Embracing Our Unruly Lives: A Review of Unruly Saint

March 2, 2023
Author: D. L. Mayfield
Publisher: Broadleaf Books
Publishing Date: November 8, 2022
Pages: 256 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-1506473598

Before I read the book Unruly Saint by D. L. Mayfield, I knew very little about Dorothy Day apart from a few inspirational quotes attributed to her in feel-good, daily calendars. I did not know about her work to provide hospitality to those experiencing homelessness, nor did I realize she was viewed with suspicion by the United States government for her socialist convictions. But mostly, I didn’t realize the way her passionate beliefs about caring for the poor and the way those beliefs arose out of her Catholic faith led to profound loss and loneliness in her life.

In Unruly Saint, Mayfield introduces the reader to Dorothy Day’s journey from socialist protester and journalist to devout Catholic, and later to founder of the newspaper Catholic Worker and houses of hospitality across the United States. As Mayfield writes about Day’s life, she reflects on the way Dorothy’s story intersects her own. Together, the stories of Dorothy Day and D. L. Mayfield invite the reader to consider his or her own story and the way God might be calling the reader to prioritize kindness, justice, and hospitality.

At a young age, Dorothy became acutely aware of the struggles of the poor. She read about the burdens of the working poor who labored in unsafe conditions for hardly enough money to survive. Her keen eyes observed the truth of what she read, and she channeled these observations into passionate journalistic pieces. 

Dorothy found community among others who were passionate about social change just like she was. She spent late evenings talking with people who wanted to see labor conditions improve and the needs of the people being met. She was inspired to try living on $1.82 a week, which was the amount a single woman would have received from charity organizations at that time1. And she wrote about her experiences and her vision for a better future.

I found myself inspired by the passion and conviction of young Dorothy Day: her willingness to take risks, to get intimately acquainted with those who were vulnerable and on the margins of life, and for her courage in speaking out in ways that had consequences.

Dorothy found love with a man who was, in many ways, her opposite. Mayfield writes, “Tall, quiet, and reserved, (Forster Batterham) was the opposite of Dorothy in many ways. In a rush, they fell in love, a love that gave birth in many ways to the next chapter of her life.” Forster was an anarchist and shared many of Dorothy’s passions, but he was against “the institution of the family” and religion. 

Even though her socialist comrades considered religion “the opiate of the masses,” Dorothy found herself drawn to prayer. She read about Jesus, and was drawn to the call in Scripture to care for the poor. When Dorothy became pregnant with her daughter Tamar, she decided she would have her child baptized in the Catholic Church, even though such a decision was distasteful to Forster. 

Eventually, her religious convictions compelled her to end her relationship with Forster, and left many of her friends and co-conspirators bewildered. They could not make sense of her desire to belong to the Catholic Church.

My heart ached for the loneliness and isolation Dorothy Day experienced in the aftermath of her religious conversion. For a short season of my own life, I found myself ostracized and isolated because of my religious beliefs, and I remember the sting of the loneliness of those years. Yet, in my situation, I had been transplanted into a community in which I was a religious minority. Dorothy Day chose to leave the community in which she was already rooted to follow the call of God. I deeply admire her for that.

“Dorothy Day chose to leave the community in which she was already rooted to follow the call of God.”

Throughout the pages of Unruly Saint, D. L. Mayfield shares the incredible journey of Dorothy Day as she sought to be faithful to God’s calling to serve the poor. I marveled as she responded to the deepening physical needs of her neighbors during the Great Depression, and I wondered how she could have the patience and stamina to have an open-door policy and a never-ending pot of coffee for whomever might stop by.

I was perplexed by Dorothy’s relationship with Peter Maurin, a man who just showed up at her door and told her she needed to do more. His influence led to the creation of the Catholic Worker, the establishment of houses of hospitality, and a movement of farming and community. Even though Dorothy was annoyed by Peter, she did not turn him away. Even though Peter had his head in the clouds and didn’t have the stick-to-it-iveness to do the work by himself, his ideas and words got underneath Dorothy’s skin and irritated her until she had no choice but to act.

Ultimately, Unruly Saint inspired me to take a hard look at my own life. Are my values in alignment with what’s important to God? Am I willing to step out in faith, even when doing so leads me down a lonely path?

“Am I willing to step out in faith, even when doing so leads me down a lonely path?”

On the wall behind my desk, I have a framed picture of Mary, the mother of Jesus, feeding some chickens. Next to Mary are the words “Our Lady of Chickens.” When I saw this picture, I fell in love with it, both because I have some backyard chickens and because I loved the reminder that the holy people from years past were also people who rolled up their sleeves and did menial tasks like feeding the chickens. 

As I read about the Catholic Worker and the illustrations that accompanied it, I became curious. After some research, I realized this picture I’ve had hanging near my desk was drawn by Ade Bethune, a woman who did many of the illustrations for Catholic Worker. It seems I was drawn to Dorothy Day’s work before I even realized it, and now that I’ve learned more about her life, I’ve become even more curious, because it is in the humblest of places that we often encounter Jesus, though we are often tempted to look for him in more glamorous locations.

About the Author
  • April Fiet is a mom of two school-age kids and a co-pastor alongside her husband, Jeff, at the First Presbyterian Church of Scottsbluff, Nebraska.

  1. This occurred in 1916. https://catholicworker.org/72-html/  

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