Two Friends

Born into an Irish Catholic family in New York City, he never lived his family faith. Yet the idea of God and religion permeated his life and his works. For the haunting and extraordinary plays he wrote, he was awarded both the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prizes. But his personal life was a shambles. He had three failed marriages and of his three children, two committed suicide. This incredibly gifted man, whose work had touched millions of people, now lay dying from the effects of alcoholism in a Boston hotel room. At his bedside was his lifelong friend, praying for him as she had done for decades. He was Eugene O’Neill and she was Dorothy Day.
She described her early life as bohemian and self-centered. She was an advocate of “free-love” and her two common-law marriages were among many of her affairs. Her autobiography chronicles night-long drinking episodes and friends who died of heroin overdoses. Dorothy was an agnostic who was much more interested in poetry and politics than in God. During World War I, these two friends traveled in the same radical circles in New York’s Greenwich Village. One evening, at a bar named “The Hellhole” Eugene recited a poem for Dorothy written by Francis Thompson and titled, “The Hound of Heaven” which begins with these lines: “I fled Him down the nights and down the days; I fled Him down the arches of the years. I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him.” In a way, it was the story of O’Neill’s own life, of his own private tortured race to stay one step ahead of God, the “hound” of heaven, indeed. Dorothy saw his torment and yet she was too embroiled in her own sufferings to be a beacon for Gene. A year earlier, she’d become pregnant and had had an abortion. She’d been abandoned by the baby’s father. Now, she was pregnant again.
For Eugene O’Neill, the race from God would continue until that night last night of his life with Dorothy by his side. But for Dorothy, life would be a different sort of journey. With the birth of her daughter, she was awakened to the great love of God and experienced a conversion to Him. She joined the Catholic Church and began working for and with the poorest of the poor. In the homeless alcoholics and prostitutes of New York City, Dorothy saw the face of Jesus Christ. She gave them food and housing and employment. She loved them. She fought against racism and social injustices. In 1955, she joined the Order of St. Benedict. When someone once protested that the people she helped were undeserving of her aid, she famously replied, “God help us if we got just what we deserved.”
Jesus loved Eugene O’Neill with the desperate, all-consuming zeal of the Savior who died for him on Calvary. Yet, Eugene seemed unaware of His love. Dorothy Day’s heart was transformed by the gift of her daughter and she lived the rest of her life being Christ to the poor. As her friend lay near death, Dorothy prayed that he too would turn at last to God. She recalled the story of the prodigal son and his return home to the father that had always loved and wanted him. Did her prayers bear fruit for her friend? We don’t know. In her own life, Dorothy’s “yes” to Christ allowed Him to live through her and her works. Eugene O’Neill died in Boston in 1953. Dorothy Day died in 1980. The Cause for her Sainthood was opened by Pope John Paul II in 2000. Two lives, two friends: once so simliar, both given the same gift of God’s love, both choosing different paths.
“Obsessed by a fairy tale, we spend our lives searching for a magic door and a lost kingdom of peace.” Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953)
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