Dorothy Day and the Need to Pray
Sometimes when things seem to be going well, we forget to pray. But if we forget to pray, that means that things are not really going well. It means the devil has lulled us into a place where we are probably not accomplishing anything for the kingdom of God. When we forget to pray, it means we have forgotten our dependence on God.
If things are really, truly going well, it means that they are on the verge of total collapse, and it is only our prayers that are holding us up. It is something like walking on water, I suppose, not that I have ever done it, or at least, not done it very well.
This truth occurred to me in a sort of roundabout way as I read the book, The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day.
As a young woman Dorothy Day had gone through a period of radical feminism, communism, and a rather immoral lifestyle, which included having an abortion. Then she had a baby out of wedlock and knew that she had to raise her daughter as a Catholic. She left her lover and joined the Catholic Church. She went on to found the Catholic Worker movement. She believed in the dignity of work, but also in the dignity of workers. She lived a life dedicated to others. She set up “hospitality houses” for the homeless and disenfranchised, but also set up farms to help people become self-sufficient. While some have questioned her pacifism, no one has ever questioned her integrity and her principles and her willingness to suffer for her beliefs. And the fact is, the Catholic Church has officially opened her cause for sainthood. I have no doubt, after having read her diaries, which were sealed for 25 years after her death, that I have had the rare privilege of getting a glimpse of the private prayer life of a saint.
Dorothy Day put her faith into action, but she was very careful to take care of her faith first. Most of us tend to neglect one or the other side of this equation. We separate faith from works and end up doing neither very well.
“We should hunger and thirst after holiness,” writes Dorothy Day. But we don’t. We don’t have that hunger. “Though we are given a share of the divine life, we have no natural liking for it. Here is the source of all our difficulty…” But then she adds, “and all our merit, too.” Because we do not have a natural liking for holiness, it makes life difficult. But it also makes it rewarding when we actually do pursue holiness.
Though most people might think of Dorothy Day as a Franciscan, she was instead devoted to the Rule of St. Benedict, and was herself a Third Order Benedictine. Structure and discipline were very important to her in order to accomplish all her tasks and also maintain a regular prayer life. Structure helps us to be patient. Love is patient. Patience means putting up with suffering. Impatience is a refusal to suffer. She writes, “It takes heroic virtue to practice patience in the little things.”
It is inspiring to watch her go through a conscious, willful struggle to maintain her daily prayers. She tries to read the divine office, to attend daily mass. But some days, she just cannot do it. In such cases, she always has The Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.” The prayer of the despised tax collector in Christ’s parable of prayer.
To be despised, writes Dorothy, even to be scorned and hated by one’s very own, “this is perfect joy.” What? Why? Because joy does not depend on any material or external pleasure or comfort. Joy only depends on being in communion with God. The approval of men does not matter. Dorothy realized that she was despised, ironically, both for her failures and for her successes.
Saints become saints through a martyrdom that is usually less dramatic than being eaten by lions. It is rather the slow devouring by people who are petty and demanding and thoughtless and careless. The saint somehow manages to see these people with love and patience, even to see Christ in them, to serve Christ in them.
Dorothy had to deal with some of the worst examples of humanity on a daily basis and in close quarters: broken, twisted, vestiges of human beings, drug addicts and drunken priests, unwashed radicals with a random anger at the world, misguided idealists with a passion for justice but with no other moral bearings, and snippy, small-minded critics in every corner. Not to mention the Hell’s Angels who dwelt on the same street. She always had to fight off discouragement, which, she writes, “is a temptation of the devil.”
One cold and rainy day, while looking out the window of a bus, she wrote: “Thinking gloomily of the sins and shortcomings of others, it suddenly came to me to remember my own offenses, just as heinous as those of others. If I concern myself with my own sins and lament them, if I remember my own failures and lapses, I will not be resentful of others. This was most cheering and lifted the load of gloom from my mind. It makes one unhappy to judge people and happy to love them.”
She believed that the only way we can rebuild the social order is by loving God and loving our neighbors. “If you help people, you begin to love them.” She believed that everyone wants to love, but “willingness to suffer is the need. There is no love without it.”
The saints demonstrate that this supernatural love is not possible without a supernatural connection. The life of prayer is essential to the life of service. Strangely enough, points out Dorothy Day, repeating the same prayers makes them fresh instead of stale. New things stand out. “There is an increase of understanding.” It makes sense. If we are praying, it means we have God on our mind.