Archive for the ‘Dorothy Day’ Category


Dorothy Day: The Journalist Within II

December 28, 2010

See the previous post for the first part of this topic.   


"Out of the depths I have cried to thee, O Lord...


As the years went on, Day increasingly devoted herself to her column, originally called “Day by Day,” shortly changed to “All in a Day,” then to “On Pilgrimage” in 1946. Even today her column is often reprinted, and then it forms the heart of the paper. Dwight Macdonald once aptly described it as a combination of Pascal’s Pensees and Eleanor Roosevelt’s “My Day.” In her column Day ruminated in a conversationally warm, appealing manner. She touched on subjects as diverse as children, visitors to St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality, animals, the saints, the weather, the soup line, prayer, pacifism, putting out the paper — sometimes mentioning them all in the same piece.

All of Day’s writing tended to be personal, discursive, and a bit repetitive, but On Pilgrimage, whose column format afforded a great degree of creative freedom, was especially so. Day often added to this personal ambiance by conversing about her role as mother and grandmother. “I may repeat myself,” she acknowledged in the foreword to her book On Pilgrimage, “but mothers always do that to be heard.” Readers of Day’s columns were treated to poignant tales about Tamar Teresa’s growing up; for instance, how at eight the little girl “was filled with the small chatter so dear to a mother’s ears.”

Day sometimes reported some of Tamar’s childish chatter in order to make more lasting points. Her December 1934 editorial is a moving example. “Christmas is coming,” Day began, telling how Tamar and her playmate Freddy were drawing pictures of the Nativity. Hearing the children “tell the story to each other,” she wrote, “each filling in the gaps,” brought it “fresh and clear” to her mind. “‘And the cow breathed on the little baby Jesus and kept it warm,’ Teresa says delightedly. `Cows are very warm animals, I know…. I’m sure the baby Jesus didn’t mind being in a stable at all.. Probably there were chickens, too. And maybe the shepherds brought their littlest lambs to show them to him.”‘

Then Day reported her response. She told the children that “Christ came to live with the poor and the homeless and the dispossessed of this world,… and he loved them so much that he showed himself to the workers — the poor shepherds — first of all. It wasn’t until afterward that he received the Kings of this earth. So let us keep poor — as poor as possible

“‘In a stable with cows and chickens,’ [Tamar] finished joyfully. And then it will be easier for me to have God in my heart.’ ‘

After Tamar grew up and married, readers savored the many homey details Day offered of her country visits to her daughter and nine grandchildren, from baking bread and spinning wool to “feeding and consoling babies.” In one column based on such a visit, Day told her Catholic Worker audience that she did not know of a happier way to spend an afternoon than sitting in a shallow brook with babies paddling happily around. Her use of the first-person voice gave the column a personal immediacy, as did the many sensory details, and liberal use of dialogue and quotation. Day wrote “most personally,” she said, “because I am a woman who can write no other way.” Like Day’s autobiography, her columns clearly show that she had the sensibilities of the successful novelist — the sensory sensitivity, the scene-setting and storytelling skills, the ear for authentic speech, and a well-developed sense of the comic, which permeated much of her writing.

Even in the most depressing and difficult situations, Day’s sense of humor was acute. Her description of the last days of one of the Catholic Worker’s most irascible visitors is a fine piece of comic irony. In the Thirties, an eccentric racist named Edward J. Breen, “sputtering with rage,” “his dirty white hair tossing, his eyes bulging out of his apoplectic face,” had long tried the patience of those at St. Joseph’s, where he remained until he died. “As the end drew near,” Day recounted, “we all sat around his bedside, taking turns saying the rosary.” With comic restraint, she recorded Mr. Breen’s final words to her: “‘I have only one possession left in the world — my cane. I want you to have it. Take it — take it and wrap it around the necks of these bastards around here.’ Then,” Day went on, “he turned on us a beatific smile. In his weak voice he whispered, `God has been good to me.’ And smiling, he died.”


In some ways. Day’s approach to writing resembled that of engraver and Catholic Worker illustrator Fritz Eichenberg. Like Eichenberg’s art, Day’s communicated a deep concern for peace and social justice, often with a satirical leavening that served to intensify the message. Like Eichenberg and like artist Kathe Kollwitz, whose work she greatly admired, Day perpetually sought to arouse consciences by detailing the lives of the poor. No doubt Dorothy Day could have been a successful writer of fiction, but her conversion to Catholicism deepened her commitment to harness her literary gifts, not to serve her own imaginative vision, but rather to portray and celebrate that artistry already present in God’s creation Day was not an intellectual theorist; she did not try to set forth her ideas abstractly or systematically.

In her column, she directed her appeal more to the ordinary “workers,” and let other Catholic Worker writers appeal to the scholars. With rich spiritual insights, she described people she had known, pressing problems, and concrete situations. In this, as her friend Father Hugo has observed, she resembled the writers of the great literary masterpieces she admired and reread: those who mirror life as they see it. But while Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and their like saw it imaginatively, she saw life in the raw, and in the profound problems of our age 61

In her personal example and in her journalism, Dorothy Day communicated the essence of personalism. It was never theory of which she wrote, but deeply felt convictions arrived at from firsthand experience. “You can’t write about things without doing them,” she remarked in an interview in 1971. “You just have to live that same way.” Her early, pre-conversion reporting had certainly taught her the value of participant journalism, starting with her “diet squad” articles about the problems of destitution and hunger for the New York Call, 1916-1917. Then, she had actually tried to live on five dollars a week and in 1924 for the New Orleans Item, she had taken a job as a taxi dancer in order to write exposes of dance hall venalities.

The integrity of Day’s life was extraordinary. As Robert Ellsberg recently observed, “there was absolutely no distinction between what she believed, what she wrote, and the manner in which she lived.”s’ Constantly in the midst of the poor, she understood their daily struggles as few others could. Day knew exactly what it meant to scrounge in the clothing bin, hoping for a not-too-threadbare pair of fitting socks; she knew what it meant to subsist on borrowed, utilitarian food; she knew what it meant to beg for extended credit on overdue rent, heat, and light bills — and sometimes not to be able to afford heat in the cruelest winter. In her January 1963 journal, Day described her room at St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality:

And then the place where I am, cold, unheatable because the gas flow is meager, cluttered and dusty, Marie’s newspapers and magazines piled high — what compulsion is there for her to collect, collect, collect…. Now she brings in two shopping bags for a night, God knows what all besides…. and the room gets fuller and fuller so there is scarcely a passageway through. And there is always an odor in the rooms. My room is both dirty and cold and I have not the energy or strength to clean. My bones are still with cold and I am tired with the weight of clothes I put on to keep warm

Because Day lived like those she served, she could describe poverty and sorrow — and joy — in the most personal, vivid, and moving terms.

She was at her best when characterizing some of the everyday people who came by St. Joseph’s. “It is people who incarnate ideas, who make ideas come alive,” Day often said. Deftly as a novelist she brushed in the destitute as distinct characters, using the details of their lives to communicate her concerns. Her rhetorical strategy was to introduce them by their first names — Bill, Ann Millie — as if to say, “They are one of us.” With skillful portraiture, sympathetic yet unsentimental, she characterized ordinary men and women, revealing their spiritual qualities and recognizing their dignity — a dignity she knew they had and deserved. Again and again she wrote memorable obituaries for those “least among us”:

All of you who ride the Pennsylvania or the Lehigh pass by those pig farms set in the swamps, ugly as sin, evil-smelling holes, where thousands of pigs are raised and fattened on garbage from New York hotels…. John Ryder worked in this setting, cleaning out pig sties, caring for the hogs…. On pay days he would come over to New York and too often spend his holidays on the Bowery. He told us the pay was good and the meals too, but it was another case of needing heroic virtue to live under such surroundings. Too often the men sought surcease and rest and dreams in drink…. But it is difficult to clamber out of the trough of the destitute…

John, like the prodigal son, came home to us after feeding off the husks of the swine. And he could not be feasted because he was dying. Instead, he had that real feast, the bread of the strong [the Eucharist], and he died and was laid out in the chapel at Maryfarm, and each night before his burial we said the office of the dead as though he were one of the mightiest of the sons of God..

Especially in such remembrances, Day wrote with impressive (and effective) restraint about her sordid surroundings. She did this, first, because she truly recognized God even in the person of the most pitiful; her view of life on earth was not hopeless. Also, she perceived the psychology of her audience. Together too many shocking details from the Lower East Side would lose their impact, besides inordinately depressing readers. So Day sought not to sacrifice editorial appeal by brooding at length over the daily tribulations at St. Joseph’s. This entry from her diary shows how closely in touch with her audience Day was:

The other day when writing my article and appeal I threw away my article, telling all of our troubles and thought This is not what readers want — to be tortured with tales of broken families, men beating their wives and children, etc.’ I will write happily of June and its beauties.

“Of course if you do this you get a double share of complaints from all around you who try to make you see how bad everything is,” she added ruefully. And this excerpt from one of her columns shows how she maintained the fragile balance between honest reporting and a sanguinity devoid of self-pity, even in the grim days on the eve of World War II:

When the burdens pile high and the weight of all tire responsibilities we have undertaken bows us down, when there are never enough beds to go around and never enough food on the table, then it is good to sit out in the cool of the evening with all our neighbors and exchange talk about babies and watch the adventurous life of the street.

The world is bowed down with grief, and in many ways God tries to bring us joy, and peace. They may seem at first to be little ways but if our hearts are right they color all our days and dispel the gray of the sadness of the times

Yes, Dorothy Day believed one could always find solace in the presence of babies. She had a special love for the very young. “Babies and small children,” she wrote, “are pure beauty, love, joy — the truest in this world.” Once, not long before World War II, she wrote that she was cutting her column short in order to take the children at Maryfarm in Easton, Pennsylvania “up the hill to hunt for salamanders in the spring. In spite of strikes and brutality, controversy and war,” she went on, “this world is filled with joy and beauty and the children bring it to us anew and help us to enjoy it through their eyes.” In their lives she always recognized a means to dramatize great spiritual themes.

This mode can be glimpsed even in her pre-Catholic Worker writing. An outstanding example is “Having a Baby,” her delightful and moving account of giving birth to her only child. First published in New Masses, it was later reprinted in leftist papers throughout the world. Written just before her conversion, “Having a Baby” does not allude directly to religion, but it captures the mother-to-be’s sense of anticipation. In “A Baby Is Born,” printed in the January 1941 Catholic Worker, Day juxtaposed the birthing experience of a destitute, young unmarried mother with the plight of the wretched poor lining up outside St. Joseph’s for morning coffee, and with despairing wounded soldiers. Her masterpiece of nonfiction technique thus became much more than the usual tale of the unwed mother’s woe:

Every night before we went to bed we asked the young mother, `How do you feel?’ and asked each other… `Is there taxi money” in case it would be too late to call an ambulance.

And then, one morning at five I heard rapid footsteps in the room above, the voice of the ambulance interne in the hall, `I’ll be waiting downstairs,’ and I realized that the great moment had arrived. It was still dark out, but it was indubitably morning. Lights were on in the kitchens of surrounding tenements. Fish-peddlers, taxi drivers, truckmen, longshoremen, were up and on their way to work. The business of life was beginning. And I thought, `How cheerful to begin to have a baby at this time of the morning!’ Not at 2 A.M., for instance, a dreary time, of low vitality, when people sink beneath their woes and courage flags. Five o’clock is a cheerful hour. Down in our little back yard … down in that cavernous pit with tenements looming five and seven stories up around, we could hear them dragging out the ash cans, bringing in the coffee cans for the line… .

Out in front the line was forming already and two or three fires in the gutters brought out in sharp relief the haggard faces of the men, the tragedy of their rags. The bright flames, the blue-black sky, the grey buildings all about, everything sharp and clear, and this morning a white ambulance drawn up in front of the door.

This is not the story of the tragedy of the mother. We are not going into detail about that. But I could not help thinking that while I was glad the morning was beginning, it was a miserable shame that the departure of the young woman for her ordeal should be witnessed by a long, silent waiting line of men. They surveyed her, a slight figure, bundled on that cruelly cold morning (and pain and fear make the blood run cold), come running down from the dark, silent house to get into the ambulance.

Not one man, not.a dear husband, not a protector on whom she could lean for comfort and strength. There was no Joseph on this winter morning. But there were hundreds of men, silent, waiting, and wondering perhaps as they watched the ambulance, whether it was life or death that had called it out.

Intensifying this powerful juxtaposition, Day moved to deeper themes. She compared the sadness of a woman giving birth alone to the suffering of the soldier, “with his guts spilled out on the battlefield, lying for hours impaled upon barbed wire.” By the end of the piece, she had noted that despite the painful process of labor, the mother could be cheered by the new small life; all war issued for the soldier, though, were agony and death.

Whatever the circumstances of a child’s birth, she observed, joy reigned: “And this tiny creature who little realizes his dignity as a member of the Mystical Body of Christ, lies upstairs from me now as I write, swaddled in a blanket and reposing in a laundry basket.” As Christ came to her in the persons of the hungry men in the morning coffee line — “for inasmuch as ye have done it unto these the least of my brethren, ye have done it unto me” — so too was Christ present in this newborn child, just as Christ himself was once present as a baby boy. But Day was not tritely cheerful as she gazed at the “rosy and calm and satisfied” infant, with his “look of infinite peace and complacency.” Without descending into hopelessness, she reflected upon how little the child knows of what is in the world, of “what horrors beset us on every side.”

In her March 1951 column, Day wrote of another baby whose presence inspired her to reflect on deeper spiritual mysteries. In her typically homey, personal style she observed: “Downstairs the baby is crying while Rita gets her breakfast ready, mashed prunes, baby cereal and milk, all mixed together deliciously. Little Rachel is three months old now and eats with avidity.” But by the column’s end, Day had moved adroitly from the child’s feeding to a perceptive portrayal of common human ill-will and pettiness. She explained her purpose in doing so:

It may seem that I am speaking lightly of these things, but these are sorrowful mysteries indeed, the mystery of sin and suffering and how we are all members one of another, and drag each other down, or pull each other up.”

Day’s aim in such juxtapositions as these of the “baby pieces” — and her consummate gift as a writer — was to unite the everyday and the ultimate. “I think of death every day of my life,” she once confided to her friend Eileen Egan.  And so, in the most universal, commonplace events such as birth, she recognized profound import. She could make matters of faith seem so relevant to everyday life, for instance linking “nibbling in the kitchen” to the seven deadly sins.

She had that rare ability to cut directly to the heart of the matter. In this regard her writing resembles that of E.B. White, who also delved beyond the surface of the apparently mundane to deep truths, often with a comic stroke. Among writers of fiction, one might compare Dorothy Day to Flannery O’Connor, who also recognized God’s presence in the lives of an array of grotesque misfits. Like O’Connor (and Fritz Eichenberg), Day successfully used comic irony, no doubt to lighten the despair that could easily be awakened by accounts of such tragic characters and situations. By so doing, Day intensified the impact of her message.

And using common events and people as a springboard, she could communicate a moving message to a much wider audience, than if she had simply written theory or bald propaganda — that is, concentrated solely on content. Unlike the advocacy journalists surveyed in The News People, Day’s ideological commitments did not overshadow her dedication to quality journalism. Instead, they worked fruitfully together. As an advocate, she realized the importance of crafting a lattice of substance and style suitable to achieve the greatest appeal. To this task she applied her considerable talents. Modern advocacy journalists have rarely produced writing of such caliber.


Dorothy Day: The Journalist Within

December 27, 2010

A reading selection from Nancy Roberts’ Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker that traces her career as journalist.

Dorothy Day was only twenty-two when she made a final commitment to journalism. She had been at it a long time. Before she was eleven, she and her siblings were typing out the little family newspaper. At seventeen at the University of Illinois she joined a campus writers’ club and wrote for the town newspaper. Before she was twenty she had overcome her father’s disapproval to become a reporter in New York, for the Socialist Call and later the Masses. Then her vigorous social conscience led her off in another direction for a while. She did enter nurse’s training. But her “longing to write” prevailed.” At the end of World War I she left nursing, firmly committed to effecting social change through her journalism.

Throughout the rest of her life, Day thought of herself primarily as a journalist, although she also enjoyed producing more lengthy work. In fact, she usually had a book in the back of her mind. When she was nearly eighty, she remarked, “I don’t remember the time when I was not writing a book.” But she was most devoted to journalism. Above all, she felt, writing was to report. Advocacy journalism suited her goals far better than the careful crafting of a few novels would have. At a penny a copy, Catholic Worker journalism could reach a large audience, especially the poor. And it could be written on the run, without stealing too many hours from Day’s other demanding activity, caring for the Catholic Worker family. So successful was her journalism, though, that it found its way into several book-length collections. It also created a readership for her several nonfiction books on her Catholic Worker life.

Day shared the genuine journalist’s urge to be read; she always wrote with an audience in mind. She was so committed to getting the Catholic Worker viewpoint in print that if the regular channels of publication were closed to her, she once remarked, she would not hesitate to mimeograph her articles and hand them out on street corners. “Writing was her craft,” observed Thomas Cornell, an editor of the Catholic Worker in the early Sixties, and she took it very seriously.

Father John J. Hugo, Day’s friend and confessor for the last forty years of her life, concurred: “She considered herself a writer; she always mentioned that. She considered writing not an avocation, but a vocation.” Day herself explained this in a letter she wrote to a benefactor in 1967. She had always viewed writing, she said, “as a way `to earning a living’ which each of us is bound to do as far as he is able before depending on others” (even though we may get “entirely too much credit for a work for which we have a vocation”). She added that she was now writing a pamphlet on the works of mercy to earn funds for the Catholic Worker movement

Similarly, she had contributed her free-lance writing income to help pay for the very first issue of the Catholic Worker. However, Day noted how shamefully “underpaid” writers were. She had earned more, she said, working her way through a year of college at “twenty cents an hour for housework, plus four hours work a day for room and board.” In a letter to her biographer, she commented: “My long experience with publishing houses showed me money is not to be made by writing. You just have to do it for the love of it.” For Day, the value of writing lay far beyond the income it could provide to aid the poor, or the creative gratifications it offered. Journalism, she believed, was the social activist’s prime tool. One could use it “to move the heart, stir the will to action; to arouse pity, compassion, to awaken the conscience.” Bemoaning the author’s continual low pay, she summarized the real rewards and true value of writing:

But oh, the joy of seeing one’s books (however unworthy of the honor of acceptance by the public) on newsstands, in chain drugstores, supermarkets, bus stations, even airports, handled by media who little know that many books of protest contain dynamite to blow our current unjust, war-ridden, profit-hungry civilization to smithereens.’

“I have no faith in our kind of books selling,” she wrote to William D. Miller in 1970. “If they get on library shelves and influence people — that is enough.”

For Dorothy Day, then, writing was a serious vocation, a most worthwhile and significant calling. Naturally shy, she never really enjoyed public speaking, although she made countless speeches on behalf of the Catholic Worker movement. Her talents and interests led her to communicate her ideas primarily through the medium of print journalism. Like many writers who came into their prime during the decade of the Depression, she wanted her work to be socially significant and to inspire social change.

Like her friends Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Mary Heaton Vorse, she started out in Socialist journalism. But after her conversion to Catholicism, Dorothy Day sought to awaken people not only to the plight of the world, but also to their own spiritual condition. Hers became an advocacy journalism informed by a distinctive and profound religious faith. She came to this in part through such youthful experiences as a stint writing Hollywood scripts, which she found frustrating and meaningless; and through the process of writing her pre-conversion novel, The Eleventh Virgin, which sold to Hollywood.

Thereafter, Day disdained such comparatively mundane, superficial literary endeavors. Resist the temptation of writing trash just to make money, she advised aspiring writers. She sometimes lamented the sad career of a friend in the labor movement, who had gone to Hollywood and made a fortune while “prostituting his great talents as a writer.” Rather, Day admired writers such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, who dealt with monumental themes of human life and spirituality, and Dickens, Sinclair, and London, who through their books made greater strides in social reform, she felt, than did many politicians and economists.

Yet at least another, personal reason spurred Day to write. She once explained privately that she wrote House of Hospitality, On Pilgrimage, The Long Loneliness, and Loaves and Fishes — journalistic accounts of the Catholic Worker movement and her life within it — “to ease an aching heart and a discouraged mind.” Such writing, she said, was “a most effective way of working things out for oneself as well as trying to make others understand.”‘ If her book-length collection of 1945 columns entitled On Pilgrimage was “preaching and didactic in parts,” she suggested at its end, “it is because I am preaching and teaching and encouraging myself on this narrow road we are treading.”

Deft characterization, bright description, and authentic-sounding dialogue enriched her muckraking series on dance halls, which she wrote for the New Orleans Item in 1924. Presented in the first person, the articles piled up details to reveal such sordidness as easy-flowing “whisky and dope smokes.” The series was given page-one prominence, and it led New Orleans organizations such as the Business and Professional Women’s Club and the Federation of Clubs to press successfully for some reforms. Day also wrote for the Item a series on women at the races and gaming tables, entitled The Thrills of 1924. She studded the articles with colorful personality sketches. Day was equally adept at interviewing boxers and capturing the excitement of a close match.

Later on, of course, a deep religious dimension would inform her writing. From her early, pre-conversion apprenticeship, Day brought to the Catholic Worker firsthand knowledge of the synergistic effect of literary technique on one’s message. She indicated her awareness of technique’s importance when she wrote in 1948: “An ordinary journalistic device is to paint a picture with contrasts. It is an emotional way of making a point.” How well this characterized much of her writing. Doubtless too, Day’s appreciation of style for its own sake also helped keep her ever conscious of its meshing with substance. And so she crafted columns and articles for the Catholic Worker that used a wide array of the fiction writer’s techniques, laced with her pungent comic irony.
Articles for the Catholic Worker, letter-answering, diary-keeping: Day considered all to be important aspects of a writing vocation and devoted herself to them. She constantly urged others to do likewise: “We all should (keep a diary),” Day exhorted, “no matter how brief and factual — and be careful, in letter and diary, not to err in charity and write things that may hurt others.” Joseph Zarrella, a Catholic Worker veteran, recalled how Day was “always after me to write for the paper.” Although he did not consider himself a journalist, he finally obliged with an article entitled “Joe Zarrella Writes.” Similarly, Stanley Vishnewski, a lifelong Catholic Worker, recalled Day’s continual encouragement of his writing attempts, as well as others.

In the Catholic Worker’s early years, Day contributed investigative, muckraking reports on such topics as tenant evictions, the seamen’s strikes of the Thirties, the 1936 Vermont marble workers’ strike, and the 1937 Republic Steel massacre. As a young radical reporter she had honed her descriptive skills, and they sparkled in her 1936 series of articles on Arkansas sharecroppers, which appeared both in the Catholic Worker and in America:

It was seventeen above zero when we started out this morning with a carload of flour, meal, lard, sugar, coffee, and soup…
It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that we reached the worst place of all, just outside Parkin, Arkansas. There drawn up along the road was a tent colony, which housed 108 people, four infants among them, and God knows how many children.
The little girls giggled and laughed with their arms around each other while we talked to this evicted crowd of sharecroppers. Only one of them had on a sweater, and the heels and toes of all of them were coming out of their shoes. Their giggles started them coughing and woke up one of the babies who cried fretfully, weakly….
The little tent where we stood on the frozen earth was filled with fourteen children and there were thirteen more in the camp. Here too were four infants, wrapped in scanty cotton blankets….
While surveys are being made and written the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union carries on.. . organizing the sharecroppers…. They have had a hard struggle in the past and the future looks dark. But combined with faith and charity they have hope, and the terror that walks by day and by night in Arkansas does not daunt them.

In articles like this, the discerning reader could see she was as concerned with technique as with substance. This strategy only intensified the impact of her message, as Day surely knew. She had learned her lessons well at the Masses. And people in high places felt her impact. In the White House, Day’s reports came to the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, herself a socially concerned author of a nationally syndicated, daily newspaper column. The First Lady informed the Governor of Arkansas. (He made a personal investigation, but the report sent to the press concluded that nothing was amiss, that the unfortunate publicity was probably concocted by a “Catholic woman” who made “fat salaries off the misery of the people.”

Dorothy Day also wrote some outstanding pieces for the Catholic Worker on the labor movement of the Thirties. Pro-worker, the paper quickly developed inside sources for the coverage of unions, strikes, and other labor issues. Day herself knew many national labor figures, and interviewed union heads such as Philip Murray, John L. Lewis, John Brophy, Joseph Curran, and Harry Bridges In 1936 Day covered a speech by the Rev. Stephen Kazincy, the “labor priest,” in Braddock, Pennsylvania. She captured the essence of the event with evocative sensory details, and sparse but sonorous quotation. Her matter-of-fact, unsentimental tone underscored the gravity of the steel workers’ plight:

The steel workers’ spoke first and the sun broiled down and the men and their wives stood there motionless, grave, unsmiling, used to hardship, and thinking of the hardships to come if the steel roasters locked them out.
And then Father Kazincy was announced. He got up before the microphone, a broad, straight man of about sixty. His hair was snow white, his head held high … his words came abrupt, forceful, and unhesitating…
‘Remember that you have an immortal soul,’ he told them. ‘Remember your dignity as men.
`Do not let the Carnegie Steel Company crush you.’”‘

One of Dorothy Day’s most passionate pieces in the Thirties, which combined muckraking with advocacy, described the Republic Steel massacre. Usually the Catholic Worker aimed to “announce,” not to “denounce.” But when police opened fire on striking steel workers and their families at the gate of the Republic Steel Company in South Chicago on Memorial Day. May 30, 1937, Day could not be silent. She spoke out in hope that “the only way to stop such brutality is to arouse a storm of protest against it.” In concrete but unsensationalized detail, she gave her readers a vivid picture of the violence that took ten lives and injured more than a hundred others:

Have you ever heard a man scream as he was beaten over the head by two or three policemen with clubs and cudgels? Have you ever heard the sickening sound of blows and seen people with their arms upraised. trying to protect their faces, stumbling blindly to get away, falling and rising again to be beaten down? Did you ever see a man, shot in the back, being dragged to his feet by policemen who tried to force him to stand, while his poor body crumpled, paralyzed by a bullet in the spine’

Day went on to compare the Chicago violence to contemporary brutality in Italy, Russia, and Nazi Germany. Instead of piously assigning blame for the Republic Steel tragedy to the police, or to company personnel, she acknowledged a more universal guilt. “Have pity on us all, Our Lord of Gethsemane,” she wrote, ” — on Tom Girdler [of Republic Steel], those police, the souls of the strikers, as well as on all of us who have not worked enough for `a new heaven and a new earth wherein justice dwelleth.”

Once Day established the Catholic Worker’s tradition of muckraking she began to leave such writing more to others. But she kept the journalist’s sense for telling quote and graphic detail that she developed so early in her career. Throughout her life she retained her ability to write solid, informative, compelling muckraking and advocacy journalism, whether describing Cesar Chavez’s struggles in the California vineyards, her 1962 travels to Castro’s Cuba, or the problems of racial integration in the South. These skills also enriched the analytical background pieces which she occasionally wrote.


Rose Hawthorne And The Entwined Love Of God And Neighbor

May 10, 2009

Rose Hawthorne, Mother Rose and co-founder of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne


He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
Luke 10:27

IT WAS A COMMON PRACTICE in Jesus’ time to ask a rabbi to identify the central precept among the hundreds of laws that governed Jewish life, to specify the canon within the canon that would serve to interpret the whole of the Torah, Sometimes, to assure succinctness and brevity, a rabbi was compelled to offer this summary while standing on one foot.   Thus Jesus, in accord with this custom, is asked, “Rabbi, which is the greatest commandment?” He gives his famous answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  

All of religion is finally about awakening the deepest desire of the heart and directing it toward God; it is about the ordering of love toward that which is most worthy of love, But, Jesus says, a necessary implication of this love of God is compassion for one’s fellow human beings. Why are the two commandments so tightly linked? There are many different ways to answer that question, but the best response is the simplest: because of who Jesus is, Christ is not simply a human being, and he is not simply God; rather, he is the God-man, the one in whose person divinity and humanity meet.

Therefore, it is finally impossible to love him as God without loving the humanity that he has, in his own person, embraced. The greatest commandment is an indirect Christology. What does this entwined love of God and neighbor look like? To answer this question, we might turn, not first to the theologians, but to the saints.

Rose Hawthorne was the third child of the great American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author of The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and some of the best short stories of the nineteenth century. Rose was born in 1851, when her father was at the height of his creative powers and enjoying a worldwide reputation. In the mid- 1850s, Hawthorne, at the instigation of his friend President Franklin Pierce, was appointed U.S. consul to Liverpool, and the writer took his family with him to England.

There Rose came of age in quite sophisticated surroundings. She studied with private tutors and governesses; she mixed and mingled with the leaders of British society; and she traveled with her father to London, Paris, and Rome, where she even managed to charm Pope Pius IX.

But this idyllic existence ended rather quickly. Nathaniel Hawthorne died in 1864, when Rose was only thirteen, and her mother died just two years later, leaving the girl bereft and adrift. When she was twenty, she married a man named John Lathrop, and a few years later she gave birth to a son, whom she deeply loved. Her child died at the age of five, however, leaving his mother saddened, as she put it, “beyond words.”

At this time, her husband’s alcoholism began to manifest itself, and their marriage fell on hard times. In her deep depression, Rose Hawthorne began a spiritual search that eventually led to an interest in Catholicism. Despite her family’s rather entrenched Protestantism, she entered the Catholic Church.

A turning point in her life occurred when she read in the paper the story of a young seamstress of some means who had been diagnosed with cancer, operated upon unsuccessfully, and then told that her case was hopeless. Squandering her entire fortune on a vain attempt to find a cure, the woman found herself utterly destitute and confined to a squalid shelter for cancer patients.

The story broke Rose’s heart. Getting down on her knees, she asked God to allow her to do something to help such people. In her prayer, the dynamics of the greatest commandment were operative. Her compassion for suffering humanity led her to God, and the confrontation with God led her to act on behalf of suffering humanity, the two loves joined as inextricably as the divine and human natures in Christ. And God answered her prayer.

Rose enrolled herself in a nursing course and began to work at a hospital specializing in the treatment of cancer victims. On her first day at the hospital, she met Mary Watson, a woman with an advanced case of facial cancer, which rendered her so physically repulsive that even experienced nurses and doctors balked at caring for her. But Rose didn’t flinch. She helped to change Mary Watson’s dressing, and from that day they became friends.

Rose rented a small flat on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, living among the crowds of immigrant poor who were flooding into New York at the time. (She and her husband had separated, John having never been able to get his alcoholism under control.) She simply opened the doors of her apartment to cancer patients who had nowhere else to go, and she cared for them. Mary Watson, cruelly discharged from the hospital by doctors who considered her incurable, moved in with Rose.

In time, people came from all over New York to stay with her and to find comfort in their dying days. And in accord with a basic law of the spiritual life, people began to present themselves as volunteers to help in Rose’s work. We remember that when Francis of Assisi commenced to rebuild a crumbling church, he was soon joined by eleven helpers, and that when Mother Teresa of Calcutta went into the slums to aid the poor, she was joined by many of her former students.

When people embrace God’s work in a spirit of joy, others are drawn to them magnetically. Given the influx of patients and volunteers, Rose and her colleagues were obliged to rent larger space, which became possible because donations had begun to arrive.

At this point, Rose’s husband, John, after a long and unsuccessful struggle with alcoholism, passed away, sending Rose into another bout of deep sadness. But his death also made possible what the Spirit was prompting her to do: to become a religious. She entered the Dominican order and took the name Sr. Mary Alphonsa.

As a Dominican nun, she continued her work with cancer patients and in time managed to supervise the building of a large hospital in the country. Finally, with a number of other sisters, she formed a new branch of the Dominican order, dedicated specially to this much-needed and challenging work. This community of nursing sisters — now called the Hawthorne Dominicans exists to this day and continues, with joyful devotion, to care for those suffering from incurable cancer.

Rose Hawthorne died in 1926. At the time of her death, her life story was published in a New York newspaper, where it was read by a young intellectual named Dorothy Day. Day was living on the Lower East Side and struggling to eke out a career as a journalist. She was also a spiritual seeker, and the encounter with Rose’s story helped focus her energies and prompt her in the direction of a more radical love.

Just a few years later, she founded the Catholic Worker movement, an organization dedicated to the intertwining of the love of God and the love of the poor, the hungry, the ignorant, and those forced to the margins of society. A seed sown by Rose Hawthorne took root in the receptive soil of Dorothy Day’s soul.

Those who know Christ Jesus, fully divine and fully human, realize that the love of God necessarily draws us to a love for the human race. They grasp the logical consistency and spiritual integrity of the greatest commandment.

From Fr. Robert Barron’s wonderful little book on scripture, The Word on Fire.


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