A Feature Review of
Unruly Saint: Dorothy Day’s Radical Vision and its Challenge for Our Times
Reviewed by Amy Merrick
When Pope Francis, in his 2015 address to Congress, named Dorothy Day as one of four great Americans—placing her alongside Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thomas Merton—he renewed popular interest in the life and work of a complex woman whose Catholic faith compelled her to unstinting devotion to the poor.
In Unruly Saint, D.L. Mayfield introduces Day to a new generation of readers who may be too young to recall the Catholic Worker movement that Day co-founded with Peter Maurin, her antiwar and prolabor activism, or her death in 1980, which made front-page news.
“I am not a Catholic, historian, or biographer,” Mayfield explains in her introduction. “I am somebody trying very hard to pay attention to the ways that God is at work in the world.” As she recounts her subject’s life, the author intersperses her personal reflections on how Day’s example has motivated and sustained her, and how this example might give people today renewed energy to care for those experiencing poverty, addiction, discrimination, and despair.
A humbling difficulty that anyone faces in writing about Dorothy Day is that her own writing is so remarkable: vivid, precise, warm, and often funny. In the pages of the Catholic Worker newspaper, she compassionately depicted the struggles of those who were unemployed or crammed into inadequate housing at the depths of the Great Depression. In her memoir, The Long Loneliness, published in 1952, she is learned and insightful, frequently quoting the Bible or St. Augustine or a papal encyclical. She uses clear language and enlivens her recollections with dialogue from conversations with the memorable people she encountered during her ministry. “Her prose,” said J.M. Cameron, “matches her spiritual purity.”
Initially, Mayfield’s depiction of Day’s journey can feel thin by comparison. She gives a brief description of Day’s conversion to Catholicism at age thirty, imagining the disbelief of unnamed friends that a muckraking journalist with radical politics, who had given birth to a daughter without being married, would submit to strict religious doctrine. The book then steps back to recount Day’s childhood in Chicago and her twenties in New York, where she reported on labor issues for leftist newspapers, got pregnant, had an abortion, quickly married and divorced another man, and fell in love with a third.
When she became pregnant a second time, she took it as a miracle, a sign from the God who had “haunted” her, as she put it, throughout her life, as much as she protested that Christians rarely lived out the teachings of Jesus. She had her daughter baptized and became Catholic herself, though it cost her the relationship with the man she loved. “She still primarily thought of the Church as an organization that was often at odds with justice,” Mayfield writes, “but in its core doctrines concerning the dignity of life, she saw a theology she could work with—a tension many people live with to this day.”
Unruly Saint picks up intensity when the chronology reaches 1932, and Day returns to New York after reporting on a hunger march to Washington, DC. Waiting for her is Maurin, an eccentric and excitable dreamer who instructed—one might say harangued—Day about Catholic social teachings, and became her friend and collaborator for the rest of his life. Here, Mayfield begins to work with the material that most captivates her, showing through an engaging narrative how Day and Maurin launched the Catholic Worker in 1933 and founded the first Catholic Worker houses, where they placed no conditions on those receiving food and shelter. One only had to be in need, and everywhere they looked, there was endless, extraordinary need.
While she may be obscure to young people today, Day was famous in her lifetime. Catholic bishops and intellectuals sought her company—sometimes to argue, sometimes to be informed. The Catholic Worker reached peak circulation of around 150,000 copies, and Catholic Worker houses were established across the United States. But Day’s opposition to U.S. involvement in World War II eroded her support. The newspaper lost more than half of its readership by the 1940s and never recovered.
In the third section of the book, Mayfield covers topics such as the failed communal farms that the Catholic Worker movement attempted to establish and Day’s early writings opposing racism. She offers a rebuke to American bishops who have promoted Day’s canonization process by crafting a reductive image, emphasizing her years before her conversion as a time of “sexual immorality, religious searching, pregnancy out of wedlock and an abortion,” as Cardinal Timothy Dolan described it.
A fuller picture of Day, Mayfield persuasively argues, is far more threatening to the hierarchy: an anarchist, an uncompromising pacifist, a woman who challenged her supporters to do nothing less than transform their lives, to see the face of Christ in their neighbors who could be the most difficult to love. “Radical women like Dorothy are menaces to society, the church, and the government,” Mayfield writes. “They insist that the world change right now in order to prioritize those who are vulnerable. If even a handful of people decided to take Dorothy’s advice seriously and perform the works of mercy with utter abandon, our society would collapse.”
There is no doubt that Mayfield deeply admires her subject. Nonetheless, it sometimes can feel, as with the Catholic bishops, that Unruly Saint tries to present Day in the image Mayfield prefers—in this case, the forerunner of the modern social-justice activist. The jargon of the contemporary movement is pervasive and sometimes clashes with the period Mayfield evokes. At one point, Day is described as “the unofficial house mom for multiple apartments of people (all of whom had experienced various levels of trauma and systematic oppression).” In the book’s cover illustration, Day’s clothing appears updated, her features regularized. She casually holds a cigarette to her lips.
Day was an orthodox Catholic, which set her apart from liberals who might agree with her opposition to racism and war. Though she did not advocate the criminalization of abortion, as Mayfield approvingly notes, Day did regret her own abortion and considered herself pro-life. She is not easily categorized, which means that at times she has been claimed by everyone—and at other times, such as when she held firmly to her pacifism during World War II, she was claimed by almost no one at all.
Secular readers may be drawn to Mayfield’s version of Day, and that is a worthy accomplishment, to increase the numbers of those who orient their lives toward serving others. But it doesn’t fully explain her. It also doesn’t closely examine why so many thousands of people wanted to read the Catholic Worker, but so few were able to live it. Volunteers were driven away by bedbugs, overcrowding, stolen possessions, and outbursts from people in the grips of addiction or mental illness. The houses of hospitality Day established, whose rules she created and enforced, could be so inhospitable that she herself sought refuge in long cross-country bus rides to raise money for her efforts.
A book that calls on readers to follow Day’s example may need to grapple with the understanding that Catholic Worker houses were considered difficult places to raise children and that Day experienced guilt about the limitations her many responsibilities placed on her time with her own daughter, Tamar. In Day’s life, we see the true cost of discipleship and perhaps recoil from the sacrifice it demands.
Unruly Saint could benefit from a deeper exploration of the theological underpinnings of Day’s commitment to the movement, to show how she was able to persist in conditions that repelled others, and how her spiritual discipline allowed her to not only endure those conditions, but to feel a conviction that she was doing as Christ would have done; that, in fact, she must do as Christ would have done. The book is an entry point for those who want to learn about Dorothy Day’s enduring relevance. One would hope it is only the beginning.
Amy Merrick is a senior professional lecturer in journalism at DePaul University in Chicago. She is also a freelance writer and editor, and a longtime member of the Religion in Literature book group at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Illinois.
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