In younger days, I felt guilty that I didn’t love all the saints equally. Far from it; I found myself attracted to some saints, holy people, and Catholic thinkers, and almost repelled by others. Not to mention the ones I’m indifferent to!
In theory, I knew that God doesn’t make us all the same, and this diversity is good. St. Thomas Aquinas is not St. Therese is not St. Gianna Molla is not St. Charles Lwanga. But in reality, I was regretful, mostly that I had strong reactions against some, almost as if I were against holiness.
For instance, I don’t like Flannery O’Connor’s writing. At all. I’ve joked with friends that I should turn in my “Thoughtful Catholic” card for even admitting such a thing. But there you have it.
Dorothy Day is another holy person—she’s currently designated as “Servant of God,” a step towards canonization—on my “tried to love” list. Day is the 20th century political activist, then Catholic convert, who, with Peter Maurin, founded the Catholic Worker community, to serve the poor and the marginalized. So when I heard there was a new biography of her by one of her granddaughters, I wanted to give her life and spirituality another try.
Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother by Kate Hennessy is beautifully and mournfully written—part memoir, part history, and part spiritual biography. Hennessy is the youngest of the nine children of Tamar, Dorothy Day’s only child. One of the things that makes her book so fascinating is her perspective of growing up and living throughout her life, in and out of the Catholic Worker community.
Forgive the 19th century idiom, but reading The World Will Be Saved by Beauty left me low in spirits. That’s not just because of my “dis-affinity” for Day. Actually, I have much more admiration for and love of Dorothy Day’s holiness now. Nevertheless, in many ways it’s a very sad book.
I was inspired by Dorothy Day’s strong personal prayer life that gave her strength and meaning for her work, as well as her extraordinary devotion to living out voluntary poverty. I also have enormous sympathy for her, her extended family, and friends and how they tried to live out the Gospel.
There is a candor in their interactions with one another, especially in the difficulties of community life. Hennessy writes about Stanley, a close friend and fellow worker of Dorothy, at the time she was often being profiled by news outlets as a “living saint.” He would say, half-jokingly, “There are the saints and there are the martyrs. The martyrs are the ones who live with the saints.”
But I was heartbroken to learn (spoiler alert) that virtually all of her close relatives practice no faith at all, much less the radical, prayerful, open hands Catholicism Dorothy Day embodied. I truly struggled with so much sadness for her and for those souls, since her Catholic faith was so central to her. And I also take hope in the knowledge that one’s spiritual journey is not static, and perhaps some or all of her still-living relatives will embrace the faith that meant so much to her.
That’s why reading another book at the same time gave me so much hope about the possibility of conversion for anyone, full stop: Surprised by Life: 10 Converts Explain How Catholic Teachings on Life Led Them to the Church, edited by apologist and longtime writer Patrick Madrid.
The title may seem self-explanatory, and it is, but the narratives themselves make that title an understatement: they are awe-inspiring and grace-filled.
Patrick Madrid has put together several projects like this, including the popular “Surprised by …” book series, three volumes with convert and revert stories. There’s something about these small, first-person slices of life that are edifying, but not in a cloying or superficial way. Each person shares his or her own personal story, offering a dramatic view of how grace influenced their journey to, or back to, God and His Church.
What’s different about Surprised by Life is that each of the 10 stories in some way relates to the Church’s teaching on life issues. So, for instance, in “ Aunt Amy Saves My Baby,” writer and blogger Heather Scheider writes about how the unconditional love and support of her aunt helped her choose life rather than abortion for her unborn baby, and how that love and support helped her mature and heal from her upbringing and bad choices. And in “Little Miracles Leading from Death to Life,” Doreen Campbell shares her family’s grief journey after losing their teenage daughter in a tragic accident and the sacredness of life at its end.
The titles of some of the chapters can seem almost sensational, such as “Call Girl to Catholic,” the story of a woman who works as a sex worker until the unconditional love of friends and the Church’s clear teaching on family leads to her conversion; or “From One Holocaust to Another,” the story of a lawyer, the son of a Holocaust survivor, who participates in multiple abortions of girlfriends before his conversion to Catholicism. But in reality, these narratives, and how the Holy Spirit worked and continues to work in the lives of these people, are astonishing and amazing. Readers who might despair over loved ones who have left the faith can be comforted to read the stories and know that God reaches people in strange and wonderful ways.
Not all readers will find each story compelling or “attractive,” but that’s the value of having a range of narratives. Like Dorothy Day’s unexpected conversion to Catholicism after atheism, each of the people profiled in Surprised by Life offer unique ways to see one’s faith journey.
You might also be interested in:
*Even though I’m still not an enthusiast of the spirituality of Dorothy Day, I am glad I read The World Will Be Saved by Beauty. The phrase comes from Dostoevsky, but it’s been often quoted by recent popes, from St. John Paul II in his “Letter to Artists,” to Pope Francis in his first encyclical, “Lumen Fidei.” After reading it, and the context of the quotes from the popes, I realize that the “beauty” is the varied ways in which love is expressed.
*Are you active on Instagram? I am, and I’ve become slightly obsessed with the “Stories” or “InstaStories” These are Snapchat-like short videos combined that expire after 24 hours. I’ve enjoyed following some accounts related to cooking, homemaking, health, travel, and of course, our Catholic faith. There is something fun and relaxing about seeing small and often beautiful slices of life from others.
One of my recent favorites is Heather Scheider, whose Instagram account, *honeychildforest is honest, crafty, and encouraging. Her Stories, in particular, are often just laugh-out-loud hilarious.
That is where I first found out about the book Surprised by Life. Scheider had posted a photo of a group of the books when she received her author copies, and so I immediately ordered it so I could read it.