New book presents life of Dorothy Day

Reviewed By Paul Moses
Sunday, February 7, 2016

In his historic address to Congress last September, Pope Francis spoke of four people who had “shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people.”

One of them was Dorothy Day — a reminder that she continues to demand our attention some 35 years after her death at the age of 83 on Nov. 29, 1980. Now we have the journalist Patrick Jordan’s concise, crisply written, deeply knowledgeable biography to help us get to know this inspiring but somewhat elusive woman in all her saintly contradictions.

Jordan, former managing editor of Commonweal and editor of a collection of Day’s writings, was associated with her from 1968 until her death. He and his wife, Kathleen, took part in the Catholic Worker movement, living and working with Day at the St. Joseph House on Manhattan’s Lower East Side when she was in her 70s.

That lived reality of who Day was permeates the book.

“This reflection will convey a glimpse of what was singular about Dorothy Day, while not losing sight of her humanity,” Jordan writes in the introduction. “She was delightfully down-to-earth and a pleasure to be with — most of the time.”

Despite the author’s personal recollections, the book is not a memoir. Rather, it is a carefully documented account that relies heavily on quotes from Day’s writings. Jordan seems to know just where to turn to illustrate a point about some facet of Day that he may have observed, using such sources as her four autobiographical memoirs, columns in The Catholic Worker newspaper, her diaries and letters.

The opening chapter gives a chronology of Day’s life, which is especially useful for those who may not know her story well. Subsequent chapters reflect on the roots of her radicalism; the process of conversion in her life; her principles and devotion to voluntary poverty; her penchant for peacemaking; the melancholy and times of depression in her life; her personalist philosophy; and the question of her sainthood.

The book traces Day’s life as a radical, liberal writer in New York who went to jail for 18 days after picketing for women’s right to vote. She became part of a heady Greenwich Village literary scene before finding her way to Catholicism.

An abortion, two suicide attempts, the birth of a daughter, the dissolution of her marriage and the quick rise of the Catholic Worker newspaper during the Great Depression were all part of her story.

She was a demanding editor and, according to muckraking reporter I.F. Stone, the best writer among all the journalists of their generation. She dove into the political currents of her time, and had strong opinions that were based in Gospel principles, not partisanship or ideology.

She also spoke up for freedom of religion. Jordan notes that she picketed the Mexican embassy for that country’s persecution of Catholics; the German embassy for Nazi persecution of Jews and Catholics; and the Russian consulate because of her opposition to atheistic communism.

As Jordan writes, Day managed to both love the Catholic Church intensely and to criticize its human flaws intensely. In a 1967 Catholic Worker column that assailed New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman for supporting the Vietnam War, she wrote, “As to the church, where else shall we go, except to the bride of Christ, one flesh with Christ? Though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother.”

Jordan’s chapter on personalism may be the most important in the book because it gets to the heart of her vision.

“She had an idea of how important each person is, and in practice she approached each person as unique and revelatory of God’s love,” Jordan writes. “Dorothy’s attention to others was the fruit of her hours of prayer.”

In other words, Day’s life is the antidote to the lament of Linus, the Charles Schulz character in the “Peanuts” cartoon who declares, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.”

Day was at once radical and traditional: her outlook was based on the Gospel call for a radical love of each individual, the outgrowth of her prayer and devotion. It was a call that led her to the people on the periphery. This is indeed traditional Catholicism — and also as contemporary as the latest words from Pope Francis, who praised Day before Congress for, among other reasons, her commitment to “the rights of persons.”

This book can be recommended to a wide readership. Reader-friendly and inspiring, it would be a good choice for high-school students. It reads quickly enough so that everyone in the parish book club would find time to finish it. It’s thoroughly documented, making it appropriate for a college course. It’s an overview for those who don’t know much about Day and would like to learn. And it has reflections that would please those who already know Day’s writings well but want to experience her again through the perspective of a keen observer.

In short, it’s a wonderful book and a fine addition to this Liturgical Press series of concise and inspiring biographies for the general reader.