Dorothy Day and Julian of Norwich: God’s friends and neighbors

Dorothy Day and Julian of Norwich: God’s friends and neighbors

Callaghan, Michael J

AT FIRST GLANCE THE TEXTS AND THE WOMEN of the texts have little in common. But when love is the final answer, these women of diverse experiences are drawn into the same person “whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”1 Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, and The Book of Showings by Julian of Norwich only show differences on the surface. These women lived lives of varied, mutually exclusive experiences, with seemingly little to connect them, yet somehow love crossed the boundaries. The differences between two centuries, two continents, two cultures, two religious experiences, and two women comprise a beautiful fabric, divinely woven. This is the fabric of the experience of God’s love. God’s labor and God the laborer give birth to the true disciple.

Fifteen years after her mystical experience of Christ’s passionate love for creation and for each creature in particular (13 May 1373), Julian records what she heard from God. She writes this down in chapter 86 of the long text of Showings: “What, wouldst thou know thy Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well. Love was his meaning.”2 Dorothy Day-of twentieth century America, of a family of newspaper people from Brooklyn, lover of Forster, mother of Tamar Teresa-concludes her discourse on the long loneliness, the profound and terrible experience of our search for God and God’s search for us with these words: “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”3 How can a valid connection begin to be made between Julian’s and Dorothy Day’s experiences of God? Where is the common ground? The question is an invitation to explore three experiences and relate them to a fourth. The topics under discussion include: Julian’s experience of the passion of Christ, the hazelnut episode of chapter 5 of the long text of Showings, the parable of the lord and the servant in chapter 51 of Julian’s text, and the meaning of the term “long loneliness” as used by Dorothy Day. Julian longed for the God who surprised her by leading her to her neighbor; Dorothy longed for the neighbor who surprised her by being God.

Julian: Initiator and Lover

Julian of Norwich was a medieval woman who was an initiator. She took the initiative in asking God for an experience of Christ’s passion, for bodily sickness, and for three wounds. She recorded these experiences in two accounts, one called “short,” the other “long.” Julian’s initiative also led her to seek residence in a dwelling attached to a church in the town of Norwich in East Anglia during England’s high Middle Ages. We know that Julian was still alive in 1416. She would spend the latter part of her life as an anchoress attached to this church and would spend most days in prayer and give some spiritual direction. This initiative-taking, medieval woman knew and spoke Latin, lived in an atmosphere heavily influenced by Dominican and Augustinian theology, and set the jewel of women’s contributions to the life of the medieval Church and its theology in a not-to-be ignored slant of light.4

Julian’s motivation for requesting the sight and experience of Christ’s passion is the motivation of the lover:

I would I had been, that time, with Magdalene and with the others that were Christ’s lovers, that I might have seen, bodily, the passion that Our Lord suffered for me-that I might have suffered with him as did those others that loved him”

Julian’s focus is on the wounds of Christ, and it is, indeed, the wounds from the crown of thorns on Christ’s head that is the subject of Julian’s first revelation, described in the fourth chapter of the long text of Showings. This revelation is Trinitarian, Marian, and takes on the aroma of medieval courtesy. Julian sees the passion of Christ in the blood flowing from Christ’s head as meant for herself and for all believers; there is solidarity. Julian experiences Christ as connected to the Father and the Spirit; there is “keeping,” “loving,” “joy,” and “bliss.”16 Julian is consoled in her experience by Mary, mother of the Lord; Julian finds acceptance. God’s courtesy is seen in his being lowered to humanity through Mary, for the sake of other creatures. God is good enough to share with Julian the “wisdom and truth” of Mary’s soul. Though the first of all believers, Mary “marvelled, with great reverence, that he willed to be born of her that was a simple creature of his making.”7

The portrayal of God in terms of medieval “courtesie” follows an old code of knighthood prominent in English literature since 1066. The French courtesie means more than romantic love or amor cortois. Courtesie means placing oneself between the evils of the world and the suffering individual. Hence, the Christ who reaches out to Julian is not just a lover-he suffers for her and for the world-Christ bleeds. Julian, receiving her revelation of love, uses the language of “courtesy” to explain her experience of God’s agape, God’s selfless love.

More than that, Julian theologizes on the community of God, the Trinity, in terms made understandable as amicitia (friendship). Julian speaks of the Trinity as “our everlasting lover.” Julian is taken by this lover’s approachability:

For I was truly astounded by the wonder and the marvel [of the Trinity] that he who is so reverend and dreadful should be so homely.8

If Julian is an initiator, she will come to this God frequently, while remaining at all times truly courteous and demur. As an educated woman of her times, Julian’s spiritual posture tells readers of the times in which she and they live. For Julian, God is the grand and gracious troubadour, living in a Trinity of hospitality, passion, and creativity.

The Hazelnut & The Lord and the Servant

In Julian’s economy of prayer, nothing created is important and nothing is more important to God than creation. Julian reveals this lesson in the fifth chapter of Showings, the hazelnut episode. The hazelnut is all creation resting in the hands of the Creator, resting in the love of the Creator. The seeming insignificance of the object (a filbert) intensifies Julian’s experience of God’s love. God makes the insignificant and unknown to be known and loved. This is Julian’s experience of a gracious God who steps out of “otherness” into creation, into Word and world made flesh. For Julian, the issue is not the object but the one ennobling the object: “Our good Lord shewed that it is the greatest pleasure to him that a simple soul come to him nakedly, plainly, and homely.”9

Of all the experiences of God in prayer portrayed in Julian’s long text of Showings, none is more striking and well-known than the parable of the lord and the servant. The strength of this parable lies in Julian’s portrayal of “the long loneliness” of the servant in the ditch “[whose] good will and great desire were the only cause of his falling.”10 The servant’s real suffering is that he is no longer able to see his Lord whom he loves. The depth of the servant’s anguish is surpassed only by the depth of the Lord’s beholding the servant in tenderness and love.11

This is Julian’s reality check. She knows that she cannot be caught up with her Lord in the air even as an anchoress. This side of Paradise has its barbs and wires, even in fourteenth-century England. Julian learns from this parable, however, that what is perceived as evil, in the finite mind, may be looked upon as love-yet-to-be in the divine:

This man was hurt in his powers, and made full feeble; and he was stunned in his understanding, in that he was turned from the beholding of his Lord. But his will was preserved in God’s sight; for his will I saw our Lord commend and approve.12

Julian embraced Christ’s passion as she embraced a lover; Julian felt God’s familiar, Trinitarian embrace in her vision of the hazelnut; Julian learned of God’s eternal vote of confidence in the parable of the lord and the servant.

Dorothy Day: “The Long Loneliness”

The only thing Dorothy Day ever said that in any way touched on the life of Julian of Norwich was to call herself a “sybaritic anchorite.”13 Dorothy chose these words to describe her life on Staten Island, New York, with Forster, her companion and the father of their child, Tamar Teresa. This was a time of Dorothy’s desiring, perhaps for the first time consciously as an adult, a relationship with God. She wanted this more for Tamar than for herself. It was a critical moment in her life. Dorothy was about to become a mother after arguing the very point of family, justice, and responsibility with God in many and varied ways.

Dorothy was open to her movement into this new life-role: “I was tied down because I was going to have a baby…. I rejoiced in it.”14 The father of the child taught Dorothy a new way of loving life: “His ardent love of creation brought me to the Creator of all things.”15 Like Julian’s hazelnut, Dorothy’s pregnancy is a lesson living within her:

Along the beach I found it appropriate to say the Te Deum. When I worked about the house, I found myself addressing the Blessed Virgin and turning toward her statue.16

The dilemma Dorothy faces is that she must let go of an earthly love to embrace a heavenly one. The poignancy of this is reflected in Dorothy’s love for Forster who refused any religious affiliation for himself or his child:

Because I was grateful for love, I was grateful for life, and living with Forster made me appreciate it and even reverence it still more… [yet] his extreme individualism made him feel that he of all men should not be a father.17

As Julian’s bodily sickness was followed by serenity and peace, so Dorothy’s prayers for faith ease the loneliness of the days following Tamar’s birth in March 1927 and her baptism at the church of Our Lady Help of Christians in the Tottenville neighborhood of Staten Island:

A woman does not want to be alone at such a time… Becoming a Catholic would mean facing life alone …. Forster would have nothing to do with religion or with me if I embraced it… [and] for the most part I felt a great stillness…. With this time came the need to worship and adore.18

Following her own conditional baptism in the summer of 1928, Dorothy was left alone with Tamar Teresa. Now motivated by grace, she reached out into the long loneliness of others:

I was lonely, deadly lonely…. Young and old, even in the busiest years of our lives, we women especially are the victims of the long loneliness. Men may go away and become desert Fathers, but there are no desert mothers. Even the anchoresses led rather sociable lives, with bookbinding and spiritual counseling, even if they did have to stay in one place.19

Prompted by this long, spiritual loneliness, Dorothy asked to share in the passion of Christ by writing about the plight of the poor and most abandoned. Her guide through that mystical labyrinth was the noble French peasant, Peter Maurin.

The Catholic Worker

Dorothy’s “book of showings”became known as The Catholic Worker. The choice of the title for the newspaper tells much about Dorothy’s desire to embrace the suffering Christ among her own people:

Catholics were the poor, and most of them had little ambition or hope of bettering their condition to the extent of achieving ownership of home or business, or further education for their children. They accepted things as they were with humility and looked for a better life to come. They thought, in other words, that God meant it to be so.20

A former De La Salle Christian Brother, Peter Maurin saw himself as the light of Dorothy’s life primarily in the way he would educate her Catholic intellect. Dorothy reflects on her education:

The nearest he came to being critical of me was to tell me that my education lacked Catholic background. He began to give it to me by talking about the history of the Church, by going even further back into time and speaking of the prophets of Israel as well as the Fathers of the Church. His friends were Jews, Protestants, agnostics, as well as Catholics, and he found a common ground with all in what he termed the Thomistic doctrine of the common good.21

Peter Maurin was, so to speak, God’s courteous gesture, pointing Dorothy Day in the direction of her “even Christian” and beyond. With Peter as the mastermind, Dorothy offered the people of America’s large cities a wholesome, close-to-nature lifestyle in the farming areas of New York and Pennsylvania. Dorothy Day contemplated God from the perspective of the breadlines of the 1930s and from the perspective of those who contemplated the world and its creator from inside the jail cell. Peter didn’t always agree with Dorothy’s methods, but he was with her every step of that long loneliness.

Dorothy saw the face of Christ on the worker without work, the family without family, and the neighbor without a friend. She saw the Depression in America as humans and human institutions failing one another. She perceived this depression as God’s depression, as God’ loneliness for humans to love one another. Perhaps without knowing it, Dorothy utters the most contemplative words of her search for God:

We were just sitting there talking when Peter Maurin came in. We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form, saying “We need bread.” …We were just sitting there talking and someone said, “Let’s all go live on a farm.” …It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.22

Just to sit and talk was enough for Julian-she talked to God in a neighborly way. Just to sit and talk was enough for God-God spoke to Dorothy in a neighborly way, sending her to fetch his dear ditched servants.


1. Thomas Merton, TheSeven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt, 1948), p. 225.

2. Julian of Norwich, The Revelations of Divine Love of Julian of Norwich: Long Text, trans. James Walsh, SJ (New York: Harper, 1961), p. 209.

3. Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness: An Autobiography (New York: Harper and Row, 1952), p. 286.

4. Edmund College andJames Walsh, eds., “Introduction,” Julian of Norwich: Showings, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist, 1978), pp. 43-45.

5. Ibid., p. 47.

6. Ibid., p. 51.

7. Ibid., p. 52.

8. Ibid., p. 51.

9. Ibid., p. 54.

10. Ibid., p. 133.

11. Ibid., pp. 133-134.

12. Ibid., p. 136.

13. The Long Loneliness, p. 133.

14. Ibid., p. 135.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., p. 133.

17. Ibid., p. 135.

18. Ibid., pp. 137, 139.

19. Ibid., pp. 157-158.

20. Ibid., p. 210.

21. Ibid., p. 170.

22. Ibid., pp. 285-186.

Michael J. Callaghan, CM

Michael J. Callaghan, cm, is Assistant Professor of English at St. John’s University in Jamaica, Ny. He received his Ph.D. from New York University, with a dissertation on Thomas Merton and the English mystics. He has given several presentations on Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, and has written about Merton.

Copyright Spiritual Life Winter 2002

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