A Review of D. L. Mayfield’s Unruly Saint

D. L. Mayfield, Unruly Saint: Dorothy Day’s Radical Vision and Its Challenge for Our Time (Minneapolis, MN: Broadleaf, 2022)

When William Miller’s biography of Dorothy Day first appeared in 1982, a peculiar publishing enigma came into being: describing Dorothy Day in a single book. Miller’s book, a monumental work, suffered from the problem of trying to do too much—it tried to make sense of Day by putting it all out there, but in doing so, it somehow managed to say too little about the theological moorings that led Dorothy Day to become Dorothy Day. Several other volumes would follow in the years to come, written by critics and colleagues, family members and friends, and each offered another a piece of the puzzle, an aspect previously undiscussed. The problem of these books, of course, is Day. She documented her life in fragments of essays and journalistic accounts, autobiographies, and posthumously published diaries, yet she was, in every which way, a paradox—both theologically conservative and socially active, a child of the West Coast who lived her life in New York, a Catholic woman who overshadowed the men in her orbit. Apart from taking the path of Miller, and producing an engorged tome stuffed with analysis and biography, there seems no honest way to historically capture the life of Day.

Against this backdrop, D. L. Mayfield’s recent Unruly Saint proposes an interesting way out: she paints a portrait of Day that is self-consciously not a history but a mirror. To quote Mayfield:

There are many excellent biographies of Dorothy Day already written. This book does not claim to be one of them. Instead, it is my personal engagement with the life of Dorothy Day in the years surrounding the birth of the Catholic Worker movement. (1)

Noting the connection between her own life and Day’s, their common motherhood, activism, and loneliness, Mayfield writes that “I come to this book as a friend of Dorothy’s, as much as I can be, separated by time and history” (1). This decision, to write of Day through the lens of self and friendship, means that some elements of Day’s life will surface, and others will remain submerged, or even challenged. And it means that the circumstances of Mayfield’s life play a significant role in which epoch she makes stand in for the totality of Day’s life.

And so, to the early years of the Catholic Worker we go. These are the years surrounding Day’s conversion, the years in which she wrestles with the question of what it means to be a Christian, a former Communist, a mother in a man’s world, a social radical amid the Great Depression. The vast bulk of the book is given to these tumultuous five years, as we read about Day’s attempts to bring her commitments of the love of the poor and the love of the Catholic Church together. Later in the book, Mayfield attends to the years around the Second World War, during which significant changes were taking place both in Day’s life and within the Catholic Worker, but the majority of the space is given to this dynamic of a young woman with high social ideals learning to grapple with the difficulty of loving a messy world.

This authorial decision—to be a friend rather than a chronicler—is intriguing, as it seems to shape not only where Mayfield opts to focus on Day’s life but how her life is evaluated. Being a friend to the dead is not a dialogical affair but one that begins from an admiration of certain aspects of their lives. To befriend an Augustine or a Julian of Norwich in a literary sense is to enter into relationship with one who is represented in texts, memories, or other documentation that has been in some way mediated. That is, historical figures give themselves to us in bits and pieces, and only when we listen well, and, to be sure, our befriending of the dead inevitably involves subjective appropriations, some of which we are conscious and others which remain unknown to us. Accordingly, such theological and historical retrieval involves making friends with the past, bringing back out of the storehouses not just the concepts of an Augustine or a Julian but the full context of their thought. Their pathos and idiosyncrasies are not just embarrassing elements by the time they are brought out: they are inextricable elements of the world that they confront us with, and thus, the friendship they offer.

Augustine’s writing about original sin, for example, involves speculations concerning procreation that we may like to distance ourselves from, particularly Augustine’s sense of non-procreative sex as a sin, but if we are to take this motif of friendship seriously, this division is not entirely possible. Fifteen centuries removed, Augustine’s presence lingers on in innumberable ways in our theological imaginations, both in the reactions to his work and in the reappropriations of his work that are now no longer even visible to us as reappropriations. And so, to befriend someone like an Augustine is to be offered both gifts to recover and also gifts we would rather leave behind. To be a friend to the past means recognizing both the benefits and the wounds, receiving both the gifts we want and those we would rather do without. And it is here that the limits of Mayfield’s approach of being Dorothy’s friend become more apparent.   

In evaluating Dorothy Day’s abortion in 1924, for instance, Mayfield opines that Day’s preconversion narration of her abortion in The Eleventh Virgin, a thinly veiled fictionalization of Day’s own life, was “the story of a liberated woman in love and one who would have wished for safer and legal conditions to end her pregnancy” and that even after her conversion, Dorothy’s “pain quieted her” on the question of abortion (45). Although it is certainly true that Day didn’t make abortion a hallmark of the Catholic Worker and that Day took a pastoral approach to the unexpectedly pregnant, to say that Day had equivocal feelings about abortion is false. She names abortions in a 1959 article as “remedies [that] are on the side of death” in the pages of the Catholic Worker.[1] This is the first of several instances in which the dissonance between Day and Mayfield are felt: the Day of 1924—the Day encountered by Mayfield—is the preconversion Day, longing for better conditions for her abortion, but the 1959 Day saw her abortion as an act to be lamented.

By focusing on these few early years, much of the tension between Day and Mayfield is lessened. In emphasizing only these early years of turmoil, Day is framed by Mayfield as an “enemy of the state” (17), as “famously leftist” (8), and as rocked by “perpetual conversions” (17). These are not all unfair descriptions, but they are telling descriptions and ones that speak to how other gifts of Day’s friendship—particularly her theological convictions—are received. For Day was, as Mayfield points out, truly critical of capitalism and communitarian in practice, but she was also (beginning in these early years, but more pronounced later) committed to the doctrines of the Catholic Church. That Mayfield downplays not the social but theological gifts of Day’s life during these early years, I think, comes from the way in which her own friendship with Day is framed.

To be sure, Mayfield describes Day as a deeply spiritual being, one for whom “God was love, that God wanted people of the church to do something about the suffering of their fellow neighbors” (16), one who grew up “longing for the Divine” (23). Mayfield’s Day is one alive to the spiritual world and seeking integration of the spiritual and material but one who remained wary of religious authorities. Yet in this rendering of Day, it is unclear why Day would have become Christian, much less Catholic. For it was the Catholic Church, Day writes, that names and provides shape to otherwise nebulous spiritual impulses. That Day sought to bring her Catholic faith into line with the Catholic Church’s best teaching on social issues is without question. But if Mayfield’s Day is accurate—a spiritual wanderer with a primarily combative relationship to hierarchy—readers are left scratching their heads as to why Day ever converted. Why take on the burden of a church so at odds with her social commitments? Peter Maurin introduced her to Catholic social teaching, to the goods that helped bolster and organize her pursuit of justice, but this alone does not explain Day’s conversion. Why not just read the documents and leave the rest? If Day is in fact best understood first as one in pursuit of justice and secondarily one with “a drive toward the Divine” (51), why Catholicism of all things, given all the liabilities of belonging to the Catholic Church?

There is, I think, a gift that Day offers here, and it is a gift that we miss when we look at Day primarily as a social activist. I suggest that the reason Day stayed within Catholicism was not because the Catholic Church was theologically useful but because Day saw it as true, and if it were true—if the claims of the Catholic Church were in fact as binding as Day took them to be—then there had to be a way to marry her love for the poor to the social teachings of a church that did not yet see what she saw. Absent this conviction that the Catholic Church and not just the teachings of the Catholic Church were valuable, a black hole emerges in Day’s story. Why would she undertake baptism for her and her daughter with no clear benefit to doing so apart from her intellectual affinity for Catholic social teaching.

Mayfield, drawing from Day’s early years, downplays Day’s relationship to the Catholic Church, and, to be sure, Day, as Mayfield writes, was unafraid of conflict or challenging the social involvements of the hierarchy. But this is the same Day who, while not expecting much from the bishops and going toe to toe with Cardinal Francis Spellman, the archbishop of New York during much of Day’s life, over labor unions and worker rights, said that “in all twenty-seven years of our existence, he [Spellman] has given us absolute freedom and shown us courtesy and kindness.”[2] Despite her criticisms of the archbishop, Jim Forest, a longtime member of the Catholic Worker home, wrote, “Dorothy had a lot of reasons to dislike Cardinal Spellman, but it was more her hobby to find out things to admire about him.”Despite it all, for Day, to belong to the Catholic Church was to belong to the specificity of God’s activity that created a mystical body of which all persons, including her nemesis Cardinal Spellman, were potentially members.

This theological aspect of Day—this aspect of being Dorothy’s friend—helps to tie together Day’s life, but it is also the aspect of Day’s life that seems to occasion the most criticism. Mayfield is right to not write a hagiography, but her theological criticisms reveal that Mayfield expects for Day to have been perhaps a different kind of Christian than she was. In Unruly Saint, Day’s forays into agrarian life, inspired by Catholic teaching on labor and land, are criticized for being disconnected from the “the wisdom of Indigenous neighbors and traditions related to justice and land” (188), though Mayfield does not share who in 1935, within Catholicism or among the social radicals of New York, would have introduced Day to these resources. Day’s advocacy for African Americans as early as the 1930s is applauded, but her lack of learning from Black thinkers such as W. E. B. Du Bois is named as a blind spot, with the predominately white nature of the modern Catholic Worker houses a part of that legacy. The “mystical body of Christ” is found wanting for being too vaunted to match the racially divided reality. Day’s involvement with the Lacouture retreats of Father Hugo is critiqued for leading Dorothy to be too austere (219–21), the subject of an entire chapter.  

It is the last of these criticisms—concerning Day’s embrace of a more austere faith during the Catholic retreats she attended in her later years—that must prompt us to ask whether being friends with Day (or any figure of the Christian past) means hearing the full range of gifts that they want to bring us in that friendship. As Mayfield rightly notes, Day’s relationship with many, most directly her daughter Tamar, were affected by the retreats, and Day later stopped going on retreat. But for Mayfield, this is taken to indicate a disavowal of what Day learned in the retreats and a return to embracing the good gifts of creation. But as Day framed it, this change was about learning to integrate the teachings of the retreats in sustainable ways. As Day never tired of repeating, the purpose to all of her work was to make it easier for people to be good or, put differently, to be holy. That we might be called to suffer and divest ourselves, even of good things, and to embrace the long loneliness rather than overcome it remained a consistent theme of both her spiritual practice and her writing.

Mayfield writes about finding Day when she was disentangling herself from white evangelicalism, from a faith that split justice from piety, social inequities from the love of God. And it is by God’s grace that we find our heroes when we do: they are, like Beatrice, like Virgil, guides through a dark wood that can help us find health in the midst of sickness. But the trick is that our heroes grow and change and disappoint us, and this too is part of our friendship with them. That Mayfield’s Day remains predominately in the early years of the Catholic Worker, frustrated and vexed by the institutions, is to miss the Day who figured out how not to cool her zeal but to add to it knowledge; it is to miss the Day who could hold together the Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion and sex with her unwavering commitments to justice, equity, and making a new world in the shell of the old.

Figures like Day have been divergently read and divergently—and this is key—befriended. Mayfield criticizes how someone like Cardinal Timothy Dolan or Cardinal Francis George could lay claim to Day without accepting her social radicalism, yet this is, it seems, not different from Mayfield with respect to selectively reading Day. To embrace—to befriend—a figure like Day, or any figure from the past, means being willing to let their strange gifts rest uncomfortably within our orbit until we are able to hear them and listen to their claims. Otherwise, the friend remains only a mirror of the self, an amplified reflection of what we are.

[1] Day, “Month of the Dead,” in Catholic Worker 26, no. 4 (November 1959): 6; also see my own perspective on interpreting Day on this question  in Werntz, “Making Little of the Law and Everything of Love: Abortion and Dorothy Day,” Comment, March 17, 2022, https://comment.org/making-little-of-the-law-and-everything-of-love/.

[2] Day, “On Pilgrimage: March 1960,” Catholic Worker, March 1960, https://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/articles/762.html.