To artists, writers, lovers of beauty: read Saved By Beauty as a model for weaving together stories, commentary, psalms, and illustrations. Michael O’Neill McGrath leads us on a pilgrimage that makes us want to take one of our own.
The book is divided into sections corresponding to sections of Dorothy’s life: pre-conversion, life at the Catholic Worker, and her twilight years. Each chapter begins with a quotation from Francis DeSales and ends with a psalm. McGrath refers Dorothy’s life to the saints, in particular to DeSales as the patron of writers, journalists and the Catholic Press, as well as to his own. “This trinity of ‘coincidence’ that so presented itself to me couldn’t be more obvious: Grace and beauty abound in the most unexpected places, and community and the love of friends help us discover them.” In this constant dialogue between “conspirators in the Spirit,” he manages to pray his work, to enact a holy communion, rather than merely depicting it.
Setting himself as the lynchpin between characters, as well as telling his own story in word and art, McGrath runs the risk of doing too much. He fills some gaps with unnecessary opinion and commentary. After a lengthy passage from A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a play reflecting Eugene O’Neill’s life, McGrath concludes that “he made great works of art from his pain, and in doing so, became a wounded healer. God’s grace is ever at work, even in the tortured soul and drunken ramblings of a doubter.” One wonders if Dorothy, or O’Neill for that matter, would have agreed with such an explanation. The creative genre of the book allows exploration into the connections between people and God, but also limits the characters in the book to the sense the author makes of them.
Brother McGrath captures one of his most vivid stories at the end of the journey. “The church was filled with the people of the streets, the regular guests of the Catholic Worker houses. One of them stretched out in the back pew for a nap during Communion and another, visibly moved, kissed Dorothy’s body and lamented, ‘She loved us, she listened to us, she loved us.’”
In the description of Dorothy’s funeral, McGrath conveys with words what his paintings show: colorful details, images of people, birds, boarded-up windows, alley staircases, beer bottles, trash, signs, all of which catch our eye and not just our intellect. His art breaks up the canvas like stained glass — jagged shapes of solid color, each outlined by black line, little illuminations composing a whole scene. Artists can thank Brother McGrath for modeling this kind of visual and spiritual attention to the world around us, as well as the worlds we can encounter in our Church’s history if we take the time, as he did, to imagine and engage. To this end, the book concludes with a few pages of resources on McGrath’s work, Dorothy Day, the saints, lay communities, and pilgrimages.