Since everyone wants to know about the book I was pouring over last week, here’s the review I didn’t have the brain cells to write late last Thursday night.
I’ve mentioned on the blog before that I’m a big Dorothy Day fan, so when Shannon shared ‘Dorothy Day, The World Will Be Saved by Beauty, An Intimate Portrait of my Grandmother’ by Kate Hennessy on Instagram, it only took two seconds for me to pull up my library’s website and put it’s copy on hold. Two days later, it arrived and the chaos in the house quickly grew until I managed to finish it.
First and foremost, what a wonderfully well written book! Hennessy is as much the story-teller as her grandmother and I felt as present in some of the moments she described as I do when I read Dorothy’s old columns in The Catholic Worker newspaper. Having the knowledge that I do of Day, this book filled in many of the questions I didn’t even know I had, and painted a vivid background for new stories, while bringing old stories to my mind afresh in more certainty.
But, it was a hard book to read for other reasons. I believe Hennessy seeks to set the record straight on her grandmother, the motivation being that many of us Catholics are enamoured with an incomplete and perhaps holier (which I believe she equates with dour) view of Dorothy than was the case. I understand and respect her desire to share a more in-depth look at the complex woman who is now in the running to be canonized, and I’m glad she endeavors to reveal the joyful moments of Dorothy’s life and personality. But, I do believe she will succeed in confirming the doubts of the doubters and those who would purposely misunderstand the mission of The Catholic Worker.
Her book also shows how the process of canonization will undoubtedly change as we begin to evaluate the lives of those who lived in an era when much of what they said throughout their lives was recorded either on paper on through other media. We have Day’s diaries and the diaries and interviews of people who knew her. The amount of information on Dorothy’s life is quite staggering. And now the thoughts of her grandchildren are brought to bear on her cause. It would be impossible with all this information to not find quotes, remarks, or actions to question. The saints of tomorrow will be subject to a level of scrutiny never seen before in the history of the Church. How do we balance the good done in a lifetime when confronted with the sins of a sinner like us in their own words?
The Dorothy I love is still here, vividly, in these pages. I loved reading about her love of the beach, the insane price of beach front property at the beginning of the 20th century, and how the seashore played into her life, and that of the Worker, right up until shortly before her death. I was glad to finally understand her relationship with Forster, the father of her daughter Tamar, which she presented as abruptly ending in ‘The Long Loneliness’ when the exact opposite was actually the case. Hennessy presents so many wonderful letters and photos in this book, you almost blush at the private details revealed.
I loved learning more about Tamar and her family, but in other ways the direction their lives took was painful to read, and was ultimately what created a crack in the view I held of Day. Not because I feel Dorothy was a bad mother. Given the time period and the work she chose to do, I believe she did very well by Tamar, and Tamar admits as much in the book. Their close relationship through the years is a testament to that. Every visit by Dorothy to Tamar’s home through the years was greeted with joy. But my heart broke a bit to learn how Dorothy misrepresented the success of Tamar’s back to the land attempts and her marriage. To know that Tamar left the Church, as did her nine children (with only one returning as an adult), was a bitter pill for me to swallow. I can accept Dorothy as an absolute pacifist, even when I may disagree. I can accept many of the things she said through the years, that while not contradicting church teaching, were controversial. She acted as a devout Catholic with a properly formed conscience always faithful to the Magestarium. But to see that despite all her work she was unable to pass on the most important thing, the Catholic faith, to her own family, was disheartening.
The author of the book, Kate, is Dorothy’s youngest grandchild and is also not a Catholic. She greatly admires the work her grandmother did, and the work her movement continues to this day in serving the poor, all the poor, even those people would consider undeserving. It is hard for me to see that many people who love Dorothy and the work she did, seem to be fighting against her cause. As if a canonization would make her less appealing to the world at large. I think we can remember her as the imperfect person she was and still add her feast to the calendar. Declaring her a saint needn’t narrow our view of her work, or personality, in its complexity, nor excuse the shortcomings that many saints had that we simply weren’t privy to in a less connected age. I write this because I am believe in the canonization process itself is designed to identify saints. Let’s follow the necessary steps, pray for a miracle and trust God in the details.
The Catholic Worker never was just a soup line. It was many things to many people all of which Dorothy had to juggle. Hennessy lays out all the branches of the Worker movement and how they clashed with each other and with Dorothy. Her columns and book always painted a brighter picture, so much so that I can directly attribute our (unsuccessful) homesteading attempt to her stories of their first Worker Farm in Bethlehem, PA. Even though I knew that farm failed, I continued to read about Tamar’s family and was fooled into thinking we could live such an idyllic life, picturing something much better than anything Tamar and her family actually experienced. In many ways, I’ve come to think of Dorothy’s columns as blog posts. It was sharing the best things, and leaving out unpleasant family situations. It was painting a beautiful picture, the way a mommy blogger shares a picture of her spotless living room on the one day it is clean. I don’t hold it against her, heck I do the same thing around here. Some things in life are not for public consumption. But in trying to protect Tamar’s privacy, she also created a public life for her that wasn’t true.
The relationship between Dorothy and her daughter was complicated, as is any between a mother and daughter, and I appreciate the careful steps Hennessy takes to describe each women’s strengths and flaws rather than painting either in broad strokes or pretending to be able to perfectly explain the actions or words or either. I loved reading about this relationship because in the stories of saints, these intimate day-to-day interactions and conversations are often missing. Dorothy’s ability to be a good mother given her profession was called into question numerous times throughout the years, and as the daughter of a Catholic ‘celebrity’ Tamar was subjected to scrutiny for signs of sanctity that most young adults would not. Both made bad decisions, but their relationship is one of much forgiveness and dependence on one another, despite the numerous misunderstands (and sometimes bad advice on Dorothy’s part).
Today, there is a wide gap between the devout Catholic in the pew and the volunteer in the Worker House. Why is that? Hennessy writes of Dorothy’s love of retreats and Mass but yet today many Catholic’s still believe Day was a communist. Why is The Catholic Worker still such a fringe group of people, encompassing people of all faiths, when the Catholic Church and Her sacraments were Day’s strength? I look at the lives of other saints who served the poor (St. Theresa of Calcutta, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Katherine Drexel) and their work multiplied and grew, even after their deaths. Even when you consider The Catholic Worker is lay run, it is hard for me to understand why it has not gained more momentum. Perhaps the work is too hard for lay Catholics. Perhaps it is the work for religious orders or single people to undertake and not families. I hope Shannon’s adventure can help renew my hope in the possibility of the movement successfully including families and helping Catholics to deepen their faith through radically living the Gospel.
My thoughts are all over the place with this book. My love for Dorothy and her work is as strong as ever, however, I still struggle with aspects of the Catholic Worker movement and it’s legacy. But maybe I always will. It wasn’t simple for Day to manage so I don’t know why I think I’ll understand all it’s complexities simply through her words and the stories of others. I hope this book introduces Dorothy Day to more people who can find value and meaning in her work, while still being clearly faced with her flaws. At the very least, it is a beautifully written biography. I pray for the return of her family to the faith, and for serving the poor, and voluntary poverty, to become second nature even to those of us living in the suburbs, far removed from the city streets or farm communes she founded. Servant of God Dorothy Day, pray for us!
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