Remembering Dorothy Day

November is a month of thanksgiving, family and celebration.

But November also ushers in our national period of overconsumption and excess.  

This year, the holidays come as the gap between the very rich and the poor widens, as attacks on Jewish-Americans and other minorities grow, and health care costs threaten lives and livelihoods.  

November is a good month to think about Dorothy Day, an American social activist and a Catholic 20th-century icon whose birth was Nov. 8, 1897, and death was Nov. 29, 1980. Her cause for canonization, the first step toward sainthood, has been accepted by Rome.

I love the photos of an older Dorothy Day — a tough woman in her 80s whose every line and wrinkle underscored her commitment. No facelifts or Botox for Day, who often sported ordinary housedresses and silver hair tied back with untidy braids.

Said to be a great storyteller, she supposedly protested, "Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily."

One picture shows Day sitting, owing to age and bad health, patiently waiting to be arrested in one of a lifetime of protests. This reminds me of Norma, a Nebraska friend, who, well into her 80s, protested the death penalty with a group who stood weekly at the state Capitol. Norma could no longer stand for an hour, so she brought a chair.

"I'm sitting down for what I stand up for," she laughed. She and Day are my heroes, activists to the end.

In our troubled times, Day has particular relevance. All the social protests going on throughout the country could benefit from Day's spiritual depth, focus and ability to stay the course.

She began her professional life as a journalist, and certainly the press today could use her as a patron saint. Eventually, she co-founded The Catholic Worker, a little newspaper still printed today.

She embraced the poor and critiqued the system, always pressing for an examination of how our economic and social structures neglect the common good and defy Catholic social teaching. She was in the frontlines for unions, civil rights and peace. You can imagine her being at the border today or in immigration court standing by families being torn apart.

She founded Catholic Worker Houses and lived and died there alongside the destitute. A deeply devoted Catholic, she never hesitated to hold her own church to high standards in living out the Gospel.

She was in her early 30s when she became Catholic. Like many saints, her journey to faith took a circuitous route. She had love affairs, an abortion, a suicide attempt, a relationship with the love of her life with whom she had a child.

Her search for truth and her desire for baptism for her child brought the relationship to an end and Day into the church.

As much as I love Day's later pictures, the image that intrigues me is a portrait of the young Day, a beautiful woman reminiscent of the actress Audrey Hepburn. In the photo, a wide-eyed woman gazes soulfully at the camera.

If you had told that worldly young woman that one day she would be a deeply committed Catholic, she might have laughed. How grace surprises us and is ready to touch each of us.

Day was a woman of remarkable charity. But her real gift was in challenging systems.  

"Where were the saints," she asked, "to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?"

Day reminds us that Christians are called to be radically and persistently countercultural.

Caldarola writes from Omaha, Neb.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018