Dorothy Day is alleged to have said: Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed that easily! A new biography by her granddaughter Kate Hennessy, “Dorothy Day — The World Will be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother,” will, I believe, go a long way in preventing anyone from turning Day — soon to officially be canonized by the Church — into what she feared: a plaster saint who can be piously doted upon and not taken seriously.
We’re all, I’m sure, familiar with who Day was and what her life’s work was about. Indeed, Pope Francis in addressing the U.S. Congress, singled out four Americans who, he suggested, connected spirituality to a life of service in an extraordinary way: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. This new biography gives us an honest picture of who this remarkable woman actually was.
This book is extraordinary for a number of reasons: Hennessy is a very good writer, the book is the product of years of research, she’s Day’s granddaughter and had a very close relationship with her, and she manages to tell Day’s story with both a healthy critical and aesthetic distance. Her insight is both privileged and rare — privileged because of her intimate relationship with Day, and rare because most authors who are that intimately tied to their subject cannot maintain a balanced critical distance. Hennessy admits that doing this was no easy task.
“That is the danger of holiness on your own doorstep, in your own family,” she wrote. “Either you cannot see it for the view is too close or, if you do, you feel you haven’t a chance of being the person she was. You feel it is a sad mistake that you are related.”
And that combination makes for an extraordinary book that allows us to see a side of Day we would never see otherwise. Beyond this being a close-up of Day, Hennessy shares stories about some of the key people who surrounded Day: her relationship to the man who fathered her child, Forster Battenham, with whom she maintained a lifelong friendship.
Hennessy’s biography shatters the myth that upon her conversion Day coldly and forever turned her back upon this man. Not true. They remained close their whole lives and Forster, until her death, remained an intimate companion and a faithful supporter.
Central, too, to this biography is the story of Day’s daughter, Tamar, who, while vitally important in Day’s life, is unfairly absent in virtually everything that’s known about Day in the popular mind. Tamar’s story, which holds its own richness and is not incidental to the history of the Catholic Worker, is critical to understanding Day. There’s no understanding Day without understanding her daughter’s story and that of her grandchildren. To understand Day, you also have to see her as a mother and grandmother.
Hennessy shares how, when her diaries were opened some years after Day’s death, Tamar initially was bitterly resistant to having them released for publication. That resistance was only lifted when, thanks to the man who transcribed them, Robert Ellsberg, the family and Tamar herself realized that her resistance was rooted in the fact that Day’s diaries were unfair in their neglect of Tamar’s story and the role of her story within the bigger narrative of Day’s life, work and legacy.
The book is a story, too, of some of the people who played key roles in founding the Catholic Worker: Peter Maurin, Stanley Vishnewski and Ade Bethune.
This isn’t a story that follows the classical genre for the lives of the saints, where form is often exaggerated to highlight essence and the result is an over-idealization that paints the saint into an icon.
Hennessy highlights that Day’s faith wasn’t a faith that never doubted and that walked on water. What Day never doubted was that faith calls us to hospitality, nonviolence and service to the poor.
In these things, Dorothy was single-minded enough to be a saint, and that manifested itself in her dogged perseverance so that at the end she could say: “The older I get the more I feel that faithfulness and perseverance are the greatest virtues — accepting the sense of failure we all must have in our work, in the work of others around us, since Christ was the world’s greatest failure.”
That being said, her life was messy, many of her projects were often in crisis, she was forever overextended, and, in her granddaughter’s words “she was fierce, dictatorial, controlling, judgmental and often angry, and she knew it. It took the Catholic Worker, her own creation, to teach her her lessons.”
This is hagiography as it should be written. It tells the story of how a very human person, caught up in the foibles, weaknesses and mess that beset us all, can, like St. Brigid, cast her cloak upon a sunbeam and see it spread until it brings abundance and beauty to the entire countryside.
Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser is a specialist in the field of spirituality and systematic theology. His website is www.ronrolheiser.com.