Day. Dorothy

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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The One Constant Is Change

Sojourners Community

It was both a blessing and an opportunity to meet Dorothy Day. Sojourners was just in its beginnings, and the founder of the Catholic Worker was nearing the end of her life. We spent some time together on a few occasions, once to interview her for the magazine (December 1976). Dorothy, characteristically, had tough and probing questions for me, but was also very affirming and encouraging of what we were trying to do. Perhaps she felt some connection to a group of young Christians who were trying to start both a magazine and a community among the poor, just as she had done. I even remember the fond description of Sojourners by her co-workers in New York as "a Protestant Catholic Worker"!

In one of those conversations with Dorothy, I enthusiastically described our vision of Christian community. She listened pensively, but her eyes betrayed a certain skepticism. "I thought we were creating a community too," she sort of sighed, "but the Catholic Worker turned out to be more of a school." Over the years many people came to the Catholic Worker, but most of them eventually left to go on to other things. While the list of those who passed through the Catholic Worker is quite impressive, few stayed and I sensed that Dorothy missed many of them.

Well, it’s been more than two decades since that conversation with Dorothy and, now, I would have to say the same thing about Sojourners. Literally hundreds and hundreds of community members, interns, and worshipers have come and gone, most to lives and work very consistent with Sojourners’ vision. Like Dorothy, I once hoped and even expected that most people would stay; but it wasn’t to be. Now we are like a dispersed community, a Diaspora, scattered across the country and around the world.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1998
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