On the Wrong Day
by David Scott
It's too bad the new film biography of Dorothy Day has only a
hearsay acquaintance with her life.
Because Catholics and others could use a timely retelling of Day's
dramatic story-which reads like the life of an ancient saint
updated for 20th-century America.
Growing up poor and dysfunctional, feeling "haunted by God," the
adolescent Dorothy scoured the New Testament, "The Imitation of
Christ," and the legends of the martyrs, slept on hardwood floors
to mortify her flesh and wrote breathlessly in her diary about
wanting to suffer for the sins of the world.
When her "fall" came in her late teens and early 20s, she went
down hard. At once, she became a Marxist who believed in the
revolution of the masses and scorned the opiate of religion, a
feminist who suffered beatings and jailings for the suffrage
cause, and a shill for Margaret Sanger's crusade to "save" the
poor by birth control.
A born-again bohemian in the Roaring '20s, she was a casualty of
the century's first sexual revolution, used as a plaything by men,
forced into an abortion. Married on the rebound to a polygamist
only to split up after a Jazz Age journey to Europe, she ended up
shacking up on the beach and having a love-child by an anarchist
who didn't believe in God or "bourgeoise" conventions like
Then came her halting conversion to Catholicism, and a few years
later, after praying desperately in the Catholic cathedral in the
nation's capital on the feast of the Virgin Mary's Immaculate
Conception, she found a homeless French peasant-intellectual,
Peter Maurin, on her doorstep.
Together, they started the Catholic Worker movement in New York
City, and until her death in 1980, she was one of the country's
most visible and intriguing witnesses to Christ-a single, working
grandmother living in the slums, with an uncompromising passion
for nonviolence and radical social change, a traditional Catholic
piety and an ever-deepening mystical faith.
"Entertaining Angels" ignores much of the obvious divine drama of
her life, opting instead for a Sunday-night-made-for-TV story of
Day as victim-survivor journeying to self-awareness, model for
everywoman. Dramatic elements in her life that don't fit this
story line are ignored, told wrong or clumsily distorted.
So in showing her preconversion years, we get not the real-life
woman who wrote articles such as "Mr. J.D. Rockefeller, 26
Broadway-Here's a Family Living on Dog Food" for the leading
socialist daily, or the woman who interviewed Trotsky in exile and
could argue labor history and revolutionary theory. No, we get
Dorothy Day as plucky young flapper, chain-smoking, pounding
drinks with Eugene ("The Iceman Cometh") O'Neill and bedding down
with left-wing editors.
It is a curiously anti-feminist reading of Day's life. You would
never know that she was an original social thinker and one of
America's finest, if underappreciated journalists, diarists and
The Catholic Worker movement is presented as a glorified flophouse
and soup kitchen with a newspaper attached. Its frankly
evangelistic origins as a means of countering Marxist influence
and bringing the alienated proletariat back to Christ and the
Church are buried. And because Day is portrayed as more of a do-
gooder than a thinker, we get no sense of her radical Catholic
critique of American life.
The real Dorothy Day hated the capitalist economy that left people
hungry and homeless and robbed them of their spirit. Present at
the creation of the welfare state, she bucked the nation's bishops
and Catholic elites in opposing the New Deal, which she said would
only engorge an already bloated state, dehumanize the poor and
innoculate average believers from their Christian duty to serve
the poor-personally and with sacrifice.
She was a pacifist in an era of "the Good War" and the cold one.
Renouncing her past, she came to see state-sponsored birth control
and abortion as part of the "genocidal" war of the rich against
the poor. In a time of division and temptation in the Church, she
preached both the primacy of conscience and the necessity of
obedience to Church authority.
These are all areas where Day has much to teach us today.
"Entertaining Angels" prefers instead images of a post-coital Day
sucking on the chest of her lover, or a stereotype-laden scene
where Day stares down her archbishop and utters hollow clerical-
speak lines such as, "I thought we were being Church."
There is too little of Day's own words in this film, and even less
of her spirituality. Uncomfortable with Day's traditional and
distinctively Catholic piety, "Entertaining Angels" puts in its
place a familiar Hollywood trope: religion as interior decoration
of the soul; vague, nonsectarian "spirituality" that doesn't make
any demands or impose itself on others.
In reality, Dorothy Day the radical wrote editorials in the
presence of the Blessed Sacrament, went to daily Mass, prayed the
Rosary and had a mystical devotion to the Virgin Mary.
In "Entertaining Angels," she never attends Mass and she only
prays near the film's climax. But even then she is shown yelling
tortured grad-student banalities at an impassive, life-size
crucifix during a rainstorm late at night in an empty church:
"Where are You? Why don't You answer me? .... How could anyone
ever love You?"
In the movie, Day's final soliloquy goes like this: "It's been a
very lonely life. I've been looking to fill the emptiness. Now I
see that it begins with these people, the ones that nobody else
wants .... They are my meeting place with God. And if I will give
them a chance, I know that God will fill me with love, fill me
through these people."
Not bad sentiments. But it ain't Dorothy Day, the woman who all
her life felt hounded by heaven. The real Dorothy Day spoke not of
filling some inner void, but of carrying the cross, of following
Christ, of bearing witness as He did-"in the face of empire, the
Way of Love."
The makers of "Entertaining Angels" have complained loudly that
Hollywood wasn't ready for the hard-core religious message of
Dorothy Day's life. That's probably true. But neither were they.
There's more to making a movie "religious" than having the hero
cross herself hurriedly like a schoolgirl or blowing bizarre
chorale music into the background. And what this movie delivers is
only a portrait of a social worker with a big heart.
The real Dorothy Day got left out of the picture.
Scott is editor of Our Sunday Visitor
This article was taken from the October 13, 1996 issue of Our
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