by Fr. James Doran
A Poverello for the 20th Century
There is a photo of Peter Maurin from the 1920’s, and he’s quite dapper, very well dressed. It is probably from the years that he lived in Chicago. However, by the late twenties he began looking more like a bum. He had thought to himself, “How many jackets do I really need?” and “How many trousers do I need? I can only really wear one.” More fully he embraced poverty, a profound and a radical poverty in order to answer the materialism and the selfishness of the modern world. He never said that everyone should do this, but for him it was an answer to the modern world. When an encyclical was produced on St. Francis of Assisi, which most of us have probably never read, he was thrilled.
In many ways Peter Maurin did manifest the life of St. Francis, but in the 20th century this voluntary poverty was not only to follow Our Lord, it was also an answer to the materialism and the greed which he saw so easily manifested in the industrial world. In addition, he was a man who was always reading; he was well educated, and he used this grounded faith to begin to teach others. He would talk to anyone–anyone, from professors to street people. He spent lots of time in the Bowery. Throughout the years he would talk to the bag ladies on the buses and he would talk to university professors in Boston. It didn’t make any difference. Everyone is human and everyone has an intellect and everyone can come to know the things of God. He spoke with a heavy French accent and was at times hard to understand, but he talked continually to teach.
He was the man who was the mind, the thinker, behind what probably many regard as a leftist organization: The Catholic Worker. Maurin’s desire was to present Catholic doctrine in such a way that simple people could understand. He would write things in little phrases so that those who were not educated could still come to understand Catholic doctrine, especially as it concerned the social order. They became known as “Easy Essays” because he tried to make them understandable to the man on the street. They often dealt with usury or with the Church’s notion of how the State is supposed to be ordered. They dealt with the encyclicals that came out and the ideas of many of contemporary Catholic writers. Hundreds and hundreds of these things were produced over the years.
And he would talk. He talked to the men in the Bowery. And he prayed. He went to Mass everyday, and would spend each day an hour before the Blessed Sacrament. There was a prayer life behind his activity. He was not what one expected in hearing about him. And so it was with the saints in the history of the Church. Their lives are unexpected and they stand out.
Peter Maurin lived the true virtue of prudence. This virtue usually receives a bad rap because in the name of prudence we don’t do a lot of things that we know we should be doing. “What will others think?” and so for “prudential reasons” we abstain from things that should be done. Peter Maurin said there is only God to serve, He must be served faithfully, and therefore he became itinerant. He began to wander all over. He spent years in New York wandering the streets, talking to everybody.
The Catholic Worker Movement
A Radical Change
The order of the day is to talk about the social order. Conservatives would like to keep it from changing but they don’t know how. Liberals try to patch it and call it a New Deal. Socialists want a change, but a gradual change. Communists want a change, an immediate change, but a Socialist change. Communists in Russia do not build Communism, they build Socialism. Communists want to pass from capitalism to Socialism and from Socialism to Communism. I want a change, and a radical change. I want a change from an acquisitive society to a functional society, from a society of go-getters to a society of go-givers.
The Catholic Worker Movement is perhaps one of the most important chapters of the Church in America during the 20th century, yet it is little (and often incorrectly) understood. As stated earlier, behind this movement stood Peter Maurin.
Catholics must think radically different from those who live non-Catholic lives. Why would you expect non-Catholics to live by principles that are Catholic? That a Catholic should be living a life that is more or less identical with the non-Catholics who live down the street would be anathema to Peter Maurin. It would simply be a sign that one had not assimilated the teaching of the Gospel. The Gospel principles that we live by are transcendent and are completely different from those notions of pagan prudence and worldly wisdom.
The movement which he developed was more of an organism than an organization. The whole Catholic Worker Movement was chaotic at times. Maurin was a man who spent years just talking, but in the end, he lost this ability and went senile the last four or five years of his life. When Dorothy Day, another one of known reputation, wrote of him, she wrote of his holiness and of the fact that Peter Maurin was a talker but he didn’t ramble. He talked and he talked all night long, but it always had a purpose.
She gave a magnificent tribute of this man because she said that he had given everything that he had, and what he had was his education, his sense of Tradition and the Catholic Faith which was profound. His way of doing this was almost in the sense of a Christian Brother, a teacher of the simple–he always remained one of the teachers who taught the poor and made things uncomplicated. Read the life of St. John Baptist de la Salle and his method of teaching by silence and simplicity, a manner of teaching which was quite revolutionary in its own day, but by which St. John Baptist de la Salle transformed education.
Peter Maurin continued that tradition and work. Dorothy Day brought up the fact that he talked incessantly; sometimes she had to beg for mercy. He would stop for ten minutes and then it would go on again for the rest of the night.
She said that she thought that in the end he had given everything he had, including his bed. Oftentimes if someone came in and needed a bed, he gave his up for them and slept on the floor. But most profoundly, what he gave was his education and what he knew of the Catholic Faith. She said what he gave most precisely was his knowledge, and in the end God asked him to give even that up. This included his mind. His silence was a magnificent example those last four years.
There was a point in 1944 when he had all the pages of all the essays he had written. He closed the file and handed it to one of the younger men and said, “It is time now for the younger ones to do this.” And at that point he began to realize the things that he was saying were not what were in his mind, so he stopped talking. All of his talking had a purpose and when it no longer worked because of age, he stopped. He continued those last years in silence, but he still went to Mass. He would sit in a chair, they would come in and say, “Mass, Peter.” He would get up and shuffle out, go down to Mass, breakfast, and back. He had to give the example of detachment, not just of poverty where he would take nothing. He had nothing further to give but the perfect detachment from what he loved most, his teaching. He remained, in a sense, imprisoned in that silence knowing that his mind was not working. He died in 1949.