So why, when I left for Boston early in October, did I bring the mammoth (669 page) hardcover volume of Dorothy Day's diaries, published as "The Duty of Delight"? It was just too good to leave in Chicago less than half-read. Some two-pages spreads now sport five of those little sticky bookmarks: signs that I found something that I want to share with others, whether here on NunBlog, in a retreat for my sisters, or (especially) with regard to the Theology of the Body. (Alas, that means that the book joins the mountain in my office of "books I need to take notes from".)
One doesn't get into "The Duty of Delight" before having at least read Day's other autobiographical books: "From Union Square to Rome" (her conversion story) and "The Long Loneliness" to be able to "place" the events found here, from the inside, into their proper external framework. Here are her writings from jail (where she spent two weeks at age 61 after protesting an air raid drill); her indignant response to the sexual revolution and its rejection of "the power of life"; her struggles of conscience about whether or not to accept a bequest, and what to do about the taxes on it.
What struck me about Day in these personal writings from her bedside journal was the seriousness and commitment with which she undertook to live a fully spiritual life and become a saint (yes, she used that word in writing for herself, even though she is said to have warned others not to dismiss her so easily). Daily Mass, when possible, was a given. So was Eucharistic adoration, the Rosary, grace before meals, monthly (or near-monthly) retreat days for the whole Catholic Worker family. But this was not a devotionalism made up of accumulated prayers. I was amazed by Day's "studiositas": that "Dominican" virtue of feeding the mind through reflective study and worthwhile reading. The diaries mention 202 titles, not counting her own. Day seemed to be reading three books at any given time. She knew Dostoevsky's characters inside and out, and seemed to find some of them in New York City. She seems to have read all the "literary" fiction ever written: Tolstoy, Cather, Joyce, Undset, Greene...); she also enjoyed the works of Walker Percy and Chaim Potok. She read political theory (especially of the more radical stripe), desert fathers, spiritual classics (de Caussade was a favorite) and theology.
An impressive roster of authors came to the Catholic Worker on Fridays to give lectures in their area of specialization. One of these was a young Rene Voillaume (who later concretized Bl. Charles de Foucauld's vision into a religious community). I think Day would have agreed with Thomas Merton (whose books she also read, and who contributed occasionally to The Catholic Worker): "There is no sanctity which is not also intelligent" and with Blessed James Alberione: "There is no sanctity without truth--or at least love of the truth."
Reading a series of personal reflections that half of the twentieth century is a bit like watching history unfold from the perspective of a very unusual interpreter. Day remained a political radical to the day she died, and was uncomfortable with a pious patriotism that failed to be prophetic. Admired by many bishops, she could also be a thorn in their side. During the Spanish Civil War, with atrocities visited upon Church personnel by the "Republican" side (affiliated with Russia), Day did not follow the lead of other Catholic publishers in supporting Franco's coup. Her voice comes through loud and clear in this Catholic Worker editorial from the time:
And now the whole world is turning to 'force' to conquer. Fascist and Communist alike believe that only by the shedding of blood can they achieve victory. Catholics, too, believe that suffering and the shedding of blood 'must needs be,' as our Lord said.... But their teaching, their hard saying is, that they must be willing to shed every drop of their own blood, and not take the blood of their brothers. They are willing to die for their faith, believing that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church...In fact, Pope John Paul, Pope Benedict and (already) Pope Francis each beatified about 500 of the martyrs of the Spanish Civil War.
From the diaries, I learned again that "voluntary poverty [is] the most radical, revolutionary measure--resistance, transcendence in technological age. Impossible without God." This voluntary poverty made Day a kind of St. Francis for the nuclear age. In fact, for her peace and poverty seemed to go together, as they did for the man of Assisi, who insisted on his right not to possess anything ("For if we had possessions, we would need weapons to defend them"). It is touching to see that the few possessions Dorothy valued--and which were taken from her when she gave up her room for a needy visitor--were books with inscriptions to her by the author.
As this tome joins the pile on my desk, I know I will gain new insights when I tackle the note-taking stage a good book always passes through before landing on the shelf. this note-taking is one of my favorite ways to pray, although I do not indulge in it quite often enough (!). Maybe having a book this size on the stack will be an invitation from the Lord (whose tabernacle is just yards away from my office, down through the floor) to "take and read," read and pray.
Other books by/about Dorothy Day that I can recommend (living in a bookstore has its definite advantages!); naturally you'll find many, many others that I haven't gotten to yet:
All the Way to Heaven: Selected Letters
Therese: a Life of Therese of Lisieux (Dorothy was deeply devoted to the Little Flower, whom she took as a spiritual guide; there are 28 mentions of the saint in Day's diary, the first dating to New Year's 1936.)
Dorothy Day: Writings from Commonweal (throughout the diary there are mentions of this or that piece she was working on for this magazine; there's a lot of interest here!)
Dorothy Day: a Radical Devotion by Robert Coles (I'm a big fan of Coles; wish he had done a biography of Carryl Houselander!). Coles, like Day editor Ellsberg, knew Day personally from the 1960's.
Dorothy Day: A Biography by William D. Miller. (Day mentions Miller and his work in her private notes.)
Thanks, Taylor, for this great "International Buy a Nun a Book Day" gift!