2012-03-22

Spiritual Activists: Dorothy Day

Our next story is about Dorothy Day, born in 1897. She was a girl living in the San Francisco Bay area when the big earthquake of 1906 hit. Hundreds of people lost their homes, and the people came together to find shelter and food for the homeless families. Seeing the way that people can help each other in need made a strong impression on Dorothy.

As a young woman, she lived back in New York again – in Greenwich Village, where she was part of groups called “anarchists” or “socialists.” She marched in demonstrations for women’s suffrage and participated in protests against the fighting of World War I. “No more war! No more war!” said Dorothy Day.

What did she want? She wanted a world in which all people were peaceful and fair with each other. Her heart and her mind were very clear about that from her childhood.

Dorothy was 30-years-old when she became a Catholic and joined the Catholic church. Soon after, she was in Washington DC participating and writing about a march against hunger. While that seemed important, a feeling came over her that it wasn’t what her heart really wanted to be doing. She wrote:
“I offered up a special prayer which came with tears and anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.”
She prayed for a way to help the poor.

She returned to New York, and the next day met Peter Maurin. The two of them started the Catholic Worker movement. They put out a newspaper, then began to build houses of hospitality – homes for the poor, where poor men and women and families could get food and a place to sleep.

Dorothy lived as a poor person herself: in the houses of hospitality, with and among the poor. Voluntary poverty meant an insecure life – and this very insecurity was a part of Dorothy’s life of faith – she had to trust in things beyond her control, had to open her heart to the unknown. She wrote:
“Our poverty is not a stark and dreary poverty, because we have the security which living together brings. But it is that living together that is often hard. Beds crowded together, much coming and going, people sleeping on the floor, no bathing facilities, only cold water. Poverty means…bedbugs, cockroaches and rats and the constant war against these. Poverty means body lice.”
Prayer gave Dorothy strength and courage to live the vision of the Catholic Worker movement: voluntary poverty, community life, and nonviolent pacifism.

At age 46, Dorothy left the Worker movement for six months for spiritual deepening. She took a room at a convent, and spent most of her days in prayer and meditation and in studying books about spirituality. The time for spiritual renewal was very important for maintaining her joy in the work for peace and justice. Throughout her life, Dorothy Day went on retreats where she would spend a week in silence and prayer deepening her awareness, her appreciation of beauty all around, and her joy.

What did Dorothy want? She knew that what the heart really wants isn’t things that money can buy. The heart wants to connect with others and serve. The heart wants fair and decent treatment for everybody. The heart wants to remember joy, and not waste its life away in forgetfulness of the joy that is all around us.

When a reporter asked Dorothy what the Catholic Worker movement was trying to do, Dorothy said,
“We are trying to make people happy.” 
It’s not that she thought other people’s happiness was more important than her own. It’s that the life of prayer and study had helped her live a life in which she always remembered that other people’s happiness and her own are the same thing.

We all want the same thing – but we don’t all know what we really want, or we give up on what we really want and settle for pouring our energy into what we think we want that isn’t what our hearts really want.

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Part 3 of "The Spiritual Activist"
Next: Part 4: "Thomas Merton"
Previous: Part 2: "Mohandas Gandhi"
Beginnining: Part 1: "Satyana's Principles of Spiritual Activism"