The Common Good
March 2011

A Life in Letters

by Rosalie G. Riegle | March 2011

All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day, edited by Robert Ellsberg.

THERE IS MUCH to ponder and to treasure in this collection, which begins before Dorothy Day’s 1927 baptism and continues until 1980, the last year of her life: several hundred letters, not only to people with whom she worked, but to priests in the New York chancery, to college presidents, to strangers who asked how to become Catholic Workers, to strangers who berated the work, to family, and to countless friends.

To me, perhaps most precious—and most surprising—are the letters to Forster Batterham in the section titled “A Love Story.” Before she entered the Catholic Church, Forster was Dorothy’s partner and the father of their daughter, Tamar. He refused to marry her, saying that as an anarchist he wouldn’t stand for either a civil or religious ceremony. Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, has a searing scene of Forster knocking to be let in and Dorothy not answering the door; that closed door is portrayed as the end of the love story. But her letters show that Dorothy continued to try to change Forster’s mind.

She was struggling to find her way alone in the world as a single parent and a newly baptized Roman Catholic, and in these early letters, we don’t hear Saint Dorothy. Instead we hear someone who sounds like every young person in love—sometimes impetuous, sometimes angry, sometimes downright ditzy. What makes Dorothy different from many of us is that she never wavered in her newfound faith. Finally, in December 1932, she writes to Forster, “I have really given up hope now, so I won’t try to persuade you any more.”

A postscript to this stark ending: Her fellow Catholic Workers remember warmly Dorothy’s final years when Tamar, Forster, and Dorothy would spend evenings together in her room, drinking wine and watching television, finally living a bit of the family life they’d never had.

IN HER YEARS as matriarch of the Catholic Worker, Day received and responded to thousands of letters. Her coworkers counted it a high point of the day to sit with her as she opened and commented on the mail. Unfortunately, few letters document the early years of the Catholic Worker movement, collected in the segment called “House of Hospitality, 1933-1939.” In those that survive, we hear a change from the early epistolary emotion as she becomes a confident leader and friend who has found what God wanted her to do.

To officials, she is polite but firm, as when she writes the New York Health Department, which was refusing the Worker a permit to feed the hungry: “Of course we do not intend to stop. We will start again

just as often as we are stopped.”

In her engaging letters to friends and would-be friends, a gentle personal style emerges. As in her diaries, the word “prayer” is often on her lips. Especially during the lonely years of the ’40s and ’50s, when support for Catholic Worker positions fell dramatically, she writes often on the virtue to be attained by suffering. Dorothy speaks of “feathers torn out one by one,” but in the same breath thanks God for taking care of her pride and self-love. Only once in this collection does she mention the abortion and attempted suicide that came before her conversion, in a beautifully tender missive to a young woman “in distress,” with whom she had had a long and intimate conversation.

In the 1950s she writes to a good friend and frequent correspondent: “The older I get, the more I meet people, the more convinced I am that we must only work on ourselves, to grow in grace. The only thing we can do about people is to love them.”

Editor Robert Ellsberg has supplied masterful context and commentary to give a good summary of her life at the Catholic Worker, but it is for the intimate Dorothy and her friends that one should read All the Way to Heaven. In these letters, we see a Dorothy Day who falls in love with God, and with God in the thousands of people who came into her life. Savor and delight in these letters, the last of her once-unpublished words we’re going to get.

Rosalie G. Riegle has written several books on the Catholic Worker, including Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her.

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