The Breaking of the Body

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.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2008
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