A Poor Man
By Dorothy Day
"Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints"
and the details of such a death are precious.
Plato said, "Other people are not likely to be aware that those
who pursue philosophy aright study nothing but dying and being dead. But
if this be true, it would be absurd to be eager for nothing but this all
their lives, and then be troubled when that came for which they had all
along been eagerly practicing."
And St. Paul said, "We will not have you ignorant, brethren,
concerning them that are asleep, that you be not sorrowful, even as
others who have no hope."
So it is with a spirit of joy that I write this month, because
Peter is no longer suffering, no longer groaning within himself and
saying with St. Paul, "Who will deliver me from the body of this
No, we are sure that he welcomed Sister Death with joy, and that
underneath him he felt the Everlasting Arms.
I am writing this in New York, up in my room on the third floor,
and all winter, he waited up here for the weather to clear so that he
could go to the country. He had to lie in bed much of the time, and the
plaster is all picked off the wall by the side of his bed. He must have
been very weary of lying in bed, he who had traveled north and south,
east and west in this vast country. Everybody was always so reassuring,
exclaiming how well he looked, how bright he was, but we who had known
him these past seventeen years felt only the tragedy of the death in
life he was living. Truly he practiced for death a very long time.
Peter was the poor man of his day. He was another St. Francis of
modern times. He was used to poverty as a peasant is used to rough
living, poor food, hard bed or no bed at all, dirt, fatigue, and hard
and unrespected work. He was a man with a mission, a vision, an
apostolate, but he had put off from himself honors, prestige,
recognition. He was truly humble of heart, and loving. Never a word of
detraction passed his lips, and as St. James said, the man who governs
his tongue is a perfect man. He was impersonal in his love in that he
loved all, saw all others around him as God saw them. In other words, he
saw Christ in them.
He never spoke idle words, though he was a great teacher who talked
for hours on end, till late in the night and early morning. He roamed
the streets and the countryside and talked to all who would listen. But
when his great brain failed, he became silent. If he had been a babbler,
he would have been a babbler to the end. But when he could no longer
think, as he himself expressed it, he remained silent.
For the last five years of his life he was this way, suffering,
silent, dragging himself around, watched by us all for fear he would get
lost, as he did once for three days; he was shouted at loudly by
visitors as though he were deaf, talked to with condescension as one
talks to a child for whom language must be simplified even to the point
of absurdity. That was one of the hardest things we had to bear, we who
loved him and worked with him for so long to see others treat him
as though he were simpleminded.
The fact was, he had been stripped of all. He had stripped himself
throughout life; he has put off the old man, to put on the new. He had
done all that he could to denude himself of the world, and I mean the
world in the evil sense, not in the sense that "God looked at it and
found it good." He loved people, he saw in them what God meant them
to be. He saw the world as God meant it to be, and he loved it.
He had stripped himself, but there remained work for God to do. We
are to be pruned as the vine is pruned so that it can bear fruit, and
this we cannot do ourselves. God did it for him. He took from him his
mind, the one thing he had left, the one thing perhaps he took delight
in. He could no longer think. He could no longer discuss with others,
give others, in a brilliant overflow of talk, his keen analysis of what
was going on in the world; he could no longer make what he called his
synthesis of cult, culture, and cultivation.
He was sick for five years. It was as though he had had a stroke in
his sleep. He dragged one leg after him, his face was slightly
distorted, he repeated, "I can no longer think." When he tried
to, his face would have a strained, suffering expression.
He had always been a meager eater, getting along on two meals a
day, never eating between meals. He used to say when he was offered
anything, "I don't need it." But toward the close of his
life, he was inclined to stuff down his food hastily like a child, and
he had to be cautioned to eat slowly. Perhaps this was hangover from the
hunger of a childhood in that large family where there was never too
much to eat. There were twenty-three children in all, over the years.
Other habits clung to him. When I'd go in to see if he was warm
enough, I'd find him lying in bed with his pants folded neatly and
under his head, and his coat wrapped around his feet, a habit I suppose
he got from living in flophouses where clothes are often stolen. And
once I found him sleeping in the dead of winter with only a spread over
him, in a stony-cold room. Someone had taken his blankets.
One thing we can be happy about is that he felt he had finished his
work before his mind failed. He used to say, "I have written all I
have to say; I have done all I can; let the younger men take over."
So he suffered, but not with the feeling that there was much still that
he could do.
Recently we tried to record Peter's voice on a wire recorder,
and we had him read aloud all his essays on Houses of Hospitality. His
voice strangely enough was louder and clearer than it had been for a
long time. We spent quite a few days over this, Dave Mason and I,
because Peter tired easily. Then, after we had triumphantly made a
fifteen-minute spool, someone else tried to work the machine and erased
For the past two months I had been at the farm, and while returning
from the funeral of Larry Heaney, I received a telephone call telling me
of Peter's death. Just before I had left, I had told him of
Larry's sudden death, and he said yes, to my question as to whether
he remembered Larry. He had loved him very much, had sent him his
quotations listed as cult, culture, and cultivation over the years, and
rejoiced in his total acceptance of his teaching. When I said to him,
"Now you will have someone waiting for you in heaven," his face
lit up in a radiant smile. He had not smiled for months; there had only
been a look of endurance, even of pain on his face.
That was our goodbye. Over the telephone in Avon, Ohio, at Our
Lady of the Wayside Farm, I heard the news.
It was midnight and I had already fallen asleep. Dorothy and Bill
Gauchat were still awake. When I hung up the receiver Bill suggested we
say Vespers of the Office of the Dead for Peter, so we knelt there in
that farm living room and prayed those beautiful psalms that are like
balm to the sore heart. No matter how much you expect a death, no mater
how much you may regard it as a happy release, there is a gigantic sense
of loss. With our love of life, we have not yet gotten to that point
where we can say with the desert father, St. Anthony, "The spaces of
this life, set over against eternity, are brief and poor."
John Filliger had shaved him Saturday, and Michael Kovalak had
dressed and cared for him on Sunday, conducting him to the chapel for
Mass that morning, taking him to and from his room to rest. He had
looked in again at Peter at nine Sunday night and found him sleeping
rather restlessly. At eleven that night, Hans said, Peter began
coughing, and it went on for some minutes. Then he tried to rise, and
fell over on his pillow, breathing heavily. Hans put on the light and
called Father Faley, our resident priest. Michael, Eileen, and others
came too, and there were prayers for the dying around the bedside. He
died immediately, there was no struggle, no pain
Peter was buried in St. John's Cemetery, Queens, in a donated
grave. He was another St. John, a voice crying in the wilderness, and
avoice, too, saying, "My little children, love one another." As
the body was carried out of the church those great and triumphant words
rang out, the In Paradisum.
May the angels lead thee into paradise; may the martyrs receive thee at
Coming, and lead thee into the holy city of Jerusalem. May the choir of
receive thee, and mayest thou have eternal rest with Lazarus, who once
"We need to make the kind of society," Peter had said,
"where it is easier for people to be good." And because his love
of God made him love his neighbor, lay down his life indeed for his
brother, he wanted to cry out against the evils of the day the
state, war, usury, the degradation of man, the loss of a philosophy of
work. He sang the delights of poverty (he was not talking of
destitution) as a means to making a step to the land, of getting back to
the dear natural things of earth and sky, of home and children. He cried
out against the machine because, as Pius XI had said, "raw materials
went into the factory and came out ennobled and man went in and came out
degraded"; and because it deprived a man of what was as important as
bread his work, his work with his hands, his ability to use all of
himself, which made him a whole man and holy man.
Yes, he talked of these material things. He knew we needed a good
social order where we could grow up to our full stature as men and
women. And he also knew that it took men and women to make such a social
order. He tired to form them, he tried to educate them, and God gave him
poor weak materials to work with. He was as poor in the human material
he around him as he was in material goods. We are the offscourings of
all, as St. Paul said, and yet we know we have achieved great things in
these brief years, and not ours is the glory. God has chosen the weak
things to confound the strong, the fools of this earth to confound the
Peter had been insulted and misunderstood in his life as well as
loved. He had been taken for a plumber and left to sit in the basement
when he had been invited for dinner and an evening of conversation. He
had been thrown out of a Knights of Columbus meeting. One pastor who
invited him to speak demanded his money back which he had sent to Peter
for carfare to his upstate parish because, he said, we had sent him a
Bowery bum, and not the speaker he expected. "This then is the
perfect joy," Peter could say, quoting the words of St. Francis to
He was a man of sincerity and peace, and yet one letter came to us
recently, accusing him of having a holier-than-thou attitude. Yes, Peter
pointed out that it was a precept that we should love God with our whole
heart and soul and mind and strength, and not just a counsel, and he
taught us all what it meant to be children of God, and restored to us
our sense of responsibility in a chaotic world. Yes, he was "holier
than thou," holier than anyone we ever knew.
"Don't forget," Mary Frecon, head of the Harrisburg
house said before she left, "don't forget to tell of the roots
of the little tree that they cut through in digging his grave. I kept
looking at those roots and thinking how wonderful it is that Peter is
going to nourish that tree that thing of beauty." The
undertaker had tried to sell us artificial grass to cover up "the
unsightly grave," as he called it, but we loved the sight of that
earth that was to cover Peter. He had come from the earth, as we all
had, and to the earth he was returning.
Around the grave we all said the Rosary and after the Benedictus we
- Originally published in June 1949/ Taken from Dorothy Day: Selected
Writings, Edited by Robert Ellsberg, pp. 123-7
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