The Common Good
August 2008

The Breaking of the Body

by Rosalie G. Riegle | August 2008

Book review: The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, edited by Robert Ellsberg.

This year marks the long-awaited publication of the diaries of Dorothy Day, cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement. Seques­tered in the Marquette University archives for 25 years after her death in 1980, the diaries have been beautifully edited by Orbis publisher Robert Ellsberg into The Duty of Delight. He plans a companion volume of Day’s letters within the next few years.

The diaries reveal the intimate thoughts of a remarkable woman, and they are remarkable in themselves, even to readers who thought they knew everything about this influential Ameri­can Catholic. What surprised me most was the amount of suffering Day bore, in body and in spirit, and the hard work she put into striving to love, forgive, and control her tongue and temper.

Ellsberg reduced Day’s original diaries to less than half by judiciously omitting quotations from books, retreats, and other flotsam of daily life. It’s still a long book—654 pages—but it’s worth a slow and thoughtful reading to catch the nuances of a great woman’s journey to God through life in the body. As one reads further, a sense of prayer at all times and in all circumstances becomes a paramount impression. As Ellsberg writes in the book’s introduction, the diaries give us a “unique window ... on the witness of a woman for whom in the end, everything was a form of prayer.”

Day rarely commented on the political events of the day—even the sometimes momentous changes that involved the Catholic Worker—and then never at length. To fill in these gaps, Ellsberg provides a chronology and an introduction to the book’s six parts, which are divided according to decade. He also contextualizes the thousands of entries with unobtrusive footnotes, and by occasionally inserting a selection from her published writing.

He includes a concise history of Day’s pre-conversion years, her meeting with Peter Maurin—cofounder of the Catholic Worker—and the publication of the first issue of the newspaper on May Day, 1933. The introduction also contains an overview of the diaries’ main themes—daily life at the Worker; Day’s travels; her time with Tamar and her many grandchildren; her ongoing relationship with Tamar’s father; her skirmishes with the Roman Catholic hierarchy; and, most consistently, her spiritual life, with its themes of prayer, penance, and an incarnational love of the natural world.

As Ellsberg points out, “These diaries confirm Thomas Merton’s assertion that sanctity is a matter of being more fully human: ‘This implies a greater capacity for concern, for suffering, for understanding, for sympathy, and also for humor, for joy, for appreciation of the good and beautiful things of life.’” We see all this in The Duty of Delight. The title, from John Ruskin, was suggested by Day herself; she thought of using it for a final memoir.

PARTICULAR SEGMENTS FROM the diaries delighted, surprised, and challenged me:

On prayer. Prayer and reading occupied a good part of her crowded day, and I was amazed at how much time alone she was able to find, even when surrounded by her clamoring community. She often woke up discouraged and prayed herself into acceptance and fortitude, reminding herself of the duty of delight. As she aged, Day wrote that she’d wake to “a half-dead condition, a groaning in every bone, a lifelessnesss ... a sense of ‘quiet terror,’ which hangs over us all. ... I turn desperately to prayer. ... And I am saved. This consciousness of salvation comes to me afresh each day.”

On poverty. On Aug. 24, 1950, as the Catholic Workers prepare for yet another move, she writes: “We are going to lose much of our appearance of poverty in moving into our new quarters with its larger rooms, baths, hot water, heat, etc. We must all the more cultivate the austerity, the detachment, the self-discipline, the interior poverty we so lack.” Yet she sees where her wealth lies: “We have so much, we are so rich in interests, books, music, friends, ideas. God gives us such lights that it is a temptation to rest in them.”

On capitalism. In late 1948, Day’s entry begins with a defense of private property and ends by describing predatory capitalism: “The present vast possessions of the Robber Barons need to be overthrown, cast down, appropriated, decentralized, distributed. ... The power of the great corporations ... will all be overthrown and that is something to be looked forward to.” Truly, Day was a great American radical. I see little evidence in the diaries that she read the European theorists who contributed to Maurin’s grand synthesis, although she was formed by his ideas.

On war. So much sounds as if it were written yesterday. In June 1937, Day wrote, “Impossible to get real truth in [news]papers.” In 1962, she wrote of the complicity of the First World in children starving in the Congo: “But woe to us who caused these tears. We white ones.” In May 1966: “How many countries do we arm, to keep the peace, as they say.”

On love. My favorite entry, truly a delight: “I have fallen in love many a time in the fall of the year. ... [W]hen body and soul are revived, and in the keen clear air of autumn after a hot exhausting summer, I felt new strength to see, to ‘know’ clearly, and to love, to look upon my neighbor and to love. Almost to be taken out of myself. I do not mean being in love with a particular person. I mean that quality of in-loveness ... a sense of the beauty of one particular human being, or even one aspect of life. It may be an intuition of immortality, of the glory of God, of [God’s] presence in the world. ... It is tied up in some way also with the sense of hope and an understanding of hope. ... If we did not have this hope, this joy, this love, how could we help others? How could we have the strength to hold on to them?”

Just two years before she died, Day wrote, “I like a good long book to live with for a few weeks.” In The Duty of Delight, she—and Ellsberg—have given us just such a book, one to treasure, to reread, to quote. I marvel at her constant prayer, gasp at the suffering—both physical and emotional—and most of all rejoice in hearing the intimate voice of the Dorothy Day that still means so much to so many of us.

Rosalie G. Riegle is the author of Voices from the Catholic Worker (Temple University Press) and Dorothy Day: Por­traits by Those Who Knew Her (Orbis).

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