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"She longed to find a way to blend her love for religion with her love for social work. She went to the national shrine that night to offer a special prayer, 'a prayer which came with tears and with anguish, that some way would open for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.' When she arrived back in New York, she found the answer to her prayers"

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Albert Schweitzer

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Dorothy Day

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Home » Lives of Spiritual Unfolding » Dorothy Day


When Dorothy was 26, she fell in love. He was a young revolutionary like herself, an anarchist as well as an atheist. He loved nature more than anything, and he supported himself by fishing and odd jobs. They lived together in a bungalow by the ocean, he working, she writing. When Dorothy writes of her time spent with him, she refers to him as her husband, although they never did legally marry. They considered marriage to be a thing of the establishment and too bourgeois. They were together for several years and had a child. His influence on her life was something of an irony, for it certainly would not have been what he intended. He loved nature and creation so much, Dorothy writes, that he inspired in her a love for the Creator. She was often in awe of his relationship with the sea, the outdoors, his garden. Through him she saw so much beauty in the world that she again felt those yearnings to know more about the beginnings and creation of all life. She felt an overwhelming need to love God who had created a world that she grew to love so much. Natural happiness with the man she loved brought her to the love of the supernatural. Her husband could not understand her renewed interest in spiritual matters, and interpreted her intentions as nothing more than that of an irrational woman. She even found herself going to Sunday Mass at a nearby country church, and this caused a great deal of conflict between the couple.

When her daughter was born, Dorothy's spiritual desires grew more intense, and she declared her intention to raise her child within a life that incorporated the spiritual. She felt that the greatest gift she could give to her daughter was the gift of faith. She wrote: "I was not going to have her floundering through many years as I had, doubting and hesitating, undisciplined and amoral." Dorothy began reading in order to find the answers to the questions she was asking about life, finding especially inspiring William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience and The Imitation of Christ by St. Ignatius. She spent many hours talking to a kindly old nun who lived near her church, and she eventually decided to have herself and her child baptized. This decision would have its high costs, and Dorothy knew this. But her new love for the spiritual life was so great that it could not be denied. After her child's baptism, the father of her child left them. Dorothy's life was to take an entirely new direction.

Dorothy continued to pursue her interest in writing, finding in it an outlet for the difficult period of loneliness that she was going through as a young, single parent. She went to Mexico for several months to do journalistic research, and acquired there some distance from her former life which helped her overcome her sorrow. She also wrote a novel that had minor commercial success. It was read by a Hollywood producer who wanted to make a movie of it. Dorothy was hired to go to Los Angeles to oversee the production of the film and to do editing of screenplays. She went eagerly to California, anticipating many good, new changes. But she did not find the kind of work she really wanted to do, and ended up moving back to New York within a few months.

There she supported herself doing various freelance jobs, writing mostly for Catholic publications, especially for the Jesuit magazine, The Commonweal. Throughout this period, she maintained her interest in the labor movement and in liberal causes, but she began to feel a distance from some of her former associates. They regarded her conversion to Catholicism as something very peculiar indeed, and had no understanding of her desire for a spiritual life. A real break with her old way of life occurred when Dorothy went to Washington to cover a Communist rally. Throughout the march, Dorothy was struck by the distance between her philosophy and the Communist ideology. She was a Catholic now and there were fundamental differences in the two systems of thought. She knew that she was no longer one of them, and yet she loved their zeal and their unselfish desire to help the poor and the suffering. She felt that her spiritual work until then had been selfish and personal, a time of solitary reading and introspection. And here she saw her Communist brothers in struggle, not for themselves, but for others. She longed to find a way to blend her love for religion with her love for social work. She went to the national shrine that night to offer a special prayer, "a prayer which came with tears and with anguish, that some way would open for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor." When she arrived back in New York, she found the answer to her prayers.

Waiting for her was Peter Maurin-Peter, the French peasant -whose spirit and ideas were to dominate the rest of her life. He was a short, stocky man in his mid-50s, as ragged and rugged as any marching worker that she had ever encountered. She liked him immediately. He explained to Dorothy that the editor of The Commonweal had told him to come and see her because, it was said, "We think alike." And think alike they did. Their conversation that day was to lead to a lifelong collaboration and mutual admiration. Peter had a vision, an idea for a society "where it is easier for people to be good." He wanted to engage Dorothy in his plan for a better world.

Peter Maurin wanted to create an organization of Catholics who were concerned with the problems of the working poor. This group would center around many activities, including round-table discussions where ideas would be generated, houses of hospitality where direct help to the poor could be given, and a newspaper that would spread ideas throughout the country. Dorothy thought these were all very good ideas, and it is amazing how, within a few short months of their acquaintance, everything fell into place. Since Dorothy was the writer, she took over the newspaper, with Peter Maurin as the chief advisor. A few young college students started in on the plan, and together they raised money for a first issue of their paper, which at first was going to be called The Catholic Radical and which became The Catholic Worker. The first issue came out on May Day, 1933, the traditional Workers' Day. Dorothy and a few volunteers went into Union Square to sell their paper for one penny a copy, giving reading access to even the poorest of workers. In Union Square stood representatives of all the various radical groups, from the Communists to the Wobblies, while off to one corner the enthusiastic Catholic Workers shouted the virtues of their paper. The Reds were, no doubt, amazed to see Catholics out among them, but much to everyone's surprise, the paper really attracted attention. The first issue of 2,500 copies sold out almost immediately, and within three months The Catholic Worker sold subscriptions to 25,000 readers. In three years, the circulation was 150,000. The basic social philosophy of this paper struck a responsive chord among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.


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