Not many people know about Peter Maurin, and still fewer would ever have heard of him were it not for Dorothy Day. She considered him the founder of the Catholic Worker movement.
Dorothy often wrote and said that she was good at seeing and criticizing the social injustices borne by workers, prisoners, and the poor, but Peter had a program to help them and change the system.
Maurin, a one-time Christian Brother from France, accepted the notion that Jesus meant what he said when he told his disciples to feed the hungry, to sell their possessions and give the money to the poor, to see Him in the least of our brothers and sisters.
Peter was often mistaken for a bum in his unpressed and ill-fitting suit, but he was widely-read, a born-teacher, and a determined but gentle “anarchist.”
Peter’s anarchism was totally non-violent; he wanted simply to change the rules of society and culture in order to overcome destitution, homelessness, and injustice.
Those who knew him recalled that he was forever talking, whether out on the street, in a Catholic Worker House, or on a university stage. He formulated his insights into what are now known as “Easy Essays,” summations of wisdom and direction for applying the Gospel of Jesus and the good judgment of others.
It was Peter who persuaded Dorothy to publish a newspaper (The Catholic Worker), to open hospitality houses to serve the homeless (Catholic Worker Houses), and to establish farms and garden communes in order to get people back to the land.
Some of Peter’s ideas seemed to some naïve and impractical. He urged Christians to have a “Christ room” in their homes to accommodate people without shelter. He insisted that anyone who has clothing he does not need, he should give it to the poor. He warned against the growing tendency to let the state rather than the individual person provide assistance to those in need.
Peter could be described as a 20th century St Francis. He lived a life of voluntary poverty, did not shy away from manual labor, and, in the words of Dorothy, “was a free and joyous person.”
He was fond of capturing in slogans or simple essays his ideas and the many he borrowed from his reading of philosophers, socialists and popes.
He wrote, for example, “The world would be better off if people tried to become better. And people would become better if they stopped trying to be better off.”
On another occasion Peter said, “The Sermon on the Mount will be called practical when Christians make up their mind to practice it.”
And some wit once challenged Peter with the question, “Why did God create bed bugs?” Peter’s response: “For practicing our patience, probably.”
Peter gravitated to Dorothy because he thought she shared his vision. She admits in her biography of the man, “Let it be conceded right away, before going any further, that I do not pretend to understand Peter Maurin…I do not understand, for instance, why he talks about the things he does to the people he does. Why, for instance, given an opportunity to talk to a group of striking seaman, during the 1937 waterfront strike, should he pick out the subject of Andre Gide and his reactions to Soviet Russia, and discourse for two hours?”
And yet she acknowledges, “I have always thought of Peter as an Apostle to the world.”
Peter was one of those rare souls who embraced the Gospel wholeheartedly and determined to live it. He took it seriously, and urged all he met to do the same.
Maurin died in 1949, and most of the world is no longer aware of the man and his message. Nonetheless, his example and insights still challenge those who come to know them.
Dorothy concluded her biography of Peter with these observations: “Peter has a message for all, though all are certainly not called to go out as he did among the poor, as a teacher and worker…Poverty is a thing of the spirit as well as the flesh. But we do not see enough of Peter’s kind of poverty. His message of poverty is for all, and his message of personal responsibility is for all.”
“The truth,” he said, quoting the Norwegian poet Henrik Johann Ibsen, “must be restated every twenty years.”
After 65 years it seems more than appropriate to restate one of Peter’s essays for reflection and maybe even application:
A personalist is a go-giver not a go-getter. He tries to give what he has and does not try to get what the other fellow has. He tries to be good by doing good to the other fellow. He is other-centered not self-centered. He has a social doctrine of the common good. He spreads the social doctrine of the common good through words and deeds. He speaks through deeds as well as words. Through words and deeds he brings into existence a common unity, the common unity of a community.