The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day. New York: HarperCollins, 1952.
Summary: A memoir of the life of Dorothy Day up to 1952, describing her search for God and a meaningful life, her conversion to Catholicism, her catalytic friendship with Peter Maurin, and the early years of the Catholic Worker movement.
This is the memoir of a woman who grew up in a middle class family, the daughter of a sports writer, a teen who read Upton Sinclair and Doestoevsky, spent two years at the University of Illinois, then left to pursue life as a writer on the lower east side of Manhatten, working for several Socialist publications, getting arrested for the first time in 1917 (her last was as a 75 year old!). She went through several love affairs with the likes of Eugene O’Neill and Mike Gold. Along the way, she had an abortion, and lived what one would call a very “bohemian” lifestyle. An unlikely candidate for sainthood, you might say, and yet the Archdiocese of New York has opened the cause for her canonization, allowing her to be designated “A Servant of God.”
The memoir covers her early life and all these episodes although it devotes very little time to the period she spent in Europe. What we see is a woman haunted by a longing for God, struggling with “the long loneliness” of human existence, the sense of being alienated or apart from even those closest in life. She appears to find a happy existence in a Staten Island home she bought with proceeds from selling a screen play. She is in a kind of “common law” relationship with Forster Batterham, socially conscious but a principled atheist. They seem to enjoy an idyllic life until the birth of daughter Tamar, which intensifies Dorothy’s spiritual search as she reads Catholic literature and talks with several Catholic sisters and priests. First she brings Tamar to be baptized, and then at the end of 1927, enters the Catholic Church, and leaves Batterham, who loves her but utterly opposes this decision. She speaks of the struggle she has with the decision, which literally ended up making her ill. Yet in the end, when faced with a choice between Batterham and God, she chooses God. Nevertheless, they remained good friends for the remainder of their lives.
Dorothy struggled with reconciling her concerns for the poor and social activism with her Catholic faith. It wasn’t until the searching convert and a wandering social theologian, Peter Maurin meet up that these two strains are reconciled in her life. It is a catalytic relationship for both, resulting in the launching of the Catholic Worker movement. She chronicles the birth of this movement with its paper sold for a penny (to this day), its houses of hospitality (now 216 in the U.S. according to their website), and their farming experiments. The vision was of places where laborers could find food, welcome, and thoughtful conversation and retreats that addressed the spiritual side of their existence as well as sustained advocacy for workers’ rights. Maurin helped Day integrate Catholic social teaching with her faith, and I think Day helped Maurin translate his visionary ideals into actual communities.
The book concludes with Day’s beautiful account of Maurin’s death, and their acquisition of a new house in New York City, which she attributes to Maurin’s prayers. In her postscript she comes back to the theme of “the long loneliness.”
“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.
It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.”
This memoir suggested several things to me. It reminded me that the externals of how a person is living is not a reliable indicator of their spiritual hunger or the work of God in their lives. At several points Dorothy was exposed to very “other worldly” versions of Christianity that failed to capture her imagination because they did not address life in this world. And the book exposes the power of community, and the reality that even with all our human foibles and flaws, people drawn together in Christ might indeed find the “only solution” to our long loneliness.