Tuesday, November 29, 2005

November 29: Dorothy Day

"AFTER 1976 Dorothy [Day] virtually withdrew from the affai rs of the world of the Worker movement. Her lot, as she knew, was to await death. Content to spend as much time as she could in the company of her daughter and grandchildren, she remained in her room at Maryhouse, coming downstairs only for the evening Mass that was said at the house. In her room, which overlooked Third Street, she could look out onto the dismal prospect of a narrow street, shadowed by five-story buildings, shoulder to shoulder, whose unkempt and desolate appearance suggested that they, like the people who passed before them, felt that their existence mattered not at all. In front of these buildings, parked cars at the curbs were jammed against one another. One structure, ugly with shattered windows and an aspect of grotesque garishness, was fronted by motorcycles-power-ful brutish machines with signs and symbols that proclaimed their owners' defiance of civilized norms. The building was the home of the Hell's Angels, a motorcycle gang about whose doings fearful stories were told.

"It was in this part of New York that Dorothy had spent a half-century of her life, where just blocks away she had lived in 1917 as the acting editor of the Masses and where in that cold winter of 1918 she had whiled away the nights with Eugene O'Neill and the young radicals and artists of the Village. A few blocks to the west and south was New York's Lower East Side, the home of the Jews. She had never left them. Mott Street was two blocks away, the street of the Italians. She remembered sitting on the front steps of the Mott Street house, watching them celebrate the feast of San Gennaro. Perhaps she remembered that night soon after the war had begun, the cool clear air and the half-moon shining brightly over Mott Street. . . .

"Dorothy died on November 29, 1980, just as night began to soften the harshness of the poverty and ugliness of Third Street. Her daughter, Tamar, was in the room with her. There was no struggle. The last of the energy that sustained her life had been used. The funeral was on December 2 at the Nativity Catholic Church, a half block away from Maryhouse. An hour before the service, scheduled for 11 o'clock in the morning, people began to assemble in the street. Some were curious onlookers, the hollow-eyed and stumbling people who roam the streets of lower New York, but others were drawn there by some sense of the propriety of paying their last respects to the woman who had clothed and fed them. There were American Indians, Mexican workers, blacks and Puerto Ricaos. There were people in eccentric dress, apostles of causes who had felt a great power and truth in Dorothy's life. . . .

"At the appointed time, a procession of these friends and fellow workers came down the sidewalk. At the head of it Dorothy's grandchildren carried the pine box that held her body. Tamar, Forster, and her brother John followed. At the church door, Cardinal Terence Cooke met the body to bless it. As the procession stopped for this rite, a demented person pushed his way through the crowd and bending low over the coffin peered at it intently. No one interfered, because, as even the funeral directors understood, it was in such as this man that Dorothy had seen the face of God. "

--William D. Miller

"ALICE Paul, the suffragist leader, had gold pins made, depicting prison bars, to give to those who went to jail with her in the second decade of this century. Dorothy Day was given one of those pins; but I would bet she did not have it when she died this week. She was not good at owning things. She was good at giving things away, including her-self. It is the only way, finally, to own oneself.

"In her own and this century's teens she was an ardent defender of other people's rights. She continued to speak up for the unprotected when no one else would do that. During World War II, her protests at the internment without due process of Japanese-Americans caused j. Edgar Hoover to open his extensive file on her. Without her, how much bleaker would be our record. She fed the poor, which may not be the Christian's final task, but should normally be the first one.

"She was the long-distance runner of protest in our time, because her agitation was built on serenity, her activism on contemplation, her earthly indignation on unearthly trust. This or that cause, with its noisy followers, came and went, butshe was always there. "Rest in peace," one prays over the dead; but she reposed in restlessness, so long as there was no peace-and her moral discontent should be continued. Let her rest in our disquietude.

"Dorothy Day showed us . . . that people who stand with and for others cannot act from a calculus of individual advantage. They must act as they do from a higher urgency, a love beyond what most of us think of as loving. So far from distracting them from earth's injustice, as Marx claimed religion did, Dorothy Day's faith made effective radicalism not only possible, for many people, but imperative. We may not even be able to possess the earth unless we aspire to heaven-like our sister, who is dead and lives. "

--Gary Wills

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