The Way of Beauty Some Reflections on Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton

In his address to Congress last month, Pope Francis mentioned four exemplars of the great American enterprise: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.  The first two men, protagonists for the liberty and full equality of African-Americans, were assassinated for this cause. 

Prior to their conversions to the Catholic faith, Day and Merton led meaningless lives.  After their conversions, they embraced a new vision with new direction and new energy. Because of them, the world has been made a better place.

Dorothy Day (1897-1980)

Dorothy Day was an American journalist and social activist-turned-pacifist.  Up until 1920, Dorothy had lived a bohemian life that included failed love affairs and an abortion. Shortly after the birth of her daughter, Tamar Teresa, Dorothy met Sr. Aloysia, a Sister of Charity who not only encouraged Dorothy to have her daughter baptized.  She was also Dorothy's mentor in the faith and stood as her godparent when she herself was baptized.


In 1932, Dorothy met Peter Maurin and through him was introduced to the Church's social teaching. Maurin, a French peasant-philosopher and teacher, had read the writings of the Church Fathers and the papal social encyclicals of Leo XIII and his successors. They gave Dorothy a keen understanding of the plight of the poor.  From then on, her life was completely dedicated to them. 

In 1933, with Maurin, Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker Movement, a community of laypeople from all walks of life that stressed the value and dignity of every person. She embraced voluntary poverty and established a house of hospitality and founded a series of farming communes in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. 

One of the earliest farming communes, The Peter Maurin Farm, was located in Tottenville, Staten Island, NY, a place that attracted high school students in their free time to explore a rural way of life.  After their manual work, they prayed the equivalent of the Liturgy of the Hours and sang Gregorian Chant from the Liber Usualis not only at Mass but outside of Mass as well.  The hope was that some of these teenagers would eventually join the movement.

Attempting to make a newspaper available to every individual who desired it, Dorothy founded The Catholic Worker to announce a Catholic presence and concern for the poor and the oppressed.  To this day, the paper sells for one penny. The Catholic Worker became the principal competitor of the Communist Daily Worker, which advocated class warfare and violent revolution.  Instead she favored the ideal of Christian communism.  She was largely misunderstood and was opposed by Cardinal Francis Spellman, then the archbishop of New York.  Still she attracted writers such as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, the Jesuit priest-poet Daniel Berrigan, S.J. From her publishing enterprise, she was able to establish a house of hospitality on the Lower East Side, a shelter that provided food and clothing to the poor.


In 1955, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement committed themselves to pacifism and to non-violence.  They were part of the American Catholic peace movement that supported a number of peace organizations and causes. She was among other Catholic leaders opposed to the Vietnam War. 

The Catholic Church has opened up the cause for Dorothy Day's possible canonization. Currently, the Church refers to her as Servant of God. 

On February 13th, 2013, toward the end of his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI quoted from Dorothy Day's writings and said: "The journey towards faith in such a secularized environment was particularly difficult, but Grace acts nonetheless."

Thomas Merton (1915-68) 

By the time Thomas Merton was twenty-seven year old in 1942, he had lived a life both aesthetically-rich and hedonistic. Born into the Episcopalian faith, Merton had observed Catholicism from a distance.  His father, a painter, was not shy in criticizing it as they traveled from one European city to the next before and after World War I. 

In 1931, Merton's father died of a brain tumor. At boarding schools, the youth began sowing his wild oats.  He studied little and drank much. Virtually all biographies mention that his year at Cambridge was a moral wasteland that included fathering a child with a young woman he had met there.  According to Paul Elie who, in 2003, wrote about four modern American Catholic writers, the child's name has never been disclosed.  The legal action was discreetly settled by Merton's guardian who promptly ordered him home.

Merton next enrolled at Columbia University where he studied English literature and was introduced to Communism there.  He briefly joined the Young Communist League and also became a member of Alpha Delta Phi as well as the Philolexian Society, a literary and debate group.  

More in The Way of Beauty

In 1937, Merton began to take notice of Catholic churches and started to read Catholic literature.  He had bought a book by Étienne Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, which he thought would help him in a medieval French literature course.  Apparently, the title did not betray its Catholic orthodoxy.  Little did he know what an influence it would exert on him!  The poetry of Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins also made a deep impression.  Shortly after, Merton asked to be baptized at Corpus Christi Church located near Columbia University.

Following his baptism, life took on a new meaning.  He was drawn to the priesthood.  But where?  Could he cope with "the pitch of active intensity and military routine" of the Society of Jesus? Perhaps the Franciscan Order?  He took a teaching position at the Franciscan-run St. Bonaventure University in Olean, NY. 

In 1941, Merton made a weekend retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Bardstown, KY. At long last, he had found his home.  In 1942, he was accepted as a novice-monk.  His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, not only became an instant best-seller but also attracted many young men to the Trappist Order.  

In religion, he was known as Father Louis, O.C.S.O, but to the world, he was always Thomas Merton, writer, poet, contemplative and activist, and Trappist monk.

During the next twenty years, Merton expanded his writings from strictly religious topics such as contemplative prayer, asceticism, and aesthetics to controversial issues such as violence and war, matters of social justice and ecumenical dialogue.

Thomas Merton's Influence

Merton also gave conferences to the younger monks, and many of the conferences were preserved in his own voice and remastered for CDs.  They are from the archives of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY.  

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One might expect Merton to speak in ethereal, sentimental platitudes.  Nothing is farther from the truth.  Merton's voice is sharp but resonant and decisive with a no-nonsense style of delivery.  His lexicon ranges from the sublime to the colloquial, yes even to slang-"that's baloney."  It is emblematic of an erutdite man who once lived a deeply flawed worldly life while enjoying a broad classical education.  He is a savvy spiritual master who gets down to gutsy realities.

Thomas Merton's Legacy

In December, 1968, Merton was in Bangkok attending an ecumenical conference of monks.  As he stepped out of his bath on one of those sweltering South Asian days, he died from heart failure due in part to an electric shock. 

In his speech to congress last month, Pope Francis said that "Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church.  He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between people and religions."

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