Book Review – The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day

The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, Edited by Robert Ellsberg (Image, paperback, 752 pages, 2011)




June 19, 1973

We feel so powerless. We do so little, giving out soup. But at least we are facing problems daily. Hunger, homelessness, greed, loneliness. Greatest concern of the Bible is injustice, bloodshed. So we share what we have, we work for peace. (571)

Dorothy Day’s words can easily be echoed today by the many working on the front lines helping the hungry, the homeless, the sick, and the unemployed, among others. They, too, share what they have and work for peace—to give peace and to live peace. In the midst of the turmoil our world finds itself in, it is comforting to read the words of someone whose lifetime saw so much pain and change and, yet, encountered and shared the hope and love of God with and through others.

Robert Ellsberg, once a member of the Catholic Worker Movement and current editor-in-chief and publisher at Orbis Books, has collected the diaries of Dorothy Day and compiled them into a one-volume spiritual treasure. In the introduction to this wonderful work, Ellsberg describes the process of taking over a thousand pages of single-spaced handwritten entries and editing them to provide readers with a personal encounter with Dorothy Day’s. In so doing, Ellsberg made a discovery that would prove enriching to both editor and reader—within an untouched bedside table, Day’s final entries from the year of her passing were found. And so, The Duty of Delight provides us with a glimpse of a woman driven by her love of God and her passion for social justice from the 1930s to days before her death in 1980.

I admit I knew very little about the personal life of Dorothy Day until a few years ago when I read a few older articles about her that a friend was introducing to his students. Before then, all I really  knew was that Dorothy Day was a devout convert to Catholicism, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement along with Peter Maurin, and a woman whose strong convictions often took her to prison or labeled her an anarchist. Despite what little I knew of Dorothy Day, I did know that she was, perhaps, one of the most recognizable Catholic heavyweights of the 20th century—a future The Duty of Delightsaint (whether or not she believed it).

The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day can easily be compared to the writings of one of Day’s beloved saints, St. Therese of Lisieux. While both focused on doing little things for love of God, Day’s longer life witnessed historical changes that rocked both the Church and the world. In Day’s diaries we read about her reactions and meditations on World War II, the dropping of the Atomic bomb, the Vietnam War, the changes of Vatican II, the death of Pope John Paul I, the beginning of the papacy of Pope John Paul II, the tragedy at Jonestown, and the dangers faced by the Jesuits in El Salvador. Through her writings we see a glimpse of a woman who not just a fiery figure in the social justice movement, but also a woman well-versed in the Old and New Testaments and the Christian classics (C.S. Lewis, Therese of Lisieux, Henri Nouwen, etc.). She was extremely well-read and a prolific journalist who was unafraid to voice her thoughts on current events and to take a pacifist stance on occasions of war. Readers will also note that Day had a great love of music and often adds her observations or thoughts on musical works.

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of her diaries is that, at the end of the day, this woman who will one day become an official Saint of the church, was one of us. Her entries include self-examinations along with yearly and day-to-day resolutions to be less judgmental, to love more, to pray, to be more compassionate and to follow Jesus. Even those things that so many of us see as remarkable, Dorothy saw simply as her mission to carry on the love of God and to carry the message of love and peace to others.

Day’s life was not without suffering. She was labeled a socialist, an anarchist, a communist. She cooked and cleaned and fed others. She contracted lice and scabies because of the work she did. She endured tough trips across the country and around the world. She survived the death of friends and loved ones. She dealt with the reality of the harsh and changing world around her. She endured criticism and carried on. In everything she did and in everything she endured, she never compromised her beliefs. Her love for humanity and, above all, her love for God gave her the strength and the courage to go on.

At the end of her life, Day suffered from the pain of being unable to do as much as she once did. We read the signs of aging and loneliness within the pages of the last years of her life. So many of those she worked with in the early days of the Catholic Worker Movement are now gone and the world has changed dramatically, but the cause lives on. She writes of her memory not being the same as it once was and of her inability to get around as she once did. In an entry dated September ‘77 she writes, “If I did not believe in profoundly in the primacy of the spiritual, the importance of prayer, these would be hard days for me, inactive as I am” (647). It was faith that sustained her at the start of her journey; it was faith that sustained her at the end of her journey.

Ellsberg tells us that in her final journal entry, nine days before her death, Dorothy  Day inserted a prayer card that reads:

O Lord and master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power and idle talk. But give to thy servant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for Thou art blessed from all ages to ages, Amen. – St. Ephraim the Syrian’s Prayer of Penance

Reflective and striving for goodness until the end.

The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day  is a wonderful collection of intimate writings that reveal the heart and mind of a devout Catholic, humanitarian, and peacemaker. Each page is an inspiration and the collection is a Christian classic for our time–at the right time.


Disclaimer: Image Books provided me with a free copy of The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day upon its release in exchange for a completely honest review of the book. This is my honest review.

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