Sometime soon we will witness the canonization of Dorothy Day. For many of us today, especially those who are not Roman Catholic, a canonization draws little more than a yawn. How does a canonization impact our world? Moreover, isn’t canonization simply the recognition of a certain piety to which most people cannot relate? So why should there be much interest around the canonization of Dorothy Day – who in fact protested that she didn’t want people to consider her a saint and asserted that making someone a saint often helps neutralize his or her influence?
Well, Dorothy Day wasn’t the kind of saint who fits the normal conceptions of piety. Many of us, no doubt, are familiar with a basic sketch of her life. She was born in New York in 1897 and died there in 1980. She was a journalist, a peace-activist, a convert to Christianity, who, together with Peter Maurin, established the Catholic Worker Movement to combine direct aid to the poor and homeless with nonviolent action on behalf of peace and justice. The movement remains vibrant today. She served too on the newspaper she founded, Catholic Worker, from 1933 until her death.
Her person and the movement she started have powerfully inspired Christians of every denomination to try to more effectively take the Gospels to the streets, to try to bring together Jesus and justice in a more effectual way. She is invoked today as the primary role-model for virtually everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, working in the area of social justice.
The honor is well-deserved. She, perhaps better than anyone else in her generation, was able to wed together the Gospel and justice, Jesus and the poor, and take the fruits of that marriage to the streets in an effective way. That’s a rare and very difficult feat.
Ernst Kasemann once commented that the problem in both the world and the church is that the liberals aren’t pious and the pious aren’t liberal. He’s right. Politics and religion are both generally impoverished because the pious won’t be liberal and the liberals won’t be pious. You normally don’t see the same person leading the rosary and the peace march. You normally don’t see the same person championing both the pro-life movement and women’s choice. And you don’t normally see the same person scrupulously defending the most-intimate matters within private morality and having the same moral passion for the global-issues of social justice. But that was Dorothy Day. She was equally comfortable leading a peace march and leading the rosary. Someone once quipped: If you drew out what’s deepest and best within both the conservatives and liberals and put them through a blender, what would come out is Dorothy Day.
A second feature which characterized Dorothy Day and her spirituality was her ability to simply act, and to act effectively. She not only had faith, she acted upon that faith. She was a do-er, not just a listener; and she was able to institutionalize her faith and embed it into an institution, the Catholic Worker, which not only was able to minister directly to the poor but was able to form itself into something larger and more permanent than the faith, vision, and power of a single person. Dorothy was able to act in a way that was bigger and more effective than her own person. There’s an axiom that says: Whatever we dream alone remains a dream, but what we dream with others can become a reality. Dorothy dreamed with others and made that dream a reality. Today, most of us struggle both to act on our faith and, even more so, to embed our faith concretely into effective, sustained community action.
Finally, Dorothy Day can be an inspiration to us because she did the right thing for the right reason. Dorothy’s commitment to the poor arose not out of guilt, or neurosis, or anger, or bitterness towards society. It arose out of gratitude. Her route to faith, Jesus, and the poor was rather unorthodox. In the years prior to her conversion she was an atheist, a communist, a woman ideologically opposed to the institution of marriage, and a woman who had had an abortion. Her turning to God and to the poor happened when she gave birth to her daughter, Tamar Theresa, and experienced in the joy of giving birth a gratitude that seared her soul. In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she describes how, at seeing her baby daughter for the first time, she was so overcome with gratitude that a faith and love were born in her that never again left her. Her passion for God and the poor were fueled by that.
She was also an earthy saint. She will, no doubt, be the first canonized saint whose photographs show a woman with a cigarette in her mouth. She’s a saint for our time. She showed us how we can serve God and the poor in a very complex world, and how to do it with love and color.