The diaries of Dorothy Day are their own nervous system of tunneling roots, fragmentations, and scattered, delightful moments—full of names and dates and places, a record of her travels and her desire to be a better neighbor to the people she lived with and who got on her nerves constantly. And near the end of her life, her mind wandering a bit, her stories and books and poems and musical influences bloomed at different times in her memory. When the diary entries slowed to a trickle, after a small heart attack confined her to bed much of the time, she often had a Dostoevsky quote she returned to: “The world will be saved by beauty.” Time and again, she wrote it down, even as her own vine was withering.
When I’ve heard others quote Dostoevsky’s line or see it in curly font on a bright mug, it makes me angry. The world will be saved by beauty. Tell this to people who are working three jobs to pay the rent, who have applied for family members to immigrate to the United States but were just informed the program has been shut down; tell this to people in the grips of addiction and disease and despair; tell this to the kid who goes to school hungry every morning. Try telling people who are in immense suffering that beauty will save the world, in your smooth voice and with an untroubled face, and see how that goes for you.
But when Dorothy quotes Dostoevsky, she has suffering in mind—when she quotes him, she is thinking about his entire collection of works, his oeuvre, his entire philosophy of the world. When, in 1973, she was reflecting on forty years of the Catholic Worker movement, she said, “I do not think I could have carried on with a loving heart all these years without Dostoyevsky’s understanding of poverty, suffering, and drunkenness.” When she quoted Dostoevsky at the end of her life, she understood his thick novels crammed full of terrible and funny and sad moments—and those that reflected the lives of the mentally ill. The pages and pages and pages spent on lament, on calling out the world for just how bad it was and just how messed up humans could be, when—out of nowhere—beauty would show its face and change everything. Father Zosima’s perfume smell, the story of the onion, a moment of kindness shared with a peasant, a meal gorgeously rendered into print. Bright bursts of beauty meant more to people like Dostoevsky and Dorothy Day because they knew how hard-earned it was. For them, beauty was a sign of the resilience of humanity in the face of cruelty. A sign of resurrection. A small redemption of all the misery the earth endured. And it pointed to a God who was present and good, despite all evidence to the contrary. It reminded Dorothy that God was a creator, delighting in creation of all types. A sweet strawberry, a good cup of coffee, a freshly rolled cigarette, a beautiful piano piece, a play put on by one of her friends, a Russian novel. Each one a precious gift to be savored, to give strength to the one who needs to get up and face the realities of the world again and again.
In her diaries, Dorothy also wrote about what she called “the duty of delight.” Making the conscious decision to meditate on the good things the world has to offer as a spiritual practice, a discipline of sorts. The duty of delight was a way for Dorothy to acknowledge and engage in the totality of a sinful, systematically unequal and unjust world and still find ways to be met with what Dostoevsky called beauty, what others call grace. At the end of her life, there in her cramped little room with a shelf full of beloved Russian novels, Dorothy dreamed of this phrase—“the world will be saved by beauty.” She did not dream about writing one more screed about labor unions, or racism, or militarism, or capitalism. She wanted to dream about beauty. And that means something to me.
Sometimes I joke that I am very good at practicing the duty of despair. The opposite of the duty of delight, it often feels like my eyes are trained to see all the bad in the world. I see suffering, I see inequality, I see how connected I am to systems that oppress and marginalize—and I don’t see how I can rest, or be happy, or experience joy when not everyone in the world is flourishing. There are seeds of the savior complex in my own temperament: I often become weighed down by the desire to fix complex and centuries-old issues with my own two hands. My despair doesn’t actually help anyone or make the world a better place for my neighbors. So I paid close attention to all the times Dorothy wrote about her simple life pleasures and the duty of delight. I paid close attention, because I know how much help I need to be able to move forward in a world that is both filled with joy and filled with injustice. While researching and writing this book, the world was set on fire. I signed my book contract in March of 2020, when COVID-19 first shut down our schools, churches, and neighborhood gatherings. My neighbors scrambled for food, to pay the rent after being laid off. My children struggled in isolation. Black Lives Matter protests broke out that first summer in response to the murder of George Floyd. I joined the protests in Portland and was tear-gassed repeatedly by federal police officers for simply holding a sign that said “Mother Mary knows what it is like to lose a son to state violence.” “Wildfires raged across Oregon, a symptom of the pressing reality of climate change. The sun glowed an eerie orange color while we were trapped inside our houses for a week at a time, unable to safely breathe the ash-laden air. White evangelicals, my people, were making the news for protesting mask mandates and for refusing to follow public health guidelines to minimize the spread of a deadly virus. A caustic and polarizing presidential election ensued, with the majority of my community voting for Donald Trump and refusing to acknowledge the election of Joe Biden. Political instability in countries like Myanmar and Afghanistan impacted me personally as I had so many friends and neighbors anxious about loved ones who couldn’t escape to safety. Mental health crises soared, both in general and in my own family. I continued to homeschool my children, processing my own grief at how quickly my life had turned upside down. Was this the new normal? Trapped at home, my own anxiety skyrocketing, reading headline after headline about overcrowded hospitals and police violence and Christians advocating for a rush back to normal, no matter how many people died? I struggled. Reading about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, I missed my own old life—the English classes, the walks to school, the rhythms of being a neighbor and friend. A deadly pandemic that made it unsafe to be around people was my worst nightmare, and here I was being forced to live through it. People I knew died of COVID-19, alone and in a hospital, convinced vaccines wouldn’t help. The duty of despair threatened to overwhelm me. But how can one find delight during such unprecedented times? I didn’t know the answer to this, but reading Dorothy’s words compelled me to keep my eyes wide open in case something good could be born in the midst of great upheaval.
I thought about the duty of delight the other day when my good friend and neighbor came over. Together, she and I had spent months trying to figure out ways to advocate for her family members to get out of Afghanistan. Nothing we did worked. I had lost hope in all the bureaucracies of my country; I knew that fundamentally we were an unwelcoming place with immigration policies that did not prioritize at-risk people. But once again, we were going to go through the stacks of paperwork and try to get multiple relatives on the radar of the US government. My friend was sad; I could see it in her eyes, her face. Her shoulder ached at night so that she couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t bake bread anymore or even sew. She was collecting cans to send money to relatives—if you don’t help your family out right now, she told me, then they will no longer be your family. Her phone was constantly buzzing—desperate requests from various people asking for money, help, aid, and for a path for them to be able to come and live in safety. The Taliban had taken over Kabul, and people were scared. Jobs were scarce, winter was setting in, and there wasn’t enough food. “My niece called me today,” my friend told me. “She called because she had a dream about me.” This niece is married to a man who was an interpreter for the US Army for many years, who by all accounts should have been resettled in the United States but was left behind for the Taliban to target. They are trapped in their country, considered enemies now by the people who are in power. No matter how many forms we filled out, there was never any news. No one ever contacted them. They lived their lives waiting, waiting, waiting. “What was the dream?” I asked. “She dreamed that she and I were together, that we were walking together in the snow. We were talking, visiting, and walking as the snow fell down, slowly, slowly.” My friend told me this, and both of us were quiet for a very long time. My eyes filled with tears as I envisioned this scene.
The stillness of a snowy day, the loveliness of visiting with a family member you have not seen in years. My friend looked at me, and she also was teary. “Maybe there is hope,” she said. “Maybe one day we will walk together in the beautiful snow.” I think about the dream, the snow, the hope that seems almost too precious to hold. And I think this is what the duty of delight truly is: the ability to see the world and all of its terrors while still holding on to hope. Grief permeates our world. Like the events of the 1930s, we are at another turning point. The bread lines are long, rents are rising, livable wages are hard to find. But in the shadow of great turmoil, hope arises. In times of great suffering, so, too, do we see humanity—especially at the margins—rise up and declare another way is possible. We do not need to accept this world as it is. We can point out how flawed it is, how much it hurts us and others, and we can do something to change it. Another world is possible. It is right around the corner; I can almost feel it with my fingertips. A world where everyone is treated as a beloved child of God. A world where those who have survived the worst life has to offer are given a space to finally rest. A snowy walk with loved ones, the muffled sounds of laughter and tears. A world, broken seemingly beyond repair, stitched together with delight. It’s my duty to pay attention to the suffering. And it is my duty to pay attention to delight. Dorothy Day taught me this, along with all of my neighbors who have survived the ends of their own worlds. Together, we hope; together, we delight. Together, we live another day, connected to each other.
This is an excerpt from Unruly Saint, part 3.