Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day and Elizabeth Ann Seton: New York Converts on Fire with the Love of Jesus

Mother Seton and Servant of God Dorothy Day were radical Christians whose good deeds flowed from lives steeped in prayer—the only thing that makes loving with the Heart of Jesus in the world possible.

A number of years ago, Colleen Carroll Campbell wrote a book called My Sisters, the Saints, about how a number of women saints have walked alongside her in her life. My version of that would be The Saints Who Stalk Me – and high on the list of my saintly sisters following me around New York and beyond would be Servant of God Dorothy Day, who died today in 1980, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

Just before COVID, the book I put together, A Year with the Mystics: Visionary Wisdom for Daily Living, included both of these women. They are both known as doers—Dorothy Day for social activism and caring for the poor and forgotten, and Mother Seton for schools and hospitals. But neither one of them could have accomplished what they did without their deep inner lives of prayer, knowing that Jesus was their strength.

Before her conversion, Day spent time at a church close to my heart in Greenwich Village—St. Joseph’s. It’s in the midst of so many of the culture’s confusions—then and now. And yet she was drawn to the peace within because she would come to believe passionately in the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. She would go to Him again and again to ask for guidance, to give Him her impossible cases, to beg His forgiveness if she had been too harsh. Like her beloved St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who she wrote a book about, Day’s confidence resided wholly in the Lord.

Dorothy Day is a saint for these times—relatable to women who have been hurt by men; women even who have had abortions and suffer great grief, a sorrow that Day never got over even though she knew that Jesus has endless mercy if we go to Him in loving trust and honest remorse.

As I write this, Dorothy Day is not yet a canonized saint although the first stage of her cause is wrapping up now. My favorite quote about her is from Archbishop Jose Gomez at a conference about her a few years ago:

“I don’t know if she’s a saint, but I know she makes me want to be one.”

I feel the same way. So I ask her help constantly, especially when I walk the streets of Manhattan and encounter people who are mentally ill and homeless, people who scare me. With Dorothy Day’s help, I try to see Jesus in them and not walk away. Often, I just don’t want to have to deal with them. Dorothy calls me out when I have that inclination.

I try to love in the mess of life, as she did, even when I’m not entirely sure it is safe or prudent. I’d rather lose my life than fail to love. For that I need Dorothy Day’s and Elizabeth Ann Seton’s help.

One of my favorite stories about Mother Seton is how, before her conversion, while attending Episcopal services, she physically turned herself toward the nearby Catholic church in lower Manhattan. She knew Him before she professed the Real Presence of Jesus in the tabernacle.

Both women are an inspiration to all of us baptized Catholics that Jesus fulfills the longings of those who do not yet know the truth of the Eucharist!

In 1971, in a letter to a friend, Karl Meyer, who she had once hoped would take over The Catholic Worker newspaper, but had since fallen away from the Church, Dorothy Day wrote:

“The sacraments mean much to me. The daily bread we ask for is there. To sit in the presence of the Sun of Justice is healing, though I have to force myself to remain in fatigue and fullness and misery often. But the healing is there too. No matter how corrupt the Church may become, it carries within it the seeds of its own regeneration. To read the lives of the saints has always helped me. We’ve had corrupt popes and bishops, down through the ages, but a St. Francis, a St. Benedict, a St. Vincent dePaul, a Charles de Foucauld will keep on reminding me of the primacy of the spiritual. Peter Maurin (who founded The Catholic Worker with Dorothy Day) used to tell us to study history through the lives of the saints.”

Similarly, to her grandchildren, she said: “My greatest joy would be to see all of you practicing the faith. You have to practice it to make it grow, and what a strength and joy it gives, to young and old, in good times and bad times.”

Both Dorothy Day and Elizabeth Ann Seton also had the hearts of mothers. Their tenderness and compassion for the weak and the helpless reveal them to be kindred spirits. Consider this from Mother Seton:

By the heart we understand the most secret part of the Soul, where joy and sadness, fear, or desire, and whatever we call sentiments or affections is formed—then the love of God in the heart is that sweet attraction which draws us incessantly to him, which desires to enjoy him, delights to be busied with Him, tastes always a new pleasure to Him as the confident of its joys and its pains; it lives under the liveliest impressions of its sovereign Good and intimately enjoys his continual presence.

To love him with the whole heart is all. Also we must include our whole strength by doing all that we can for him, and referring to him whatever we do for others, and with our whole mind by remembering him continually and filling it with him as much as we can. Love is paid by love—and the tenderest Mother has not more delight in holding her little dear beloved in her arms than this child of divine love (the happy soul he dwells in) delights to dwell in the bosom of this best and dearest of Fathers…

As we mark what may someday be Dorothy Day’s feast day, my two holy stalkers show us that radical Christianity consists of a life steeped in prayer and good deeds. This is what makes loving with the Heart of Jesus in the world possible.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute where she directs the Center for Religion, Culture, and Civil Society. She is also editor-at-large of National Review and a nationally syndicated columnist with Andrews McMeel Universal.

Photo: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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