by Katharine Armbrester
I wanted life and I wanted the abundant life. I wanted it for others too… Only then did people really live, really love their brothers. In such love was the abundant life and I did not have the slightest idea how to find it.
Dorothy Day might be a name that you have either never heard of, or that you have heard only in passing, most likely in association with Catholicism and the urban poor, but those descriptions barely scratch the surface of her long life. The Long Loneliness is Day’s most famous memoir, and due to its brevity, it doesn’t encompass all the accomplishments of her extraordinary life, but it is a good introduction to her story.
Day was born into a modest middle-class family in 1897, and as the daughter of a sportswriter they moved frequently for her father’s work, and her family was close-knit but unemotional. As a child, she witnessed the San Francisco Earthquake, and it was her first exposure to widespread human suffering. Her parents were not practicing Christians, and although she was drawn to the Bible at an early age, she seemed unable to join a church. Due to her keen intelligence, she was accepted into college at a time when this was extremely unusual for a young woman, but eventually dropped out to become a journalist, another unusual career path.
If you live in great cities, if you are in constant contact with sin and suffering, if the daily papers print nothing but Greek tragedies, if you see on all sides people trying to find relief from the drab boredom of their jobs and family life, in sex and alcohol, then you become inured to the evil of the day, and it is rarely that such a realization of the horror of sin and human hate can come to you.
Day’s memoir details her early life in journalism, along with her bohemian lifestyle and increasing political awareness, especially after her move to New York at the beginning of “the roaring twenties.” She was briefly imprisoned as a suffragette and suffered horrific conditions in jail. As a young woman, she also supported socialism but was ultimately repelled by antagonism towards religion. She entered a common-law marriage and bore a daughter out of wedlock, but was still drawn to the church, even as she resisted it, for her partner threatened to leave if she baptized their daughter in the Catholic faith. However, after an emotional breakdown from her inner turmoil, Day’s daughter Tamar was baptized, and at the end of her “long loneliness” of spiritual and emotional isolation, Day also became a Christian and joined the church.
The only answer in this life, to the loneliness we are all bound to feel, is community. The living together, working together, sharing together, loving God and loving our brother, and living close to him in community so we can show our love for Him.
After a brief stint writing for the burgeoning movie industry in Hollywood, Day became a reporter for the prominent (and still publishing) Catholic journal Commonweal, covering the widespread devastation of the Great Depression. At a time in her life when she was still lacking direction for her life, she met Peter Maurin, a French immigrant, self-taught theologian and social activist, and a brother in a Catholic order. Despite being bombastic and outgoing where Day was more withdrawn and intuitive, the two worked well together and they shared a heart for the poor. This shared cause led them to founding the Catholic Worker Movement, named after the newspaper they ran together, which became extremely popular and sold for a mere cent.
All her life, radicalism was something to which Day was naturally drawn, first as an unbelieving writer and a firsthand observer of human pain, and then later as a Christian. Astoundingly, she tended towards radical thought and action for an unselfish reason: wherever she looked, she saw poverty and suffering and the failure of the state and wealthy people to do enough to alleviate such suffering, and she felt that radicalism might do more good than mere conventional charity had done so far. As she discovered in her Christian journey—Jesus was also a radical who scandalized the Pharisees and the complacent around Him. She wrote later:
[Jesus] fulfilled His religious duties in the synagogue and the temple. He trod the roads in His public life and the first men he called were fishermen, small owners of boats and nets. He was familiar with the migrant worker and the proletariat, and some of His parables dealt with them. He spoke of the living wage, not equal pay for equal work, in the parable of those who came at the first and the eleventh hour.
He died between two thieves because He would not be made an earthly King. He lived in an occupied country for thirty years without starting an underground movement or trying to get out from under a foreign power. His teaching transcended all the wisdom of the scribes and pharisees, and taught us the most effective means of living in this world while preparing for the next. And He directed His sublime words to the poorest of the poor, to the people who thronged the towns and followed after John the Baptist, who hung around, sick and poverty-stricken at the doors of rich men.
Like our previous subject in our “Modern Prophets” series, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Dorothy Day had a heart for the poor, and to her Christ was both very real and very near because she saw Him in the lives and faces of those that “polite society” overlooked or callously dismissed as failures. Day and Maurin believed in and practiced distributism, an ideology where Christians who are prosperous are actively encouraged to give whatever food, goods, land or jobs that they can spare to the poor, thus counteracting both state welfare and the materialism that unchecked capitalism encourages. One of the most famous aspects of the Catholic Worker movement are its “hospitality houses,” where shelter and often medical care are provided to the homeless and sick, without requiring church attendance in comparison to other charitable organizations of the time.
The Long Loneliness is a simply written and deeply engrossing portrait of a deeply introspective and intelligent woman, and it is also a powerful portrait of the early twentieth century in America. Now, nearly a hundred years since her conversion, it is both fascinating and disheartening to read how little has changed since: there is still a great disparity between the rich and the poor in our nation, and while we are not in the midst of a depression, there is still great economic instability and those at the bottom of society, the sick and mentally ill and homeless not only suffer the most, but often are purposefully overlooked even by Christians, for laying down one’s life for the poor and homeless is inconvenient and uncomfortable and it’s not very Instagrammable. Many of us are struggling with the “long loneliness” that Day writes of, and hopefully, like her, we will find a way to love God and love each other by giving to those less fortunate than ourselves. Let us be radical.
We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love, we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship. We have all known the long loneliness, and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.
Katharine Armbrester is in the MFA creative writing program at the Mississippi University for Women. She is a devotee of Flannery O’Connor and Margaret Atwood and fully intends to be an equally disconcerting playwright—she thinks Alabama needs one. Katharine has been recently published in the Lucky Jefferson literary journal, the Birmingham Arts Journal, and the supernatural Twilight Zone-inspired anthology, Step Into the Fifth Dimension.