Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother, Kate Hennessy (Scribner, 2017)
My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir, Macy Halford (Knopf, 2017)
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, Valeria Luiselli. (Coffee House Press, 2017)
ACTIVISTS, ARTISTS, RELIGIOUS FOLKS—those of us trying to love our neighbor with all our hearts—could use a good book or two these days. After all, to be a writer is to experience a sort of beautiful affliction. All the best writers have the gift of noticing, of forever paying attention to both the good and bad of the world. This gift can feel especially harrowing in times of turmoil, of global and local suffering, when injustice is blatant and seems to go unpunished. For myself, someone who longs to see signs of God’s beautiful kingdom burst forth in our world, our current reality feels almost frantic with bad news. The antidote, I have realized, to the poison of reactionary social media, is to immerse myself in the words of people who are good at noticing everything, and who have spent long hours considering all that their attentions cherish.
Take this, for instance: Dorothy Day used to wear beautiful dresses, until one day she didn’t. Her granddaughter, Kate Hennessy, found them in the very back of a dresser drawer, evidence of another world of patterns and colors and style. Day’s daughter, Tamar, had kept them through all those decades since Day had eschewed them for clothes that better fit her pious phase, which was to last a very long time. Tamar, a quiet soul raised amid the tumult of the birth of the Catholic Worker movement, living in houses of hospitality next to drunkards and the mentally ill and the poor in spirit and materials, loved many things about her life, but she didn’t love piety. When her mother began to give up things in order to be good, Tamar felt as if she herself might have been one of those luxuries.
It is moments like this—Kate Hennessy taking an intimate detail from her grandmother’s life and viewing it through her mother’s lens—that stick in your soul. Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty is a hard book to read. It is a meticulously researched biography of a modern-day saint that contains so many failures and traumas and quiet moments of grief that it can overwhelm a person who might read it looking for a bit of Day’s divine connection to love.
Hennessy doesn’t shy away from the controversy of her grandmother’s beginnings: activism, socialism, suicide attempts, multiple marriage proposals, a failed marriage, an abortion, hobnobbing with all sorts of wild and troubled creative types as she tried to find her way in the world. But it is the latter part of Day’s life—after she had her daughter and converted to Catholicism—where the real failures start to weigh heavy. Inspired by the philosophy of French peasant-theologian Peter Maurin, who wandered into her first house of hospitality, Day started writing and inspiring others to join her in a movement implementing Catholic social teaching. The movement’s ideals of pacifism and voluntary poverty attracted hundreds of thousands of subscriptions to her paper, the Catholic Worker, speaking gigs all over the country, droves of people asking for advice or wanting to join her mission, and plenty of people in poverty coming to her for help and to see if it was all true.
As the decades march on, the failures start to pile up. As someone who longs to be like Dorothy Day, I was faced with the truth that her long and tumultuous life does not seem very attractive. And the longer it goes on, the more sorrow there is. But Hennessey, working from the diaries as well as a large collection of letters, comes back to how often Day wrote of love. At times Hennessey seems to suggest that Day’s attempts to find beauty in everything (she often quoted her beloved Dostoevsky that “beauty will save the world”) reveals something rather desperate, something almost to be pitied.
It was during one of the harsh years of the 1940s (the Catholic Worker took a strong pacifist stance that was immensely unpopular, and their first farming community collapsed) that Day, in a moment of despair, asked Maurin, “Do you ever become discouraged when you see our failures?” “No,” he replied, “because I know how deep-rooted the evil is.”
The fact that acknowledging the magnitude of evil in the hearts of mankind appears as a sort of comforting truth is a testament to the sheer difficulty of Day’s life—and her daughter’s. Tamar, the book’s second main character, suffers constantly, particularly after she embarks at age eighteen on a troubled marriage to David Hennessy, father of her nine children (the author is the youngest). His erratic, angry ways, inability to keep a job, and dislike of Dorothy were constant sources of pain to Tamar. Tamar’s troubles revealed deep divides between her and her mother, who often wrote and encouraged Tamar to be a better wife and to stop complaining. Dorothy, for all her love for the poor, never truly seemed to recognize how poor in spirit her own daughter was. “Dorothy was rarely fooled by people, and could spot the egoist, the troublemaker, the needy, the lonely, and the fragile, and yet she couldn’t read her own daughter,” Hennessey writes. Interspersed throughout Tamar’s story is grief at the rules of Dorothy’s beloved religion, including its injunctions against birth control and divorce—Tamar’s grief and also Kate’s. What set Day on her life path became a burden laid on the shoulders of her family.
Kate Hennessy is a beautiful writer, and in some sense this might be the truest biography of Dorothy Day we will ever get. But one can’t help but sense the sadness of her being so close, yet never fully comprehending the Love that drove Day forward. Neither Tamar, nor Kate Hennessey, nor Day’s lover Forster Batterham, nor most of her grandchildren or great-grandchildren loved the Catholic Church or sought God in the same ways she did. Does this make Day a failure?
Throughout the book, Hennessy weaves pieces of her own story into the framework of her grandmother’s life. The effect deepens the sense of ambivalence toward Day’s legacy. Hennessey herself comes across as a wanderer, someone who has been wounded by her proximity to a saint and her inability to conform either to a life of devotion or of typical American striving. By exploring her grandmother’s story, she is working to make sense of her own.
Hennessy’s approach brought to mind Macy Halford’s recent book, My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir. Halford, raised as a Texan Baptist, also begins with the lives of her grandmother and mother. The childhood scenes are rich with detail: the plush white carpet and the glory of their church, the small leather-bound volume of Oswald Chambers’s My Utmost for His Highest that all three women treasured.
Halford’s book is a mixture of biography and memoir, with a sprinkling of the history of evangelical politics. Bookended by scenes from her grandmother’s home in Texas, the middle section is slightly bogged down by a historical analysis of Chambers’s influence on evangelicals and a recounting of Halford’s career at The New Yorker and wanderings in Paris as she researches this very book. The looming questions, including why evangelicals (such as George W. Bush) like Chambers so much, are never directly answered, yet one gets the sense that this particular religious subculture prefers a theology divorced from the past, focused relentlessly on the present.
The “devotional memoir” is a genre I hope expands. The way books shape us and our communities is worth noticing, and examining their influence can create pathways of valuable self-recognition. Halford’s devotion to My Utmost propels her to understand the man behind it—which proves difficult indeed, seeing as Chambers was full of slippery and shifting theology drawn from an array of traditions. He liked to quote Emerson’s dictum that consistency was the hobgoblin of little minds.
In the last year of his life, he wrote: “I began to notice with astonishment that I do not read in order to note what I disagree with, as many people seem to do. The author’s conclusions are of very little moment to me. What is of moment is a living mind completely expressed. That to me is a great joy.” This should be a deeply troubling statement to conservative Christians raised to believe that there is a very narrow path to God—yet so many continue to read and love Chambers’s book of devotionals.
Halford seems to suggest that it is the bite-size pieces, apart from any overarching theologies or heresies or global cultures, which make My Utmost a continual bestseller. Chambers’s deep connection to the divine speaks to her on a level she is not quite able to articulate. It comes through in the man’s life, starting when he was young and wanted to be an “artist for God,” breaking away from his Scottish minister father: “Armed with a paintbrush, he’d seen himself heroically battling against bad art to reclaim the aesthetic kingdom for Christ, revealing in the canvas the God who’d sent Him.”
Chambers’s writing was both mystical and rigid, influenced by his childhood belief in fairies and his later commitment to holiness, the idea that one could be perfected in this life. He was a unique person, writing into a third space. Catholics, he wrote, often made an idol of their church, Protestants of scripture. Both approaches were fundamentally flawed, he said, since one couldn’t limit a living person to a handful of practices or words or stories set down on a page. A living person was unpredictable. A person changed over time. A person had force. 1 Corinthians 4:20 was important in shaping his understanding: “For the kingdom of God is not in word but in power.” It was power that Oswald wanted—and perhaps this is Halford’s most interesting observation, and her most damning one.
Halford writes that even living in a dream world of Parisian picnics, she “felt America’s problems in my bones.” Her journey from Texas to New York to Paris and then back to Texas serves as the arc to a familiar story: we must leave home in order to see ourselves clearly. In the last chapters, after picking through Chambers’s various theologies, Halford returns home for the 2012 elections. Her beloved Nana’s mind is slipping, and she watches Fox News constantly. “Who are you going to vote for?” Halford asks her. “For righteousness, of course,” Nana replies.
Halford returns to the Baptist church of her childhood, which has been transformed. The pastor now projects his messages, TED-Talk style, to a wider audience, urging his listeners to vote Republican. Halford marvels at the fear so many in her church seem to feel at the prospect of Obama winning another term; she realizes that the books she grew up loving—including both the Bible and My Utmost—have been replaced with Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, that Christian discipleship has been co-opted by a quest for power. And perhaps that quest was always an influence.
Halford is a skilled biographer. She researches the roots of each theology Chambers embraced—though she knows this matters little to the audience that made My Utmost for His Highest a bestseller. Her book’s ending feels portentous, warning us of coming political upset. She never comes out and says it, but she seems to be trying to honor her grandmother and her home state of Texas while also warning readers of the consequences of backing scared and religious people into a cultural corner.
At the end, I wanted more answers—but this probably says more about my longing to make the world right than about Halford’s book. When she returns to Texas, she notices so many changes—megachurches bubbling up like “black gold,” the fear of Democrats everywhere. She wonders if it is anti-intellectualism, while brushing quickly over the fact that her childhood pastor was a staunch segregationist who viewed northerners as infidels, and that decades later her church is still mostly white. There are deeper roots here that I wanted explored. Instead of writing so much about Chambers’s theological whims borrowed from cultures half a world away, Halford could have written about the troubled history of evangelicalism and white supremacy in her own country, in her own backyard.
In any case, Halford’s grappling with how her past affects her present, and what it means to return to the past with a critical eye, is something that many will relate to. “As one acquired more knowledge about the past, it became more difficult to hold unabashedly bright views of it—even the most golden of childhoods dulled with knowledge.”
Her stubborn refusal to give simplistic answers—either for our current political situation or for why American evangelicals had such a hand in it—forces the reader to pause and consider. Having grown up in a conservative evangelical home, I identified with much of Halford’s journey, including the slow dimming of my own memories in the light of our national discourse.
Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions reveals a very different childhood than mine or Halford’s, yet she also touches on current political questions and asks probing questions about what it means to be an American. This isn’t a typical memoir, rather a book-length essay on her experiences as an interpreter for unaccompanied minors from Latin America.
Between April and August of 2015, more than 102,000 unaccompanied children were detained at the US border, all of whom needed to be processed in the system and either granted asylum or sent back where they came from. Each would need to respond to a forty-part questionnaire that would help determine their fate.
Unlike Hennessey and Halford, Luiselli doesn’t so much grapple with her own past as with the past of all US citizens reading along: What is our national identity when it comes to how we treat immigrants? To how we treat children? To messes we cannot make sense of in places like Guatemala, Venezuela, and El Salvador, where violence flows like water? In lucid, meticulous prose, Luiselli probes our cultivated ignorance of crises like the child migrant influx and reveals how northern US society feels completely cut off from responsibility for the problem.
The book opens on a road trip from New Jersey to Arizona that Luiselli, a Mexican citizen who has lived and taught in the US for several years, took with her husband and two children in 2014 while they were waiting to hear if their green cards had been approved. For three years, Luiselli and her husband had been “non-resident aliens,” and ideas of citizenship and home are close to her mind. She writes constantly of borders—inside her protected rental car with her family, speeding across the desert. She spends much of her time trying to break down barriers—trying to understand the current migrant crisis by buying local newspapers, listening to radio reports, talking about history with her husband and children.
The biggest border is one she crosses in her own mind, often: what if it were her children? This is the most basic, pressing, Christ-like question: what if everyone was our neighbor, our child, ourselves, a tiny piece of God roaming the earth?
Luiselli finds herself compelled to offer her services as a volunteer interpreter.
The first of the forty questions the children must answer is the one Luiselli is asking herself as she writes the book, and one they all struggle with: Why did you come to the United States?
The answers are not easy, to this or the thirty-nine other questions that lace their way throughout the book’s bigger narrative, which is nothing less than the story of God’s children being abandoned by the world. Luiselli tries to make it concrete by focusing on one little boy, sharing his answers in fits and starts—showing him rubbing a copy of a police report he had filled out a year and a half earlier, which eventually secures his asylum. “Perhaps the only way to grant any justice—were that even possible—is by hearing and recording these stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and to shame us.”
Luiselli, like Hennessey and Halford, is trying to make sense of her present through the lens of her past. Mexico blends into the US, as Luiselli makes it clear that there are no set borders to violence and fear and danger. The memory of the first child she interviews sticks with her, and when she sees him a year or two later she is horrified to find out that the gang he escaped in rural Mexico is thriving in his New Jersey high school. She implicates herself, her country of origin, and her adopted country in the wide-ranging problem of violence. A writer with an eye for contradiction, she makes the reader uncomfortable. How the US treats migrants is one thing, but she also indicts Mexico’s terrible policies toward Central American migrants. She is calling forth the age-old question of nations and individuals: Who is my neighbor? And who am I allowed to treat as if they were not?
She makes the ironic observation that the room where she interviews the children looks like a church, while the questionnaire she is translating reveals a world “more fucked-up than we can possibly imagine.” Later, she writes, “it is not even the American Dream that they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they are born.” The veil is thin for her, because she can easily imagine what it would be like for her own children to undertake a perilous journey with coyotes (as the smugglers are known), riding the notorious La Bestia, the train that snakes its way through Mexico. As Luiselli learns more about what has led to an explosion in children making their way north alone, she discovers terrible truths. Children have an instinct for survival. Children have a primal need to eat, drink, hide from danger, keep going until they can’t anymore. “Children chase after life, even if that chase might end up killing them.”
One day Luiselli’s five-year-old daughter asks her, “So how does the story of these children end?” I don’t know, her mother says. But even in her daughter’s question I see the seeds of hope: of neighbor-love blooming in the desert of crisis. This isn’t Luiselli reckoning with her past. It is America reckoning with our present, with whether or not we have followed the law of God, with whether or not we are content to see them suffer—indicting ourselves along with our country.
Perhaps this is where these three books converge: three writers, all women, all adept at paying attention, trying to reconcile their relationship to America in a time of crisis, America and her religion, her politics, her maddening complexities and hypocrisies. “Everyone must live their own disaster,” Tamar Hennessey would say, referring to herself, her mother, and the Catholic Worker movement. And all of us must reckon with the disasters we were born into, of family and country. That is what these books invite us to do—by examining a home-grown saint, a best-selling book, and a government document. And through the careful eyes, ears, and hearts of these writers, we have the opportunity to enter into the questions, even if we don’t receive the answers we always longed for.