Speaking of Mystic/Prophets….A Meditation with Dorothy Day

A great mystic and prophet of twentieth century America was Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement which hosts communities around the country dedicated to working with the poor both directly and indirectly.

Dorothy Day with the dress she wore during her last time in jail, signed by the other women with who she was held. Photo by Jack Payden-Travers, on Flickr

Many of its participants take strong stands against injustice of many kinds and many have protested non-violently and gone to jail for it.  As Dorothy did on numerous occasions. 

Here is one testimony from her time in jail:

All through those weary first days in jail when I was in solitary confinement, the only thoughts that brought comfort to my soul were those lines in the Psalms that expressed the terror and misery of man suddenly stricken and abandoned. Solitude and hunger and weariness of spirit — these sharpened my perceptions so that I suffered not only my own sorrow but the sorrows of those about me. I was no longer myself. I was man. I was no longer a young girl, part of a radical movement seeking justice for those oppressed. I was the oppressed. I was that drug addict, screaming and tossing in her cell, beating her head against the wall. I was that shoplifter who for rebellion was sentenced to solitary. I was that woman who had killed her children, who had murdered her lover.

Dorothy is describing the deep meaning of compassion. In prison, her consciousness expanded beyond her literal self; she identified with everyone around her, each sorrowing and in need.

Dorothy Day and coworker Peter Maurin. Photographer unknown; uploaded to Flickr by Jim Forest.


The blackness of hell was all about me. The sorrows of the world encompassed me. I was like one gone down into the pit. Hope had forsaken me. I was the mother whose child had been raped and slain. I was the mother who had borne the monster who had done it. I was even that monster, feeling in my own heart every abomination.”

Dorothy Day’s experiences of the via negativa in solitary confinement in jail led her into what felt like “the blackness of hell.” Her sense of self disintegrated such that she became one with every victim and every victimizer.

Thich Nhat Hanh in Paris, 2006. Photo by Duc (Pixiduc). Wikimedia Commons

Is this where divine compassion ultimately leads, to our identification with all aspects of humanity?  Is this what Meister Eckhart had in mind when he said “what happens to another, whether it be a joy or a sorrow, happens to me?”

Thich Naht Hahn uses very similar language to Dorothy’s when he writes:

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
And I am the arms merchant, selling deadly
weapons in Uganda.

Adapted from: Matthew Fox, Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations, pp. 302, 303

And Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, p. 232.

Banner Image: Dorothy Day Catholic Workers of Washington DC and Jonah House of Baltimore, Maryland FAITH RESISTANCE against the Iraq War in front of the White House, December 2004. Article on Indymedia; Photo by Elvert Barnes Protest Photography on Flickr

Queries For Contemplation

The via negativa of prison helped empty Dorothy of ego so that she learned compassion in a deep way. Have you undergone similar experiences? What ways have you learned compassion?     

Have you had similar experiences to Dorothy Day and Thich Naht Hanh of identifying with both the oppressed and the oppressor?  What do we learn from such unitive experiences of compassion?  How does it get translated into action?

Recommended Reading

The 365 writings in Christian Mystics represent a wide-ranging sampling of these readings for modern-day seekers of all faiths — or no faith. The visionaries quoted range from Julian of Norwich to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Thomas Merton to Dorothee Soelle and Thomas Berry.

In what may be considered the most comprehensive outline of the Christian paradigm shift of our Age, Matthew Fox eloquently foreshadows the manner in which the spirit of Christ resurrects in terms of the return to an earth-based mysticism, the expression of creativity, mystical sexuality, the respect due the young, the rebirth of effective forms of worship—all of these mirroring the ongoing blessings of Mother Earth and the recovery of Eros, the feminine aspect of the Divine.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Orvietobanner-no-EarlyBird-1024x281.png
Responses are welcomed. To add your comment, please click HERE or scroll to the bottom of the page.

Share this meditation


Daily Meditations with Matthew Fox is made possible through the generosity of donors. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation

Search Meditations





Receive our daily meditations

4 thoughts on “Speaking of Mystic/Prophets….A Meditation with Dorothy Day”

  1. Avatar

    Martha Hennessy, Dorothy Day’s granddaughter, is one of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, who were convicted in October for entering a Trident submarine base in Georgia to protest nuclear weapons. They face many years in prison and will be sentenced next month. She is carrying on the tradition of mystic warrior.

    1. Gail Sofia Ransom

      Dear Sue,
      Thank you for letting us know about Dorothy Day’s granddaughter who has followed in her grandmother’s footsteps. I am sure all seven are frightened for what they face next. I hope that their mysticism gives them the compassion and strength that Dorothy experienced during her imprisonment. I hold them in awe and in prayer.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

  2. Avatar

    Another testimony to an empty ego and unconditional love is St Francis:

    Can true humility and compassion exist in our words and in our eyes unless we know we too are capable of any act? —St. Francis of Assisi

    1. Gail Sofia Ransom

      Dear Sally,
      Thank you for offering this quote by St. Francis as a companion to Matthew’s meditation on Dorothy Day.  What a good reminder that we have been inspired by a lineage of prophets and mystical warriors throughout the centuries.  The sum of their lives and their words show us that oppression knows no season, and neither should compassion. 

      Matthew has written about many of these prophets. If you go to our home page, click on Topics and then click on Engaged Mysticism, you will find other spiritual warriors that have been the focus of Matt’s meditations.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

Leave a Comment

To help moderate the volume of responses, the Comment field is limited to 1500 characters (roughly 300 words), with one comment per person per day.

Please keep your comments focused on the topic of the day's Meditation.

As always, we look forward to your comments!!
The Daily Meditation Team

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join us in meditation that supports your compassionate action

Receive Matthew Fox's Daily Meditation by subscribing below: