I converted to Catholicism in 1997, when I was 24 years old and working at a preschool program in inner city Philadelphia. I loved the Church for its ritual and magic, and I saw my life in it clearly: I would work with the poor; I would befriend nuns with whom I would attend nuclear disarmament protests. Eventually I would marry and have children—more than two—and name them after saints and radicals, embarrass them by making the sign of the cross on their foreheads on the first day of school. My imagined Catholic life brimmed with possibility. But soon enough actual life began to brim with possibility, too. A few months after I started attending Mass I fell in love. With a woman.
Right away I knew I should leave her. Or, more accurately, I knew I should want to leave her. But I didn’t. And while I didn’t know what I wanted more, her or Catholicism, I suspected it was her.
That woman is now my wife, and I am no longer a Catholic. But last week when the Pope gave a speech before Congress, I was listening. And like many, I was surprised to hear him exalt Dorothy Day, the American Catholic and radical who, in 1933, founded the Catholic Worker Movement on New York City’s Lower East Side. The Pope referred to Day as a “Servant of God,” and went on to say that her “social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.” In the hours following the speech the internet lit up with her name. Who was this Dorothy Day?
I knew exactly who she was. When I was deeply mired in the conflict between the Catholic Church and my love affair, my therapist—who wanted me to break up with my girlfriend for his own homophobic reasons and had begun to deftly work the Catholic angle—suggested I read Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness.
Published in 1952, nearly 30 years after Day’s conversion to Catholicism, The Long Loneliness is regarded as a classic spiritual autobiography, and is still in print today. The title alone was enough to terrify me, but I read it anyway. Or, more precisely, I read some of it. I read until I couldn’t bear any more details about her doomed love affair with Forster Batterham, a man who, like Day, was a revolutionary and a writer. They weren’t married, although they shared a home, and in 1926 Day gave birth to their daughter, Tamar. Day adored Batterham, but after Tamar’s birth her increasingly devout Catholicism couldn’t abide their common law arrangement. She gave him an ultimatum: Marry me, or leave. Batterham refused to marry Day, citing his opposition to the institution on philosophical grounds. So she sent him away, knowing that her true calling was the Church. I stopped reading.
I also felt called to the church, but I didn’t want to give up my girlfriend. And yet I felt I should, if I were at all serious about my faith. Day’s adamancy was frightening, and I panicked as I saw myself in her every word—in the depth of her longing for Catholicism, in the heat of her love affair. What I didn’t understand then was that I saw myself in Day because I was also a young and ardent convert with a distinct lack of perspective, rushing my way into a faith I wished had been mine from birth. I tried to make it through Mass without looking at the missal, fumbling through the creeds I hadn’t memorized. I read the Confessions of St. Augustine and barely understood a word; I kept rosary beads next to my bed but needed flashcards to make it through the prayers. I couldn’t see that The Long Loneliness was hagiographic, a prime example of conversion literature: a story built entirely of clarity and action, omitting all wanderings and doubts, that suggests an always-illuminated path to redemption. But I was too anxious to read with a critical eye. I could only feel the guilt that came with knowing I wouldn’t make the same choice Day had. I knew I would leave the church. I would not be another Dorothy Day.
In the months that followed I gave away my copy of The Long Loneliness, stuffed my rosary beads deep in my desk drawer. (I also stopped seeing that therapist.) Occasionally I went to Mass, but I felt like an imposter. My Catholicism was too conflicted and too new for me to rely on for comfort; I couldn’t find God in a place where I couldn’t let down my guard. Eventually I acknowledged that I wouldn’t have a life in the Catholic Church. I married my girlfriend and together we moved to the country and had two daughters. I joined a small Protestant church, where I began to build a quieter and more sturdy faith.
After Day’s split with Batterham she went on to cofound the Catholic Worker movement as a way to enliven the radical teachings of the Catholic Church. She edited the Catholic Worker newspaper, which is still in print, and created a network of hospitality houses offering shelter and services to the poor. She spent her life in active and vehement opposition to capitalism and war. In the years after my failed conversion I would read something about Day—her possible canonization, an anniversary of Catholic Worker—and feel an old sadness. I had made my peace with leaving the Church, but there were still regrets. I wouldn’t live in a Catholic Worker house, or ride with the Nuns on the Bus. And while I believed the kind priest who once affirmed my marriage by telling me God is always on the side of love, I still wondered how Day had known, so unequivocally, that her God was on a different side.
Occasionally I went to Mass, but I felt like an imposter. My Catholicism was too conflicted and too new for me to rely on for comfort; I couldn’t find God in a place where I couldn’t let down my guard.
In 2010 Day’s personal letters were released for publication in an edited volume titled All the Way to Heaven. I bought the book and immediately flipped to the index in search of Forster Batterham. There were dozens of pages numbers next to his name, spanning nearly the entire book. In The Long Loneliness Day says she separated from Batterham, once and for all, in December of 1927. But now I was reading love letters written until December of 1932, filled with affection and proclamations of desire. “Do write to me, dearest sweetest,” Day wrote in 1929, “because I think of you and want you night and day.” And in January of 1932, after a night spent together: “What do you say you marry me...?” In her last attempt at persuasion, she writes: “The ache in my heart is intolerable at times, and sometimes for days I can feel your lips upon me.” Despite her passion, she closed the letter by telling Batterham she had given up hope.
And while this letter marked the end of their decade-long affair, Day never entirely broke ties with Batterham. They remained connected through their daughter, and their nine grandchildren. In the last years of her life, he called her nearly every day. He was the love of her life; he was her family.
“Don’t call me a saint,” Dorothy Day once said. “I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” That’s the mistake I once made, dismissing her as a saint when she was just a woman—extraordinary in her devotion to the struggle, entirely human in her desire and her doubt.
It was a marvel to hear Pope Francis praise Dorothy Day’s radicalism in the halls of Congress last week. He was right—and radical himself—to hail her as an exemplary American. And not just because she was a divorced woman who once had an abortion, but because she spent her life fighting for the redistribution of wealth and the end of war, believing her every effort was justified by Church doctrine. By choosing to name Day, the Pope claimed her rabble-rousing as an essentially Catholic trait.
As I heard the Pope speak about Day’s passion, I couldn’t help thinking of her love for Batterham. “I do love you more than anything in the world,” Day wrote to him, “but I can’t help my religious sense, which tortures me unless I do what I believe is right.” Of course Dorothy Day’s choice was the right one. I’m just glad to know it took her so very long to make it.