I’ve felt oddly connected to Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, which is perhaps best known for its houses of hospitality for those on the margins, ever since I discovered an obscure entry in her diary from the year 1944 written during her visit to the small town of Foster, Ohio. Once a thriving place known for its summer island resort and dance hall, today, Foster is unknown except to the small number of people who live riverside in the old cottages and homes. Although I grew up just two miles away, I only recently discovered it, tucked out of sight from the new developments and likely to stay that way because of its location in the floodplain.
But I’m drawn to the place, so whenever I can, I drive the detour, stealing glances to my right at the muddy water and admiring the arcing trees, vibrant green in spring, that make me feel as if I’m driving through a wooded tunnel.
“The world will be saved by beauty,” Dorothy Day liked to say. In her diary, she described reaching Foster and getting off the Greyhound bus “right at the edge of a meadow on the other side of a long bridge…There is the sound of rushing water over a dam and now the river is swollen and turbulent from much rain.” I like to imagine her marvel at the common beauty of Foster—nothing terribly out of the ordinary, and yet when the sun illuminates the tree leaves or the wind sends shivers across the water’s surface, it is enough to take one’s breath away.
“The world will be saved by beauty” is also the subtitle of a recent book about Day, written by her youngest granddaughter, Kate Hennessey. For those looking to better understand Day’s spirituality or the ins and outs of her work, this book may not be the best place to start, but it is a breathtaking and intimate portrait of Day’s young adult life and family relationships, particularly her relationship with her daughter, Tamar. As other reviewers have noted, the book is “cinematic,” and its images “kaleidoscopic.” For me, it had the emotional power of a film. I did not read so much as “see” the book, which seems fitting given Day’s own predilection for the sensory—music, particularly opera; nature especially the sights and sounds of the Staten Island shore where she and Tamar’s father shared a cottage by the sea; a good cup of coffee (“coffee and a radio—it is hard to imagine Dorothy without either one of them,” Henessey writes, describing how during the Depression her grandmother served the men on the line the best quality coffee she could afford, and recalling how Day would drink a cup each morning while reading the Psalms).
But Day’s love of beauty coexisted with, and was perhaps deepened by, a life of suffering—a “long loneliness” as she called it in her autobiography. Day did not like to talk about her pre-conversion life, skimming over it somewhat vaguely even in her autobiography. “Least said, soonest mended,” Hennessey remembers Day saying. This is perhaps the greatest contribution of Hennessey’s book—she brings before us a part of Day’s story that was heretofore only cursory, which, though painful, makes her even more relatable and her conversion all the more incredible.
While reading, I was struck by how true it is that Day is a figure for our times, a saint, perhaps, for the plight of the working class in an America “coming apart.” For what do they suffer that she did not? As a young woman, she sat in a New York City café and held an acquaintance as he died of a heroin overdose. During her early twenties, she wandered through a revolving door of jobs and romantic relationships characterized by ambiguity and lack of commitment. She knew what it was like to live paycheck to paycheck and to move from place to place. She was arrested multiple times, and during the “Night of Terror” was violently attacked by three guards. She loved a man who held a gun to her head in a jealous rage—and yet still loved him despite the abuse, as Hennessey describes so well, “knowing what it means to love a man against all reason and intelligence, loving without blindness but in full knowledge of your madness.” When Day became pregnant, “she walked the streets and peered in the windows of families in their homes. ‘Why couldn’t I too have home, [a] husband and babies?’ she wondered.”
But instead, she got an abortion, which left her with both physical and emotional complications. She made two suicide attempts, married another man “on the rebound” and for his money, but then left him. She lived with another man, Forster Batterham, whom she loved deeply, gave birth to their daughter, and after a few years of back and forth, raised her as a single mother.
In short, if Day were alive today, she would feel in her bones many of the challenges facing working-class America. Day’s daughter, Tamar, might also understand something of this pain, for though she loved her Catholic Worker family, she felt keenly the loss of not having an intact biological family. Hennessey describes an elderly Tamar finding a stack of letters between Dorothy and her father, Forster, and writes,
In these letters, Tamar found what she had longed for—love between her mother and father, Dorothy the saint and Forster the scientist, the two halves of her heart…. I want to know what happened to bring these two people—Forster and Dorothy—together and what drove them apart. I want to know why Tamar would always feel this father-loss, missing him even when she was too young to know what that meant.
The pain of “father-loss” was something my husband David and I heard about often in our interviews with working-class young adults—something that, no matter their other beliefs about men, women, and marriage, was often experienced as an emptiness. As one young man said, regarding his parents' split:
they would always drop me off at Denny’s and trade me off, and it just seemed wrong from very, very early. And I’m seeing this other family structure in society of how it’s supposed to be, and you know, I think we all kind of want—that’s what’s shown to us, this is what’s going to bring you security and happiness.
Though she felt this loss, Tamar, too, was a lover of beauty, particularly natural beauty. She was a gardener her whole life long, planting seeds in small containers even from her wheelchair. These two women, Day and Tamar, knew a life of beauty and suffering intermingled—as do we all this side of heaven. I wonder at the connection between the two, for something can be so beautiful that it hurts. Both beauty and suffering evoke that heart-tugging longing, a deep, deep restlessness that feels right and uncomfortable simultaneously—right because it is so human, but uncomfortable because it marks incompletion.
And while I don’t claim to know how to unravel the tangled knots of fragmented family life in America, of instability and the kind of poverty that Day knew at times and worked to alleviate, I do wonder if there is something to be said for making peace with the “long loneliness” and seeking beauty amidst the suffering—striving for wholeness but not resenting the complexity of incompletion.
In places like Foster, Ohio—overlooked and having seen better days—perhaps that means recognizing both the problems and the potential. This includes seeing as assets the sunlit waters and arching greens of the natural landscape, but also the beauty of real love, of friendship and family that has the power to capture the imagination of a generation. If young adults are given the opportunity to witness loving marriages, faithful friendships, and to participate in the life of a community, renewal—both personal and communal—can happen.
For if the world will be saved by beauty, love is the way that beauty is brought to the world. As another one of Day’s favorite quotes goes, “Where there is no love, put love—and you will find love.”
Amber Lapp is a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, an Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for American Values, and co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project.