Words of Past Experience

Love Overflows (1952)

By Dorothy Day (1897-1980) - New York, New York, USA



This excerpt is taken from pp. 131-158 of the Harper San Francisco edition of The Long Loneliness published in 1997 and introduced by Robert Coles.



“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with thy whole mind.”  This is the first Commandment.


The problem is, how to love God?  We are only too conscious of the hardness of our hearts, and in spite of all that religious writers tell us about feeling not being necessary, we do want to feel and so know that we love God.


“Thou wouldst not seek Him if thou hadst not already found Him,” Pascal says, and it is true too that you love God if you want to love Him.  One of the disconcerting facts about the spiritual life is that God takes you at your word.  Sooner or later one is given a chance to prove his love.  The very word “diligo,” the Latin word used for “love,” means “I prefer.”  It was all very well to love God in His works, in the beauty of His creation which was crowned for me by the birth of my child.  Forster had made the physical world come alive for me and had awakened in my heart a flood of gratitude.  The final object of this love and gratitude was God.  No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.  I had heard many say that they wanted to worship God in their own way and did not need a Church in which to praise Him, nor a body of people with whom to associate themselves.  But I did not agree to this.  My very experience as a radical, my whole make-up, led me to want to associate myself with others, with the masses, in loving and praising God.  Without even looking into the claims of the Catholic Church, I was willing to admit that for me she was the one true Church.  She had come down through the centuries since the time of Peter, and far from being dead, she claimed and held the allegiance of the masses of people in all the cities where I had lived.  They poured in and out of her doors on Sundays and holy days, for novenas and missions.  What if they were compelled to come in by the law of the Church, which said they were guilty of mortal sin if they did not go to Mass every Sunday?  They obeyed that law.  They were given a chance to show their preference.  They accepted the Church.  It may have been an unthinking, unquestioning faith, and yet the chance certainly cake, again and again, “Do I prefer the Church to my own will,” even if it was only the small matter of sitting at home on a Sunday morning with the papers?  And the choice was the Church.


There was the legislation of the Church in regard to marriage, a stumbling block to many.  That was where I began to be troubled, to be afraid.  To become a Catholic meant for me to give up a mate with whom I was much in love.  It got to the point where it was the simple question of whether I chose God or man.  I had known enough of love to know that a good healthy family life was as near to heaven as one could get in this life.  There was another sample of heaven, of the enjoyment of God.  The very sexual act itself was used again and again in Scripture as a figure of the beatific vision.  It was not because I was tired of sex, satiated, disillusioned, that I turned to God.  Radical friends used to insinuate this.  It was because through a whole love, both physical and spiritual, I came to know God.


From the time Tamar Teresa was born I was intent on having her baptized.  There had been that young Catholic girl in the bed next to me at the hospital who gave me a medal of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.


“I don’t believe in these things,” I told her, and it was another example of people saying what they do not mean.


“If you love someone you like to have something around which reminds you of them,” she told me.


It was so obvious a truth that I was ashamed.  Reading William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience had acquainted me with the saints, and I had read the life of St. Teresa of Avila and fallen in love with her.  She was a mystic and a practical woman, a recluse and a traveler, a cloistered nun and yet most active.  She liked to read novels when she was a young girl, and she wore a bright red dress when she entered the convent.  Once when she was traveling from one part of Spain to another with some other nuns and a priest to start a convent, and their way took them over a stream, she was thrown from her donkey.  The story goes that our Lord said to her, “That is how I treat my friends.”  And she replied, “And that is why You have so few of them.”  She called life a “night spent at an uncomfortable inn.”  Once when she was trying to avoid that recreation hour which is set aside in convents for nuns to get together, the others insisted on her joining them, and she took castanets and danced.  When some older nuns professed themselves shocked, she retorted, “One must do things sometimes to make life more bearable.”  After she was a superior she gave directions when the nuns became melancholy, “to feed them steak,” and there were other delightful little touches to the story of her life which made me love her and feel close to her….  So I decided to name my daughter after her….


Her other name came from Sasha’s sister Liza.  She had named her daughter Tamar, which in Hebrew means “little palm tree,” and knowing nothing of the unhappy story of the two Tamars in the Old Testament, I named my child Tamar also.  Tamar is one of the forebears of our Lord, listed in the first chapter of Matthew, and not only Jews and Russians, but also New Englanders used the name.


What a driving power joy is!  When I was unhappy and repentant in the past I turned to God, but it was my joy at having given birth to a child that made me do something definite.  I wanted Tamar to have a way of life and instruction.  We all crave order, and in the Book of Job, hell is described as a place where no order is.  I felt that “belonging” to a Church would bring that order into her life which I felt my own had lacked.  If I could have felt that communism was the answer to my desire for a cause, a motive, a way to walk in, I would have remained as I was.  But I felt that only faith in Christ could give the answer.  The Sermon on the Mount answered all the questions as to how to love God and one’s brother.  I knew little about the Sacraments, and yet here I was believing, knowing that without them Tamar would not be a Catholic.


I did not know any Catholics to speak to.  The grocer, the hardware storekeeper, my neighbors down the road were Catholics, yet I could not bring myself to speak to them about religion.  I was full of the reserves I noted in my own family.  But I could speak to a nun.  So when I saw a nun walking down the road near St. Joseph’s-by-the-Sea, I went up to her breathlessly and asked her how I could have my child baptized.  She was not at all reticent about asking questions and not at all surprised at my desires.  She was a simple old sister who had taught grace school all her life.  She was no taking care of babies in a huge home on the bay which had belonged to Charles Schwab, who had given it to the Sisters of Charity.  They used it for summer retreats for the Sisters and to take care of orphans and unmarried mothers and their babies.


Sister Aloysia had had none of the university summer courses that most Sisters must take nowadays.  She never talked to me about the social encyclicals of the Popes.  She gave me a catechism and brought me old copies of the Messenger of the Sacred Heart, a magazine which, along with the Kathleen Norris type of success story, had some good solid articles about the teachings of the Church.  I read them all; I studied my catechism; I learned to say the Rosary; I went to Mass in the chapel by the sea; I walked the beach and I prayed; I read the Imitation of Christ, and St. Augustine, and the New Testament.  Dostoevski, Huysmans (what different men!) had given me desire and background.  Huysmans had made me at home in the Church.


“How can your daughter be brought up a Catholic unless you become one yourself?”  Sister Aloysia kept saying to me.  But she went resolutely ahead in making arrangements for the baptism of Tamar Teresa.


“You must be a Catholic yourself,” she kept telling me.  She had no reticence.  She speculated rather volubly at times on the various reasons why she thought I was holding back.  She brought me pious literature to read, saccharine stories of virtue, emasculated lives of saints young and old, back numbers of pious magazines.  William James, agnostic as he was, was more help.  He had introduced me to St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.


Isolated as I was in the country, knowing no Catholics except my neighbors, who seldom read anything except newspapers and secular magazines, there was not much chance of being introduced to the good Catholic literature of the present day.  I was in a state of dull content -- not in a state to be mentally stimulated.  I was too happy with my child.  What faith I had I held on to stubbornly.  The need for patience emphasized in the writings of the saints consoled me on the slow road I was traveling.  I would put all my affairs in the hands of God and wait.


Three times a week Sister Aloysia came to give me a catechism lesson, which I dutifully tried to learn….


I had to have godparents for Tama, and I thought of Aunt Jenny, my mother’s sister, the only member of our family who had become a Catholic.  She had married a Catholic and had one living child, Grace.  I did not see them very often but I looked them up now and asked Grace and her husband if they would be godparents to my baby.  Tamar was baptized in July.  We went down to Tottenville, the little town at the south end of the island; there in the Church of Our Lady, Help of Christians, the seed of life was implanted in her and she was made a child of God.


We came back to the beach house to a delightful lunch of boiled lobsters and salad.  Forster had caught the lobsters in his traps for the feast and then did not remain to partake of it.  He left, not returning for several days.  It was his protest against my yearnings toward the life of the spirit, which he considered a morbid escapism.  He exulted in his materialism.  He well knew the dignity of man.  Heathen philosophers, says Matthias Scheeben, a great modern theologian, have called man a miracle, the matter and the heart of the world, the most beautiful being, the king of all creatures.  Forster saw man in the light of reason and not in the light of faith.  He had thought of the baptism only as a mumbo jumbo, the fuss and flurry peculiar to woman.  At first he had been indulgent and had brought in the lobsters for the feast.  And then he had become angry with some sense of the end to which all this portended.  Jealousy set in and he left me.


As a matter of fact, he left me quite a number of times that coming winter and following summer, as he felt my increasing absorption in religion.  The tension between us was terrible.  Teresa had become a member of the Mystical Body of Christ.  I didn’t know anything of the Mystical Body or I might have felt disturbed at being separated from her.


But I clutched her close to me and all the time I nursed her and bent over that tiny round face at my breast, I was filled with a deep happiness that nothing could spoil.  But the obstacles to my becoming Catholic were there, shadows in the background of my life.


I had become convinced that I would become a Catholic; yet I felt I was betraying the class to which I belonged, the workers, the poor of the world, with whom Christ spent His life….

Sometimes when I could leave the baby in trusted hands I could get to the village for Mass on Sunday.  But usually the gloom that descended on the household, the scarcely voiced opposition, kept me from Mass.  There were some feast days when I could slip off during the week and go to the little chapel on the Sisters’ grounds.  There were "visits" I could make, unknown to others.  I was committed, by the advice of a priest I consulted, to the plan of waiting, and trying to hold together the family.  But I felt all along that when I took the irrevocable step it would mean that Tamar and I would be alone, and I did not want to be alone.  I did not want to give up human love when it was dearest and tenderest.


During the month of August many of my friends, including my sister, went to Boston to picket in protest against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, which was drawing near.  They were all arrested again and again.


Throughout the nation and the world the papers featured the struggle for the lives of these two men….  One felt a sense of impending doom….


In August, 1927, they were executed.  Many books have been written about the case, and Vanzetti’s prison letters are collected in one volume.  He learned to write English in prison, and his prose, bare and simple, is noble in its earnestness.


While I enjoyed the fresh breeze, the feel of salt water against the flesh, the keen delight of living, the knowledge that these men were soon to pass from the physical earth, were soon to become dust…struck me like a physical blow….  They had become figures beloved by the workers.  Their letters, the warm moving story of their lives, had been told.  Everyone knew Dante, Sacco’s young son.  Everyone suffered with the young wife who clung with bitter passion to her husband.  And Vanzetti with his large view, his sense of peace at his fate, was even closer to us all….

The day they died, the papers had headlines as large as those which proclaimed the outbreak of war….


Forster was stricken over the tragedy.  He had always been more an anarchist than anything else in his philosophy, and so was closer to these two men than to Communist friends.  He did not eat for days.  He sat around the house in a stupor of misery, sickened by the cruelty of life and men.  He had always taken refuge in nature as being more kindly, more beautiful and peaceful than the world of men.  Now he could not even escape through nature, as he tried to escape so many problems in life.


During the time he was home he spent days and even nights out in his boat fishing, so that for weeks I saw little of him.  He stupefied himself in his passion for the water, sitting out on the bay in his boat.  When he began to recover he submerged himself in maritime biology, collecting, reading only scientific books, and paying no attention to what went on around him.  Only the baby interested him.  She was his delight.  Which made it, of course, the harder to contemplate the cruel blow I was going to strike him when I became a Catholic.  We both suffered in body as well as in soul and mind.  He would not talk about the faith and relapsed into a complete silence if I tried to bring up the subject.  The point of my bringing it up was that I could not become a Catholic and continue living with him, because he was averse to any ceremony before officials of either Church or state.  He was an anarchist and an atheist, and he did not intend to be a liar or a hypocrite.  He was a creature of utter sincerity, and however illogical and bad-tempered about it all, I loved him.  It was killing me to think of leaving him.


Fall nights we read a great deal.  Sometimes he went out to dig bait if there were a low tide and the moon was up.  He stayed out late on the pier fishing, and came in smelling of seaweed and salt air; getting into bed, cold with the chill November air, he held me close to him in silence.  I loved him in every way, as a wife, as a mother even.  I loved him for all he knew and pitied him for all he didn’t know.  I loved him for the odds and ends out had to fish out of his sweater pockets and for the sand and shells he brought in with his fishing.  I loved his lean cold body as he got into bed smelling of the sea, and I loved his integrity and stubborn pride.


It ended by my being ill the next summer.  I became so oppressed I could not breathe and I awoke in the night choking.  I was weak and listless and one doctor told me my trouble was probably thyroid.  I went to the Cornell clinic for a metabolism test and they said my condition was a nervous one.  By winter the tension had become so great that an explosion occurred and we separated again.  When he returned, as he always had, I would not let him in the house; my heart was breaking with my own determination to make an end, once and for all, to the torture we were undergoing.


The next day I went to Tottenville alone, leaving Tamar with my sister, and there with Sister Aloysia as my godparent, I too was baptized conditionally, since I had already been baptized in the Episcopal Church.  I made my first confession right afterward, and looked forward the next morning to receiving communion.


I had no particular joy in partaking of these three sacraments, Baptism, Penance, and Holy Eucharist.  I proceeded about my own active participation in them grimly, coldly, making acts of faith, and certainly with no consolation whatsoever.  One part of my mind stood at one side and kept saying, “What are you doing?  Are you sure of yourself?  What kind of affectation is this?  What act is this you are going through?  Are you trying to induce emotion, induce faith, partake of an opiate, the opiate of the people?”  I felt like a hypocrite if I got down on my knees, and shuddered at the thought of anyone seeing me.


At my first communion I went up to the communion rail at the Sanctus bell instead of at the Domine, non sum dignus, and had to kneel there all alone through the consecration, through the Pater Noster, through the Agnus Dei -- and I had thought I knew the Mass so well!  But I felt it fitting that I be humiliated by this ignorance, by this precipitance.


I speak of the misery of leaving one love.  But there was another love too, the life I had led in the radical movement.  That very winter I was writing a series of articles, interviews with workers, with the unemployed.  I was working with the Anti-Imperialist League, a Communist
affiliate, that was bringing comfort and aid to the enemy, General Sandino’s forces in Nicaragua.  I was just as much against capitalism and imperialism as ever, and here I was over to the opposition, because of course the Church was lined up with property, with the wealthy, with the state, with capitalism, with the forces of reaction.  This I had been taught to think and this I still think to a great extent.  “Too often,” Cardinal Mundelein said, “has the Church lined up on the wrong side.”  “Christianity,” Bakunin said, “is precisely the religion par excellence, because it exhibits, and manifests to the fullest extent, the very nature and essence of every religious system, which is the impoverishment, enslavement, and annihilation of humanity for the benefit of divinity.”


I certainly believed this, but I wanted to be poor, chaste, and obedient.  I wanted to die in order to live, to put off the old man and put on Christ.  I loved, in other words, and like all women in love, I wanted to be united to my love.  Why should not Forster be jealous?  Any man who did not participate in this love would, of course, realize my infidelity, my adultery.  In the eyes of God, any turning toward creatures to the exclusion of Him is adultery and so it is termed over and over again in Scripture.


I loved the Church for Christ made visible.  Not for itself, because it was so often a scandal to me.  Romano Guardini said that the Church is the Cross on which Christ was crucified; one could not separate Christ from His Cross, and one must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the Church.


The scandal of businesslike priests, of collective wealth, the lack of a sense of responsibility for the poor, the worker, the Negro, the Mexican, the Filipino, and even the oppression of these, and the consenting of the oppression of them by our industrialist-capitalist order -- these made me feel often that priests were more like Cain than Abel.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?” they seemed to say in respect to the social order.  There was plenty of charity but too little justice.  And yet the priests were the dispensers of the Sacraments, bringing Christ to men, all enabling us to put on Christ and to achieve more nearly in the world a sense of peace and unity.  “The worst enemies would be those of our own household,” Christ had warned us.


We could not root out the tares without rooting out the wheat also.  With all the knowledge I have gained these twenty-one years I have been a Catholic, I could write many a story of priests who were poor, chaste and obedient, who gave their lives daily for their fellows, but I am writing of how I felt at the time of my baptism.


Not long afterward a priest wanted me to write a story of my conversion, telling how the social teaching of the Church had led me to embrace Catholicism.  But I knew nothing of the social teaching of the Church at that time.  I had never heard of the encyclicals.  I felt that the Church was the Church of the poor, that St. Patrick’s had been built from the pennies of servant girls, that it cared for the emigrant, it established hospitals, orphanages, day nurseries, houses of the Good Shepherd, homes for the ages, but at the same time, I felt that it did not set its face against a social order which made so much charity in the present sense of the word necessary.  I felt that charity was a word to choke over.  Who wanted charity? And it was not just human pride but a strong sense of man's dignity and worth, and what was due to him in justice, that made me resent, rather than feel proud of so mighty a sum total of Catholic institutions.  Besides, more and more they were taking help from the state, and in taking from the state, they had to render to the state.  They came under the head of Community Chest and discriminatory charity, centralizing and departmentalizing, involving themselves with bureaus, building, red tape, legislation, at the expense of human values….


It was an age-old battle, the war of the classes, that stirred in me when I thought of the Sacco-Vanzetti case in Boston.  Where were the Catholic voices crying out for these men?...


Where had been the priests to go out to such men as Francisco Ferrer in Spain, pursuing them as the Good Shepherd did His lost sheep, leaving the ninety and nine of their good parishioners, to seek out that which was lost, bind up that which was bruised.  No wonder there was such a strong conflict going on in my mind and heart.