The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day

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Robert Ellsberg

Editor of The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day

Interviewed by Jon M. Sweeney

Robert Ellsberg

Explorefaith sat down recently with Robert Ellsberg, editor of the first comprehensive collection of the private, daily journals of Dorothy Day: The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, just published by Marquette University Press.

In the 1970s Ellsberg was a member of the Catholic Worker community in New York City, working beside Dorothy Day. Ellsberg now serves as publisher of Orbis Books, and along with the Day diaries has edited or authored numerous other books, most notably his two volumes on understanding the lives of the saints: the classic, All Saints; and The Saints’ Guide to Happiness.

Robert, you actually knew Dorothy Day, didn’t you? You met her and worked with her when you were a teenager?

I worked with her from 1975-80, which turned out to be the last five years of her life. I had dropped out of college after my sophomore year and made my way to the Catholic Worker in New York City, intending to stay for only a few months. I was nineteen. A few months later Dorothy asked me to serve as managing editor of The Catholic Worker newspaper—an assignment that literally changed everything about my life from that point on.

Did she scare the heck out of you?

Dorothy was not a scary person, but of course I was intimidated. She carried a tremendous authority—as someone who had spent a lifetime standing up to the State, protesting war and every kind of injustice, living faithfully for all those decades with the poor. Apparently she had a temper, more in evidence in her younger days, and I would not have wanted to encounter that. Fortunately, I never did. But my first impression was of a very approachable person who loved to talk to young people, to learn their stories, and to share memories.

Many of the photographs of Dorothy Day, and a lot of the stories about her, portray a very determined woman. But...what other qualities did she have? What other qualities come through in these 700 pages of her diaries?

Dorothy tended to squint when she was photographed, giving her a dour appearance. But I think the most striking impression, for those who knew her, was her incredible sense of humor. She had a delightful, girlish laugh. The humor doesn’t come through in her diaries so much. What does come through her is her sensitive nature—how keenly she felt the sorrows and stress and anxieties that were so much a part of her life. If she didn’t show that so much it is because she disciplined herself not to impose her burdens on others. That is part of what she meant by "the duty of delight"—a phrase she repeated frequently, and which I borrowed for the title of her diaries.

I recall reading somewhere that you basically began editing Dorothy Day’s journals when you were managing editor of The Catholic Worker newspaper—back in the 1970s. She would hand you some pages and you would include them in that month’s paper?

Well, editing Dorothy’s writing was a relatively small part of the job. By that time she wasn’t writing too much. She would ask someone—not me—to copy out some entries from her diaries, just to "let people know she was alive."But I definitely felt that editing her diaries was in some ways a continuation of the job that began when I was twenty. At the time I had no evident qualifications; basically, there was no one else at the time much interested in the job. But at the same time Dorothy did seem to have an uncanny ability to discern people’s talents and abilities, and her trust in you made you feel capable of doing things you never dreamed possible. I didn’t know at that time that Dorothy was basically pointing me in the direction of my life’s work, as an editor and writer, which continues up to the present.

In your work of editing this new book of her journals, did you ever come across a passage that you remembered from nearly 30 years earlier?

There were certainly events that I remembered from long ago—such as her disapproving response to a meal at the Catholic Worker in which the volunteer chef for the day had put onions in the fruit salad. She felt that inedible food was almost a sacrilege, since Christ left himself to us in the form of a meal. But what was more interesting to me was to read about the years when I was there from her point of view. I was particularly eager to see her comments on the occasion when I went to tell her I had been received in the Catholic Church. Obviously it was an important day for me. She made no mention of it, and I can see why. At the time I was totally oblivious that that week her beloved younger sister had died. Of course that was what was on her mind. On the other hand, I was moved to recall how warmly she had received me back then, with no indication of the kind of sorrow she was suffering.

Why did we have to wait so long before these diaries could be published?

Dorothy’s diaries and letters are part of the Dorothy Day-Catholic Worker collection at the University of Marquette. Dorothy’s condition in establishing the archives was that these personal papers would be sealed for 25 years after her death, which turned out to be November 2005. I had written the archives earlier that year and asked what plans they had for these papers. I was surprised, shortly afterward, to receive an official letter from the University inviting me to serve as editor.

Is there anything shocking or surprising in them?

I don’t think there is anything surprising, along the lines, for instance, of the revelation in Mother Teresa’s diaries of her deep spiritual suffering. Dorothy’s faith never faltered and she seems to have enjoyed a deep confidence that she was on the path that God intended for her. But I was quite struck by the sorrow and sadness and the heavy burdens of responsibility that she carried. There was a deep loneliness to her vocation.

We get a glimpse of her daily, spiritual practice, too, don’t we?

Yes, the diaries document her strict examination of conscience around such issues as self-righteousness, anger, the tendency to be judgmental. Probably a lot of that anger was well-justified! But what struck me also was how much Dorothy’s spirituality was rooted in the daily exercise of patience, charity, and forgiveness. We tend to think of her as an activist on the world stage—going to jail, walking on picket lines, and so forth. But most of her life was spent in very ordinary ways. And she believed that the practice of love in everyday life was really the true arena for holiness. At the same time, one sees in the diaries how much this practice was rooted in a very disciplined spiritual life: going to Mass every day, hours of meditation on scripture, saying the rosary, reciting the office from her monastic breviary. As she liked to say, ‘it all goes together’—the witness for peace, the works of mercy, the kindness toward the disagreeable person in front of us.

Was Dorothy a saint? And what do you think that being a saint, means, anyway?

Dorothy Day has been proposed as a candidate for canonization, and her cause moves along at the usual slow pace. She has often been quoted as saying she didn’t want to be called a saint. That was because she didn’t want to be dismissed as some perfect person who could easily do things that would be difficult or impossible for the rest of us. She had an enormous devotion to the saints, and what is more, she often said that we are all called to be saints. This wasn’t a matter of becoming someone else, but of becoming our true best selves—"putting off the old person" and putting on Christ. She thought that was ultimately what it meant to be a Christian. She took that very seriously.

And I think that is one of her chief contributions as a saint—that reminder that we are all called to be saints in our own way, responding to the challenges of our own time and place. To be with her was to believe that the gospel was true—which, I think, is a pretty good definition of a saint.

What do you think Dorothy would be doing, if she was around, today?

I don’t think her witness has become outdated. She would always be found among the down and out and siding with the oppressed. If anything has changed since her time it is the church, which has moved much closer in the past decades to embracing her comprehensive " seamless garment" approach to the defense of life and human dignity. Much of her life was spent on the margins of the church. Many bishops admired her, and privately wondered whether she wasn’t some kind of saint—but they also tended to be wary of her and wanted to keep her at a distance. I think she would find a very different reception today. But of course maybe that is the way it always is with saints and prophets. We honor them after they are safely dead.  If she were alive today she would still be challenging us all to live more faithfully by the radical spirit of the gospel.

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The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day
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