“Our faith is stronger than death, our philosophy is firmer than flesh, and the spread of the kingdom of God upon the earth is more sublime and more compelling.”
I was moved by David Brooks’ account of Dorothy Day’s life in his excellent book, The Road to Character. Day, who holds saintly status, is regarded as one of the most significant social activists of the 20th century. The co-founder and chief editor of The Catholic Worker, her life was marked by radical compassion, while never fully escaping the chaotic; whether it was in her bohemian 20s and 30s, her relationships, her conversion or interaction with the marginalised.
Her legacy remains. In September 2015, Pope Francis stood in front of Congress and highlighted four great American icons that inspired him and his ministry. They were Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.
In recent weeks as I’ve stumbled across the life of Dorothy Day, there are two seasons of her life that have struck me most. The first season includes the days leading up to the launch of The Catholic Worker; days full of the search for purpose, mixed with Gethsemane-like petitionary prayer.
The second season is her final season; the last days of her life.
For in Dorothy’s final days, we see a heart of gratitude and pursuit.
From a young age, Dorothy longed for a deep sense of purpose and spiritual adventure — a life beyond herself. This adventure would lead her to unexpected places and unexpected faces, creating space for her to create radical change in the most difficult of environments.
Yet despite all she achieved, at her core was a thankful heart.
Her tombstone was simply inscribed: ‘DEO GRATIAS’.
In her final days, Dorothy was asked by a close friend to write down a short memoir, a short summation of her life and work. She sat down to write… But she couldn’t.
Dorothy wrote back to her close friend, describing what happened in the failed autobiographical attempt: “I try to think back; I try to remember this life that the Lord gave me; the other day I wrote down the words ‘a life remembered,’ and I was going to try to make a summary for myself, write what mattered most — but I couldn’t do it. I just sat there and thought of our Lord and His visit to us all those centuries ago, and I said to myself that my great luck was to have Him on my mind for so long in my life!”
If you’re Dorothy Day, especially Dorothy Day at the end of your life, I reckon you have permission to take it that little bit easier, but she couldn’t help herself. She kept on pursuing; pursuing Christ. Pursuing depth. Pursuing others.
Particularly when you consider the depth of character Dorothy possessed, it’s astounding to see her desire to grow, to become more mature, to carry the heart of Christ in greater measure.
In our age of quick wins and self-realisation, Dorothy’s relentless pursuit of maturity cuts deep. Through repetitive participation with the sacraments, scripture, service and prayer, she never rested on her current status, always seeking growth.
On the day Dorothy died, there was a small card placed into the final page of her journal, inscribed with the prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian. It reads:
“O Lord and master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power and idle talk. But give to thy servant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love.”
Live thankful. Pursue depth.
Extracts taken from David Brooks’ The Road to Character.