Kate Hennessy the youngest granddaughter of Catholic icon Dorothy Day (1897-1980), has written a fascinating biography of the not yet canonized Day, and her own mother Tamar, Day’s only child.
This book, Dorothy Day:The World will Be Saved by Beauty will be jarring reading for the fainthearted Catholics who want their saints and icons to be Hallmark cards of unalloyed piety and perfection.
Day of course had a fascinating life from bohemian friend of the young Eugene O’Neill and communist Mike Gold, a woman who had an abortion to serious Catholic with a penchant to priest idolatry and a rigid spirituality. She appeared to be a hip anarchist with many lovers who found herself pregnant by the elusive Foster Batterham. The latter absolutely refused to marry Day. He wanted no truck with Catholicism which Day had embraced. It finally drove them apart and in n the end and after 5 years Day gives up on Forster but continues an on gain a off again relationship with him until she dies.
Day’s naked carnality puts Augustine to shame. This note to Forster is typical:
My desire for you is a painful rather than pleasurable emotion. It is a ravishing hunger which makes me want you more than anything in the world and makes me feel as though I could barely exist until I saw you again…I have never wanted you as much as I have ever since I left, from the first week on, although I’ve thought before that my desires were almost too strong to be borne.”
Tamar grows up with an absentee father off the scene and sadly marries the troubled David Hennessy with whom she has 9 children.
This movie is painful as we watch Hennessy disintegrate and Dorothy, now the founder of the Catholic Worker, combines the work of a hands on anti-poverty and anti-war activist with being a devoted grandmother.
At times her life appears out of control, absolutely chaotic. She only survives by taking off on speaking tours, riding buses and retreats to the Catholic Worker farm.
Hennesy’s mother, Tamar, who was Day’s only daughter. had a tempestuous but loving relationship with her mother. Tamar left the church in 1967 and was followed by all her children. There is a profound lesson to be teased out of all this. Patriarchy,misogyny and triumphalism would be good places to start.
This is a stunning book, sensitively written. It brings fresh light on the extraordinary Day whose freenetic life was only saved by holding tight to a rigid Catholicism which many will find incredible. It is highly dubious if her harsh spirituality, highly judgmental and rigid until late in life could ever be duplicated today. At the same time it must be said, it saved Day but did have unforseen consequences.
Granddaughter Kate has rendered a great service to the Catholic community for fleshing out the visionary life of her extraordinary grandma whose love of books, music, beauty and the sacraments allowed her to persevere in her love for the poor and her own flesh and blood.