Dorothy Day[1]

When I told my daughters Erin and Joelle, on separate occasions, I was working on a theology of walking, they each responded with their characteristic respectful awe. Erin, a social worker in inner city Chicago, said it sounded very “bourgeois.” After it dawned on me just what she meant, I was proud that her education has enabled her to insult me so that it might need translation.

Joelle, on the other hand, has never needed translation. At the time, she was spending her days in hard labor moving rocks, cutting trees, herding goats and sheep, gathering eggs, cooking for a family of eight, helping care for various homeless guests, protesting the death penalty, and discussing theology, on a Catholic Worker farm. Nick, the head of the farm, has both law and philosophy degrees but he consulted regularly with the bishop of the diocese as to how he was to answer the persistent questions and prodding of their new protestant volunteer. The bishop would suggest particular Scripture passages or various historical arguments and Nick would then convey these to Joelle. I don’t know if the bishop consulted with the Vatican, but having been the main target of Joelle’s questions for the past 19 years, I had great sympathy for Nick and the bishop and the southern diocese of Missouri. Joelle’s response to my new summer project made me even more sympathetic: “WALKING THEOLOGY? WALKING THEOLOGY? You need to do a WORKING theology. Move some rocks! Volunteer in a soup kitchen!”

This blog on Dorothy Day is for Joelle on her 20th birthday. Like Dorothy, Joelle has a profound compassion for others and the determination to make a difference in the real world. In Japan the 20th birthday is the beginning of adulthood and it is my prayer that Joelle, you will be a channel of blessing to others to the same degree you have been to your mother and I from the day you graced our lives 20 years ago. Perhaps I might convince you that walking involves its own sort of heavy lifting (or not).

He Who Would Save His Life Shall Lose It  

Theodor Adorno traces the drive for self-preservation in the dialectic between myth, with its fear of nature and death, and enlightenment, which would rid itself of fear by emptying nature of any content. The problem is that human nature is itself emptied of content, which preserves reason but subjects man to destruction as the price of his cure. The dialectic between enlightenment and myth, in Adorno’s picture, is inclusive of the entire sweep of history, culture, and thought. Death reigns in culture precisely due to the attempt at self-preservation.

Adorno also points the way to an alternative understanding that escapes both triumphalism (a defeating of the powers on their own ground) and nihilism. Dorothy Day’s personalism (one’s individual responsibility for the neighbor) seems to be illustration and completion of the direction indicated by Adorno.

Whoever Loses His Life For My Sake

While Adorno does not arrive at a definitive means to tread between enlightenment and myth he suggests that art allows for an imitation which can potentially bring the fictional or nonexistent into existence. The example of Dorothy Day whose reading reshapes her imagination so that she spends her life in service of others and starts a worldwide movement of service, seems to confirm Adorno’s notion. Art offers up the possibility of an alternative experience, even in the midst of a death dealing dialectic.

As a child Day begins to envision a life of serving the poor due to the two-fold experience of long walks and reading. As she walks and reads her walking will come to bear a heavier load, from searching for beauty, to identifying with the poor, to protesting industrialization and mechanization, to pilgrimage, and finally she walks as a form of prayer.

At first she walks in the city to witness the experience of the poor, and as she describes it in her autobiography, this walking is marked as a time of searching. In Jack London’s Martin Eden she discovers a character, modeled after London, who experiences extreme poverty but who has a deep appreciation of beauty. Martin Eden finds the great love of his life in a woman whose perfect beauty is suddenly marred when her lips are stained with fruit over a picnic lunch. Eden’s world falls apart as the stain of the real shows through, exposing the lie upon which he has grounded himself. His impoverishment is a condition he had devoted his life to escaping and then in an instant he realizes impoverishment is the human condition.

Adorno pictures the dialectic between emptying the canvas of nature and then filling it in and reifying its content as the relation between nihilism hidden beneath triumphant romanticism or utopianism. Day’s walks in the city ground her in a reality that does not permit projection onto the blank screen of an idealized nature. She finds beauty even in the midst of the ugly reality of the city; the flowers that grow in the cracks, the smells of the city, and the life of its inhabitants.

As a teenager she reads Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and then takes extended walks into the meat processing district of Chicago, where the novel was set. She sees the laboring poor through the eyes of Sinclair, coming to their labor with a kind of heroism but then broken by a ruthless industry. Her first impulse is toward reform of the system and aid to those in need. So as a young adult she joins the radical left and all of her life she will continue to oppose the injustices of capitalism. She walks in protest as she refuses to participate in the mechanization that is the source of poverty and oppression. “Poverty means not riding on rubber while horrible working conditions prevail in the rubber industry.” The hero of the Jungle survives by adopting socialism and Day likewise takes up socialism as a strategy to assist the poor.

Through the books of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy she sees forms of nonviolence and radical social engagement that are not simply part of a strategy but are the extension of spiritual practice. In the Brothers Karamazov, Ivan, representative of the disillusioned rationalism of modern Russia, is the nihilist. In Day’s description he “protested that it was quite impossible to love man as he was, with his cruel instincts, his lust for power, his greed, (and) his instincts for self-preservation.” Ivan recounts in the novel actual events which Dostoyevsky had culled from the news. For wounding one of his master’s dogs, the dogs are unleashed and destroy a child with his mother as witness. Ivan concludes he who would give up on life, “return his ticket,” rather than live in a world built upon the necessity of this sort of evil.

In place of an answer to Ivan, Dostoyevsky poses instead an alternative in the Christ-like figure of Alyosha. In his love of a crippled girl, Alyosha embodies a love that is selfless perseverance. Here is a love that is enduring, not because of its object but because of the persistence and determination of the lover. As Day puts it, “That book, with its picture of religion, had a lot to do with my later life.” She says reading Dostoevsky was “a profound spiritual experience” that “made me cling to a faith in God.” From Dostoyevsky she derives the idea that will define the Catholic Worker movement: “active love is labor and fortitude.”

As she adopts the religion of the poor she begins to walk in pilgrimage: “But pilgrims used to walk, and so did the saints. They walked from one end of Europe and Russia to the other. We need saints.” On the other hand she comments to a reporter, “Don’t trivialize me by trying to make me a saint.”  As in Adorno’s picture of enlightenment dialectic, Day recognizes that her integration into the system of Roman Catholicism would simply reduce her work to an other-worldly order. She refuses to be inscribed into a system – to be written off, as she envisions a kingdom that is to be walked out now.

Her faith comes to full flower as she walks to pray: “I am surprised that I am beginning to pray daily. I began because I had to. I just found myself praying. I can’t get down on my knees, but I can pray while I am walking. If I get down on my knees I think, “Do I really believe? Whom am I praying to?” And a terrible doubt comes over me, and a sense of shame, and I wonder if I am praying because I am lonely, because I am unhappy.” When she walks, though, she can set aside her sense of shame, as walking and talking to God are one integrated movement and one step at a time this walk constitutes a life in dialogue with God. It is in this sort of life of walking prayer that the Kingdom of God has come to man.

As the conclusion from her favorite quote from Dostoyevsky puts it: “just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting further from your goal instead of nearer to it—at that very moment… you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you.”

Happy Birthday Joelle! Walk with God!




  1. Matthew Welch

    This is beautiful. The bit about walking and prayer as opposed to kneeling in prayer is a very powerful point that I have never considered. I identify with Day’s questioning of her motives for prayer on her knees (the loneliness and shame, etc.) and have also ironically sensed a similar sense of alienation and estrangement from God while on my knees that I do not experience in walking. But perhaps the self gaining a sense of that sort of estrangement and thus a sense of absolute dependence upon God (to borrow from Shleiermacher) or, a recognition of one’s own ‘nothingness’ before and apart from God (to borrow from Kierkegaard) has its own unique pedagogical telos? I have actually started walking because of your posts here and, if nothing else, walking is becoming for me a time of praying ‘to/ward’ God instead of just thinking/talking ‘about’ God. Instead of just more ‘working’ it is becoming a time of rest or sabbath that seems to be giving the ‘work’ (whether at my job or in my studies) more meaning. And much like it was with those travelers to Emmaus who walked with Jesus, isn’t this ‘more meaning’ always the fruit of authentic communion with God? I understand that all of the Christian life is pictured as a ‘walk’ with God – and this is certainly inclusive of studies, etc, that communion with God is always available through the Spirit in all of life’s ‘work.’ But, for whatever reason, walking, for me, is providing an especially unique opportunity for a direct engagement with God that even studying ‘about’ God does not seem to have the same capacity to provide and which, apart from ‘taking the time’ to physically walk, I do not otherwise seem to have access to existentially in my daily life. While I have experienced profound communion with God in and through my studies and the ‘work’ of the gospel – probably there more than anywhere – for me, walking ‘on the concrete’ is beginning to promote more meaningful interaction and dialogue between myself and my relationship to my existence in Christ to the world I am walking in.

    Happy birthday Joelle! It is profoundly encouraging to me that you are becoming the woman you are in Christ.



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