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Dorothy Day: The Saint Without a Stained Glass Window

Today is the 30th anniversary of Dorothy Day’s death.

Bridges and Tangents sums up my own feelings better than I could:

It was the simplicity of her love – for Christ, for the poor, for whoever was sitting next to her. It was the fact that she took the gospel seriously, and literally; and believed it was something to be lived and not just explained away. It was her intelligence, which made her think about the causes of poverty and injustice, so that talking, writing, publishing and debating (all for ‘the clarification of thought’) were as much a part of her mission as opening soup kitchens and houses of hospitality. And it was her beauty – the beauty of her writing, the beauty of her life. Much of it, I’m sure, was romanticised – I was 19 and looking for heroes and heroines. But she remains one of the most important people in my life, and her life has shaped my own thinking and the way I look at the world as much as anyone else’s has.

To add to that, frankly, she was a pain in the ass. And I mean that in a good way.

People called her a saint and she replied:

“Don’t call me a saint. I won’t be dismissed that easily.”

The Glenn Becks of the world might be OK with the church ignoring the poor, but Dorothy was not.

For Day, her work was the fundamental work of the church that everyone should be doing. It wasn’t hard, but it required much. It required conversion. It required actually giving a hoot about the poor, even to the point of frustration. She’d often say that if you were going to work with the poor you’d better love them, because they will be tough people to work with.

I know that to be true. Some poor, especially the elderly poor are set in their ways and don’t want to be told what to do. We have the tendency to think that the poor don’t have any answers, that the addicted should just stop drinking as if they could wish their powerlessness away and that the rest of the world should just wake up and take up this frustrating cause so that the rest of us wouldn’t have to work so hard.

Dorothy knew this too. And she continued to serve the poor anyway.

If that’s not a saint, it certainly epitomizes the old saying:

“That one has the patience of a saint.”

I’ve prayed to Dorothy while I held the poorest children in Nicaragua and served food to others in New York and now in Buffalo. I prayed to her as the students and I walked in New York and I’m sure I’ll spend lots of time praying to her in Cleveland at the Catholic Worker house that we’ll stay at this year.

Dorothy will probably never be a saint, I fear, because she had an abortion at a young age. Her story, one of a redeemed faith, is too tender to polarize into simple church politics though. I think Dorothy won’t be a saint simply because she didn’t want to be one. She wasn’t a flowery statue for the front yard or a lovely stained glass window. She was a gritty woman who didn’t have time for the pomp and circumstance of the status quo.

We sanitize the saints and to do that to Dorothy Day loses something of her own identity in the canonization process. Besides, we all know she IS a saint. Just as all of us who try to do the work of God secretly know that we are saints in the making as well. Not the stained-glass-have-a-feast-day-where-they-pin-dollar-bills-to-your-statue kind of saint.

No, Dorothy’s sainthood, needs no feast day. Dorothy’s life was a feast day. She lived sainthood. She lived a life of unquestionable love for God and lived love for the least of us without question. She was the feast and there was always more to give to those who hadn’t had any. She could not live any other way.

What way could we not live? What drives us to passionately give our own lives to? Who are we called to give all that we have and then give a little bit more?

Who is it that we’re afraid will turn us into saints? And who helps us get past that fear of being all that we can be?

Today let us pray to have the courage of Dorothy Day–the courage to be saints without stained glass windows.

And to be just dandy without them.

One thought on “Dorothy Day: The Saint Without a Stained Glass Window

  1. Ryan says:

    Awesome. I’ve started praying to her myself recently. My grandmother ran a Catholic Worker house in Niagara Falls in the 80’s- that means AIDS, the crack epidemic, and rampant poverty. But thats exactly what the Catholic Worker is all about: no reservations, no bull. As my grandmother often tells me: “we don’t ‘preach Jesus’ to people, we ‘be Jesus’ to people”.

    I think you’re absolutely right to say she’s already a saint, though I hope both that the Church will recognize her as such and that her message and life experiences won’t be sanitized.

    Lucky for us, she left quite a large body of letters and autobiographical writing to make sure we never forget what she was all about.

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