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Film captures Day's dark night of the soul


One hundred years after the birth of the founding mother of the Catholic Worker movement, renewed interest in her life has prompted HarperCollins to reissue Dorothy Day's 1952 autobiography, The Long Loneliness, and Paulist Pictures to make "Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story" (available now in local rental stores; for sale from Paulist Press after Nov. 8, Day's birthday).

There is irony here. The woman who wrote The Long Loneliness would surely have cringed at the film's frank portrayal of the part of her life she was most reluctant to discuss -- her far-from-saintly years in the Greenwich Village of the 1920s. After Dorothy's conversion, she used to scour libraries in an attempt to remove every copy she could find of The Eleventh Virgin, her lightly fictionalized account of those more libertine days.

The events she most wanted to forget, however, are the very ones that enable her life to speak powerfully to young women today. It would, on the other hand, be hard for most people to identify with the second half of Day's life. As Fr. Daniel Berrigan has written, those who knew her, or of her, only in her later years "saw her as a phenomenal presence whose greatness and goodness had descended full-blown in our midst, easily won and as easily dispensed." By the time she died in 1980, "she seemed always to have been as she was: serene, graced with her aura of piety and pity."

That is the stuff of which plaster saints are made. But when the producer of "Romero" told Dorothy he wanted to tell her story, the elderly Dorothy must have understood only too well what that would entail. "Wait until I'm dead," she told Paulist Fr. Ellwood Kieser. And he did.

Kieser explains that he chose to concentrate on the years from Dorothy's 20th to 40th birthday because that was when she faced her greatest crises and made her most important decisions. The film thus begins with the arrival of the young Dorothy (winsomely played by Moira Kelly) on a New York scene where she encountered intellectual excitement, social unrest and degrading poverty.

Happy to be leaving home, she threw herself into the exciting milieu of artists, radicals and reformers. She broke into journalism, hobnobbed with the likes of Eugene O'Neill and embraced the causes of women's rights, trade unionism and socialism. Along the way, she picked up a fashionable scorn of religion, began to smoke, drink and swear, and sought affection in a series of love affairs.

The most significant of these romances was with a newspaperman, Lionel Moise, who refused to marry her when she became pregnant and dumped her after she had an abortion at his insistence. On the rebound from the caddish Moise, she was briefly married to a man named Barkeley Tobey about whom little is known. In short, she lived a life that was to become commonplace after the 1960s when an entire culture began to imitate the ways and tastes of the avant-garde of an earlier era.

In 1925 Dorothy cohabited happily for a time with anarchist Forster Batterham. From this union came her treasured only child, Tamar. By this time, however, she was being drawn to the Catholic church. This turn of events horrified the freethinking Batterham. In The Long Loneliness, Dorothy wrote of the pain after their breakup: "For a woman who had known the joys of marriage, yes, it was hard. It was years before I awakened without that longing for a face pressed against my breast, an arm around my shoulder. The sense of loss was there. It was a price I had paid. I was Abraham who had sacrificed Isaac. And yet I had Isaac. I had Tamar."

From that turning point, "Entertaining Angels" moves quickly to the historic meeting with Peter Maurin (Martin Sheen), the early years of the Catholic Worker movement, and Dorothy's dark night of the soul as she pays the price for the lifestyle she has chosen.

The decision to dwell on Dorothy's spiritual journey may have hurt the film at the box office. Even to some of Dorothy's admirers, her orthodox Catholicism is an embarrassing aspect of her life. They would prefer more picketing, less piety. But that would have taken the yeast out of the loaf. As Kieser saw, his film's power derives from its depiction of one who was lost, then found, then transformed, a life changed through relationship with Jesus Christ.

There's no getting around it: Dorothy Day made practically everyone, including herself, uncomfortable. Her chosen life was a scandal to secular intellectuals and folly to social engineers. Her social activism was inextricably bound up with her intensely orthodox Catholicism. Her commitment to the poor was part and parcel of her life of prayer.

Even when she became a venerated figure in her 60s, Day did not lend herself to the soft lens treatment. "Entertaining Angels" provides only a glimpse of her at that stage of her life: a gray-haired woman in a jail cell, arrested after some protest. At first, all one sees is the glowing red tip of a cigarette, then the outlines of the familiar, craggy face. Yes, it's Dorothy, still a troublemaker after all these years.

One of the most affecting scenes in "Entertaining Angels" deals with a crisis that drives Dorothy to storm into church in an Old Testament fury. "What do you want from me?" she angrily demands at the foot of the crucifix. The answer, she comes to realize, is: everything. And everything is just about what she ultimately gave.

Robert Coles recounts how she once thought it her "lifetime job" to track down every copy of The Eleventh Virgin. But one day a priest reprimanded her, "You can't have much faith in God if you're taking the life he has given you and using it that way. God is the one who forgives us if we ask him, and it sounds like you don't even want forgiveness -- just to get rid of the books."

"Entertaining Angels" is the fruit of Dorothy's "letting go," her tacit permission to let her story become a gift of consolation and hope to future generations of searchers, flounderers and single parents. Though the film had a short life at the box office, the video has a potentially vast audience. It is a compelling modern rendering of a timeless story, a drama of looking for love in all the wrong places and being found by the most demanding lover of all.

Mary Ann Glendon is a professor at Harvard Law School. She led the Vatican delegation to the 1995 United Nations Women's Conference in Beijing.

National Catholic Reporter, October 3, 1997