Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A beautiful memoir of Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day is one of the most amazing and influential Catholics of the twentieth century and perhaps one of the most paradoxical. She was called a Communist in her life time – and she maintained friendship with at least some communists. But she was also lauded by a pope addressing the US Congress. A public woman, a prayerful woman, “conservative” in theology and who knows how to describe her politics.

I just finished a book by her youngest grandchild, Kate Hennessy, Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother.

It is a work which is both tender and pointed, revealing Dorothy and her daughter Tamar in their humanness, in their struggles, in their challenges, and finally with a touch of beauty.

It is an antidote to hagiography:

Dorothy is in danger of being lost in all her wild and varied ways, her complexities, her contradictions, and this sense of power that defies description.

Yet I think the book is inadequately sub-titled. It is a memoir, very intimate, of Dorothy Day and her daughter Tamar Hennessy, through the eyes, ears, and heart of the memories of a granddaughter.

Kate Hennessy has a way with words – or maybe it’s just her gift from her grandmother (and others) that she shares. She also has a way of choosing stories and tales that open us to an intimate portrait of Dorothy Day.

Kate Hennessy has a way of capturing her mother, her grandmother, and her own life in a few words, images, and selected events.

Writing of her 1967 summer at the Catholic Worker farm, she notes:

I returned home to Vermont freckled, happy, and with a head full of lice.

Reading, I realized Dorothy Day’s great affection for her grandchildren and her extraordinary way of trying to teach them.

It was after a long stay at the beach that Dorothy wrote, “We need a reverence for the earth. Everything comes from the earth. Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov kissed the earth. . . . I took my grandchildren one day out at the Peter Maurin Farm and said, ‘Come on out and let’s kiss the earth.’ Such a strange, mysterious, and beautiful concept— man being part of the earth.”

Writing of her mother and grandmother, she reveals how her grandmother wanted so much to do well with her daughter:

“What I really want,” said Tamar, who already had a habit of taking in stray animals, “is a hedgehog. They are little and not at all prickly if you train them, and they are very bad for cockroaches. But they like to curl up in garbage cans so you are liable to throw them out if you are not careful.” So Dorothy put an appeal in the paper asking if anyone had a hedgehog to donate to the Worker.
 There were times I was touched by the pain between mother and daughter – and by the difficulties both experienced. As Kate Hennessy wrote of Tamar:

“You don’t grow up until you forgive your parents,” my mother said the year before she died.

Hard as it might be, Kate Hennessy has caught part of the genius – sanctity – of her grandmother.

As always Dorothy wrote beautifully about what was wrapped in tragedy. Part of her genius was this ability to see beauty in what didn’t seem to possess it….

Dorothy wrote of bitter, bitter things in a way that gave them beauty and grace…

When she did describe things as they were, she soon discovered that people preferred to hear the good. But she also saw beauty where many couldn’t. She saw things in all of us that lay beyond the ragged threads of our miseries.

This also might be part of the struggle between mother and daughter, a daughter who suffered much, including what she felt was a mother who didn’t seem to always see and acknowledge the pain in her own life. Perhaps Tamar felt that Dorothy didn’t realize what Kate Hennessy says that her mother once said: “Everyone must live their own disasters.”

Dorothy Day comes real – full of wit, though also a bit of the invective. In her last years, her wit came through:

She still had moments of her quick wit and sense of the absurd, though. When she answered a phone call in the middle of the night, a strange man’s voice said, “I’ve decided to renew our affair.”
“It’s too late,” Dorothy replied. “I’m eighty-two.” And she hung up. Dorothy had a

Kate Hennessy writes with wit:
Dorothy’s history with cars was a history of gas pedals going through the floor, gear sticks coming off in her hand, the battery falling out onto the ground just as she arrived home, or windshield wipers breaking off in the middle of heavy rainstorms.
She writes with insight:

Tamar’s nonjudgmental nature led Dorothy to regret her outbursts and to once again appreciate Tamar’s peaceful and uncritical nature. “I could learn from her,” she said.

And she writes with love, helping us to see how Christ and God understand us as her grandmother said:

Christ understands us when we fail, she said, and God understands us when we try to love.

Read this book and take it to heart.

I also recommend that you read Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness. I used this book a few times at the end of a university course at Iowa State University on “Introduction to Catholicism” as a way to show Catholicism made flesh in a twentieth century woman.

I also recommend the work of my friend Jim Forest, All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day. It is a loving portrait with plenty of photos and quotes.

Dorothy, the real Dorothy, should inspire us to live with love and joy, in the little things we can do:
“What we do is very little. But it is like the little boy with a few loaves and fishes. Christ took that little and increased it. He will do the rest. What we do is so little we may seem to be constantly failing. But so did He fail. He met with apparent failure on the Cross. But unless the seed fall into the earth and die, there is no harvest. And why must we see results? Our work is to sow.”

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