Inspiration from Dorothy Day and Julie Hanlon Rubio

From NCR online

Dorothy Day was a loyal convert to a church she relentlessly challenged. She called the church “the cross on which Christ was crucified” and mourned its distance from the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. She always acknowledged her own sin, which made it easier for her to see the need for a church, for other people of faith (living and dead) to inspire, support and challenge her.

Though I knew plenty of traditional and progressive Catholics, I had never met anyone like Dorothy Day.

I was fascinated and challenged by her piety. She went to daily Mass, prayed with a breviary and a rosary, and could not live without frequent retreats and confession. She spoke casually about the mystical body of Christ and loved the traditional practices that I had never considered relevant to the life of a progressive Catholic.

I was fascinated and challenged by her voracious reading. I began to make a list of the books she had read. Because of her I returned to Dickens, relished the long novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and delved into the writings of Merton and the Berrigan brothers.

I was fascinated and challenged by her insistence that it was not enough to support good causes. To be Christian, one had to adopt the precarity of voluntary poverty and “live with [the poor], share with them their suffering too. Giving up one’s privacy, and mental and spiritual comforts as well.”

I found in her a compelling vision of how to live as a radical, intellectual Catholic, a way to unite the life of the mind with faith in God in the community of saints and sinners that is the church.

On a trip to Washington, D.C., I visited the crypt of the National Shrine, the site of Day’s famous prayer (recounted in The Long Loneliness) “that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.” Day attests that when she arrived home, Peter Maurin was on her doorstep, and that night the Catholic Worker Movement began to be born.Like Augustine’s Confessions, Day’s Long Loneliness is a conversion story. Yet I find hers much more compelling. Like Augustine, Day took up celibacy, and her diaries and letters tell us that this was no easy choice, because she never stopped caring for Forester, her first love.But her struggle was not only to leave behind a life she could no longer call good, but to live in community as if the Gospel were true and possible. In Robert Coles’ biography, he tells of taking his students to see Day. They asked how she wanted to be remembered. She spoke first of her life with the poor, of how she tried to serve good coffee and good soup to those who came to the Catholic Worker, but also of learning from those she served. Second, she said she wanted people to say, “She really did love those books!” She found the meaning of her life in trying “to live up to the moral vision of the Church, and of some of my favorite writers.”

This is what I love about Dorothy Day: her relentless quest for a moral life shaped by a vision of radical discipleship and by novelists whose stories captured what is true and beautiful, and what it costs to be a Christian. Because I started reading her nearly 30 years ago, and keep reading her even now, my quest to live a Christian life is much more difficult, and for that I remain ever in her debt.

Julie Hanlon Rubio is professor of Christian ethics at St. Louis University focusing on marriage and family ethics. She recently wrote Reading, Praying, Living Pope Francis’s The Joy of Love. She is an NCR board member.

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