Spiritual Barrenness: Reflections on Dorothy Day’s ‘The Long Loneliness’ – Part 2

Mary TeckYear of the Pilgrim

By Teresa Vargo

Continued from Part 1

A third of the way through her biography, Dorothy wrote, “I never intended to write an autobiography. I’ve always wanted instead to tell of things that brought me to God and that reminded me of God”(94). Here we see the longing. Towards the beginning she quoted a character from Dostoevsky novel The Possessed, “All my life I have been haunted by God… this must indeed be so as former friends and comrades have said this of me” (11). She was haunted by a longing for God.

When her mom had a little baby boy, Dorothy was absolutely enamored with him. She really experienced God through him. Despite all of this she still spoke about this longing and called out for union. But she was also afraid of this longing for God. She approached God through this longing and realized that He is a living God – the living God. Omnipotent. And this is a scary thing.

This is what I call the transition from longing to loneliness. She had the longing for God and then she grew tired of it, or scared even. She was scared of the intimacy with the eternal God – the Triune God – and this put her over the edge. Once she eliminated the transcendent element of it, the longing stopped being a longing. When we’re lonely it’s because we are thinking of things on a natural plane. We want something that we can grasp and possess, but the longing is a loneliness for something that we can only aspire towards. And it’s always God. It’s always God. So she entered into the loneliness because she denied the transcendent. At this point she wrote:

Really, I had a very stress less life doing for the first time exactly what I wanted to do. Attending only those classes I wished to attend, coming and going at whatever hour of the night I pleased. My freedom intoxicated me. Well, for a time, at least. (44)

There is a contradiction between her saying that her freedom intoxicated her and how she felt so alone in the world. She wrote that she was, “Divorced from my family, from all security, even from God. I felt a sense of reckless arrogance and with this recklessness a sense of danger in which I rejoiced.” (45) She was living on the edge with loneliness. There’s a radical freedom when we’re not in a relationship with God. Well, I wouldn’t call it freedom, per se, because freedom is being who we are, who we were created to be. But let’s just understand freedom as free-will. She could do whatever she wanted. I am not talking about the freedom of human flourishing. She could do whatever she wanted and yet she was completely alone. She was not living for anyone but herself and yet she had this desire in her, although she didn’t know what it was for.

When we think of freedom, free-will, and making choices we often get the feeling of infinity. We can make an infinite number of choices when we are free. However, at the end of the day, infinite choices are not what we really want at all. Later, Dorothy lived with a Catholic family who had their own dysfunction. She was troubled because she had the same difficulties, the same heartaches, and she felt totally alone, whereas the family had God. They had God to worship. They had saints to pray to and ask for help. And it was their example that convinced her that worship, adoration, thanksgiving, and supplication were the noblest acts that men were capable of in this life, “I felt that it was necessary for man to worship, that he was most truly himself when engaged in that act.” (93) It was the beginning of reopening her eyes.

The second part of the book is called natural happiness. This part deals with Forster, a man who Dorothy had a common law marriage with, and her daughter Tamar… Dorothy was in love with God and she wanted to be in unity with Him – hence the longing. But despite her trying, she wasn’t united with Him.

Forster didn’t like her absorption in the supernatural. He was more into the created world. I don’t want to separate the supernatural and natural because God can reveal Himself through love for creation helped Dorothy love God, the Creator of all these things. But Forster stopped at that. He didn’t see the natural reality from the perspective of a different cause and he would criticize her for her beliefs. Forster would say, “Oh, you’re never satisfied.” He wanted to take their love and really absolutize it, but Dorothy was still longing, longing, longing. Eventually she got pregnant and thought, “Okay, this is finally want I want.” But in the end even that wasn’t the content of her longing.

When Tamar was born, Dorothy knew she wanted her daughter baptized. But she also knew that if Tamar was baptized she would have to be a practicing Catholic, which would rupture her and Forster’s relationship. But she did it. She did it. She knew what would happen and she did it anyway. It reminded me of this line from the Gospels, “Unless you lose yourself for My sake you will not find it.” Now Dorothy was alone with her baby. And yet, this was the first time in her life when she was the least alone because she had opened herself to God.

Dorothy gave up earthly love for God. She wrote how she loved the Church for Christ. So what’s this longing? She had a longing for God, a communion with creation and with God, and she had worship. Where does all this come together? Well, with the Eucharist. The Eucharist is Christ’s Body and Blood. He is the only one. God is the only one who can satisfy our longing. I want to go back to this whole theme of longing and resisting that longing. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the times when we fast we realize how much we’re filling ourselves with things we don’t need.

Once we embrace that longing we embrace the fact that nothing in this world can satisfy us. And then what do we do? We become so used to checking our phone, Facebook page, and email messages. We’re always waiting for the next thing, but do we really even want the next thing? Is that really what we’re looking for? I know sometimes I don’t want to check my phone. Then I’ll check my phone. But as soon as I do, I lose any interior peace I had. Why am I grasping for something that I know is not going to be there?

The longing is for an experience that is waiting to happen. It’s how God is going to make you holy. That longing is how God wants to make you holy. That longing is how God wants to intrude in your life. The challenge is not to suppress it. It’s going to burn; it’s going to be painful. It’s the longing and desire for God, but also God’s longing and desire for us because He’s always looking at us.

We want to be pierced. We want to long, because our holiness depends on it. The worst thing that anyone can do is fill themselves with things that are passing away. We squelch any desire for the eternal and make ourselves numb to what is truly lasting. So I pray for all of you reading this that you have the grace to become the woman that God wants you to be. He will always provide the grace but you have to receive it. And stay with the longing. Challenge yourself to long. Enter into it and see what happens.

God Bless you.

The full article was originally published in the ‘Year of the Mother’ Journal.