Social Justice

Mysticism and Resistance: Isaiah - Dorothy Day the Catholic Worker

posted on 03/09/10 03:33 pm by Fr. Paul Hansen, C.Ss.R.  


We are living in End Times. By that I do not mean the End of the World, but rather the end of the world, as we have known it in recent times. The Mystery we call God graces difficult moments in the faith journey of peoples with Prophetic Imagination. We are living such a moment in these our times. Our God is gracing us with the “New Deed” (Is. 43:18) of prophetic imagination. While fundamentalism is growing around the world in varied religious expressions and while Christian fundamentalism is in rapid growth in the Southern part of our world, nevertheless in Western Europe and North America, we are going through a period of “exile, desert, dislocation and disconnect.” In this regard, we have a great guide in the Prophecy of Isaiah and in the context of this evening’s reflection. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. But first let us look at these our times.

1. Desert, Exile, Dislocation and Disconnect. We take a look at Walter Brueggemann’s notion found in his work: “Deep Memory – Exuberant Hope.” Our dislocation is as psychologically devastating as that experienced by ancient Israel in captivity in Babylon – 587-539 BCE. The New Deed then was CYRUS (Is. 45:1) called the Servant of Yahweh, a title usually only reserved to David. Four purpose this evening I see one of the New Deeds being done by our God is the Catholic Worker Movement introduced to us through the lives of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.

2. Let us reintroduce ourselves to the Prophet and Prophecy of Isaiah. Prophets did not tell the future but named what was going on, happening and how this reflects or not the will of God and hence would have ramifications for the future.

3. ISAIAH – The Man and His Times.

Isaiah was a citizen of Judah, the Southern Kingdom and prophesied during the reign of 4 Kings: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah – 783-687. His activity took place in the city of Jerusalem. Isaiah’s task was to guide Judah through one of the most critical periods of her history. There was a fear of the Assyrians attacking and Judah wanted to make alliances with Egypt and Syria. Isaiah says No. The Holiness of God, the one Creator and Master dominate his message. No one has spoken out more forthrightly than Isaiah in his denunciation of Judah’s pride, self-indulgence and callous injustice to the poor.


The Prophecy of Isaiah is divided into three sections called First, Second and Third Isaiah. First Isaiah in found in Chapters 1-39. Second in Chapters 40-55. It is called the Book of Consolation and is some of the best poetry of the whole Judeo-Christian scriptures. It was written during the Babylonian Captivity. This Second Isaiah was probably written by another author who keeps the “Master’s Book” alive and adapts it in Exile. Third Isaiah is found in Chapters 56-66. This section is more somber and its atmosphere is quieter and speaks of frustration. Its emphasis is on the Temple, Worship, Sabbath, Fasting and the Law. There is a call to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple that did take place around 515 BCE.

You are familiar with many texts of the Prophet Isaiah:

From First Isaiah we have:

Is. 6:3 – Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts….. Is. 7:14 – Lord will give you a sign…young woman with child will bear a son and will name him Immanuel. Is. 9:6 – Child is born to us… wonderful, counselor, might God, everlasting Father, Prince of peace. Is. 11:1 – Gifts of the Spirit – spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the Lord….

From Second or Deutero Isaiah we have:

Is. 40:3 – Voice cries out in the wilderness… make straight the way of God Is. 43:1 – Do not be afraid.. I have called you by name. Is. 43:18 – No longer necessary to recall the past, can you not see, I am doing a new deed…. Is. 45:1 – Cyrus, the Servant of Yahweh… The Suffering Servant Hymns: 42: 1-7; 49:1-7; 50:4-9; 52:13 – 53:12 Is. 51:1 – Look to the Rock from which you were hewn, the quarry from which you were dug.

From Third or Trito-Isaiah we have:

Is. 58: Is this the type of Fast I ask of you…..



DOROTHY DAY Dorothy Day began her adult life as a Communist seeking religious truth and ended it as a Catholic influenced by some Communist ideals. She anticipated liberation theology by some thirty-five years. Communism and religion may seem mismatched, but how good a match are capitalism and religion? The scandal of businesslike priests, of collective wealth, the lack of a sense of responsibility for the poor, the worker… There was plenty of charity but too little justice. “We believe in an economy based on human needs, rather than on the profit motive.

Dorothy was born in Brooklyn in 1897 and at 8 years of age moved to Chicago. She attended but did not graduate from the University of Illinois. “I really led a very shiftless life, doing for the first time exactly what I wanted to do.” In 1916 her family moved to New York and she went with them, to pursue a career as a revolutionary journalist. She became a regular correspondent for left-wing publications such as the Call and the New Masses. She got involved in hot button issues of the day: women’s rights, free love and birth control. In 1917 she joined pickets in front of the White House, who were protesting the brutal treatment of women suffragists in jail. She ended up serving 30 days. She had a series of lovers, got pregnant once and had an illegal abortion. On the rebound from that affair she got married but the marriage lasted only a year.

In 1926 Day found herself pregnant again. This time she was determined to have the baby. “And then the little one was born, and with her birth the spring was upon me. My joy was so great that I sat up in bed in the hospital and wrote an article for the New Masses about my child, wanting to share my joy with the world.” The child’s father – Forster Batterham was a committed atheist, but Day was determined to have her baptized as a Catholic and to become a catholic herself. “A conversion is a lonely experience. We do not know what is going on in the depths of the heart and soul of another. We scarcely know ourselves.” Dorothy and Forster’s daughter Tamar was born in July 1927. Dorothy’s baptism was on December 28th after a hard break with Forster that had everything to do with the religious chasm that had opened ever wider between them.

While struggling as a single parent, to earn a living as a freelance writer, it took Dorothy another five years to solve the most difficult quandary of her life: to find a way to bring together her radical convictions about an unjust social order and her religious faith. Practically all radicals were atheists, while practically all Catholics seemed to think very little about social injustice and what they should do about it. Dorothy wrote for the Catholic Journals: Commonweal and America. Dorothy observed a “Hunger March that walked form New York City to Washington, D.C. which along the way was the object of much panic journalism and police brutality. Finally by court order the marchers all jobless men and women were allowed into Washington to bring their petitions for jobs, health care and unemployment benefits. Standing on the side lines Dorothy saw how insignificant and puny had been her work since becoming a Catholic – “self-centered and lacking in a sense of community.” She felt that surely Christ had a great love for these people, even if they regarded themselves as unbelievers and wouldn’t be caught dead in a church. It happened to be December 8th, Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Dorothy went to the unfinished shrine near Catholic University and prayed in the crypt.

“There I offered up a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers for the poor.”

The next day returning to New York she met Peter Maurin, the French immigrant who spiritually was a descendant of St. Francis of Assisi. Between Peter’s visionary ideas and Dorothy’s down to earth talent as a journalist, a newspaper called The Catholic Worker was born.

Almost immediately after the first issue of The Catholic Worker 1933 it became part of a movement that today is represented by many houses of hospitality and other communities across the U.S. and in other countries. The Catholic Worker movement has become well known for offering an example of radical Christian living that centers on hospitality but which also protests violence and injustice. Many in the Catholic Worker movement, not least of all Dorothy herself, have gone to prison for civil disobedience.


Aristode Pierre Maurin, later known as Peter Maurin, was co-founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement and is chiefly responsible for the movement’s qualities.

He was born into a peasant family in Oultet, a village in the Languedoc region of southern France, on May 9th, 1877. At sixteen he entered the Christian Brothers. In 1898-99 his community life was interrupted by obligatory military service in which Maurin found a tension between religious and political duties. In 1902 when the French government closed many religious schools, Maurin left the order and became active in Le Sillon, a catholic lay movement which advocated Christian democracy and supported cooperatives and unions. In 1908 Maurin resigned from Le Sellon.

In 1909 Peter emigrated to Canada. He homesteaded for 2 years in Saskatchewan. In both Canada and the U.S. he took jobs here and there digging ditches, quarrying stone, harvesting wheat, cutting lumber and laying track. At times he taught French to make a buck. He was jailed for vagrancy and for riding the rails. He never married. In 1932 he was handyman at a Catholic boys’ camp in upstate New York. He received his meals and lived in the barn. Through his years of reflection and hard labour Maurin came to embrace poverty as a gift from God. Out of this a vision had taken form of a social order instilled with basic values of the Gospel “in which it would be easier for men to be good.” He made his way to New York City staying in Bowery flop houses. His days were spent either at the Public Library or expounding his ideas to anyone who would listen. After all he reasoned, “the way to reach the man on the street is to meet the man on the street.” He was a born teacher.

George Shuster, editor of Commonweal magazine gave Maurin the address of Dorothy Day and they met in December of 1932.

Maurin say Dorothy as a new St. Catherine of Siena, the medieval reformer and peace negotiator. Maurin thought that Dorothy however needed a truly Catholic education. “She had to understand that sanctity was what really mattered and that any program of social change must emphasis sanctity and community. Maurin proposed a newspaper. Dorothy had no money. “In the history of the saints, Maurin assured her, capital is raised by prayer. God sends you what you need when you need it. You will be able to pay the printer. Just read the lives of the saints.”

Peter wanted the name of the paper to be: The Catholic Radical. Day felt that the name should refer to the class of readers she hoped the paper would have and so named it: The Catholic Worker. “Man proposes and woman disposes” Maurin responded meekly.

When the first issue of May 1st. 1933 was ready, Maurin was disappointed and asked that his name not be included among the list of editors. He found the paper short on ideas, principles and a strategy for a new social order. What was needed thought Maurin was a vision of a future society not a call for strikes. He saw no point in struggling for better hours or more pay in places where the work was dehumanizing. It was time he said to “fire the bosses.” But where could they go he was asked. “There is no unemployment on the land.”

The Catholic Worker should stand for a decentralized society stressing cooperation rather than duress, with artisans and craftsmen in worker-owned small factories, and agricultural communities. Coming together in agricultural communities, worker and scholar could both sweat, think and pray together and in the process develop a worker scholar synthesis. Maurin was often accused of being a utopian romantic longing to travel backward rather than forward in time.

Within a year of its founding the Catholic Worker movement was known as much for its houses of hospitality as for its newspaper. Through dialogue Maurin advocated “round table discussion for the “clarification of thought.” Friday night meetings quickly became a tradition of the Catholic Worker community.

Catholic Workers also took up his call to start farming communes which Maurin preferred to call” Agronomic Universities. In 1938 Maurin moved to Mary Farm a ten-acre property the Catholic Worker community bought in Easton Pennsylvania. More people gathered around than wanted to work. Other farms were set up but were more rural houses of hospitality than agricultural communities.

Peter Maurin died in 1949. Time magazine noted that Maurin was buried in a castoff suit and consigned to donated grave, appropriate arrangements for a man who had slept in no bed of his own and worn no suit that someone had not given away. After his death a Catholic Worker farm located on Staten Island was named in his honour. Today the Peter Maurin Farm continues in Marlborough, New York.


Isaiah: 2:4 – “He shall judge between the nations; and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Dorothy and Peter were pacifists. Dorothy refused to cooperate in anything to do with Nuclear War defense or preparation. She went to Central Park rather than “duck and hide” when air raid sirens were sounded. Merton and Berrigan found in her a mentor and a model.

Isaiah: 44:9ff – All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know. And so they will be put to shame. (Read the rest of this text.)

Dorothy and Peter thought that Voluntary Poverty was essential to the Christian witness. The first commandment is about idolatry – strange gods – Dorothy fought against a consumerist society and mentality etc.

Isaiah 25:6ff – On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well aged wines, or rich food filled with marrow, or well ages wines strained clear…(Read the rest of this text.)

Dorothy and Peter opened houses of hospitality where food was served to the poor and the homeless. They grew their own food on the land. Dorothy supported Caesar Chavez and the Farmworkers.

Isaiah: 51: 1 (Deut 32:18) – Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn and to the quarry from which you were dug.

Dorothy and Peter like Isaiah were convinced of the Holiness of God and found this to be the center of their resistance to the varied forms of idolatry in our times. Dorothy went on retreat often, to mass every morning and was truly a mystic and contemplative in action. However the God of the beggar knocking on the door was surer than the God of her mystical prayer. Much like St. Theresa of Avila.

Isaiah: 58:3ff – Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves but you do not notice? Look you serve your own interests on your fast days and oppress all your workers. Look you fast only to quarrel and fight. (Read the rest of this chapter.)

Dorothy and Peter’s lives were the finding of the poor, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison and protesting against war in all its forms.


The New Deed being done today is to be found in movements like The Catholic Worker Movement. They are truly living in the spirit and inspiration of the movement called the Prophecy of Isaiah. To understand Jesus and to be Jesus for these times, it is necessary that we see the Prophecy of Isaiah to be very much the schooled life that Jesus found to be important for his life. The early Christian writers thought so and often quoted Isaiah as we have seen in presenting their message and person of Jesus to us in our scriptures. May we be new deeds in our place and time.

Paul E. Hansen

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