It was a college course that first piqued my interest in Dorothy Day. The class was centered around some of the greatest “thinkers” in American history. Between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s captivating speeches and Thomas Merton’s insightful reflections, Dorothy Day’s autobiography seemed to be an outlier.
Here was a woman who worked most of her life as a journalist in New York City, who sympathized with groups on the outside of society, who had been arrested numerous times for her activism, and who stood at odds with both government and Church leaders at various times of her life.
And yet, she was one of the four people Pope Francis recognized as exemplary Americans in his speech before Congress, as shown in the recent PBS documentary about her life, “Revolution of the Heart.”
The film highlights how Dorothy spent her life entrenched in some of the biggest social issues of the time — and in more ways than one, she was well ahead of her time. It examines the development of the Catholic Worker movement, from its start as a newspaper that championed workers’ rights to a widespread network dedicated to caring for the most vulnerable. When we look at Dorothy’s life, it’s clear that she is a model for difference-makers.
What does it mean to lead an instinctual life?
A number of voices are featured in the PBS documentary, from Dorothy’s granddaughters to people who worked alongside her at the Catholic Worker. These voices provide personal insight on who Dorothy was — they describe her as a firecracker, a prophet, a voice of opposition, a peacemaker. One particular quote about Dorothy and the life she led stands out from the documentary. Actor Martin Sheen, who discusses how he benefited from the Catholic Worker food lines when he was young, shares his view on Dorothy: “Her life was instinctual.”
In other words, her life’s work was simply responding to the needs around her. She was driven by a deep sense of personal responsibility. Nothing demonstrates her resolve in this quite as well as a story Dorothy tells herself in the documentary about how the Catholic Worker’s houses of hospitality started:
One day, [we had been] writing about hospitality in the paper, and this girl came in. It was during the Depression, and she had nothing but a shopping bag with clothes in it. And she came in, and she said, “I understand you have a house of hospitality.” And I said, “No, we’ve been writing about it.” And she said, “Well why do you write about it if you don’t have one?” We went right out, we went down the street, we rented a seven-room apartment. We had our first house of hospitality.
Dorothy saw a need, and without hesitation, assumed responsibility for filling it. Someone comes to your door hungry? Feed them. They need a place to stay? Open your home to them. In Dorothy’s eyes, it was a simple choice to make. Because she was driven by genuine empathy, her instincts led her to a life devoted to caring and standing up for others.
Dorothy’s life as a call to action
There is something moving about this surrender to instinctual empathy. While opening our own houses of hospitality would be a big leap for a lot of us, Dorothy demonstrates that making a difference starts with examining our relationship to others.
Dorothy took personal responsibility for the wellbeing of others because she saw them as her brothers and sisters. It didn’t matter who they were, what they’d done, or where they’d been. She wasn’t concerned with fixing people. She accepted them as they came. Dorothy recognized that she was on a journey, and part of her role was to be a helping hand for others along their own journeys.
As a whole, the documentary demonstrates how Dorothy’s life is a call to action. Her granddaughter, Kate Hennessy, says, “She leaves us with a model on how to be authentic, how to have integrity, how to live as if your life really means something.”
Dorothy did not see her way of life as unattainable or extreme or even saintly. It came down to a simple choice. When you see a need, do you meet it? For her, the answer was a resounding yes. And the example she left challenges us to do the same. Social justice advocate Sister Joan Chittister shares on the documentary that Dorothy Day is “a firecracker that never goes out,” and that’s because her legacy lives on. That’s because we all are capable of living with the same resolve and surrender to instinctual empathy. Dorothy would certainly expect nothing less.