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The night the earthquake struck San Francisco -- April 18, 1906 -- Dorothy Day was there. Startled awake, she lay alone in bed in the dark in the still-strange house, trying to understand what was happening and what it meant, for she was confident that it had a meaning, a significance beyond itself.
Some years later she described that night in her autobiography. By then she was known as an organizer and agitator, a living saint, the prioress of the Bowery. But she saw herself as a journalist, first of all, and gave a journalist's eyewitness account of the event, which had brought on the most haunting of her early "remembrances of God."
"The earthquake started with a deep rumbling and the convulsions of the earth started afterward, so that the earth became a sea which rocked our house in a most tumultuous manner. There was a large windmill and water tank in back of the house and I can remember the splashing of the water from the tank on top of our roof."
She was eight years old, the third child of four. Her family had moved from New York to Oakland earlier in the year after her father, a journalist, found work with one of the local papers. Back in Brooklyn she had shared a bedroom with their Irish servant girl. Here she shared a room with her baby sister, who slept in her arms.
"My father took my brothers from their beds and rushed to the front door, where my mother stood with my sister, whom she had snatched from me. I was left in a big brass bed, which rolled back and forth on a polished floor."
Before getting into bed she had knelt at the bedside to say her prayers. Of all her family, she alone was religious: she prayed in school, sang hymns with neighbors, went to church by herself because the others would not go. She was "disgustingly, proudly pious."
In bed, however, she would have nightmares about God, "a great noise that became louder and louder, and approached nearer and nearer to me until I woke up sweating with fear and shrieking for my mother." And that night, alone in the dark on the big rolling bed, shaken by the earth, left behind by her mother and father, she felt God upon her once again, a figure stalking her in the dark.
Or was that night the first time? "Even as I write this I am wondering if I had these nightmares before the San Francisco earthquake or afterward. The very remembrance of the noise, which kept getting louder and louder, and the keen fear of death, makes me think now that it might have been due only to the earthquake . . . They were linked up with my idea of God as a tremendous Force, a frightening impersonal God, a Hand stretched out to seize me, His child, and not in love."
The earthquake went on two minutes and twenty seconds. Then it was over. The world returned to normal. She got out of bed and went down the stairs and out to the street and looked around.
She was startled all over again by what she saw: buildings wobbling on their foundations, smoke rising from small fires, parents calming strange children and passing jugs of water back and forth. People were helping one another.
For two days refugees from the city came to Oakland in boats across San Francisco Bay, making camp in a nearby park. The people of Oakland helped them -- the men pitching tents and contriving lean-tos, the women cooking and lending their spare clothing. What did Dorothy Day do? She stood on the street, watching, and felt her fear and loneliness drawn out of her by what she saw.
"While the crisis lasted, people loved each other," she wrote in her autobiography. "It was as though they were united in Christian solidarity. It makes one think of how people could, if they would, care for each other in times of stress, unjudgingly in pity and love."
A whole life is prefigured in that episode. In a moment in history-front-page news -- Dorothy Day felt the fear of God and witnessed elemental, biblical charity, the remedy for human loneliness. All her life she would try to recapture the sense of real and spontaneous community she felt then, and would strive to reform the world around her so as to make such community possible.
From the beginning, she had the gift of good timing, a knack for situating herself and her story in a larger story. Her first significant religious experience took place during the first great event of the American century, a cataclysm in the city named for St. Francis, the patron saint of "unjudging pity and love" for one's neighbor.
Moreover, it took place at a moment of great change (seismic change, one might say) in religion in America, and also in the interpretation of religion -- changes to which she would spend the rest of her life responding.
There is little question that America at the turn of the century was a religious place. The question, then as now, was this: religious how?
At the time, the answer to the question was usually theological, grounded in stock ideas about Catholicism and Protestantism that had been developing since the sixteenth century. Catholics (it was thought) were traditional, communal, submissive to higher authority, taking faith at second hand from pope and clergy, whereas the Protestant was individualistic, improvisatory, devoted to progress, bent on having a direct experience of God, obedient to no authority save the Bible and the individual conscience.
From the time of Columbus, according to this scheme, which was accepted by Catholics and Protestants alike, the religious history of America was a running conflict between Catholic missionaries, who saw America as an annex of Catholic Europe, and Protestant pioneers, who saw it as a frontier to be settled according to the directives in the Bible.
In the nineteenth century Protestantism became dominant, and religion in America came to be characterized by the rivalry between different Protestant churches, whose circuit-riding evangelists would travel on horseback from one town to the next, each of them preaching a creed and a way of life that he claimed was more faithful to the Gospel than those his competitors were offering. Thus the country, discovered by Catholics, was settled by Protestants, whose work ethic became the basis of the national character.
Around 1900, however, the situation began to change.
Because of immigration from Europe the Roman Catholic Church was suddenly the largest single church in America, with twelve million members. Taken all together, Protestants outnumbered Catholics seven to one, but when they thought of themselves separately, denominationally -- as Baptists, Presbyterians, Unitarians, Methodists, and the like -- they were outnumbered by Catholics, more of whom arrived each day.
As Catholics settled in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, and other cities, the emphasis in American religion shifted from village and town to the metropolis. The spectacle of poor, dirty, ill-nourished people making camp on the outskirts of the city -- such as the people Dorothy Day saw displaced by the San Francisco earthquake -- became a familiar one, the subject of countless cautionary tales told among Protestants. And because so many of those people were Catholics, immigrant Catholics were the poor in the Protestant mind, and Protestant leaders, to care for them, devised the "social gospel," which sought to apply the New Testament to modern city life.
Competition between different Protestant churches, then, was overlaid by the competition between Protestants and Catholics, each group a majority that felt like a minority.
At the same time, conventional notions of Catholicism and Protestantism were being upended by the best and the brightest of the Protestant elite, in ways that challenged the standard account of American religious history and the usual understanding of religion generally.
In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) William James, who had had a religious experience all alone on a mountaintop after a long hike, defined religion as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine." For making the solitary individual the measure of religion, James is generally credited with shifting the study of religion in America away from institutions and toward experience. But his method of jumbling together believers of all sorts was just as important. He assembled his lectures from newspaper clippings about odd religious occurrences, and in his view the familiar distinctions between Protestants and Catholics, poets and saints, self-taught preachers and learned divines, were less telling than those between different religious temperaments: the "sick-souled" and the "healthy-minded," or the "once-born" and the "twice-born."
Meanwhile, James's Harvard colleague Henry Adams was being born again. In France in 1895 Adams, whose chronicle of the history of America ran to nine volumes, had undergone a religious conversion of sorts -- not to God or Christ but to a mystical sense of history grounded in the Middle Ages and epitomized by the order and beauty and fixity, the sheer absoluteness, of the great French cathedrals.
Declaring himself "head of the Conservative Christian Anarchists, a party numbering one member," Adams wrote two books in which he sought to impress his vision of things upon the reader as boldly as possible. First came Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904), which is not so much a work of history as an imaginative pilgrimage, in which Adams slips into the skin of a French peasant who, in his view, saw and felt and understood life more directly than the stereotypical industrial-age American. Three years later came The Education of Henry Adams, Adams's third-person account of himself as a representative American man called Adams -- whose problem, as he sees it, is that he is the descendant of pragmatic Enlightenment Protestants rather than of French Catholics, and so grew up with no knowledge of the religious energy that had inspired the cathedral builders of Europe -- "the highest energy ever known to man."
Adams turned out to be a more representative man than he could have expected. Over the next twenty years, as The Education was read and embraced as a sacred text by the expatriate writers of the Lost Generation, France became, in American writing, a heaven, set in contrast to the hell of capitalist America, and the descent from the age of faith to an era of industry came to be seen as the fall from order to chaos, from civilization to barbarism, from community to an awful alienation.
Copyright © 2003 Paul Elie