Friday, June 6, 2008

Diaries of a saint-to-be

Some 25 years after the death of Dorothy Day, her diaries have been published in the US by Marquette University Press. Marquette says Day ‘is widely regarded as the most influential lay person in the history of American Catholicism’. A very different sort of 20th century American Catholic - Thomas Merton - also kept his diaries sealed for 25 years after his death.

Dorothy Day, Wikipedia says, was an American journalist turned social activist and devout member of the Catholic Church. She became known for her social justice campaigns in defense of the poor, forsaken, hungry and homeless. In 1933, she helped found the Catholic Worker Movement, espousing nonviolence, and hospitality for the impoverished and downtrodden. She died in 1980, and three years later was proposed for sainthood. The Vatican officially accepted her cause for canonization in 2000 when it bestowed upon her the formal title ‘Servant of God’.

Day’s diaries - sealed until 2005 - have now been edited by Robert Ellsberg and published by Marquette. They begin in 1934, in the early days of the Catholic Worker Movement, and continue through until a few days before her death. In the diaries, Marquette says, Day reflects on the changing political and economic times, from the Depression to the Vietnam War; and they describe her own personal struggles, relationships and travels. Throughout, she also continues a dialogue with God, connecting every aspect of her life with her deep spiritual devotion. Ellsberg adds, in his introduction, ‘these diaries provide a unique window on her life, and on the witness of a woman for whom, in the end, everything was a form of prayer.’

As the Thirties come to a close, Day concludes her final entry of the decade with these resolutions: ‘To pay no attention to health of body but only that of soul. To plan day on arising and evening examination of conscience. More spiritual reading . . . To waste no time. More conscientious about letters, visits, about these records. More charity.’

Here’s another entry from 1973, (thanks to the National Catholic Reporter website which has a good number of extracts): ‘June 19, 1973. We feel so powerless. We do so little, giving out soup. But at least we are facing problems daily. Hunger, homelessness, greed, loneliness. The greatest concern of the Bible is injustice, bloodshed. So we share what we have, we work for peace.’

Thomas Merton is another famous 20th century Catholic diarist. He wasn’t born in the US, but moved there as a young man and converted to Roman Catholicism. He died 40 years ago in 1968, but his writings were not released until the 1990s. Whereas Day’s commitment to the Catholic cause seemed to get stronger and stronger, Merton became more open and looked to forge a dialogue with other religions, especially Buddhism; and whereas Day focused on the hungry and homeless, Merton was strong civil rights campaigner.

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