Book Review: Unruly Saint

Unruly Saint:
Dorothy’s Day’s Radical Vision and Its Challenge for Our Time
By D.L. Mayfield

D.L. Mayfield is a writer as well as an activist. Raised in a conservative Christian church, her childhood years were ones of her family moving around in a van as her father helped small congregations get started. The dream of missionary work she acquired while in bible college brought her into contact with Muslim refugees and this experience took her out of the confines of evangelicalism. She’s worked with immigrants and refugees for over a decade. Her writing has appeared in Sojourners, the Washington Post, Christianity Today and Vox among other outlets. She maintains a podcast, “The Prophetic Imagination,” and earlier books include Assimilate or Go Home (HarperOne, 23016) and The Myth of the American Dream (IVP, 2020).

Is it any surprise then, that she would produce the present volume on Dorothy Day and her radical vision and its relevance for us in the 21st century. Mayfield draws substantially on Day’s own sizable body of writing, the books and numerous periodical articles as well as The Catholic Worker columns and her letters and diaries, edited by Robert Ellsberg. She follow a chronology which essentially is Dorothy’s biography. All of the early radical activities and journalism are examined. So too Dorothy’s open, radical lifestyle and perspectives. She hung out with writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, socialists and Communists and anarchists, writing for their publications. Mayfield covers Day’s personal life as well, her political and activist connections and her complicated sexual relationships with colleagues, lovers and the occasional husband. Dorothy as parent also looms large in this book, as grandmother too.

The cover art is a sketch of the young Dorothy drawing hard on a cigarette. Not kneeling in a chapel, or hands joined in prayer. This is precisely Dorothy’s hidden holiness. She was reputed to curse like a teamster, this same daily Mass-goer and prayer of the Office. She walked into the archdiocese of New York’s chancery and defended the title of her publication against the charge it sounded almost Communist. She would write to people discouraged by the seeming absurdity of bishops and priest by assuring her correspondent that it had always been like this in the church. And that Christ surely was at work and present, despite this lamentable behavior.

Likely there would have been a bottle and glass on the table in from of her. For many years the cigarette would remain there, along with the coffee cup and the daily psalms, from the breviary. Her houses of hospitality gathered for evening prayer together, and where there was one to celebrate, there would be daily or when possible, a celebration of the Eucharist. Every day she would be soaking in the writings of Dostoevsky or Teresa of Avila or some other holy one. She corresponded with and published Thomas Merton for years, welcome Daniel Berrigan to speak and preside at Eucharist, among many other contemporary teachers and activists, not the least of which was Jim Forest. Mayfield chooses to call her an “unruly” saint which of course Dorothy was, from her youth till her last years as an eighty year old. And at the same time, her faith and her prayer life were remarkable, solid, without pretense or artificiality. She was unruly. She was passionate. She saw through all the myth of the American Dream to the capitalist and militarist and racist systems that tried to control the country, using the churches much of the time. But her own life, as Mayfield shows quite vividly, was one of protest against and resistance to this kind of state and culture. She was the real thing.

There are other fine overviews of Dorothy Day’s life and work. Jim Forest’s All is Grace (Orbis , 23011) is my favorite. Her granddaughter Kate Hennessy’s is another, Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty, (Scribner’s, 2017) and Rosalie Riegle, Dorothy Day: Portrait by Those Who Knew Her (Orbis, 2006). However, the great contribution of Mayfield’s book is its constant attention to what Dorothy Day means to our mangled world now. There is an immediacy, an urgency to Mayfield’s narration of Dorothy’s life and thinking. She gets Dorothy exactly right and she does not avoid the unpleasant, difficult, even sometimes nasty details. She listens to Dorothy’s daughter Tamar’s side of things in her relationship to her mother. Tamar came to detest the rigidity of Fr. Hugo, the regular retreat master for the Catholic Worker communities, his arrogance, his extremes in deeming most everything worldly, an obstacle to holiness and thus to be given up or at least avoided. Fine, Tamar said, it got her mother to stop smoking in her early 40s. But the priest took issue with listening to opera and classical concerts on the radio, to reading the newspapers, to being engaged with the racism and protectionism of government for big business, a deadly reality in the Great Depression. Tamar also recognized the uncharacteristic submission her mother made to this priest, also to the questionablye emotional health of Peter Maurin, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker, though it would never have come into being without Dorothy’s organizational and journalistic tools. Mayfield brings to life the fierce passion of Dorothy for the starving, homeless suffering people tossed out of jobs and into the street by corporations. She lauded the efforts of FDR to alleviate the massive dislocation and pain of millions of Americans, even when this brought her attacks from fellow Catholics for drifting toward Communism.

This is perhaps one of most passionate accounts of Dorothy’s great love for Christ and for the suffering sister and brother before us. Only someone similarly impelled to work with the dislocated and suffering as D.L. Mayfield could have pulled this off and we should be grateful to her for this powerful story of a powerful soul, a most unruly saint.

Mayfield, D.L. Unruly Saint: Dorothy’s Day’s Radical Vision and Its Challenge for Our Time. Minneapolis MN: Broadleaf/1517 Media, 2022. 256 pages. $26.99. ISBN: 9781506473598.

REVIEWER: Michael Plekon
Michael Plekon is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Religion,
The City University of New York, Baruch College,
and has been a priest in the Western and Eastern Churches.
Community as Church, Church as Community
 (Cascade, 2021) is his most recent book.

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