Discovering Dorothy Day’s “The Long Loneliness”

(Original version published on Goodreads.)

I suspect Dorothy Day would have winced at the word “legendary” in the subtitle assigned to her memoir: the autobiography of the legendary Catholic social activist. Humility informs every page of The Long Loneliness. So does clear and inviting prose, a testament to Day’s experience as a journalist. She was a 20th-century treasure.

Up until now, Dorothy Day has been to me the subject of magazine articles and other people’s blog posts, some quite critical (not that criticism was likely to deter her). Picking up Day’s 1952 memoir was a revelation to me.

She wrote The Long Loneliness in middle age, when she was already known for her commitment to nonviolence and service to the homeless. (She had decades of activism ahead of her.) Known now as a “Servant of God” – an honorific for a Catholic whose cause for sainthood is under consideration – she was a convert, a decision that cost her dearly even as she embraced it with joy. She was determined to put her love of God into practice, whatever the cost. 

She didn’t give lip service to “social justice.” She lived it, in soup kitchens – “houses of hospitality” – that she helped to establish and in the advocacy she gave to anyone who was disadvantaged. She didn’t romanticize the work; anyone coming to help was expected to take a practical view of things. Yet workers and volunteers came anyway, building a community grounded in faith and service that came to be known as the Catholic Worker movement. Day called community of that sort the key to dealing with “the long loneliness.” 

Not everything she did met with approval from authorities. The memoir includes a brief account of the moral and practical challenges faced by pacifists like her as the United States formally entered World War II. Her explanation of her actions has no trace of self-righteousness. Instead, as throughout the book, her words are full of warmth and compassion even when they are blunt and forthright.

The memoir is rich with Day’s descriptions of the people she met along her way. None was more influential to her spiritual and social growth than Peter Maurin. She generously considered him the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, leaving the reader to reflect on how the movement might have foundered without Day’s particular gifts as writer and organizer. 

Day was an interesting woman who lived in interesting times, and she wrote with a keen pen. That alone makes The Long Loneliness worth reading. A better reason, and one Day would likely deem more important, is her story of conversion to the Catholic faith and the vocation she followed thereafter.

There are multiple editions of The Long Loneliness. Look for one unburdened with explanatory material. Let Day speak for herself.