One of the passages that touched me in the Dorothy Day autobiography, The Long Loneliness, refers to an apparently insignificant episode during Dorothy’s infancy.
Dorothy Day grew up in the USA in 20th Century, in a family without religion. Around her there were catholics, episcopalians and evangelists, and the churches with their hymns held a great fascination for the young Dorothy although she never went in.
Her conversion happened much later, after a failed romance, an abortion, a new romance and a baby in her arms. And the leap to sainthood, an unquestionable sainthood, would start exactly there with the experience of a wanted maternity. Dorothy would soon found The Catholic Worker newspaper for laborers and the Houses of Hospitality that are found widespread in the USA taking in the homeless in need.
But getting back to that episode from her childhood:
As I think back I realize that it was Mrs. Barrett, a neighbor, who gave me my first impulse toward Catholicism. It was already late in the morning that I went to Kathryn’s to call her out to play. There was no one on the porch or in the kitchen. The breakfast dishes had long been washed. The flats were known as railroad flats, that is, one room connected with another. Thinking the children must be in the front room, I burst in and ran through the bedrooms.
In the front bedroom Mrs. Barrett was down on her knees, saying her prayers. She turned to tell me that Kathryn and the children had all gone to the store and then went on with her praying. I felt a burst of love toward Mrs. Barrett that I have never forgotten, a feeling of gratitude and happiness that warmed my heart.
It was she who taught me what to do. For many a night after that, I used to plague my sister with my long prayers. I would kneel until my knees ached and I was cold and stiff. She would beg me to come into bed and tell her a story. I, in turn, would insist on her joining in. So we began to practice being saints – it was a game with us.
A mother kneeling on the floor saying her prayers in the silence of her poor and humble home. How many catholic mothers today kneel on the floor to say their prayers?
Dorothy never saw her own mother praying, but the vision of the mother of Kathryn was enough to start her out on her long process of conversion. Are we, catholic fathers and mothers, and us catechists, conscious of the tremendous importance of that gesture – will we one day be caught unawares at prayer by a child?…