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Dorothy Day
Selected Writings: By Little and By Little
(1983)

363 pages

Biography / Spirituality


 

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Citation: Day, Dorothy. Selected Writings: By Little and By Little. Robert Ellsburg, ed. New York: Orbis Books, 1983. 

 


 

Reading Level: Young Adult / Parent / Adult

 


 

Author Biography: Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was one of the most important influences on the public face of American Catholicism in the 20th century. She began her career as a journalist, and soon began to champion the cause of the poor, homeless, and disenfranchised, first in New York CIty and later in cities across the country. She used her literary skills to raise awareness about the need for social reform, and for a short time became a member of the Socialist Party. In 1926, inspired by the birth of her daughter Tamar, she converted to Catholicism. In 1932, in collaboration with radical political thinker, Peter Maurin, she conceived The Catholic Worker movement, first publishing a newspaper called The Catholic Worker, and later opening a "House of Hospitality" in the Bowry section of New York that offered food and shelter to the poor. Both the newspaper and the homeless shelter are still in existence, and have given rise to a nation-wide network of shelters, programs, and publications dedicated to promoting Catholic social justice. In 2000, Dorothy Day's cause for canonization was recognized by the Vatican, and she was officially termed "Servant of God."

 


 

Plot Summary: This edition contains substantial excerpts from all of Dorothy Day’s major works including her newspaper columns from The Catholic Worker, magazine articles, her autobiography The Long Lonleliness, and her two books about the Catholic Worker movement; included in full is Therese, her biography of Saint Therese of Lisieux. The selections are arranged thematically rather than chronologically, and therefore provide the reader an opportunity to see Dorothy Day’s insights about many topics develop over the course of her lifetime. The selections focus not only on her personal journey toward conversion and her increasingly radical commitment to her work, but also on her broader intellectual involvement with the social, political, and religious issues of her time.

 


 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. At various periods of her life, Dorothy Day could be best described as a startling array of "people." She is a journalist, anarchist, libertine, subversive, penitent, worker, leader, convert, prophet, and saint. Although she may be, on some level, a study in contrasts, her writing conveys that all of these elements in her experience are fundamental to the integrated person she is meant to be. How do you see the varied threads of her life being woven together? How does this process of development parallel her process of conversion and the gradual deepening of her Christian insights?

2. Dorothy Day writes extensively of the impact of other people on her life, both as individuals and en masse. What roles do the following figures play in her life and work: Peter Maurin, Forster Batterham, Sister Aloysia, her daughter Tamar, Ammon Hennacy, Saint Therese of Lisieux? What is the role played by "the people" as Day understands them in their various collective identities: the workers, the poor, the Church, the laity?

3. In his introduction to this edition of Dorothy Day's writings, Robert Ellsburg asserts, "There is a kind of extravagance that belongs to any proper act of charity… [a] 'Holy Waste'… One thinks of Dorothy Day along with those great women of the Gospels who often seemed to know with an extra sense, lacking in the more self-conscious men, the significance of the event unfolding in their presence." (xlii). In what ways does Dorothy Day reveal herself specifically as a woman in her writing? Can we say that she claims to certain ways of knowing, being, or acting because she is a woman?

4. Dorothy Day refers to the story of her conversion as a long loneliness; in fact, she uses the term as the title of her 1952 biography. What do you think Day means by longing or yearning? What is she longing for, and how is this longing satisfied?

5. In concrete terms, Dorothy Day's most lasting contribution to American Catholicism is her co-founding of the Catholic Worker movement and newspaper. How would you describe the fundamental importance of social justice in Day's work, writing, worldview, and legacy?

6. Because this volume is an anthology of Dorothy Day's work rather than any one text in its entirety, a reader can experience Day as a number of different "writers" rolled into one: journalist, essayist, eulogist, hagiographer. Robert Ellsburg sees in the body of Day's work a "… unified vision imposed on a discursive style…" (xiii). What are the distinctions and common threads you see in these different voices of Dorothy Day? What do you make of her own statement concerning her writing (see frontspiece)?

7. In the Gospels, Jesus asks, "Who do you say that I am?" That is, who is Christ? How would Dorothy Day respond to this question? How is understanding her response inseparable from understanding her work and her life?

8. If you had to choose a single word as the key to unlock Dorothy Day's understanding of our purpose as men and women, what would it be, and why?

 


ACTIVITIES

 

1. Consider watching Entertaining Angels, a film biography of Dorothy Day, and having a discussion comparing the presentation of events and portrayal of characters in the film to the impressions gained in Dorothy Day’s writings.

2. Consider reading one or two issues of The Catholic Worker in order to see how the publication Dorothy Day founded functions in our own time. What views on political and social issues does it present? How does it invite a reader to see these views in relation to Catholic identity?

3. Dorothy Day was adamant that any idea of social justice needed to correspond to action in order to make a substantive difference. In this spirit, consider taking on a small community project as a group. For example, you might volunteer at a homeless shelter or collect food for a food bank, either for a single instance or as an on-going project. Doing so would connect the book discussion group to other ministries in the parish or the community.

 


 

Prepared By: Ann-Maria Contarino

Date: August 2008

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