From Union Square to Rome
by Dorothy Day
A review by Chris Faatz
The Catholic Worker Movement, for those who don't know, is a radical Christian
enterprise that exists to serve the poor and to bear witness to the possibility of a better world, a world rooted in voluntary poverty, the Gospels, and classic Catholic social teachings of justice, peace, and mercy. Emerson famously said that an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man. In this case, the institution is the lengthened shadow of one woman, Dorothy Day, whose vision launched a movement that now counts houses in several dozen cities in the U.S. and abroad, and publishes a newspaper that goes out to over 80,000 subscribers.
To be fair, one must admit that Day didn't do it all alone -- her mentor, in turn, was French émigré radical Peter Maurin, whose grounding in radical thought and Catholic social teachings helped give the infant Catholic Worker Movement direction in the form of a coherent praxis.
I thought I'd read all of Dorothy's and Peter's books, and most books that I could lay my hands on about the Worker movement (including the Christian anarchist Ammon Hennacy's Autobiography of a Catholic Anarchist, a rambling tome that unfortunately seems to be out of print). Imagine my surprise and pleasure when one of my favorite presses, Orbis Books, in an
ongoing commitment to making Dorothy Day's work available to a new generation of readers, reissued her first book, From Union Square to Rome.
Told in the form of an explanation to her Communist younger brother of her turn from secular radicalism to religion, From Union Square to Rome is a simply rendered, luminously beautiful, deeply stirring autobiography. Day speaks of her deep roots in the labor and radical movement of her time, of her stints in jail and on picket lines, of her work as a suffragette and as a labor
journalist, and of her participation in the far-left milieu of the teens and twenties, in the meetings and late-night socializing in smoke-filled East Village bars.
Dorothy Day's life was full of meaning and activity, dedicated to the good fight of making the world a better place, but somehow all this wasn't enough. She also relates the other side of her life, of being haunted since childhood by a latent -- and sometimes not so latent -- sense of
religiosity, a yearning and need for something more, a feeling that God was there, that He was real, even if He was tantalizingly just out of reach. Her chance encounters with persons of devout faith -- the mother of a childhood friend, a roommate in the hospital -- moved
her deeply. She found in their usually simple and unquestioning faith something beautiful, something desirable, something that appealed to the lack that she perceived, however haltingly, in her own life.
Day uses the famous words of Francis Thompson, from his poem "The Hound of
Heaven," to describe her experience:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him.
And flee she did, but to no avail. She was, it seems, destined to belong, wholly and without question and with an infinite joy and sense of right, to the Creator of the Universe.
It was the simplest fact of life that brought her to this place in the end. She got pregnant.
Day had lived in relationship for many years with a common-law husband, Frank. He was an avowed anarchist and atheist, a man who went into a deep depression of mourning at the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, a man of fire and commitment to match Day's own. She tells how, when she discovered she was pregnant, she told him that the baby would have to be
baptized into the Catholic Church. He, to say the least, disagreed with this plan, and told her that, should she pursue it, he would leave her. Day chose to have her baby -- Teresa -- baptized, and Frank kept his promise. Day herself was baptized soon after.
This is where the book ends, in a way, although the last official chapter, "Your Three Objections," covers ground regarding her brother's objections to the Church. From Union Square to Rome doesn't relate the birth of the Catholic Worker Movement, nor her life from baptism on. All of this can be gleaned from the numerous books that followed -- notably, The Long Loneliness -- and, in some ways, this might be seen as a disappointment. However, the beauty of From Union Square to Rome lies not so much in its being an authentic and thoroughly mesmerizing account of conversion, which it is, but in the loveliness of language, the sheer joyous compassion and deep feeling that she brings to the episodes and encounters she describes, and the sublime depths of moral and ethical questions she explores. Day was much more than a mere journalist, although that is what she trained to be. She is an apologist of the finest water, and this book stands as a monument to some of the finest Christian radical writing of our time.