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Haunted by Beauty: Novels and the Life of Dorothy Day

A number of years ago I came to greatly admire the Catholic activist Dorothy Day. There’s so much about Day’s story to love–her passion for justice and dignity, her struggle to understand the paradoxes of faith, the grace she experienced amidst her rather tumultuous life. I was particularly intrigued by the influence novels had on her life’s calling and direction, and on her understanding of God and her relationship to God.

Day was born in 1897, in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Her father was a newspaper columnist who often worked from home, and he insisted on having quiet about the place so he could work. This meant that very few visitors came by the house, and there was to be no rambunctious play at home. John Day also believed that the proper place for women and children was at home, away from worldly distractions. Dorothy therefore had a rather lonely childhood, and in her loneliness, she turned to books. In the novels she read she met all sorts of characters who became her “friends.”

A young Dorothy Day.

She loved and treasured three books in particular: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Martin Eden by Jack London, and The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. All three books trace the lives of the poor and impoverished, and as Dorothy “became friends” with each character and entered into their lives and their struggles, she grew to care, more and more, about the plights they faced. In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she writes that reading these novels was how she “received a call, a vocation, a direction” for her life.

For the first three decades of Day’s life, this vocation would be lived mostly outside of the church. Dorothy’s parents were quasi-Episcopalian, and she grew up intrigued by faith and worship, with a clear pull towards the holy. As a young teenager she began to attend church regularly and developed a very strict, pious lifestyle. She had an ongoing letter exchange with a friend, in which they often tried to one-up each other in pious bragging. In one such letter, Day wrote, “I have so much work to do to overcome my sins. I am working always, always on guard, praying without ceasing to overcome all physical sensations and be purely spiritual.” Her growing concern for the poor and their very earthy lives and her overly pious sense of religion created a tension for Day–how to love God’s creation without being caught up in worldliness–and this tension ultimately became unsustainable. Frustrated in her faith and disenchanted by the church’s apparent lack of concern for the poor, Day left the church while a college student at the University of Illinois and turned to communism instead.

Here, in the radicalism of the communist movement coming out of Russia, Day found the same concern for the “ordinary people” that novels had awoken in her. In 1904 the Day family had moved to San Francisco and subsequently lived through the earthquake of 1906 and its aftermath. Later in life she reflected on how that event and the solidarity it had sparked made her particularly receptive to the ideals of communism, saying, “I wanted every home to be open to the lame, the halt and the blind, the way it had been after the San Francisco earthquake. Only then did people really live, really love their brothers. In such love was the abundant life and I did not have the slightest idea how to find it.”

So she searched–walking the streets of New York City to which she had returned, covering protests for a newspaper, attending concerts and poetry readings, and delighting in the created world. “Whenever I felt the beauty of the world in song or story,” she wrote, “in the material universe around me, or glimpsed it in human love, I wanted to cry out with joy…I always felt the common unity of our humanity; the longing of the human heart for this communion.”

It was this joy, and the desire for such joy and beauty, that ultimately led Day back to the church and back to faith. After many tumultuous years that included a divorce, an abortion, numerous lovers, being imprisoned after taking part in a suffragist protest, and the stress of being a pacifist newspaper columnist during World War I, things took a turn for Day. She successfully published a novel, bought a small cottage on Staten Island, and had a happy relationship with her common-law husband, Forster Batterham. Here on this island, three different longings pulled her towards the divine.

First was the longing for peace. While still living in the city, she heard Eugene O’Neill recite “The Hound of Heaven.” Day recalled being overcome with an overwhelming need “to pause in the mad rush of living and remember my first beginning and my last end.” This need led her into churches, where, even if she did not pray, she sat in the stillness and the quiet, ultimately leading her to associate peacefulness with holiness. At other times, however, as she experienced the peace of the beach, the birds, and the waves on Staten Island, she discovered that this peace was actually unsettling her, causing a restlessness. “It was a peace divided against itself,” she wrote. “I was happy but my very happiness made me know that there was a greater happiness to be obtained from life than any I had ever known.”

Second, after years of believing herself to be sterile post-abortion, Day became pregnant. This ability to create life, to mirror the creative capacity of God, brought her a great sense of wonder and awe. She felt a strong desire for her child to be raised in faith, unlike the doubt and uncertainty with which she had grown up. She decided to leave Forster, an atheist, and have her daughter baptized.

Third, Day was continually confronted by the faith of her “friends,” those characters of her beloved novels. The people she had come to love and respect (as if they were real) showed a great deal of interest in God, and Day could not ignore that fact. “Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy made me cling to faith in God, and yet I could not endure feeling alien to it.” These authors brought Day to make sense of the intricacies of faith and life in the lives of their characters, and therefore caused Day to become more open to these same intricacies in her own life.

Novels invited Day into deep truth. These truths about faith, life, beauty, and holiness seeped into her until eventually they shaped her in a profound and fundamentally un-ignorable way. Day begins her autobiography with a quote by the character Kirilof, from Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed: “All my life I have been haunted by God.” Day was the seeker, the one hungering for more, always aware that there was more, but it was God–through beauty, through novels, through art, through the intricate lives of others–who, she could say, “moved my soul to seek him seeking me.”

This is the power of art; whether a novel, a painting, or a piece of music. When art speaks to the true beauty and goodness of the world–not a shallow aesthetic beauty that denies suffering or complexity, but deep, authentic beauty that speaks of redemption and hope through and amid suffering–it points us to that which is most beautiful and most good. Theologian Cecelia González-Andrieu writes in her book Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty, “Beauty is not the ultimate good, God is, but since there is nothing more beautiful than God, then beauty is the best sign that we are on the right path”(166).

And the beauty of God is the beauty of redemption, the beauty of love, the beauty of reconciliation and restoration, the beauty of sacrifice. As a pastor, every week I approach sermon writing with the basic question: “What tragedy and grace are found in this Scripture passage, and what tragedy and grace does this passage speak to in the lives of my congregation?” In the same way, artists help us pay attention to and explore the intricacies of faith, pain, beauty, and joy as they are woven together in the human and divine experience, speaking both to the tragedy of the human story and to the grace, the beauty.

In a presentation at Calvin University’s Festival of Faith and Writing in 2014, Neal Plantinga said, “Discerning pastors know that those full of shadows may also be full of the light that causes them.” Less than a month later, Cecelia González-Andrieu, speaking at a conference on art and justice sponsored by the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, said, “Artists walk next to us singularly awake to our pain, and, if they are really gifted, also aware of our splendor.” The artist and the pastor both reveal God and draw us to God – they are aware of the tragedy in the world but also the beauty.

In their novels–their art–authors revealed to Day the beauty of Christ, the beauty of redemption out of suffering, the beauty of love. Michael Hebbeler, who wrote his dissertation on Day’s relationship to The Brothers Karamazov, titled The Sister Karamazov, writes, “The Karamazovs’ very real experience of love and loss, of sin and reconciliation, enabled Dorothy to speak of God because it enabled her to speak of a suffering humanity imaged in God’s likeness–a likeness that reflects the tragic character of the Gospel story. And in this suffering arises the hope for redemption, the saving work of Christ in which the Church, as members of his body, is called to participate”(99). Art revealed God to Day and drew her towards God, and in so doing, drew her into a life of serving God’s people. She wrote of her experience reading The Brothers Karamazov, “The characters Alyosha and the Idiot testified to Christ in us.” Day’s life thus became dedicated to helping each person she encountered see the image of Christ within themselves, to name the beauty of their own lives because they were made by the One who is most beautiful.

Dorothy Day, later in life.

González-Andrieu, in her lecture, defined justice as the work of making all things beautiful for all people. Day set about doing this amongst people for whom so little of life was beautiful, the poor and the working class. She developed a housing project for the impoverished, a magazine calling for social justice, and, with Peter Maurin, the Catholic Worker movement. As she lived and worked amongst New York’s poor, she couldn’t help but connect the novels she had read to the stories of those men and women coming through her door, people who lived in “such desolation and poverty,” but who lifted her heart “again to hope and love and admiration that human beings could endure so much and yet have courage to go on and keep their vision of a more human life.” For Day, this vision of a more human life was one in which all people had access to food, shelter, work, and perhaps most importantly, dignity and the knowledge of the beauty within them.

And so Day worked tirelessly to serve her neighbor and then went one step further–she wrote about them. Nicholas Boyle, in his book Sacred and Secular Scriptures: A Catholic Approach to Literature, writes that any life, no matter how appalling or sinful, which is presented in art of any kind, is “affirmed by the act of representation to be worth the labor and love and attention that go into showing it (by the artist) and the recognizing it (by the audience)”(133). Day wrote stories about the men and women she encountered, thus affirming their lives as being worthy of love and attention. In the same way that her beloved authors spoke truth through the lives of their characters, through her writing, Day spoke beauty into the lives of those with whom she lived and worked alongside of every day.

Peter Maurin, Day’s partner in the Catholic Worker movement, often quoted this line of St. John of the Cross: “Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love.” Amongst those whom society had deemed most unlovable, Day put love, and there she found love. She found the love of Christ in each person she served, in each face coming through her door. And as she loved the image of God in her neighbor, she came to know that God more and more, and experience his love towards herself.

In a scene from The Brothers Karamazov, the local priest, Father Zossima,is giving comfort to a grieving woman. He tells her,

“Never be frightened at your own faintheartedness in attaining love…I am sorry that I cannot say anything more comforting, for active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one’s life, provided it does not take long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science. But I predict that even in that very moment when you see with horror that despite all your efforts, you not only have not come nearer your goal but seem to have gotten farther from it, at that very moment – I predict this to you – you will suddenly reach your goal and will clearly behold over you the wonder-working power of the Lord, who all the while has been loving you, and all the while has been mysteriously guiding you.”

Day committed herself to this this active love, first awoken in novels, and in the struggle found the love of God which had been seeking her all along. She served as a radical witness to the power of beauty and love as harbingers of the kingdom of God. “Beauty will save the world,” Dostoevsky wrote in The Idiot. Day lived out this truth. Living into the paradox of the “already but not yet,” she sought to change the world, not by creating beauty, but by recognizing the beauty already around her, putting love where there was none, and finding out love had been there all along.

All Dorothy Day quotations come from her autobiography, The Long Loneliness. New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc, 1952.

González-Andrieu, Cecilia. Bridge To Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty. Waco, Texas: Baylor University press, 2012.

Hebbeler, Michael H. “The Sister Karamazov: Dorothy Day’s Encounter with Dostoevsky’s Novel.” Master’s thesis, University of Dayton, 2009.

Boyle, Nicholas. Sacred and Secular Scriptures: A Catholic Approach to Literature. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2005.


 

Laura De Jong

Laura De Jong is the pastor of Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Michigan.

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