Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion, and Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage, by Robert Coles (Addison-Wesley, 182 pp., $17.95, hardcover; 179 pp., $17.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Deborah Easter, who teaches journalism at Seattle Pacific University.

Cut into the stone facing above Harvard University’s Emerson Hall is a biblical question that is vaguely unsettling amidst these self-assured and secular groves: “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” One Harvard professor who has heard the psalmist’s cry to God is Robert Coles, the Pulitzer prize-winning psychiatrist (CT, “The Crayon Man,” Feb. 6, 1987, p. 14). Like the subjects of his two recent biographies, Dorothy Day and Simone Weil, Coles believes that God put us here to ask and to choose. This awareness suffuses these books with a moral immediacy that is unusual for biography.

Coles wrote these books as “spiritual companions”: thematic portraits in which he explores certain “central concerns, if not passions or obsessions,” of each woman (political life, idolatry and intellectualism, spiritual hunger, conversion, the church). The Day volume has the advantage of drawing upon taped conversations that began some 35 years ago when Coles, in an attempt to counter the abstract pressures he faced in medical school, met Day while he was doing volunteer work in one of her New York City soup kitchens.

As modern pilgrims, Weil and Day have a broad appeal, in part because their lives straddled the religious and the secular in unusually intense ways. They both tried a number of the substitute gratifications of this century—Marx; sensualism (Day); urbane talk, in the cafés of Greenwich Village for Day, and those of Paris for Weil; Freud and other permutations of the therapeutic—before passionately ...

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