “speaks to our condition,” as odd as that may be when many Catholics see faith as something that must be easy and comforting. Dorothy was inspired by the Little Flower because the Little Flower loved God and accepted suffering as Christ himself suffered. Dorothy concludes her book on this humble soul with Therese’s own words: “Few are the souls that aspire to be lonely and unknown.”
In response to an exasperated Communist writer’s series of “How can you believe…?” questions concerning Catholic beliefs and dogmas, Dorothy answered forthrightly, without mincing words: “I believe in the Roman Catholic Church and all she teaches. I have accepted her authority with my whole heart.” The spiritual writers I have discussed were reformers, but like Dorothy’s, their reforms were that the Church be more true to her calling, to the truth entrusted to her by Christ.
In the December 1972 issue of the Catholic Worker newspaper in “A Letter to Father Daniel Berrigan,” she affirmed:
And so when it comes to divorce, birth control, and abortion, I must write in this way. The teaching of Christ, the Word, must be upheld. Held up though one would think that it is completely beyond us—out of our reach, impossible to follow. I believe in the Sacraments. I believe Grace is conferred through the Sacraments. I believe the priest is empowered to forgive sins. Grace is defined as “participation in divine life,” so little by little we are putting off the old man and putting on the new.
This is what the faith meant to her: It is a journey in grace. Faith requires humility. She wished “to live in conformity with the will of God,” as she wrote in The Long Loneliness. Her spiritual advice to “cradle Catholics” was that they need to go through a second conversion that “binds them with a more mature love and obedience to the Church.”
As Pope Benedict explained in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est: “Being Christian is not the result of the ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” St. Augustine, Thomas à Kempis, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and St. Therese de Lisieux were centered on Christ and on the interior life in union with Christ and on the salvation of the soul. So too was Dorothy Day, and as she aged, only more so. They lived in times of war and greed and injustice, of lies, deceit, and corruption—no different from hers, and ours. To understand Dorothy’s interior life, in other words, read these writers.
In our culture, notions of the soul, the interior life, the transcendent vision, the supernatural are dismissed as irrelevant, unreal, or delusional, but then our age is an age of solipsism, self-indulgence, and gratification; it is the age of narcissism. Dorothy believed that God had become man; the world teaches that man has become god. Dorothy’s Catholic faith made her life not just tolerable but allowed her to live in hope and love.
She was not an activist as the world understands it; she was a soul seeking God. To think of her otherwise is to dismiss her. Many years ago, shortly after Dorothy’s death, I was interviewed by what then might have been called a “new” or modern, liberated nun who asked me what I thought was Dorothy Day’s legacy. I said, “Her faith.” The woman was speechless, and looked at me quizzically, no doubt thinking I should have said: her pacifism, her voluntary poverty, or her work for justice.
Dorothy concludes From Union Square to Rome with a challenge to postmodernity: “My will—my free will which God has given me—would hold me rigidly in His presence so that in life, which contains such unbearable and terrible things, as well as in death, I will choose Him and will hold fast to Him. For who else is there? Would you have me choose Nothingness?”