“He who says he has done enough has already perished.” – St. Augustine
One of the great, geeky pleasures of having college-age offspring is that my older sons are making great book recommendations from their own reading. I finished one such book this weekend: Servant of God Dorothy Day’s autobiography The Long Loneliness. My oldest son, Brendan, recommended it to me, and numerous times during the past few months, as I was sharing what was on my mind and in my heart, he asked me if I’d finished it yet.
I now know why: Day’s journey is very different from my own, but my desire to work and to serve appears to have a similar destination.
Day’s life spanned most of the 20th century. Beginning relatively early in life, she aspired to be a writer, but much to her conservative father’s chagrin, she identified with the plight of the poor, the immigrants and workers, and associated with communists, convicts and draft-dodgers. She entered into a loving, common-law marriage with militantly areligious man, but when the two of them had a daughter, she had a choice to make.
Like Oscar Wilde and Thomas Merton, Day felt a lifelong pull toward the Catholic Church, which surged with the birth of her child. She felt God calling her to baptize her daughter, knowing it would mean the end of her relationship with the girl’s father. She moved forward with no safety net, her affinity for the poor made more keen by being one of them and by seeing so many Catholics content and comfortable at home, with no awareness of or desire to help those most in need. She met French peasant immigrant and laborer Peter Maurin and launched the Catholic Worker movement—living in solidarity with the poor, providing shelter, food and work for men, women and families, in cities and on farms, across the country and around the world.
Day, Maurin and the people who joined and supported their movement sought to live the gospel as closely as possible to the way Jesus preached it: a gospel of peace, solidarity and sacrificial self-giving, recognizing the inherent dignity in work and even the worst of sinners. God’s love is extravagant, impractical, even foolish in the eyes of the world, and so was theirs.
One particular example: After writing in support of workers who were squatting in unused rooms and claiming them for their own, the movement was unseated from a retreat house and a farm by “followers” asserting their greater claim to Catholic Worker buildings and property. In keeping with Jesus’ direction, “If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well” (Matthew 5:40), they deeded the property to the interlopers and moved on—and in keeping with the adage that God is never outdone in generosity, soon found themselves in possession of another farm despite having no money to purchase such a place.
Their philosophy was to sow abundantly: Rather than saving what little they had in order to build resources and reserves to support their mission, they gave everything away—and emerged with whatever they needed. And despite suspicion and subtle persecution even from within the Church, their mission continued to spread.
Day’s style is that of a journalistic feature writer: She tells stories, conveying the times and the issues of the day through the lives of the people she profiles, including herself. I was inspired by her love for the poor, the dignity of hard work, and the goodness of a life lived simply. I was edified by her relentless pursuit of God, her hard work and sacrifices. Her life of voluntary poverty, discomfort and joy should challenge our comfortable Catholic existence today.
I opened with a quote Dorothy Day shared from St. Augustine, challenging us never to presume we have earned our salvation. I close with a quote attributed to Day herself, though not from this book:
“I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”
Even if she did not say it, I suspect she would have agreed. As for me, I have not done nearly enough.