For a more Christian view of life, the best books I have run across are In Defense of Purityby Dietrich von Hildebrand … the Encyclical on Christian marriage by Pope Pius XI, and the Nuptial Mass in the Missal. – Dorothy Day
[Editor’s note: the following is a composite of autobiographical vignettes written by Dorothy Day.]
I hobbled down the darkened stairwell of the Upper East Side flat in New York City. My steps were unsteady. My left arm held the banister tightly. My right arm clutched my abdomen. It was burning in pain. I walked out onto the street alone in the dark. It was in September of 1919. I was twenty-one years old and I had just aborted my baby.
Lionel, my boyfriend, promised to pick me up at the flat after it was all over. I waited in pain from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. but he never came. When I got home to his apartment I found only a note. He said he had left for a new job and, regarding my abortion, that I was only one of God knows how many millions of women who go through the same thing. Don’t build up any hopes. It is best, in fact, that you forget me.
I wrote about this experience in my autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin. In my youth, I had thought that the greatest gift that life could offer would be a faith in God and a hereafter. But then there were too many people passing through my life, — too many activities — too much pleasure (not happiness). The life of the flesh called to me as a good and wholesome life, regardless of God’s laws. What was good and what was evil? It is easy enough to stifle conscience for a time. The satisfied flesh has its own law. How much time I wasted during those years! I had fallen a long way from my youthful ideals. When I was fifteen I wrote, “I am working always, always on guard, praying without ceasing to overcome all physical sensations and be purely spiritual.”
But these “physical sensations” allured me. I lived a social-activist Bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village, New York City. I think back and remember myself, hurrying along from party to party, and all the friends, and the drinking, and the talk, and the crushes, and falling in love. I fell in love with a newspaperman named Lionel Moise. I got pregnant. He said that if I had the baby, he would leave me. I wanted the baby but I wanted Lionel more. So, I had the abortion and I lost them both.
In 1924, I started a “live-in” relationship with Forster Batterham, an atheist and an anarchist. He believed in nothing except personal freedom to do as you please. We took up residence in a beach bungalow on Staten Island, New York. We foreshadowed the hippies of the sixties and lived a carefree lifestyle living off the land and sea — gardening, fishing and claming. I thought that we would be contributing to the misery of the world if we failed to rejoice in the sun, the moon, and the stars, in the rivers which surrounded the island on which we lived and in the cool breezes of the bay. Like Dostoevsky, I began to believe that the world would be saved by beauty. It was this beautiful, natural world that slowly led me back to God. “How can there be no God,” I asked Forster, “when there are all these beautiful things?”
However, I felt that my home was not a home without a child. For a long time, I had thought that I could not have a child. No matter how much one is loved or one loves, that love is lonely without a child. It is incomplete. Soon I became pregnant again. I saw this as a miracle from God because I thought that He had left me barren after the abortion. I wrote in a letter to a friend, I always rather expected an ugly grotesque thing which only I could love; expecting perhaps to see my sins in the child.
On the contrary, I gave birth to a beautiful daughter, Tamar Teresa, on March 4, 1926. I remembered that the labor pains swept over me like waves in the beautiful rhythm of the sea. When I became bored and impatient with the steady restlessness of those waves of pain, I thought of all the other and more futile kinds of pain I would rather not have had. Toothaches, earaches, and broken arms. I had had them all. And this was a much more satisfactory and accomplishing pain, I comforted myself.
The waves of pain became tidal waves. Earthquake and fire swept my body. Through the rush and roar of the cataclysm that was all about me, I heard the murmur of the doctor and the answered murmur of the nurse at my head. In a white blaze of thankfulness, I heard faint about the clamor in my ears, a peculiar squawk. They handed my baby to me. I placed her on my full breast where she mouthed around, too lazy to tug for food. I thought, what do you want, little bird? That it should run into your mouth, I suppose. But no, you must work for your provender already!
No matter how cynically or casually the worldly may treat the birth of a child, it remains spiritually and physically a tremendous event. God pity the woman who does not feel the fear, the awe, and the joy of bringing a child into the world.
I was filled with awe of my baby’s new life and in gratitude to God I wanted her to be baptized in the Catholic Church. I did not want my child to flounder as I had often floundered. I wanted to believe, and I wanted my child to believe, and if belonging to the Church would give her so inestimable a grace as faith in God, and the companionable love of the Saints then the thing to do was to have her baptized a Catholic. This was the final straw for Forster who wanted nothing to do with any commitments or what he termed as my “absorption in the supernatural”.
I knew that I was going to have my child baptized a Catholic, cost what it may. I knew I was not going to have her floundering as I had done, doubting and hesitating, undisciplined and amoral. I felt it was the greatest thing I could do for my child.
So, Tamar was baptized in June. For myself, I prayed for the gift of faith. I was sure, yet not sure. I postponed the day of decision. To become a Catholic meant for me to give up a mate with whom I was much in love. It got to the point where it was the simple question of whether I chose God or man. I chose God and I lost Forster. I was baptized on the Feast of The Holy Innocents, December 28, 1927. It was something I had to do. I was tired of following the devices and desires of my own heart, of doing what I wanted to do, what my desires told me to do, which always seemed to lead me astray. The cost was the loss of the man I loved, but it paid for the salvation of my child and myself.
I always had a great regret for my abortion. In fact, I tried to cover it up and to destroy as many copies of The Eleventh Virgin as I could find. But my priest chided me and said, “You can’t have much faith in God if you’re taking the life given to you and using it that way. God is the one who forgives us if we ask, and it sounds like you don’t even want forgiveness — just to get rid of the books.” I never forgot what the priest pointed out — the vanity or pride at work in my heart. Since that time, I wasn’t as worried as I had been. If you believe in the mission of Jesus Christ, then you’re bound to try to let go of your past, in the sense that you are entitled to His forgiveness. To keep regretting what was, is to deny God’s grace.
After my conversion, I struggled to support my child as a single parent working as a free-lance writer. In December 1932, I was in Washington D.C. covering the Hunger March of the Unemployed. Watching the ragged men marching moved my sense of social justice and I was inspired to go to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to pray. I cried out to God in anguish that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.
When I returned to New York, I found waiting for me an unkempt man with fire in his eyes. Immediately he began preaching to me in a thick French accent his grand vision for social justice. His name was Peter Maurin and together we founded the Catholic Worker Movement. We opened houses of hospitality for the poor, the hungry, the homeless, and for abused women and pregnant mothers. We practiced the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
I’ll never forget the time that I had to literally stand up against birth control. My sister Della had worked for Margaret Sanger, foundress of Planned Parenthood. When Della exhorted me that I shouldn’t encourage my daughter Tamar to have so many children, I stood up firmly and walked out of the house whereupon Della ran after me weeping, saying, don’t leave me, don’t leave me. We just won’t talk about it again.
To me, birth control and abortion are genocide. I say, make room for children, don’t do away with them. I learned that prevention of conception when the act that one is performing is for the purpose of fusing the two lives more closely and so enrich them that another life springs forth, and the aborting of a life conceived are sins that are great frustrations in the natural and spiritual order.
The Sexual Revolution is a complete rebellion against authority, natural and supernatural, even against the body and its needs, its natural functions of child bearing. This is not reverence for life, it is a great denial and more resembles Nihilism than the revolution that they think they are furthering.