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.

Open Book: “Gosnell”

The first Wednesday of each month brings #OpenBook, a blog linkup co-hosted by My Scribbler’s Heart and CatholicMom.com with a roundup of what participating bloggers have been reading lately.

Gosnell by Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer is not easy to read. The style is smooth and fluent, but the topic’s a tough one: Kermit Gosnell, former abortion doctor, now serving life in prison. He killed children who survived attempts to abort them. He was found responsible for the death of a woman who came to him for an abortion and died under what passed for his “care.”

He committed terrible crimes. He is in prison now. Reporters covered the trial as it happened, once they were shamed into it by people like journalist Kirsten Powers. Three years after Gosnell’s conviction, there is now a book that sets down not only what happened, but tells more about the people who were involved. As McElhinney and McAleer tell their stories, the book becomes less about a court case and more about human beings, capable of good choices and bad ones.

I listened to McIlhinney and McAleer talk about their book at CPAC, a political conference in Washington. An odd venue, but perhaps that was the place to reach readers who might not otherwise hear of the book. McAleer was a quiet man, leaving most of the talking to his co-author (who is also his wife).

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McIlhenney was not at all quiet. She was passionate and angry as she talked about Gosnell. She was indignant. She called Gosnell “America’s biggest serial killer,” and she meant it. She made no bones about it: she had no objectivity left regarding her subject.

Familiar as I was with the Gosnell case, and as impressed as I was by McElhinney’s passion, I wondered what could be new in the book. As I read, I quickly realized that the close attention to the individuals involved in the case, starting with the investigators, set Gosnell apart from anything else I’ve read on the subject.

The authors’ perspective is unique as well, as McElhinney explains in the preface: “I never trusted or liked pro-life activists. Even at college I thought them too earnest and too religious.”

Fast forward to April 2013 and Kermit Gosnell’s trial in Philadelphia, when everything changed….[T]he images shown in the courtroom were not from activists, they were from police detectives and medical examiners and workers at the 3801 Lancaster Ave. clinic….What they said and the pictures they showed changed me. I am not the same person I was.

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