Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was co-founder and the main spokesperson for the “Catholic Worker” movement that began in the 1930’s in the United States. Beginning on May Day of 1933 with the first publication of the Catholic Worker, her approach advocated nonviolence, workers’ rights, and direct assistance to homeless and poor people within the framework of Catholic social teaching.
Along with co-founder Peter Maurin, Day helped set up nonsectarian “Hospitality Houses” and communal farms as means to help people directly who are in need. This might have qualified as a “faith-based organization”, yet there was no formal organization, nor was its mission to preach or convert. Instead it was to assist and provide community for those in need. There are currently two hundred such places worldwide.
Today’s American religious life seems exemplified less by her than by Joel Osteen, preaching an acquisitive “abundance” materialist form of spirituality from his megachurch in Houston that kept its doors closed during last year’s hurricane. For decades we have seen the Faustian support of many in the American religious community for politicians who do not represent their stated moral or religious values. Happily another side is attempting to be heard.
Over her lifetime Day became increasingly uncomfortable with standard leftist politics that often reduced people to solely economic creatures and who did not get to know any of the people they were purportedly attempting to help. Day, who advocated community-building on a local level and reaching out to those within reach, who eschewed petitions and donations for direct action, would also have been baffled by the modern internet and advocacy through social media. Yet her blend of spirituality and localized social activism was of creative synthesis that has relevance to our present situation, even if it seems not so at this very moment.
Day was in the news a few years ago when, coinciding with the short-lived Occupy movement and Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, the Catholic Church officially tracked her for eventual canonization, a process that normally takes decades to complete. This essay expands on an astrological profile I wrote at that time.
Although interested in religious matters from an early age, she was anything but saintly until well into her thirties: she had fit in well with atheist leftist radicals, also had a short marriage and divorce and an abortion as a young adult. Later in life, she ridiculed the idea of herself being a saint, not wanting to be thought of as somebody special that could diminish the possibilities for more ordinary people like me and you.
Here’s a short (eight minute) segment on Dorothy Day that provides some background and contains some interaction with her. Many of her writings are still in publication including her autobiography The Long Loneliness. Her voice comes across easily in her writings.
Her social stance was strongly influenced by Francis of Assisi and some twentieth century French Catholic social liberalism that even had an anarchist streak. She favored the writings of the Russian writer Peter Kropotkin whose works supported small communities of cooperation, not large-scale socialist “workers’ states”. Not trusting capitalist governments to act according to moral purpose and distrustful of socialism and communism as being capitalism on a national scale, Day advocated “distributism” – society’s goods should be distributed widely among many people not from a centralized bureaucracy but by the people themselves to one another.
Dorothy Without the Outers
Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto contribute to our understanding of Dorothy Day’s astrological chart but there is much to be found by first using only the seven visible planets. Astrologers often become distracted by the prominence of these outer planets and miss the importance more personal faster-moving planets.
Four visible planets, including Sun, Moon, and her Ascendant ruler, are in the Sixth or the Twelfth houses. In a Whole Sign house system, both are zodiac signs that are disconnected to the sign of the Ascendant, as is the Eighth. These places, when prominent, do not support a relatively carefree and happy life. For a few like Dorothy Day and Nelson Mandela, they help impel a lifetime of transformation. Dorothy Day found ordinary happiness elusive. Instead she appears to have let herself suffer through the contradictions of her nature and eventually become a person happy within her chosen (or God-given) vocation.
A Scorpio’s Scorpio
Day’s rising sign is Gemini, a sign that typically comes to mind when somebody who’s a good writer and communicator. Mercury, the ruler of her Ascendant, is in Scorpio, moving away from the Sun and joining a very powerful Mars in its own domicile or sign. Mercury is also conjunct the fixed star Zuben Eschalami or the North Scale of the constellation Libra – or is one of the claws of the Scorpion. Traditionally this star has been given the nature of Mercury and Jupiter, thus may have an involvement with larger community issues.
Mars is in its House Joy in the Sixth (especially helpful with adversity) and is in sect in her nocturnal chart. Mars’ sole drawback is being under the Sun’s beams, but this is surely a Mars that holds its own and add its power to Mercury and Sun. The strong connection between Mercury and Mars in fixed Scorpio tells us about her personal intensity and her unyielding attitudes, her penchant for advocacy journalism and the polemical essay. Her work showed capacity for self-righteous indignation, yet her writing style was clear and direct, as was her speaking style, allowing the reader or listener their own responses to the information she provided.
The Mercury-Mars pair, together with the Sun, also point to her continual spiritual self-examination. Conversations with psychiatrist-author Robert Coles, later published as A Radical Devotion, demonstrate a woman aware of her tendencies toward self-righteousness, do-gooder arrogance, impatience with stupidity, and the pride that goes with being a public person familiar with many public people. Without lapsing into false humility or self-deprecation (additional manifestations of pride, of course), Day approached her activist life as introspectively as time and energy permitted. Had she been a lesser mortal, this combination of planets could have rendered her intensity unbearable and she would have come across not as a saint but as a sanctimonious nuisance. Venus and Jupiter to the rescue!
The Benefics and Saturn and a Little About her Moon
Contrasting with Day’s strong Scorpio are the Venus and Jupiter, both in Libra in her Fifth House. In the Fifth, Venus is in its joy. In sect in her nocturnal chart and rising from the Sun, Venus has the further advantage of being conjunct the fixed star Spica: these give the planet a larger capacity to attract people to her. Alongside Jupiter, Venus adds personal magnetism that can manifest on a public level. People loved interviewing her, writing about her.
Jupiter is maybe equal to Mars in importance for Dorothy Day. Jupiter is out of sect but is oriental to the Sun, is happily placed in the Fifth House, is the dispositor of her Lots of Fortune and Spirit in Sagittarius (and both in the eleventh sign from them), and is the ruler of her Tenth place of career (as opposed to her Midheaven degree that’s in her Ninth). A modern astrologer may also note that Jupiter is in semi-square to Day’s Mercury-Sun conjunction, helping bring all these planets together.
We usually think that Jupiter is about ideology and large ideas, particularly those of religion and philosophy and history, but these are manifestations of a more basic nature. Instead, Jupiter’s role is to involve one in a wider field of activity, whether it is the neighborhood, the community, a political entity, a social or cultural environment, or the entire planet. Jupiter has a larger range than the conceptual or ideological – Jupiter is a true planetary pioneer.
Dorothy Day’s contribution was to practice human community continually and at close range. Although she was a writer and had a lot of ideas, they came from larger involvement that was personal, not conceptual. Despite the intensity of her nature and the nature of her work, people close to her often remarked about her lightheartedness and infectious sense of humor, these being jovial qualities. For somebody as tough and direct as Day, people meeting with her felt comfortable with her.
One detects an idealism in her Jupiter placement – especially since Jupiter’s dispositor is Venus that is also in Libra. Day’s advocacy of pacifism (especially during World War Two), distributism and global spiritual regeneration may strike the reader as sheltered in illusion. Yet she endeavored to make her goals practical and immediate, if not globally realizable.
Jupiter has an interesting connection with Saturn in her Seventh Place. They’re in sextile but also in a kind of mutual reception: Saturn in Sagittarius is in Jupiter’s sign and Jupiter is in Saturn’s exaltation. She had an interesting way of blending vision with discipline. Saturn in the same zodiacal sign as the Lot of Fortune and Spirit point to the austere lifestyle that she would find satisfying in her mature years. Of course, Saturn in the Seventh Place may also concern itself with difficulties in relationships. More about this below.
If we look at the Ninth House as that of established religion, it’s no wonder that, despite her leftist and even anarchist leanings, she converted to an organized church with a well-deserved reputation for institutional and patriarchal conservatism. As a young woman, her religious leanings set her apart from others in the radical community, most of whom were atheist, believing with Marx that religion was “the opiate of the people”.
Moon in is exalted in Taurus but its benefits are less accessible because Moon is in the Twelfth Place. We tend to think of Taurus as comfortable and sensual but, if she had some of those qualities, they seem secondary to her Mars-like intensity. If there was any “self-undoing” that would associate with her Moon in Taurus, it would concern the futility of finding a normal happy life. Instead, her Moon contributed to her comfort with those who were destitute – and during the Great Depression in New York these people were abundant.
What the Outer Planets Reveal
Pluto and Neptune are both in her First House, the latter in close conjunction with her Ascendant degree, and both planets trine Venus. We could posit a dreamy romantic nature made unfulfilled by Saturn in her Seventh Place. In terms of her eventual vocation, Venus allowed Neptune idealism to be more personal and more compassionate.
Did Neptune on the Ascendant make her mystical? There are plenty of people, like the current Speaker of the American House of Representatives, whose charts have this feature and they are not mystical at all. Dorothy Day had a love for the biographies and examples of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross and had an ongoing friendship with Thomas Merton, yet her contemplative life occurred in the rare moments that her active life allowed.
Her Ninth Harmonic astrological chart, often a portrait of spiritual possibility, contains Moon conjunct Neptune (they are forty degrees apart in her “radical” chart) and an opposition from Jupiter. Maybe she would be a mystic in her next life – or was in her last life – but this time communitarian Jupiter would be dominant over Moon/Neptune’s mystical or intuitive abilities.
I hardly ever use Chiron in a natal chart, mostly because I cannot make interpretive sense of it in the charts of most people I have worked with. Chiron seems prominent in Day’s natal chart and to manifest strongly in her life. Placed in Scorpio (again!) with Sun and Mercury and being very close to Mars, one could say that Chiron transformed her personal suffering to a larger perspective and a broader field of activity, “transpersonal” in different ways. I have seen people talk about their Chiron placements to assert their transformative natures but for many it just isn’t true. This time, for this person, it was.
Becoming Dorothy Day
Dorothy Day was the daughter of a middle-class family that lived in different parts of the country when she was growing up. Her father was a sports journalist and when she was young the family moved to San Francisco just in time for the earthquake in 1906. This was her first experience with homeless people. Because her father’s workplace was destroyed the family moved to Chicago and for time were of meager means. This afforded her the opportunity to pass through the slums of that city during a time of rapid industrialization and horrible poverty.
Young Dorothy was an avid reader and particularly loved Tolstoy and Dostoevsky who, in different ways, combined humanitarian with spiritual vision; her love for writers of the nineteenth century remained with her throughout her life. More peculiar was her strong interest in religion, the Hebrew prophets and the New Testament. Her fascination cannot be accounted for from her family background. As a youngster Dorothy was a “bookworm” with a few close friends and was indifferent to the usual teenage distractions and obsessions.
She went to college in Chicago but left after two years, moving to New York where her family had moved. And there became involved in the socialist and communist communities, joining the Wobblies (International Workers of the World) and making acquaintance with John Reed, Eugene O’Neill, and many others. She worked for various left-wing publications as a journalist and once interviewed fellow-Exemplary Margaret Sanger.
Arrested for participating in a demonstration for women’s suffrage in Washington, she spent time in jail amid prostitutes and other women from destitute backgrounds. In the early 1920’s she moved around and drifted between jobs (this was not a good time for the left.) During these years she had a short-term marriage that was a rebound from a relationship that ended when the man left her after she became pregnant and, at his request, had an abortion.
During these years Day wrote a semi-autobiographical novel oddly titled The Eleventh Virgin that was published and movie rights were purchased (it never came out as a movie). Although later she fantasized about finding all the library copies of this book and burning them all, her book provided her some financial security and the means to purchase a cottage offshore in Long Island. There she lived with the man who would be the love of her life.
Dorothy Day’s Saturn Return
Forster Batterham was a fellow anarchist, a biologist of sorts, and a fiercely intelligent and free-thinking man. She and Dorothy were a good fit, living together in a “common law marriage”. However, Foster was a devout atheist and averse to institutions of all kinds. Dorothy’s growing interest in Catholicism was a sore subject between them.
By autumn of 1926 Dorothy was pregnant, at the end of the year transiting Saturn was conjunct natal Saturn and her daughter Tamara was born in early spring 1927. Decision-time occurred in the summer of 1927 when she decided to have her daughter baptized as Catholic – to Forster’s horror. For Dorothy to become a Catholic she would have to be married to Forster in the church, something he would not let happen.
During this summer transiting Saturn stationed conjunct her natal Saturn – in the Seventh Place, of course. During the spring and summer first transiting Uranus and the transiting Jupiter, both in Aries, were exactly opposing her natal Jupiter in Libra. It was a recipe for life-altering changes.
By December 1927 each had reached a decisive point with the other. Forster left the home once again, but this time Dorothy would not let him back in. Then suddenly, toward the end of the month, Dorothy called a local priest and arranged her own baptism for the following day.
She and Forster would stay in touch over the years – they did have a daughter together – and Dorothy would entreat him to marry her, but he refused under her conditions. All indications are that Dorothy was celibate from this time onward.
Dorothy’s pregnancy and birth and the dissolution of her relationship with Forster occurred during a Sun-Moon decennial; on January 1, 1928, only a few days after her conversion ceremony, it changed to Sun-Jupiter! This was followed, two weeks later, by a progressed Full Moon, usually a time of fulfillment, but she would have to wait for this.
At that time there was no connection between her leftist political leanings and her new religious life. Her political friends, ever distrustful of Dorothy’s religious bent, now felt she had lapsed into “morbid escapism” and she drifted apart from many of them. Her early associations with the church were modest although she strongly disagreed with the church’s historical support for upper-class conservatism, for its worldwide support of repressive governments and their oppressive policies.
During the following years she and Tamara were frequently on the move. For a time, Day was employed in Hollywood as a screenwriter, but she soon left that. Mother and daughter found their way to Mexico, probably to Florida where Dorothy’s father lived, and eventually back to New York. She was continuing to make a living as a writer contributing to liberal Catholic magazines.
The Great Depression and Dorothy’s New Deal
In the autumn of 1932 Franklin Roosevelt was elected president during some of the worst moments of the Great Depression. Dorothy’s political leanings had been newly awakened by the poverty and destitution she saw in New York, yet she was no longer comfortable with what she would consider standard leftwing orthodoxy.
There were important mass demonstrations at that time, especially the “Hunger March” on Washington that promoted basic emergency reforms. Day covered this event as a journalist for Catholic publication Commonweal and it was a powerful experience for her. She had felt that both industrial capitalism and communism were both corrupt, and is there a way to promote a greater social good by being Catholic? It seemed to her that the only alternative to rapacious capitalism was some strain of Marxism that reduced people to economics. After the demonstration Dorothy went to Catholic University and prayed at the church there, in a state of confusion and agitation.
When she returned home to New York a man was waiting for her at her house, a referral from one of her publishers.
This was was Peter Maurin, a wandering Catholic social advocate from France who moved around all his adult life and mostly made his living as a laborer. This friendship began the process that launched the Catholic Workers movement and Dorothy’s vocation and subsequent fame.
Maurin had a strong theoretical background and was steeped in Catholic theology and social commentary. Dorothy Day, however, had charisma, social adeptness, and practicality – and she was also a very good writer and speaker. In May 1933, only a few months after they met, The Catholic Worker had its first publication. This would become her vehicle to communicate with a larger audience and to advocate for a peculiar kind of Catholic radicalism.
Within a year they had established the first Hospitality Houses in New York, others were begun by others in different cities, and they communal farms were in the planning stage. Day was on her way toward becoming a public figure, a colorful and radical character in her culture up to her death in 1980.
During the end of 1932 well into the winter of the following year, transiting Jupiter was in late Virgo, in its retrograde station in square to her Neptune: she appears to have found visionary but practical means to embody her humanitarian and religious ideals, maybe a re-awakening of inspiration. (In 1934 Jupiter would station direct squaring natal Pluto just in case her energy might flag.)
Important transits also marked the end of her relationship with Foster and the personal life that she knew. During most of 1932 and much of 1933, Pluto in Cancer was in square to her Venus in Libra, followed by Uranus opposing Venus from Aries. In 1933 transiting Saturn was in square to natal Moon. These ended any hopes of a relationship with her daughter’s father and started her into a life of hard work, celibacy, and voluntary poverty.
She had a powerful solar return for the year beginning on her birthday in November 1932, set for New York. This year began just before her departure for the Hunger March in Washington, and two months before her meeting Peter Maurin. The year ended with The Catholic Worker and a religious and social reform movement to do.
The most dramatic feature of her solar return is the presence of Sun on the Ascendant and Mars on the Midheaven. Sun rising with a Scorpio Ascendant indicates a year of visibility, a stronger ability to spread oneself along a larger canvass. The ruler of Scorpio is, of course, Mars, and Mars is culminating in Leo at the Midheaven, indicating a year of activity in the larger world. (Sun and Mars are also in mutual reception, each in the other’s sign.)
Her “lord of the year” – the ruler of her yearly profected Ascendant – is Moon that looks innocuous in the Sixth House until you see its applications to Mercury and Venus simultaneously, both at eight degrees of their respective signs. This configuration connects her life with people to her newfound guiding principles.
Jupiter is placed in its House Joy in the Eleventh Place and is in sextile to both Sun and Ascendant. Jupiter here in Virgo perfectly describes the situation – to accomplish her purposes, much practicality and focus was required.
From an article in The New York Review of Books (Jan. 28, 1971), from a veteran of Day’s movement: “There were never any committees around the Catholic Worker office. We just went out and did things. We didn’t form a Committee to Promote Improved Interracial Relations. We took Negroes into our homes and lived with them. We didn’t get up big-name letterheads to raise funds for strikers. We went out on the picket lines themselves.” This pattern would remain for the rest of her life.
During her last decades Day lived modestly within one of the Hospitality Houses, sometimes retreated to one of their farms. She wrote constantly and was mentor for many young people wanting to do some good for others. She mostly traveled by bus to lecture or attend lectures and, of course, to participate in demonstrations.
During the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930’s, while her leftist friends fought against Franco’s fascist-leaning Nationalists (favored by the Catholic Hierarchy) in favor of the left-leaning Republicans, Day criticized both sides equally. This brought her the favor of nobody.
As a young person Dorothy Day was part of the antiwar movement before and during World War I, an early protester of our military involvement in Vietnam forty years later. In between was World War II; she continued to be a pacifist despite great public criticism when The Catholic Worker lost two-thirds of its circulation. Needless to say, Day enthusiastically supported Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement.
As a young person she went to jail in 1917 demonstrating for women’s suffrage; over forty years later she was jailed assisting the farm workers’ strike led by Cesar Chavez. Although Day insisted that her life needed to be divided by her conversion, there is much continuity in her life.
She was never shy about acknowledging the Catholic Church’s historic complicity in the perpetuation of an unjust social and political order. For decades the Catholic Church in America, although relying on the European immigrant population to keep the pews filled and the bills paid, was staunchly conservative on social and cultural issues. Yet she endeavored to remain on cordial terms with the Catholic hierarchy and appears to have achieved their grudging respect during her lifetime and, long after he death, support for her eventual sainthood.
She applauded the anti-materialism of the radical movements of the 1960’s but had no patience with its aura of sexual liberation and drugs and she was ambivalent about the newly minted feminist movement. Nonetheless Abbie Hoffman once called Dorothy Day “the first hippie”. She took this as a complement.
Day Among the Exemplaries
Over the past year, my selection of exemplary people for this series has been wholly subjective, restricted to those I have admired who, in my estimation, have made positive contributions to our modern world. It’s interesting to see the patterns that emerge. For starters most of them have spent a lot of time in New York City.
With the notable exceptions of Hannah Arendt who was a major-league academic and Shostakovich who received a world-class musical education, these individuals are largely self-taught and were more likely to drop out of college to pursue their interests on their own. We see mostly writers who often attempted to use large ideas to confront their world, many of whom confronted totalitarian regimes and their supporting cultures. Some, like Malcolm X, George Orwell, and Rachel Carson used personal fame to empower the causes they advocated for, others like William Blake would be recognized only after their death for their genius. Dorothy Day was in many ways the opposite of Alan Watts whose writings stressed culture and the relevance of “foreign” ideas and methods to our contemporary social conditions, yet both people were outstanding critics of the prevalent culture.
If this series was more like Dante’s Divine Comedy that was similarly subjective but within a dream-scape of the medieval Christian afterlife, Dorothy Day would be residing in one of the highest heavens. No need would there be for a Catholic bureaucracy to acknowledge her as a saint sometime in the future.