Can the world be saved by Beauty?

The name of Dorothy Day has been popping up in my readings lately. She’s a religious role model for the Catholic Church, and a writer. I decided to look into this person

I just finished reading Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty. It was written by her granddaughter, so there were a lot of personal stories. Dorothy started as a Bohemian and communist in the early part of the 20th century. She was politically active and involved with the union movement and then a communist.

But she surprised her friends when she took a turn in the middle of her activism and joined the Catholic Church. As a convert, she took her Catholicism very very very seriously.

For her, the religious devotion and the social activism formed an alchemy that led her to start hospitality houses–basically homeless shelters–for down and out people who needed a place to go.

She had a never-ending soup kitchen in her hospitality houses, and she fed and sheltered people. She had a newspaper called The Catholic Worker that put forth her religious and political philosophies. It’s still going.

She wrote essays and newspaper pieces. She published books. And she shared what she had with people who needed it.

A lot of people admire her, and right now she is on the shortlist for sainthood.

I tasted ash in my mouth after I finished the book. What about her daughter? Didn’t a mother have some responsibility to keep her child safe and give her a good chance in life?

I don’t romanticize communes. I spent time in and around them and it seems a very messy solution. The book underlines some of that mess.

I knew I didn’t have the picture of Dorothy Day that most people did. This book didn’t give me the reasons why so many admired her. I needed to read more. I picked out Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion.

That sounded like admiration. The author Robert Coles had known Dorothy, and he wrote the book with a lot of conversations that they had. So there were stories and her self-interpretation of her life. The picture emerged.

I did like her humility and her intensity. She believed intensely in what was right, but could back away from taking herself too seriously just in time. Holding a high standard in one hand and mercy in the other.

That could create a crowd of admirers. Faithful readers of a column, that might not ask too deeply about how her daughter had not been given enough options in her life to make good choices.

But life is messy. And Dorothy Day was trying hard. She was actively looking to help the needy.

The needy aren’t so easy to help. The needy will steal and drink all the alcohol. Sometimes.

I could see how she made some ultimate sacrifices. And also how in more than one sense, the sacrifices were pointless. The need was too great.

That’s they mystical part, how she believed in what she was doing despite all evidence to the contrary.

I’m not convinced that her methods work. But I am not convinced they are worthless either.

I’ve spent a little time looking at her life. She was very intense. I would not make the same choices that she did. And her choice had very broad effects. She lived a marvelous life.