On a recent visit to Washington D.C., I decided to visit the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It was there, in the basement crypt, that Dorothy Day had gone on December 8, 1932, to pray for her vocation. In The Long Loneliness Dorothy writes about the circumstances of her prayer. It was five years after her conversion, prompted by the joyous birth of her daughter Tamar. Tamar’s father, Forster, was stubbornly opposed to marriage, and so in becoming a Catholic, Dorothy felt she had to separate from him. But this loss was compounded by another—her sense of estrangement from the radical movement that had also drawn her to God.
In December 1932 she traveled to Washington to cover a Communist-inspired “Hunger March of the Unemployed.” As she stood on the sidelines, watching this ragged parade of men, she wondered why Catholics were not leading such a march. It was December 8, Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and it seemed appropriate to take her question to the Shrine. There, she lit a candle and offered a prayer “which came with tears and with anguish that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.” And when she returned to New York she found Peter Maurin waiting for her—a Frenchman 20 years her senior, who spoke with a thick accent and who began at once to lecture her about his scheme for promoting the social message of the Gospel. It was not at once, but over a matter of days, that it dawned on her that this was the answer to her prayer. Five months later, on May 1, 1933, at a Communist rally in Union Square, she and a few companions distributed the first issue of the Catholic Worker newspaper—the beginning of a movement that would become her home for the rest of her life.
As I offered my own prayer in the chapel that day, it occurred to me that when Dorothy met Peter Maurin, her heart was like dry kindling, to which he added the spark. His message would have meant nothing to her if she had not offered that prayer for some sign of her vocation.
And that goes to the question of vocation itself. In editing Dorothy’s letters, All the Way to Heaven, I was struck by the contrast that marks the letters preceding her meeting with Peter Maurin, and those that follow one year later. Whereas before she was a struggling freelance writer, a young convert still finding her way in the church, one year later she is the confident editor of her own newspaper, the leader of a lay movement, a recognized name in both church circles and the social movements of the day. One often observes, in the annals of the saints, that once they discover their true vocation their whole personality is transformed; they find a vitality and focus that had previously been lacking. As Dorothy herself often said, “You will know your vocation by the joy it brings you.”
But her letters reveal another aspect to this story. While in her memoir she described confronting a choice between “God and man,” the story was not as clear-cut as all that. For five years after their separation she continued to write Forster, begging and cajoling him to give up his stubborn pride and agree to marry her. But in the end she realized that this was not to be. On December 10, 1932, she wrote what would be her final letter to Forster in many years. Despite her deep love for him, she acknowledged, “It is all hopeless. . . I have really given up now, so I won’t try to persuade you anymore.”
This letter, addressed just two days after her visit to the Shrine, offers a new context for appreciating her prayer with “tears and anguish.” In letting go of Forster, and in that same week meeting Peter Maurin, it was as if one door closed while another opened on the rest of her life. If it had been up to Dorothy she would have married Forster and raised a houseful of children. There would have been no Catholic Worker. It is thus striking to consider that everything she achieved in her subsequent life occurred because of the frustration of her heart’s desire.
As I left the Shrine that day, with Dorothy much on my mind and heart, I thought back on myself, 45 years ago—a young man of 19 when I first met Dorothy Day, not knowing at the time how this encounter would shape my life and point me in the direction of my work and vocation. And I offered a prayer, with tears and gratitude, for the joy it has brought me.
Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Orbis Books and the author of many books.