Dorothy Day, a founder of the Catholic Worker movement and its monthly newspaper, The Catholic Worker, is the subject of a new biography written by her granddaughter, Kate Hennessy. The title is Dorothy Day: The World Will be Saved by Beauty. It is an intimate and ironic look at the woman responsible for thousands of Catholics continuing to hang on, if by the thinnest thread, to Christianity, their Catholicism, and the Catholic Church.
The Jesuit and activist Dan Berrigan and I had a lot of conversations about Day whenever he stayed at the Minneapolis Catholic Worker house in the mid-‘70s. I cooked Sunday dinners there for several years and Berrigan, when he was around, was pretty good with a can opener and dishrag.
He was also a fatally handsome, beautifully made man. Women would sometimes walk into the kitchen when we were cooking, and they’d get a little breathless, and blush and flutter, and nervously shimmy like girls on American Bandstand. Berrigan, chaste his whole life, was oblivious to their reactions, but I would laugh and laugh (more than a little enviously) over the kitchen sink.
“Dorothy wrote often when I was in prison,” he said, storytelling one time. “She told me my three-year sentence was the time of Jesus’s ministry, and to use it equally well.”
Berrigan had gone to prison, along with nine other priests, for pouring napalm over 378 draft cards at a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland. “Our apologies, good friends,” he said, “for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children.”
Day, like Berrigan was a pacifist, but she loved being an American. She wrote, “We are pacifists. Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount… but neither will we be carping in our criticism. We love our country and we love our President. We have been the only country in the world where men of all nations have taken refuge from oppression.”
I miss Berrigan (he died last April), and the Catholic rigor of Dorothy Day. The thread to organized Christianity continually frays, yet their example compels us, allows us, to keep hanging on.