Dorothy Day is “often misunderstood,” says Dr. Terrence Wright, director of the Pre-Theology program at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Colorado. In his new book, “Dorothy Day: An Introduction to Her Life and Thought” (Ignatius Press, $13), Dr. Wright wants to clear up any misconceptions and show Day as she is — a “faithful daughter of the Church.”
Kris McGregor: There are people out there who feel that Dorothy Day’s not worthy to be a saint. But you have to go back and look at how God began implanting seeds in her life so long ago. When you go back and look at her childhood, you see those little influences — those make a difference, don’t they?
Dr. Terrence Wright: You see that she was always drawn to God. Even when she tried to push him away most deliberately, she couldn’t really get away from him. It informs so much of her life.
There’s no doubt that she did things, particularly in her early 20s, which were very startling for a woman in that time period and she did have some very difficult times.
She had an abortion when she was 21. She had a failed marriage by the time she was 23 or 24. So there are events in her life that people might want to point to and say, “How can we say that woman’s a saint?”
But there’s a lot of saints who tell similar stories. St. Augustine comes to mind. And you can’t miss how that call that God was making to her never goes away, and that she finally answers it. It’s a beautiful story.
McGregor: Isn’t that the way of conversion? It’s sloppy, in most lives.
Wright: It’s a slow process for her. It is sloppy. There wasn’t just one moment — it’s something going on throughout her life.
There are moments where she’s not sure what’s drawing her, but she knows there’s something there. In small acts of piety she sees in other people, in the beauty of the Catholic liturgies, there was always something kind of speaking to her.
She really thought she wasn’t going to be able to have children after her abortion. But she really took the birth of her daughter as a sign of God’s mercy. And that eventually brings her into the Church.
A nun, Sister Aloysius, takes Dorothy and her daughter under her wing, and helps her through the process of getting her daughter baptized. She gets Dorothy to see that she can’t raise her daughter Catholic unless she herself is Catholic.
There was no judgment; she just gave Dorothy what she needed at that moment. She’s a wonderful example of how we’re called to accompany people where they are, and try to lead them to Christ.
McGregor: Matthew 25 really took root in her heart.
Wright: That and the Sermon on the Mount are the two key Scripture passages to understanding Dorothy Day. The idea that, when you saw me hungry and naked, it was the poor, it was Christ. That’s not just a metaphor. To really recognize Christ in the other shapes the her life.
McGregor: What about her relationship with Peter Maurin?
Wright: Dorothy wanted to combine her Catholicism and her talent as a writer and her sensibilities to serve the poor. On the feast of the Immaculate Conception, she prays to the Blessed Mother for a way to bring together all these parts of her life.
The next day, Peter Maurin is sitting in her kitchen, talking to her sister-in-law. And that’s the person she’s going to found the Catholic Worker Movement with.
The two complemented each other. Peter had a vision of houses of hospitality and a newspaper for Catholic social teachings. And Dorothy saw his vision as a way of practicing the spiritual works of mercy.
McGregor: When we look back at the totality of her life, what may have seemed extraordinary, may be not as much as we thought. Her story is normative for many. She’s so relatable. We need her life to look at and embrace.
Wright: Sometimes you see attached to her: “A saint for our age.” I think that’s more than a cliché. Her story, her profound experience of God’s mercy is something a lot of us need to know is out there. She’s such a witness to that.
Kris McGregor is the founder of Discerninghearts.com.
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