Summer 1987, Vol. 39, pp. 114-125.

Patrick G. Coy:
      The Incarnational Spirituality of Dorothy Day

A profound sense of God's presence in nature and human suffering led Dorothy Day to a gospel-simple vision of Christian life devoted to works of peace and justice.

Patrick Coy is Coordinator of Peace and Justice Ministry at Saint Louis University and a member of the Karen Catholic Worker House Community. He is currently editing an anthology of essays on the Catholic Worker Movement which will be published by Temple University Press

WHEN Dorothy Day died at age eighty-three on November 29,1980, the Christian Church in the United States lost what Newsweek described as "perhaps the most influential Catholic of her time." The New York Times concurred in a page one obituary, stating that "Dorothy Day not only changed her friends and admirers, she changed U.S. Catholicism itself." Now, more than six years after her death, the Christian community is still struggling to understand the depth and breadth of her gospel-based message. Her spirituality is a gift of grace burning brightly to illuminate the dark corners of our own spiritual journey. As Cesar Chavez wrote upon her death in Day's monthly tabloid, The Catholic Worker, "Dorothy Day has gone to be with God and we in the farm worker's movement will miss her. She was for us a kind of beacon, a lighthouse, showing the way of faith in an unclear, turbulent world. She was always there, always true to her deep spirituality, always close to the poor. If we lost touch with her chosen way of living her faith, then it was time to examine what we were doing."(1)

Day's "chosen way of living her faith" was arrived at with great cost. At the age of eighteen, with two years of college at the University of Illinois behind her, Dorothy followed her family when they moved to New York City. She became involved in radical politics, lived on the lower east side, and worked on a succession of radical papers and journals -- The Masses, The Call, and others. She called Communists, atheists, anarchists and Wobblies her compatriots; she carried her own membership in the I.W.W., and had joined the Socialist party while in Urbana, Illinois. But while the young Day found the bohemian life exciting, she also came face to face with a certain emptiness, a loneliness which would stalk her the remainder of her days. It would, in fact, become the title of her classic spiritual autobiography -- The Long Loneliness.

This spiritual hunger made a profound and disquieting entrance into her life in November of 1917 when she was imprisoned for fifteen days in the infamous Occoquan, Virginia, Women's federal prison. She had been arrested for picketing at the White House on behalf of women's suffrage. A full ten of those fifteen days were spent on a hunger strike in a successful attempt to gain status as a "political prisoner." This, long before Gandhi taught the world the merits of public fasting as a nonviolent strategy. Day was imprisoned seven times for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. Her prison writings rank among the most moving of that genre of American literature.


From Union Square to Rome is Day's apologetic for her conversion to Catholicism. It was addressed to her Communist brothers and sisters, and made her case for the primacy of the spiritual over the material. She says it took her over a year to write this rather slim book of 173 pages. It was a painful, wrenching process. Yet she was an accomplished writer used to meeting deadlines, who would go on to publish eight books and approximately 1500 articles, essays, and reviews. (A complete bibliography and index, edited by Anne and Alice Klejmont, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, was published by Garland in 1985.) It was painful because she knew that many of her friends saw the Christian church -- the Catholic church in particular -- to be a hindrance to the liberation of the oppressed.

For Day, however, the church was the only avenue which addressed her own existential longings for transcendent meaning, and provided a framework within which to serve the poor and work for change. As her prison writings say:

I felt this despair when I lay there in jail for fifteen days, contemplating the fundamental misery of human existence, a misery which would remain even if social justice were achieved and a state of Utopia prevailed. For you cannot pace the floor of a barred cell, or lie on your back on a hard cot watching a gleam of sunlight travel slowly, oh, so slowly, across the room, without coming to the realization that until the heart and soul of humankind is changed, there is no hope of happiness for us.(2)

The imprisoned Dorothy Day was young. It would be a full ten years before she would definitely respond in full faith to this relentless divine call, the call Francis Thompson referred to in his famous poem "The Hound of Heaven" -- a poem often recited to Dorothy by her friend Eugene O'Neill during the early morning hours in a Greenwich Village bar. Those ten years would bring a stormy relationship with an older writer, an abortion in a futile and misguided attempt to gain and keep his love, a hasty and brief marriage entered into when the first relationship failed, life overseas, and work as a nurse during the influenza outbreak of 1917-18. She also had a series of reporting jobs, and wrote an autobiographical novel, whose movie rights brought her a tidy sum resulting in the purchase of a cottage on Staten Island. The period would end with a happy life on the beach, in common law marriage with a biologist and adamant anarchist named Forster Batterham.


Like so much else and so many others in the American experience, it was Day's profound encounter with nature which left an indelible mark on her spirituality. It was in and though the wondrous mystery of the sea that she came to know of the bountiful love of God. In due time, God's revelation in nature, along with her experience of giving birth to her daughter Tamar, would serve as her entry point into Christianity.

Day made these points herself when, at the frail age of eighty, she gave her last public address -- a talk before thousands at the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia on August 6, 1976 (Hiroshima day, an appropriate irony not overlooked by the venerable pacifist in her talk!). She said: "My conversion began... at a time when the material world began to speak in my heart of God. . .of a Creator who satisfied all our hungers."

As Nancy Roberts has recently shown, as a writer, Day was primarily a journalist.(3) She wrote in the direct, concrete style of a reporter -- first as a muckraker, then as a premier advocacy journalist. But it is also true that her prose frequently rose to a stylistic level so rich with imagery as to be uncommon among journalists. Not surprisingly, such is the case when she tried to explain her religious awakening with Forster.

He had all of the love of the English for the outdoors in all weather. He used to insist on walks no matter how cold or how rainy the day, and this dragging me away from my books, from my lethargy, into the country, made me begin to breathe. If breath is life, then I was beginning to be full of it because of him. I was filling my lungs with it, walking on the beach, resting on the pier beside him while he fished, rowing with him in the calm bay, walking through the fields and woods -- a new experience entirely for me, one which brought me to life, and filled me with joy.(4)
Day's joy in nature was brought full circle and made complete when she discovered she was pregnant. Yet it would be difficult to overstate the turmoil and trauma that her entry into motherhood would eventually cause her. She knew joy. As she often said, her life with Forster brought her great "natural happiness." But she had always been a searcher, one who was willing to take the risk and answer the still small voice within her. Someone who knew her well during her days with the old Masses said, "Everyone agreed that what distinguished Dorothy was the intensity of her 'seeking'." Now, with the birth of Tamar, Dorothy knew her spiritual quest had begun to bear fruit. Her spontaneous prayers, offered almost reflexively while walking the beaches of Raritain Bay, and little understood even by her at the time, had led her to the threshold of the Christian church. Her entry had become inevitable. Equally inevitable was the loss of her life with Forster. A staunch anarchist and atheist, he would not countenance marriage, nor baptism for Tamar or Dorothy. She knew, too, that her own baptism would demand an end to their common law marriage.

Throughout her life, as she led the Catholic Worker movement through its first forty-five years, Day had little patience with those in the churches who seemed to water down the difficult demands of the gospel injunction to love friend and enemy alike. This should not be surprising; the frequently high cost of discipleship was not a foreign reality to her. She knew the paralysis of doubt, the temptation to turn back from the way of Calvary. And here again, her pen ably conveyed the existential reality, the deep pain arising from the giving away of a human love in favor of divine love.

It was killing me to think of leaving him. Fall nights we read a great deal. Sometimes he went out to dig bait if there were a low tide and the moon was up. He stayed up late on the pier fishing, and came in smelling of seaweed and salt air... I loved him in every way, as a wife, as a mother even. I loved him for all he knew and pitied him for all he didn't know... I loved his lean cold body as he got into bed smelling of the sea, and I loved his integrity and stubborn pride.(5)

Still, leave him she did. She was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church at age thirty in the summer of 1928. She converted to Catholicism on a gut instinct that, notwithstanding its moneyed interests in the United States, it was the church of the poor. For five years longer she searched for her niche in this church. Nagged by her astute social conscience and her radical background, she saw a church which seemed to have little to offer the unemployed masses of the early depression years. But on May 1,1933, she and Peter Maurin, a French-American street philosopher, co-founded the Catholic Worker paper and movement in New York City. She found her true home, and for her remaining forty-seven years she would serve the poor and oppressed as the guiding light of the Catholic Worker movement. Here was a laywoman who had found a way to live out the gospel demands and the social teachings of Catholicism. In the process, she would become a thorn in the side of sleeping Christian consciences everywhere. As Lutheran social historian Mel Piehl has argued, her movement is "historically significant as the first major expression of radical social criticism in American Catholicism. (6)


In his study of the Worker, Piehl defines a spiritual movement as "one that positively addresses the spiritual dilemmas of a period and thereby opens the possibility of new cultural approaches to religion."(7) Piehl situates the Catholic Worker in this category. In doing so he is correct. This stands as a lasting tribute to Day, for it was her own incarnational spirituality which unalterably marked the work of the movement. Such is the case whether that be the hospitality houses where voluntary poverty is practiced and the homeless are clothed, sheltered and fed, whether it be the various Catholic Worker papers and journals where the life stories of the oppressed are reported and commented on in a clever but sincere bit of revisionist reporting,(8) or whether it be the absolutist pacifist stance which has frequently led Catholic Worker communities around the country into the forefront of the peace movement.

Dorothy Day was fond of saying that "the spiritual life is the greatest adventure in the world." Like the master explorer of the spiritual wilderness that she was, she came ably equipped for the expedition. For she knew herself, and therefore that which was of God in her, quite intimately.

Thomas Merton, along with his good friend Dorothy Day, is to twentieth century U.S. Catholicism what Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross were to sixteenth century Spanish Catholicism. It was Merton who once asserted that "Our identity is hidden in the Psalms."(9) Day read and prayed the Psalter every day, often for two hours in the light of early dawn. She attended Mass almost daily, and was known to pray the rosary at the most improbable of times. Caught in a consumer age which traded dominion for domination and regularly wielded violence and economic exploitation as the weapons of choice, Day girded herself only with the weapons of the spirit -- the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Her devotion to daily prayer and to keeping her copious journals bore fruit in her highly developed sense of the sacramental. She had a hard-won ability to discern the extraordinary in the most ordinary of happenings and human encounters. For her, this was a disciplined skill, one developed through the fruit of prayerful reflection. She took ever so seriously Peter Maurin's stock phrase that "The poor are the ambassadors of God."

Foundational to her spirituality was a sense of the "sacrament of the present moment." Her favorite saint was Therese of Lisieux, a simple Carmelite nun who died at the age of twenty-four within the cloistered walls of a Normandy convent. Therese advocated "the little way" as the path to God and holiness. Day was so taken by Therese's profound simplicity that she even wrote a hagiography of her which was poorly received.(10) Nevertheless, the "little way" was the path Day consistently chose. Her charge was to practice the presence of God in every moment, to proclaim the transcendental triumph of the spiritual over the material, and to honor that which was of God in all, no matter the time, place or person.

But perhaps her real genius, and the reason why she and her movement not only survived but prospered, is precisely because she refused to look beyond the individual for results. And even in that single-ring arena, the results were to be left to a larger pair of hands. Hers was a personalist approach. She believed that the whole of the Judeo-Christian scriptures revealed a basic truth about human existence. This truth is echoed in a line from a Robert Frost poem: "I bid you to the one-person revolution -the only one that is coming." Consequently, the Catholic Worker movement eschews looking toward social institutions as the vehicle or locus for change. True change -- revolutionary change not fenced in by the vestiges of time and history -- is understood to occur only in the human person. No political party, no movement, no government of any sort will suffice. It is only the individual person within whom the Divine resides, which is transcendent. A heart softened by the grace of God was understood by Day to be the condition of possibility for substantive and eternal change.(11)

For Day, the life of Christ was a concrete expression of this belief. Scorned by the powers that be, his ministry frankly ineffectual on their terms, he had consistently elevated compassionate love to a place of practiced primacy, no matter the situation. Though she and the Worker often appeared foolish in the eyes of the World, she considered this the highest of compliments! She took refuge in her belief that the folly of the cross and the triumph of the empty tomb had located the occasion for transcendent meaning in the encounter between two individuals as they met on their way to eternity.

Day took this belief quite literally. She once gave a valuable diamond ring, which had been given to the Worker by a supporter, to a poor neighborhood woman who frequented the soup line and whose judgements were held to be suspect by some of the Workers. One of them was aghast upon hearing that Day had given the ring to this woman and challenged her, saying, "We could have sold that diamond and kept our soup line in beans for months. You don't have any idea what she will do with it!" Day's reply revealed much of her spirituality. She simply said, "The poor have their dignity too, and have a right to make choices about their lives. If she chooses to sell it, to wear it, to lock it up or give it away, that must be her prerogative."


Day's detractors often accused her of being naive, sentimental, idealistic, even simplistic. Interestingly, the charges were the same whether the issue at hand was her no-holds-barred, no-questions-asked style of offering hospitality, or whether it be her uncompromising pacifism during the Spanish "Civil" War and World War II. (Another Catholic Worker, Ammon Hennacy, echoed Day's penchant for consistency, frequently saying that "Being a pacifist between wars is as easy as being a vegetarian between meals.") It is no coincidence that when Martin Luther King, Jr. began to speak out against the Vietnam War in 1967, he was also accused of naivete and simplicity. While Day would be told to "stick to the hospitality work and leave the thorny peace issue to more competent analysts,"' King would be counseled by admirers and detractors alike not to risk important civil rights gains by his "facile fusing" of the issues. All of this as if there were not the most deadly of connections between the issues.

But the truth must be told. Day's approach to social issues was indeed simple. In the final analysis, it was and is far too demanding for many precisely because of its very simplicity. For example, she often quoted St. Basil, saying, "The unused coat hanging in your closet belongs to the poor." For her part, she would emphasize "belong," thereby highlighting the basic human rights and fundamental dignity of the human person. She repeatedly tried to resurrect a practice common in the life of the early Christian communities -- that of a "Christ room" in each household to be used for hospitality. If people need housing, open a room in your house, she would say. The gospel injunction is indeed simple, she would remind her readers: Give of our substance, not only of our abundance. She had a rare ability to clarify the concrete substance of an issue, allowing for none of the dreaded abstractions which she felt both fueled the fires of war, and made the poor expendable.

Jean-Paul Sartre maintained that the greatest sin lies in making abstract that which is concrete.(12) Living her daily life in close proximity and in service to the poor had shown Day the bold truth of Sartre's proposition. Consequently, although solidarity with the poor was not so much her word, love of the poor certainly was. They were real people, wounded and broken members of her beloved Mystical Body of Christ. The heart of the matter, she would continually repeat, is that the gospel love command is not convenient -- it is rather a harsh and dreadful reality.

Day once wrote a rather impassioned reply to a charge that her pacifist stance was sentimental, revealing at the same time her understanding of the interconnectedness between nonviolence and economic justice. "Let those who talk of sentimentality come to live with us in cold unheated houses in the slums. Let them come live with the criminal, the unbalanced, the drunken, the degraded .... Let their flesh be mortified by cold, by dirt, by vermin .... Yes, and by the smell of blood, sweat and tear[s] spoken of by Mr. Churchill, [and] so widely and bravely quoted by comfortable people."(13)

But how, in these conditions, could one really learn to see Christ in people? So asked a catechism class after having read her The Long Loneliness. Though she was certainly no theologian in an academic sense, her reply revealed uncommon theological astuteness. "It is an act of faith, constantly repeated. It is an act of love, resulting from an act of faith. It is an act of hope, that we can awaken these same acts in their hearts, too, with the help of God, and the works of Mercy which you, our readers, help us to do, day in and day out, over the years."(14)


Dorothy Day's stated hope, then, was that the efforts of her Catholic Worker movement would "awaken these same acts in their hearts." That other hearts have been awakened is testified to by a 1985 survey made by the Des Moines Catholic Worker which revealed over ninety Catholic Worker houses and farms scattered across the U.S. in a decentralized movement. In addition, Day was a Catholic laywoman who has done more to legitimize pacifism as a valid option for Catholics than any other single person. Such is the power of an authentically nonviolent life. The U.S. Catholic bishops recognized this themselves when they singled her out in their 1983 pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace. In a section entitled, "The Value of Nonviolence," they said, "In the 20th Century, prescending from the non-Christian witness of Mahatma Gandhi and its worldwide impact, the nonviolent witness of such figures as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King has had a profound impact upon the life of the church in the United States" (Paragraph 17).

There is certainly much else which makes up the colorful mosaic of Dorothy Day's life, and much else she has to offer us in such a turbulent time. Although it is too early to assess the full impact of her biblically-based witness on the U.S. Christian community, it is not too early simply to offer thanks, and to allow her witness to form our own sojourn here.

Surely the crowds of poor and homeless who filed past the plain pine coffin at the wake and funeral understood full well the meaning of her life. They came to pay their respects -- to give thanks. And that is a stance toward life which Dorothy Day herself took. In her words, "Gratitude brought me into the church and that gratitude grows, and the first word my heart will utter when I face my God is 'Thanks'."(15)


  1. Cesar Chavez, "Always With Us . . . .," The Catholic Worker (December, 1980), p. 1.
  2. From Union Square To Rome (Silver Spring, MD: Preservation of the Faith Press 1938), p. 156.
  3. Nancy Roberts, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker (New York: State University at New York Press, 1984).
  4. Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (New York: Harper, 1952), p. 135.
  5. Ibid., p. 148.
  6. Mel Piehl, Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker and the Origins of Catholic Radicalismin America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982), p. 245.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Besides the well known New York paper, The Catholic Worker, other journals and papers of significance are The Catholic Agitator, a monthly tabloid from the Los Angeles Worker, The Round Table, a quarterly journal from the St. Louis Worker; and The Minneapolis Catholic Worker, a monthly newsletter from the Minneapolis Worker.
  9. Thomas P. McDonnell, ed., A Thomas Merton Reader (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1974), p. 203.
  10. Dorothy Day, Therese (Notre Dame, IN: Fides Press, 1960).
  11. It was historian William Miller who first put forth this line of interpretation in his excellent study of the movement A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, New York: Liveright, 1972. See especially his compelling "Introduction to the Idea of the Catholic Worker Movement," pp. 3-16.
  12. Cf. Daniel Maguire, The Moral Choice (New York: Winston, 1979), p. 119.
  13. The Catholic Worker (July-August, 1935).
  14. The Catholic Worker (April, 1964).
  15. From Union Square To Rome, p. 169.