The saints are living exemplars of Catholic faith and practice throughout history. “It’s better to know the lives of saints,” Peter Maurin would insist, “than the lives of kings and generals.” He schooled Dorothy in the radical ways that saints had responded to the social ills around them. The crucial point: their engagement in the world was a result of their sanctity, not in spite of it (recalling New York Times columnist David Brooks recently writing of Day that she not only wanted to be good, she wanted to do good).
Sanctity is at the heart of the Catholic understanding of sainthood. Ultimately, the Catholic saint is a man or woman whose life reminds us of the holiness of Christ and, in turn, encourages our own. Author Robert Ellsberg, who has written vivid portraits of saints, past and present, writes that “each one offers a unique glimpse of the face of God; each enlarges our moral imagination; each offers new insights into the meaning and possibilities of human life.”
For Dorothy Day, the lives of the saints were never far from her consciousness. Her devotion was as intense as it was varied, even seemingly contradictory. She loved both Teresa of Avila for her reformer’s zeal and Therese, the Little Flower, for her “little way.” Francis of Assisi was especially revered for his embrace of peace and poverty, but she also at times had a statue on her desk of an armor-clad Joan of Arc because of her “fidelity to conscience.”
Not only did Dorothy find inspiration in the saints’ “heavenly” example, she also counted on their very “earthly” help. As such, in particularly stressful financial times, she and other community members would “picket” the movement’s patron, St. Joseph the Worker, praying and placing before his statue piles of unpaid bills. Some creditors scrawled the words “pray and pay” on invoices.
As Ellsberg explains, “For Dorothy, saints were her constant companions and daily guides….She relished the human details of their struggles to be faithful….”