Searching for Christ: The Spirituality of Dorothy Day
By Brigid O'Shea Merriman, OSF
Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press
Review Author: William D. Miller
With at least 10 books in existence that deal with Dorothy Day (four of which she wrote and three written by me), one is inclined to ask, “What else is new?” Well, Merriman has more to say and in her preface tells of her purpose: “My contribution acknowledges all of the foregoing, and while moving within the context of this rich bibliographical background, attempts to move beyond it by comprehensiveness in chronology in the themes treated and in the use of critical sources.”
What does this mean? I think it means that she studied the principal published works on Dorothy, worked assiduously but somewhat selectively at getting further information, and then drew her picture, emphasizing what she felt was the most notable of Dorothy’s qualities — her spirituality. This is done in five essays, the internal coherence of which is at times strained at the joints.
Merriman’s subject (Dorothy’s spirituality) is appropriately, although somewhat mechanically, introduced by 23 pages of straight biographical narration that leave off with Dorothy settling into the life of the Catholic Worker. This story, except in the few places where Merriman supplies names for some of the principals, unfolds along a well-traveled road. Then two succeeding chapters tell of literary influences and the impact of monasticism on Dorothy.
If there is one mark of the force of Dorothy’s search for depth and understanding, it can be found in the character of her reading. Wherever she was, her early morning hours were spent in prayer and reading Scripture. She loved the Old Testament for its account of the Jews’ special role in bringing God into history. After this, as Merriman notes, Dorothy could find echoes of her own soul-searching in Dostoevsky. She knew good literature and read widely, and Merriman notes this too. During the 1970s, Dorothy, having some speaking commitment in the area, would stop by our place in Lloyd, Florida, for a few days. Usually, she sat on the front porch or out under an oak tree and read. But there were times in the late afternoon when she and my wife, Rhea, sat in front of the fireplace and talked of books. Dorothy’s comments reflected an extensive and profoundly insightful awareness of good literature. Merriman has, perforce, covered only briefly the subject of Dorothy’s reading. It is one on which a book could be written.
In succeeding chapters, Merriman goes into the subject of persons and elements that influenced Dorothy’s spirituality. She discusses the role of the clergy in Dorothy’s life, initially Fr. Pacifique Roy and then Thomas Merton and John Hugo. In the case of Merton, I would guess that it was Dorothy who provided instruction for him rather than the opposite. As for Hugo, it most assuredly was he who in his austere retreats instructed Dorothy in her choice to take the hard course to sanctity. And it was truly to that course that in her latter years she directed her life. Dorothy had wanted Fr. Hugo to say her funeral Mass; it was unfortunate he couldn’t.
Enough has been written of Dorothy’s life and work. The subject of her spirituality is the heart of the matter and should be brought into the light for all to see. Merriman’s book is a beginning.
I want to conclude with a personal note to Sister Merriman: Sister, your book shows that you put a lot of work and care into it. Further, you have placed an emphasis on Dorothy, her heroic spirituality, which is of far greater significance than her work as the founder of houses of hospitality. It is a subject about which I hope you will continue to ponder and write. So I, and those few left who knew Dorothy, thank you. But this is a review and I am, in the manner of reviewers, supposed to note your mistakes. Yours is a thoroughly researched work, but you make a statement on page 283, as a part of footnote 69, in which you refer to “diary pages from her [Dorothy’s] notebook, which Miller’s daughter Carol Miller had promised to type.” The statement seems to suggest that Carol failed to complete her assignment. As of Carol’s statement to me, made September 14, 1994, she completely fulfilled her typing assignments from Dorothy.
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