A Portrait of Dorothy Day

Author: Mia Nussbaum '01

In college I painted a portrait of Dorothy Day. Working from a black-and-white photo, I drew her as I saw her—an old woman with a child’s expression on her mouth, her eyes large behind round glasses, her shoulders curled forward, as though to better listen. My assignment was to underpaint the shadows with vivid colors, then to smooth over it all with muted skin tones. But the assignment became a meditation, and the plywood portrait came out loud: Day with blue streaks in her hair, a maroon mouth, black-violet eyes, the light high-yellow on her cheeks.

Later, I moved the painting into my South Bend bedroom. The room was so small that Day’s gaze seemed to fall everywhere, so I spent a year with her there. I brought her the minutiae and the mysteries—my lost shoe, my lost love, my first reading of Moby Dick, my shared rooftop dinners of sweet potatoes and beer.

I have followed her failingly, but heartily, ever since. I find her, as perhaps you do, across the newsprint pages she left behind, in the Houses of Hospitality that seek, as she sought, to live the Sermon on the Mount, and in the lives of those who love her and who wash dishes and feet to bring about the Kingdom.

Her story is worth telling again.

At Manhattan’s Maryhouse in 1980, Tamar Teresa braided her mother Dorothy’s hair into a wreath around her head and washed her body for burial. Downstairs, Catholic Workers opened the door, stirred the soup and swept. Day’s body was placed in an unvarnished pine coffin and set out for a joyful wake. She was buried in a donated grave on Staten Island. Below an etching of loaves and fishes, her headstone reads:


NOVEMBER 8, 1897—NOVEMBER 29, 1980


Day grew up in Chicago reading her father’s racetrack reports and her mother’s Dickens and Dostoevsky. At the University of Illinois, she found her finest professors in Chekov, Gorki, Mother Jones and Big Bill Haywood.

At 18 she left school for New York, where she reported for The Call and other socialist publications. She lived cheap on the Bowery, writing pieces like “Reporter Eats Farina and Cheese and Reads Wordsworth.” Though reporting was her mainstay during the next decade, she also worked as a nurse, a figure-drawing model and New Orleans taxi dancer. She served her first jail sentence at 20 for a suffrage protest. While incarcerated, Day read Psalms.

In her reading and in her work Day sought the place where people live what they profess. But at 21, she became pregnant by a man who wrote “don’t follow me” and abandoned her after her abortion was performed. A few months later she married an older man of letters. The two moved to Europe, where their marriage ended one year later.

After she sold the film rights to her novel The Eleventh Virgin, Day bought a cottage on Staten Island. There she wrote and lived with Forster Batterham, an anarchist who fished for his supper. He was long and lean and smelled of seaweed and salt spray. “When he came home, he would rush out to the garden with his flashlight to see how things were growing,” she wrote. “Winter nights he had charts and studied the stars.” His wonder in creation brought her to “the Creator of all things.”

Batterham was a naturalist who could not tolerate religion. But when Day became pregnant at 28, she longed “to worship, to adore.” She described her labor in New Masses:“I was in the bathtub reading Agatha Christie when I felt the first pain and was thrilled, both by the novel and by the pain, and thought stubbornly to myself, ‘I must finish this book.’”

After the “waves of pain” subsided Day was left with “the stupendous fact of creation.” From that joy and a hard, inward struggle, Day decided to raise her daughter, Tamar, in the “Church of the Poor.” To the surprise of her friends and the sorrow of Batterham, whom she soon left, Day became a Catholic.

To make a living, Day and Tamar took to the road—she wrote for MGM in Hollywood and Commonweal in Mexico. But the poor called her back to New York’s Avenue A, where she put on a pot of coffee and began her life’s work.

Peter Maurin, a French peasant and “troubadour of God,” who owned nothing but the books in his pockets, appeared at her door to show her this work. Maurin indoctrinated Day in the Catholic social encyclicals, the monastic rule of Saint Benedict, the Thomistic doctrine of the common good and a philosophy of manual labor. He gave her vision form through a threefold program: roundtable discussions and a newspaper for the “clarification of thought”; houses of hospitality; and “agronomic universities” on the land. The two began their revolution—"a revolution," Day called it, “of the heart.”

Day wrote that God trusts us in our petitioning and takes us at our word. It was fitting, then, that so much of the Worker Movement simply flowed from her prayer.

“We were just sitting there talking when Peter Maurin came in . . . [and] when lines of people began to form, saying, ‘We need bread.’ We could not say, ‘Go, be thou filled.’ If there were six small loaves and a few fishes, we had to divide them. . . . We were just sitting there talking and people moved in on us. . . . Somehow the walls just expanded.”

The walls continue to expand. Today there are more than 185 Catholic Worker Houses and Farms, 21 abroad. They have no headquarters, and few claim tax-exempt status. They name themselves: Night on the Streets, Bread and Roses, Greenlands, Open Door, Seamless Garment, Saint John of the Cross, Casa Juan Diego, Cesar Chavez, Emmaus, Amos, Hannah, Saint Isaac of Nineveh Gift of Tears. They serve illegal immigrants, prisoners, prostitutes, the homeless, the hungry, the lonely, and college students stopping by for a week. They hoe beans, they host lectures, they go to jail.

Some argue that the central tenet of the Worker is poverty, others, community. “But the final word is love,” Day wrote. Workers attempt the messy, mad love that Father Zosima speaks of in The Brothers Karamazov when he warns that “love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

To give a reason for the faith that binds them and the folly that frees them, many houses publish papers. For 47 years Day edited The Catholic Worker_, writing more than 1,000 articles. She wrote of Sacco and Vanzetti, the atomic bomb, Thérése of Lisieux, her grandchildren and the proper way to prepare vegetables. She called for every woman to be her sister’s keeper and anticipated Marx’s “withering away of the state.” Day defended the Worker’s pacifism, stating that they did not shun soldiers and were, in turn, willing to endure scorn, “the ignominy of jail, the pain of stripes,” and, if it comes, martyrdom.

Now this scandal to the country and scalding prophet to the church may be named a saint. Cardinal John O’Connor began her canonization proceedings in 2000. While living, Day chafed at this title. She was more comfortable with the FBI report on her, which called her “very erratic,” and “belligerent,” saying she was “consciously or unconsciously being used by communist groups.”

In her canonization there is strange alchemy—Christian anarchy gives way to Rome’s bureaucracy, degradation to apotheosis. Devotees of her cause wonder if the sharp angles of her life will be dulled by a holy card’s lines and if the prayerful act of tax refusal will be cloaked with the innocuous blanket of charity. But the dross of discord may become concordance. It was O’Connor who said that “her abortion should not preclude her cause, but intensifies it” and who preached that Day “saw people turned into tools of commerce . . . the family treated as a marketplace” and knew “that the Church herself could become . . . a marketplace.”

G.K. Chesterton wrote that saints are an antidote to the age. Day was such a pinprick and balm. When blacks couldn’t order coffee at Woolworth’s, she chose a print of a black man and a white woman embraced by Christ for the paper’s masthead. When every vacant lot was a Hooverville, Day chose to be poor, living with “rats . . . roaches, lice.” When stable families moved to the suburbs, Day wrote that heaven was imagined as a city and savored the smell of bread baking in the ghetto’s “ash heap.”

While others become the monsters they fight, Day did not. As a pacifist she shunned peace activists’ destruction of property. As a mendicant she did not become a materialist in reverse. She delighted in her senses, telling fellow bus travelers to eat “karopecan pie” in Arkansas and Oklahoma. She liked to listen to opera on the radio. As an old woman, she wrote, “Woke up this morning with these lines haunting me: ‘Joyous, I lay waste the day.’ ‘Let all those that seek Thee be glad in Thee.’”

Catholic Workers gave at a personal sacrifice and welcomed strangers as angels unaware. Catherine Doherty, founder of the Friendship House movement, recalled visiting the Worker when there were no extra cots. Day told Doherty that she could sleep with her. Later that night a syphilitic woman came to the door. When Day told Doherty to sleep in the bathtub and took the sick woman into her own bed, Doherty worried that the syphilis would spread. Day replied, “You don’t understand, this is Christ who has come to ask for a place to sleep. He will take care of me.”

“Jesus Christ is the Fat Lady,” J.D. Salinger wrote and Day repeated. She lived and breathed in the Mystical Body of Christ and so joins the company of those blazing, curious witnesses who are transparently good, a few of whom we know to call saints.

I have always loved saints’ stories. Nearer than the dark luminescence of God, I see them in rich illustration. There is Francis, naked, in love and dancing, there he is in a cave with blood spilling from his hands, feet, side. There is Claire, chopping her hair; there is Lucy with her eyes plucked out, serving pastries.

At confirmation I sought out absurd saints—Dymphna, Elmo, Roch—being ironic, being cool. Initially I chose Pelagia of Antioch for her flare. Pelagia, an actress and courtesan, was known for the fineness of her pearls. One day she rode through Antioch on horseback, wearing only perfume and her pearls. She passed a synod of praying bishops. The men looked away in horror, save the bishop of Nonnus, who was so taken with her beauty that the next day he gave a homily that moved many to repentance and prayer, including Pelagia. Donning the rags of a monk, she climbed to the Mount of Olives. There she lived in a cave as a hermit and gave herself a man’s name, Pelagius. Known as “the beardless monk,” she lived in austerity and prayed for the life of the world. Only at her death in 311 did neighboring monks learn that Pelagius was a woman, and an old dancing girl.

Such stories of radical change are cliché for holy men—the Augustinian trajectory of sinning one’s way to salvation. The women that the church names as saints, however, are usually nuns and virgin martyrs. Flattened by the press of time they lose their hips and incisive minds. How good, then, to hear of Day, who “read desperately trying to rescue [herself] from the . . . silence,” who stayed out all night drinking, who smoked, and lost her temper, who followed a lousy man halfway across the country.

How good for all of us—such mercy—how good for me. My faith was a long time coming, though it came from the start. I found God best dancing until until my bones seemed to slip, like buttons from their slots.

My friends and I are variously scarred and variously well. I think of the girls I know—women now—who are versed in roofies and rape whistles, Planned Parenthood payment options and morning-after drugs. I think of all of us, complicit in each other’s failures, for we have failed each other, and of how right it would be to put on Christ, instead of our game faces.

Solomon rose to the throne on six steps, but Day lowered herself into the dregs of the gracious world. Her ascent, like Christ’s, required a descent. “Low in mind . . . and full of tears,” she wrote in her journal, and “Nothing in the bank and two checks bouncing.” All the while she willed the extraordinary. She surrendered her life to the Living God, was tinder, was flint, was flame.

We never know what is to come. We loosed a jar of dragons on the day that Dorothy remembered first as the Feast of the Transfiguration—August 6, 1945. Now 30,000 nuclear warheads keep the queasy balance of “mutually assured destruction.” As we answer terror with terror I see Day holding her placard: “I am Un-American. I am Catholic.”

Born too late to know her, I have been abundantly blessed to sit down with those who did. An old woman tells me over greasy soup that everything she could say about Day and the Worker “is inadequate and would be too little.” She is assured, though, by a memory. She was visiting with Day in her room, and the future of the Worker came up. Day told her simply, “If this is God’s work, it will continue.”

I was staying at Maryhouse, one of many places where the work continues, when the most recent fighting in the ongoing Gulf War began. A cold inevitability was in the air. We ate dinner, said vespers and rolled the TV out of the closet. After the news, a vigil began in the upstairs chapel, where Day prayed in her last years.

Late into the night friends of the house came and went. The room was full with a silence more necessary than words. I was sitting next to a woman whose days are given to the guests who come to Saint Joe’s Catholic Worker wheezing and swearing and perhaps—later—glad. The nearest sound was her breath, and this sound, like the witness of her life, lifted me. In that room were the most startlingly true people, who argue with each other, and have grit under the fingernails, and mean every last terrifying word that they pray in the evenings, “God has lifted up the lowly, and cast down the proud.” Like Day, they serve him best in the vet who stays late to roll cigarettes and mutter to himself; in the mother who comes early to poke through the clothes room and get the soup while it’s steaming.

_Mary Margaret Cecilia Nussbaum is an MFA candidate and Iowa Arts fellow at the University of Iowa, where she teaches freshmen. Her poetry appears in the current issue of Salamander.