The Duty of Delight: the Diaries of Dorothy Day
Edited by Robert Ellsberg. Image Books, 2011.
Reviewed by Deacon John William McMullen
At the time of Dorothy Day’s death, David O’Brien, writing in Commonweal, notably called Day “the most significant, interesting, and influential person in the history of American Catholicism.” Certainly the publication of The Duty of Delight: the Diaries of Dorothy Day confirms that she is indeed to be numbered among the likes of the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton and the author Flannery O’Connor.
This woman, a symbol of civil disobedience, was ever obedient to her God and to her conscience and her convictions.
In her diaries we follow her through the 1930s when she first met Peter Maurin and established the houses of hospitality and the farming communities; in the 1940s when the U.S. entered the war she prophetically challenged the wisdom of solving problems through violence; through the 1950s she witnessed to the ridiculous notion that a nuclear war was somehow winnable and rational, and that air raid drills somehow made the citizens safer; amid the social turmoil of the 1960s with racial unrest, political assignations, and the Vietnam War; and through the uncertainty of the 1970s, until her death in November of 1980.
As I opened this formidable book by one of the greatest spiritual guides of the past century, I immediately thought to myself, why haven’t I been keeping a diary or a journal for the past twenty years? Her note to Robert Ellsberg: “Good thing to keep a journal,” convicted me. In comparison to Dorothy Day I have no idea where I have been and, I fear, perhaps I have no idea where I am going. Okay, that might sound a bit dramatic, but the practice of journaling definitely serves as marking one’s path with milestones. Indeed, Dorothy herself heeded the advice.
In The Duty of Delight, her diary entries begin in March of 1934, well after the birth of her daughter Tamar, her 1932 prayer for guidance at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., Peter Maurin’s entrance in her life, and not quite a year after the founding of the Catholic Worker on May 1, 1933. Al of these events are recorded in her Long Loneliness and are likely well-known to Dorothy Day’s devotees. This collection of her diaries is, as Dorothy might say, “a good long book to live with for a few weeks” (Diary entry, May 20, 1979). However, in this case it may well take more than a few weeks, and for good reason. These diaries cover nearly forty-six years of a life well-lived and therefore, ought to be read with loving devotion, the same love and devotion with which they were written.
The day I began reading The Duty of Delight, I couldn’t help but note a similarity in Dorothy’s diaries to Flannery O’Connor’s letters which are collected in The Habit of Being. Fittingly, Dorothy began reading Flannery O’Connor’s letters in June of 1979.
Here is an ordinary woman, now being considered for sainthood, who admired Pope Pius XII, and yet as a faithful Catholic, who, prior to the Papacy of Pope John XXIII, lamented the priests who mumbled through the Latin Mass and the laity which did not participate in Mass.
She welcomed the Second Vatican Council and applauded the changes to the Liturgy so that the words of the Gospel might be truly heard and that the faithful might live out their baptismal promises and be living, conscious, and active members of the Body of Christ. Already in 1951, she wrote: “One comes alive in the Mass, is a living part of it.” In 1960 she wrote: “Nonparticipation is so stifling” (August 24). By 1967 the Liturgical changes as a result of Vatican II were being implemented. She wrote; “The participation of the people [at Mass] is so easy and natural. One cannot conceive of the old silent Masses, often a half hour of dreaming and distraction.”
Her point was that the faithful were drawn forth to the altar in the universal call to holiness. Nevertheless, she still loved the beauty of Gregorian chant and was ever faithful to the daily office of the Liturgy of the Hours, ever being conscious of her salvation daily as she joined thousands of Christians throughout the world who were praising God and praying for the welfare of all souls, in heaven and on earth. She became a Benedictine Oblate in 1955, although she had regularly prayed the Divine Office after her conversion and truly lived the Benedictine motto of “Ora et labora”, “Prayer and work.”
Dorothy visited Rome during the council, attended Mass, and was involved in discussion of the schema of the document Gaudium et spes. Her efforts, along with others’, such as Thomas Merton’s writings, at having the Council address war (September 1965) seemed to have had some impact. For Gaudium et spes contained the only condemnation of the Council (G.S. 80). It was the condemnation of acts of war which aim at entire cities or areas along with their populations.
In the 1950s she saw the insanity of the Cold War and refused to hide in a bunker rehearsing her role for when the world would burn in fiery radiation, and she paid for it with jail time. Dorothy’s legacy continues today in the Catholic Workers’ voice for peace amid a nation built upon the military-industrial complex, in the hauntingly prophetic phrase of President Eisenhower.
One can speculate all day as to where Dorothy would be in regards to the Occupy Wall Street movement, but we are remiss if we fail to recall that Dorothy noted the October 29, 1979 sit-in on Wall Street where Catholic Worker members and others were arrested as they protested the immense corporate complicity in the nuclear weapons industry. According to Robert Ellsberg, (who was arrested as one of the CW protesters), the protest was also planned to mark the “50th anniversary of the stock market crash of 1929, thus generating enormous publicity.” The Catholic Worker is there now still distributing the literature advocating a Distributivist Economy.
She was nonplussed with Woodstock in 1969 and had no use for recreational drug use or abuse, promiscuity and nihilism. She insisted upon personal responsibility and self-sacrifice, prayer and worship.
Writing, for her, was a form of prayer. “Writing is an act of community….It is an expression of our love and concern for each other.” Her daily life was spent in the constant company of God and neighbor. Even in her rare moments of solitude, God and neighbor were the concerns of her heart and mind and soul.
She truly struggled to love her neighbor—whether she liked him or her or not—she was under the command of “love thy neighbor.” For her the real counter-culture was to believe that every human being was connected somehow, and that each person was a potential member of the body of Christ.
She witnessed to this radical love of neighbor when her former lover and father of her daughter, Forster Batterham, returned in her life when his partner of thirty years, Nanette, was diagnosed with cancer. Dorothy willingly care for Nanette and, much to the chagrin of Forster, as Nanette approached death she asked to be baptized a Catholic. Dorothy couldn’t help Forster, just as she couldn’t help him so many years before when Dorothy herself surrendered to Christ causing her and Forster the atheist to sever ties. Yet Forster remained close to his and Dorothy’s daughter, Tamar, and in the process close to Dorothy to the last.
Being a married man for nearly 20 years, I have learned greatly from the pen of Dorothy some of the travails my wife and other female friends have experienced. Dorothy, a single mother, ostracized by many and despised by others, continually lived her faith in each moment, even through menopause, and disappointment in herself, her daughter, and grandchildren.
Her constant faith and trust gave her and those around her a hope in divine Providence. She lived each moment, often literally, depending on who knocked on the door, according to Providence.
Lest I give away too much, I will allow the reader himself or herself to discover the soul of a devoutly active Catholic often called a Communist and un-American, yet one who loved her country so much she was willing to be a prophetic witness to the truth which is always inconvenient to those who wield economic control at the expense of the poor and weakest members of society and exercise power over the rights of all.
The quotidian duties of daily life gave her delight, and in being a sincere follower of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the “Little Flower” and her “Little Way,” she believed that each act of love, each sorrow, and each joy of daily life was a source of delight. Hence the delight that she discovered in her daily duty – despite the pain of violence, war, death, destruction, injustice, hatred, apathy, cynicism and despair. And through her words, we discover that it is our duty to find delight in all we do, for to serve one another is to serve Christ.
At the end of her life, all this Servant of God could do was pray. Her life was spent doing good, living a very human life, and all the way to heaven she was both experiencing Christ, who is “The Way” to heaven, and giving witness to the existence of Him in our midst.
All of us are beggars before the throne of grace, all of us have received a free hand-out from the Providence of God. Those among us who fail to acknowledge or remember this, do so at their own peril.
Dorothy Day’s first memoir From Union Square to Rome (1938) and her autobiography The Long Lonliness (1952) will be fine companions to this work, as will her 1963 book Loaves and Fishes. We discover a beautiful soul, and in reading the thoughts of this saint (who didn’t want to be so easily dismissed as such), you hope you get the chance to meet her. Those of us who believe in the communion of saints will have that opportunity one day.
Among her worldly joy of reading, she often quoted Dostoevsky: “the world will be saved by beauty.” In her diaries, one finds her soul dutifully unveiled in beauty.
And in her duty we delight.
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