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Essay

Backstory: Life is a Banquet

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As she prepared to receive her first sacraments in 1927, Dorothy Day must have seemed an unlikely Catholic. She was thirty years old, unmarried, a new mother, living in a cottage on Staten Island she’d bought with her own money three years earlier when Hollywood bought the film rights for a novel she’d published. Called The Eleventh Virgin, the thinly veiled autobiography chronicled a youthful love affair and an early pregnancy that ended, when Day was twenty-one, with an abortion. (She would later refer to it only as “a very bad book.”) She’d spent her twenties making a living as a journalist, writing for radical Socialist papers including the New York Call, The Masses, and The Liberator. Twice she had been jailed: first in Washington, D.C. for participating in a suffrage demonstration, and later in Chicago on mistaken suspicion of prostitution, for her presence at night in what police deemed a “disorderly house.” (It was, in fact, the headquarters of the Industrial Workers of the World.) Her friends were writers and artists and intellectuals. Her present lover, a biologist who worked in the city but spent his weekends with her at her cottage, was an anarchist and an atheist. 

Day herself had rejected religion as an opiate for much of her young adult life, and was critical of Christianity for what she perceived as its lack of concern with social justice. But, overflowing with religious feeling after the birth of her daughter Tamar, she became determined that her child should be Catholic. Tamar’s baptism was a joyous occasion for Day; her own conversion was more painful. Since her lover would not convert and was philosophically opposed to marriage, becoming Catholic meant giving up their relationship. Even as she received the sacraments of baptism, reconciliation and communion, she was still tormented by personal and spiritual ambivalence.

But the independence of mind, radical politics, and profound desire for real experience that made Dorothy Day an unlikely Catholic were perhaps also the very traits that made her a remarkable one. Rather than abandon her political commitments, Day became determined to find a way to incorporate them into the practice of her new faith. In 1932, upon returning from a trip to Washington, D.C. to cover the Hunger March for Commonweal and America magazines, Day met Peter Maurin. He had a vision for a program that synthesized Catholic doctrine with progressive social action, and together they founded the Catholic Worker movement.

Their movement was Christian and essentially anarchic. Its foundational beliefs included an embrace of the personalism of the Catholic tradition and of a mutual personal obligation to tend to the needs of others (yes, Day would argue, you are your brother’s keeper). This obligation would be enacted by daily practice of the Christian works of mercy; by the establishment of a network of houses of hospitality, to supply for the immediate relief of the needy; and by the foundation of group-owned farming communes, where community members would work according to their ability and receive according to their need. Day and Maurin also established a newspaper, The Catholic Worker, to be sold for just one cent per copy—“to make it so cheap that anyone could afford to buy,” wrote Day. She financed the first printing in May, 1933 with her own money. By 1936, its circulation was 150,000 and growing.

The people of the Catholic Worker movement were animated by a sense of their own relative privilege, and an attending responsibility to be of assistance to their brothers and sisters—a designation they felt applied equally to all people. Although the movement was engaged, often through direct action, with both domestic and international politics—particularly the politics of labor—the Catholic Worker’s philosophy was, at its core, a deeply personal one, placing the greatest value on the fellowship that arises among small communities breaking bread together. “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other,” Day wrote in her now iconic autobiography, The Long Loneliness. “We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.”

Dorothy Day continued to work for the movement until her death in 1980. At their 2012 annual meeting, the Catholic bishops of the United States unanimously recommended her for canonization. She had already been recognized by the Vatican as a “servant of God.” For her part, she’d laughed at the notion of her own sainthood during her life. “I feel that I have done nothing well,” she reflected in The Long Loneliness, “But I have done what I could.”

Today the Catholic Worker claims more than 200 local communities, each operating autonomously to provide social services in accordance with their faith and with the Worker’s progressive mission. The Catholic Worker is still being published by the movement’s two New York houses; you can pick one up for a penny a copy.

Sarah Lunnie
Associate Literary Manager

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