On Love and Community: Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness


“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” p. 286

Whenever someone wants to refer to a modern day saint, if it is not Mother Teresa then Dorothy Day comes up as someone who tried to live the Bible, that is, open herself up so that she no longer worked for her own glory and return on investment, but for God. Until recently I knew vaguely who Dorothy Day was and that she had been responsible for something called The Catholic Worker, which was somehow a newspaper, but not one I had ever seen. She is also an icon on the wall of my church, written in, as I am told icons are made, with a newspaper in her hand.  I was browsing through the books in the local bookstore and came across her autobiography/memoir entitled, The Long Loneliness. I was intrigued by the title. I wondered what she could mean. Did she intend to describe her life up until she fully entered into faith, the long loneliness? Or was she intending to describe her entire life? Off to the library where her autobiography can be found along with her diaries, The Duty of Delight, and the story of the Catholic Worker movement, Loaves and Fishes.

IMG_0349So, as I was finishing up reading The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit, I began reading The Long Loneliness. I initially thought I was probably reading two women who were really very different, and how was that going to work out for me? What surprised me, as I continued reading Dorothy Day is how I kept thinking that in a certain way she reminded me of Rebecca Solnit. I’m not sure if that is going to be helpful for consideration of sainthood for Dorothy Day, but then again, we are a community of saints, so I’m not certain what considering is supposed to be taking place by a whole lot of men on behalf of whom? God? us? Also I do not believe Dorothy Day thought of herself as a saint and would even want to be singled out as one. If she had given up all thought of acquiring material possessions then I’m sure she would pass on the possession of a title.

What was striking about Dorothy Day’s words was that after I had read them, I realized how much we do to minimize her thoughts, which in turn minimizes her actions to mere charity, not to say it was not radical charity, but charity nevertheless. Charity is interesting because, while it is a good thing to do, it can become just another thing to do, and therefore a way in which to possess, possess righteousness, and thus receive, without intending to give anything away at all. But, clearly, Dorothy Day had more than just a charitable soul. She had a vision of what the world, living out God’s word, could be, and even believed with her body, heart and mind, that it could be achieved and that indeed we have seen glimpses of it in our lives.

In the very beginning of her story she tells of her experience living through the California earthquake when she was a young girl in 1906:

“Another thing I remember about California was the joy of doing good, of sharing whatever we had with others after the earthquake, an event which threw us out of our complacent happiness into a world of catastrophe.” p. 21

Through a catastrophic event she receives the understanding of real charity, which includes everyone. Everyone gives; everyone receives. Real charity is justice. Everyone rises up with the intention to save everyone, and all creatures of the earth. Because she actually experienced it, there is no denying that this form of giving, a giving of oneself wholly, became a part of her being. She had a sense of real charity because she experienced the literal collapse of all the infrastructure that supports an economy of oppression and scarcity.  In California, paradoxically, it wasn’t until everything was scarce that abundance could be possible. Of course, she does not go on to document what was to take place after people began to get their footing; I’m sure, as today, there was a major grab for power that reinstalled the traditional patterns of hierarchy and abuse. But she had more than seen a glimpse; she had lived it, and it would forever be part of her body.

Charity as such was expanded in her mind to include not just everyone, but a way of living in community:

“I wanted the abundant life. I wanted it for others too. I did not want just the few, the missionary-minded people like the Salvation Army, to be kind. I wanted every home to be open to the lame, the halt, and the blind, the way it was after the San Francisco earthquake. 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.” p. 39

As she goes on refining her sense of what charity is she learns through each relationship, each contact with another human being, what she was trying to make manifest in her own life:

“ I felt charity was a word to choke over. Who wanted charity? And it was not just human pride but a strong sense of man’s dignity and worth, and what was due to him in justice, that made me resent, rather than feel proud of so mighty a sum total of Catholic institutions.” P.150

Here she is wrestling with the fine line that must be acknowledged between charitable giving that takes away dignity and the charity that sets one free. The church is often on the side of the line that gives, but often it takes away too. And so too are government institutions. Unfortunately,  charity becomes a tug-o-war between extremes, making it difficult to write about charity without positioning oneself on either extreme: no charity is charity or all charity is good charity.  Dorothy Day was not in support of leaving people to fend for themselves, but rather trying to help those who desperately needed help, and those who also needed to find their place in the world; needed to find a use for their strength and their skills.  She lived in a time when factories were ever present and she witnessed the dehumanizing effects of assembly-lines and mechanization.

Dorothy Day was a reporter. But, it was not so much what she wrote about that changed her, as it was the daily living experiences, the struggling and the bodies banging into each other.

Each moment drove her deeper and deeper into the mystery of life. There was no rancor or thirst for profit. She recalls when she was in jail as a suffragist:

“Now I knew that behind bars all over the world there were women and men, young girls and boys, suffering constraint, punishment, isolation, and hardship for crimes of which all of us were guilty. The mother who murdered her child, the drug addict — who were the mad and who were the sane? Why were prostitutes prosecuted in some cases and in others respected and fawned on? People sold themselves for jobs, for the pay check, and if they only received a high enough price, they were honored. If their cheating, their theft, their lie, were of colossal proportions, if they were successful, they met with praise, not blame. Why were some caught, not others? Why were some termed criminals and others good businessmen? What was right and wrong? What was good and evil?

I was that mother whose child had been raped and slain.

I was the mother who had borne the monster who had done it.  I was even that monster, feeling in my own breast every abomination.

It was one thing to be writing about these things, to have the theoretical knowledge of sweatshops and injustice and hunger, but it is quite another to experience it in one’s own flesh.” p. 79

Again, it is the bodily experience that works on her; that works her conversion. She connects to the entire world until no one can be left out.

We cannot forget Peter Maurin and his influence on Dorothy Day. He was a man who was able to give shape to the sense Dorothy Day had that she must do something. When he appeared on her doorstep she created The Catholic Worker newspaper and then began to open up hospitality houses for those who needed a place to stay, a warm meal, and conversation. A community arose not just out of a lot of talk, but out of a sincere desire to live the word of God.

DSC00671There were others, who preceded Peter Maurin, and were perhaps the strongest influences on her. She writes that Forster Batterham, her common law husband actually made her appreciate the world outside of asphalt, and buildings:

“His ardent love of creation brought me to the Creator of all things.” 134

And, Tamar, their daughter gave her the drive to seek something more stable than what could be found through man’s organizations and infrastructures —which she had seen long ago could be turned into rubble in a few minutes.

I hear Rebecca Solnit in Dorothy Day’s words. I hear the continual struggle against reducing and dismissing women by saying they are not really who they are because something is missing. And, that is how reduction takes place: by simply pointing out what is missing. Dorothy Day describes an experience she has with a priest who tries to strip her of years of hard work by suggesting what she was saying could only be supported if she had actually had a family. Imagine, a woman who has a child, grand-children, had a common-law husband, ran a paper, fed, clothed, found homes, and cared for countless people could be told she had no authority because he claimed she did not have a family!  Not only does this priest try to reduce Dorothy Day, but too he tries to reduce the idea of family.

“Once a midwest priest said to me that if I were a woman of family, the things I wrote in The Catholic Worker about community and personalism would have more validity. I accepted his criticism at the moment…
… Afterward I thought indignantly — ‘But I am a woman of family. I have had husband and home life — I have a daughter and she presents problems to me right now. How can I let anyone put over on me the idea that I am a single person? I am a mother, and the mother of a very large family at that. Being a mother is fulfillment, it is surrender to others, it is love and therefore of course it is suffering. He hath made a ‘barren woman to dwell in a house: the joyful mother of children.'”

But while we get disoriented and knocked off out feet, we eventually make it back to continue doing the work at hand. And, for Dorothy Day, she continued writing, living in voluntary poverty and helping wherever she could until she died.

The Long Loneliness refers to a personal loneliness Dorothy Day felt throughout her life, attached to specific events and therefore felt sometimes more intensely than at other times, but it is also, as she indicates, something “we all have known” and thus it is what we all must face.

The long loneliness is both the time when you feel you do not belong, whether because you are moving in a direction different from those around you, and you feel the isolation your actions are creating; and it is also when those around you try to make you feel you do not belong; try to reduce your being to that which is missing.

It was not radical that Dorothy Day started a newspaper and fed people. For this still happens today. What was radical was her belief in everyone living in abundance. Everyone. Her actions were not borne out of a socialism imposed from the outside, something which often upsets our capitalist sensibilities, but rather it is that her interior sense, having been shaped by her experience and her faith, led her to an understanding of abundance that is radically different from what we often understand it to be. It is the absolute sharing of all that I have, which happened during the San Fransisco earthquake that, like a small seed within her, eventually became her reality. The way to abundance is not through amassing riches, but is through emptying yourself and giving in love.

Dorothy Day’s radicalism is the charity and justice of Jesus; not the socialism of Marx. Nevertheless, we have become so fearful of losing all we have or believing there cannot possibly be enough for everyone that we cannot conceive of something so divine, and yet so human: sharing. We recoil from sharing because we implicitly associate it with socialism. For this reason we like charity, the way we sometimes conceive it, in the narrow; because it can allow us to be good capitalists too. This is something not so radical, and another reason why one might want to “choke” on the word.


Day, Dorothy. The Long Loneliness. Harper. New York: 1952.

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