Every year on November 1st, since as far back as the 4th century, the Church observes the Feast of All Saints, a day to remember saints known and unknown. It was St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the great twelfth century abbot and reformer, who asked the purpose. “Why,” St. Bernard said in a homily marking the day, “should our praise…or even the celebration of this feast day mean anything to the saints? …The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them.”
How does it serve us to venerate the memory of the saints? St. Bernard answered by saying that when he thought of the saints, he felt “inflamed by a tremendous yearning. …to enjoy their company.”
In our own day, in a homily on All Saints Day 2006, Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that we do not simply honor the saints in a passive way but look at their example and apply it to ourselves. And, he noted, their example reawakens in us “the great longing to be like them….”
Perhaps Dorothy was thinking of the saints when she wrote, “If you will to love someone (even the most repulsive and wicked), and try to serve him as an expression of that love — then you soon come to feel love. And God will hear your prayers. ‘Enlarge Thou my heart that Thou mayst enter in!’ ”
Arguably, in these times of skepticism and scandal, of fear and terror and seemingly endless war, Dorothy’s lived example of what a Christian life looks like is an anchor of support, summoning in us our own capacity to venture deeper. “There are two billion people in the world today, and 150 million of these are Americans who boast of the highest standard of living,” she wrote. “The wonderful thing is that each one of us can do something about the problem, each one of us can give his response and go as far as the grace of God leads him.”
In 1997, one of Dorothy’s nine grandchildren, Kate Hennessy, reflected in theCatholic Worker, “To have known Dorothy means spending the rest of your life wondering what hit you. On the one hand, she has given so many of us a home, physically and spiritually; on the other, she has shaken our very foundations.”
Jim Forest, former Catholic Worker editor and biographer of Day, elaborates. “In my own life, every time I think about the challenges of life in the bright light of the Gospel rather than in the gray light of money or the dim light of politics, her example has had its influence.…Every time I give away something I can get along without — every time I manage to see Christ’s presence in the face of a stranger — there again I owe a debt to Dorothy Day. Every time I take part in efforts to prevent wars or end them or join in campaigns to make the world a less cruel place, in part I am in debt to Dorothy….It isn’t that Dorothy is the point of reference. Christ is. But I can’t think of anyone I’ve known whose Christ-centered life has done so much to help make me a more Christ-centered person.”
This is not to suggest, however, that Dorothy (or the Catholic Worker movement) was free of sin or shortcomings. Often, she confessed to Joe Zarrella, intimate friend and co-worker going back to the movement’s founding, she felt she was fighting a losing battle. She once gave him a card on which she had written, “We should not be discouraged at our own lapses…but continue. If we are discouraged, it shows vanity and pride. Trusting too much to ourselves. It takes a lifetime of endurance, of patience, of learning through mistakes. We all are on the way.”
The Dorothy Day Guild extends an open and heartfelt invitation to all readers of this site to share their own “on the way” stories, reflecting in part on how the life and witness of Dorothy Day — however transmitted — is impacting, inspiring, guiding your own. We can think of no more compelling testament to the continuing efficacy of Day’s grace-filled life and, in the end, no more powerful “proof” of her sanctity.
In her lyrical postscript to her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, Day reminds us that “heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.” Our sincere thanks for your so generously sharing of your own experiences — helping us to advance her “cause” not because she needs it, but because we today, and the Church she called home, need it.
Please e-mail your personal reflections and stories. firstname.lastname@example.org We gratefully look forward to “spreading the word,” with your permission, via the Guild’s Facebook page and/or newsletter.