Is Dorothy Day a saint?
“Dorothy Day: The World Will be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of my Grandmother” is the story of an influential woman told by her granddaughter. Kate Hennessey explores not only the biographical details but considers the controversy over how Day is presented historically to the public, the push for canonization (naming her a saint in the Catholic Church) and the complex relationship between Day and her daughter, Tamar Hennessey, the author’s mother. Hennessey paints a portrait no other author can, that of exploring the depths of this remarkable woman, seeking to discover her for who she is, beyond the black-and-white claims of the left or the right.
On the surface, Day was a journalist, a columnist, a social justice advocate, a founder of a publication called the “Catholic Worker” so named to stand in contrast from the Communist publication the “Daily Worker,” and founder of houses of hospitality and worker farms in which no souls seeking shelter were turned away. She was a Catholic convert with a past to rival St. Augustine of Hippo, the first of our spiritual memoirists.
Many want Day declared a saint.
Others object. Hennessey, with an eye on the person of Day, is willing to look at her as a human being filled with good motivations and good work, some mistaken ideas, a clear vision and the energy to put it into place.
The author does this with deft and skill at the written word, following in her grandmother’s footsteps. She offers details usually left out of such works such as the operas listened to or musicals watched on television, the type of drinks consumed, the variety of shells collected. These details paint the scene for the reader, drawing out the sense of time, place and personalities engaged at these moments in Day’s life.
The book opens with a question of how far back one must go in order to begin to understand Day. One must go very far back, it turns out, to her family of origin.
Hennessey’s perspective of a searching granddaughter never wavers. She writes openly of peppering her mother with questions of their past, and as the book draws to a close, shows clearly those moments at the kitchen table when the conversations must needs also come to a close, there was nothing more to say.
Saint-social-justice-warrior or radically-minded failure?
Hennessey offers the evidence and leaves the reader with the lesson we all must learn, most of our heroes succeed in some areas and failed in others, but that does not diminish their heroic status.
Like many a student in California, I learned the virtues of Martin Luther King Jr. And the vices of Christopher Columbus.
In graduate school, I was stunned to learn of the instances of plagiarism in MLK’s life and his failure in faithfulness to his wife.
During a radio program exploring Columbus’ legacy and diaries, I got a glimpse of the nuances in his life indicating there might be more to the story, more villains and more innocence, good but period-influenced intentions.
What does it mean?
There are heroes and there are saints and the two paths might not always cross. A saint, recognized by the Catholic Church is someone who achieved an extraordinary degree of holiness, conformity with the will of God, during his or her life.
A hero, in contrast, is someone with a remarkable skill or ability needed in a particular time and place, who moved forward history in some significant way. It says little about the rest of his or her life. Just because one person sees the vision of a more perfect union or has a dream where children of any color can play together, does not mean that person was perfect. Few of us are.
We want our heroes to be immaculate and without sin, and so the temptation, especially in this modern name-changing, statue-removing times is to erase their presence in history. We want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak, an archaic saying meaning to accidentally throw out the good when we try to discard the bad.
A better way is to approach, as Hennessy did, is the exploration of a person’s life in search of understanding, to praise the good, acknowledge the bad, and know that we can love the sinner who may never be a saint.
I hope we all can aim for a virtuous and moral life. I wish we all might seek the good and desire to find a way towards goodness and improvement. But I also understand that human weakness runs deep, the temptation is strong and just as we grow up to see our parents’ in a fuller light, more than just mom and dad, but people with flaws, good intentions and great failings, we can see our heroes similarly.
They can still be heroes.
And so can we.