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Why Not Canonize Peter Maurin, Co-Founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement?

Peter Maurin

Dorothy Day’s cause for canonization was introduced by Cardinal John O’Connor in the year 2000. In the last issue, we published the application form for joining the Guild for her canonization and included information on the process and progress of the cause.

We believe that Dorothy’s canonization could have a tremendous positive impact. Her life is a unique model of the unity of action and contemplation, of unity of the work of justice and charity, of a day-to-day living out of the Gospel, on the model of the Incarnation enfleshing for the world a commitment to the poorest among us and to making the world a better place for all.

Little mention has been made, however, of working toward a cause for the canonization of Peter Maurin.

Credit for the Catholic Worker movement is given to Dorothy, and justly so. However, the most important influence in her life and in the movement was Peter Maurin. Although they were founders together, Dorothy always named Peter as the founder of the movement.

The great ideas that formed the basis of the movement came from Peter. Dorothy not only gave him credit for founding the movement, but she worked for a number of years on a biography of Peter so that people would know beyond the shadow of a doubt about his greatness and his sanctity.

Francis Sicius has taken Dorothy’s unpublished manu-script for a book about Peter Maurin, edited it, and presented it with his own introductions and commentary in each chapter in the book Peter Maurin: Apostle to the World by Dorothy Day with Francis J. Sicius (Orbis Books, 2004).

This is a very worthwhile, even remarkable, book. It has given us a more profound perspective on Peter Maurin even though we had previously read a lot of the literature. Reading Dorothy’s words and Sicius’ commentaries made us ask again the question we have often pondered. Why are we only working toward the canonization of Dorothy? Why do we not include Peter Maurin, as has so often been done with canonizations of two people who have together started Catholic movements or religious orders? Outstanding examples are St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac, and St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal.

Early in her manuscript Dorothy explained her motivation for writing the book about Peter: “Who knows, he may be a saint, he may be a canonized saint some day, and we need a new kind of hagiography [writing about the saints]. This will perhaps be one of the lives of Peter Maurin that our children’s children will read” (4).

Dorothy, who all her life had been concerned about social justice and about the poor, had come into the Church four years before she met Peter. She believed in and practiced the faith, but she did not know what Peter knew about a Catholic outline of history and about the communal aspects of Christ-ianity which could provide a better alternative to the social order than that envisioned by either industrial capitalism or Communism. Dorothy, who had spent years working toward social justice, had been unaware of how Catholic history and theology could support those convictions, unaware of what Sicius calls “the social message intrinsic to Maurin’s theology” (36).

Actually, Peter had been looking for someone for seven years who could help him to share his ideas about personally performing the fourteen Works of Mercy, about reinstating the tradition of Houses of Hospitality, about personalism, about the common good, about voluntary poverty, and about his ideas for agronomic universities, the fruit of a lifetime of reading and experiences. He found that person in Dorothy in 1932.

Up until his meeting with Dorothy, Peter’s message was only heard when he spoke to a crowd in Union Square or visited university professors or priests to talk about his ideas. Meeting and recruiting Dorothy to his program changed that. She said later how many people he reached through the tens of thousands who subscribed to The Catholic Worker .

It was Peter, with his emphasis on personally performing the spiritual and corporal Works of Mercy at a personal sacrifice who brought to Dorothy and to the movement the centrality of Matthew 25:31ff. in the New Testament: “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of my brethren, you have done it to Me.”

The reasons for doing the Works of Mercy at a personal sacrifice, in self-giving love, included the witness Peter featured in one of his Easy Essays, the prose poem digests he wrote out to make the concepts from his extensive reading accessible to all:

In the first centuries of Christianity the hungry were fed at a personal sacrifice, the naked were clothed at a personal sacrifice, the homeless were sheltered at a personal sacrifice. And because the poor were fed, clothed and sheltered at a personal sacrifice, the pagans used to say about the Christians, “See how they love each other.”

Dorothy said Peter brought to her “the joy and life-giving qualities of the works of mercy.” She even went so far as to say, “He has brought Christ to us in the face of the poor as surely as the Blessed Mother brought Christ to Elizabeth” (xxvii).

Peter reminded everyone of the dignity of the poor. As he put it in one of his Easy Essays:

What we give to the poor

for Christ’s sake

is what we carry with us when we die.

We are afraid to pauperize the poor

because we are afraid to be poor.

Pagan Greeks used to say

that the poor “are the ambassadors of the gods.”

To become poor

is to become an Ambassador of God.

Peter, the oldest in a very large family, was born on May 9, 1877, in Languedoc, in southern France, where his family lived on the land and Peter worked on the land. It was in his home and his village, and especially with the model of his father, that Peter was formed in the Catholic faith, as well as with the De la Salle Brothers, usually known as the Christian Brothers. As a teenager he went to a Christian Brothers’ school and later entered the order as a novice and taught several years with them. He participated in lay movements in France. Later he immigrated to Canada, partly at least to not be subject to the military draft, and after two years there immigrated to the United States.

Peter Maurin

Peter was a real scholar as well as a peasant. He read the Fathers of the Church, the French personalists, the lives of the saints, and he knew the Scriptures, often quoting the prophets of Israel. He told of how the early Irish monks combined scholarship and agriculture to model a new way of life to the people of the Dark Ages. He endorsed the idea of a great books project, even beginning his own list of 100 of the great books to read. He recommended roundtable discussions for the clarification of thought. He said one of the reasons for starting a newspaper was to familiarize the average person with the papal encyclicals, to “make the encyclicals click.”

As we pointed out in our book The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins (Paulist Press), a study of the movement reveals the rich scholarship and faith sources which accompanied and gave profound meaning to the Works of Mercy as practiced in the Houses of Hospitality. Sicius specifically credits Peter Kropotkin, Léon Bloy, Emmanuel Mounier as some of those who most influenced Peter. In this book Dorothy mentions Jacques Maritain, R. H. Tawney, Nicholas Berdyaev and others.

Stanely Vishnewski and others have told of Maritain’s visits to the Catholic Worker, where Peter translated from the French for him in the 1930s. In one of his talks there Maritain emphasized the importance of using pure means to reach the ends one desired. In his bookWings of the Dawn , Stanley told how this had a big impact on the Catholic Workers. InPeter Maurin: Apostle to the World Dorothy speaks of Peter’s refusal to use the wrong means, his refusal to use expediency which ignores ethics: “There are those who speak of [Peter’s] anarchistic nature, because of his refusal to enter into political controversy, his refusal to use worldly means to change the social order. He does not refuse to use material means, secular means, physical means, the means that are at hand. But the means of expediency that men have turned to for so many ages, he disdains” (79).

One of the most important contributions Peter made to the Catholic Worker and to the world was his insistence on living out one’s convictions, not just reading about them, studying them or collecting facts and information. He was not in favor of waiting to develop five-year plans or blueprints for one’s life or setting up bureaucracies, but rather recommended simply beginning to live the Gospel and to learn by doing. He made the Gospels come alive by the way he lived.

Dorothy was by no means the only one who was aware of Peter’s sanctity and scholarship. In her biography of Peter she shares a letter about him sent to her by John Moody, the investment broker of Moody’s Industrial Service:

“My love for his forthrightness, his remarkable straight-thinking mentality, with the noble self-denying life he led, grew stronger all the time. He indeed … is the one who is truly living the Christ-like life. And of course his talent for expressing himself on paper, so full of wisdom, logic, and true Catholic philosophy, has been a continual inspiration to me ….” (46).

Dorothy wrote in other places as well about the inspiration Peter gave to people. In hisBiography of Dorothy, William Miller quoted her:

“He made one feel the magnificence of our work, our daily lives, the material of God’s universe and what we did with it, how we used it.

“He built up a new apostolate. He reached the poorest and the most destitute by living always among them, sharing their poverty and sharing what he had with them.” . . .

“I do know this – that when people come into contact with Peter, they change, they awaken, they begin to see, things become as new, they look at life in the light of the Gospels. They admit the truth he possesses and lives by, and though they themselves fail to go the whole way, their faces are turned at least toward the light.”

Some people dismissed Peter as a marginal character, as they did Dorothy before her life and work became better known. Because of his poverty, stories abound about how Peter was sometimes mistaken for the plumber, the handyman, the janitor, when he went somewhere to give a talk.

As Dorothy said, “He never had more than the clothes on his back, but he took the Gospel counsel literally – ‘if anyone asks for thy coat give him thy cloak too.'” Workers could tell stories in which Maurin’s unconventional attire involved him in cases of mistaken identity.”

Sicius states that “poverty was the radical manifestation of his program. His was not the degrading poverty of the abandoned and downtrodden, but rather the spiritually enriching poverty that can say no to the rush for pleasure in things. His idea of poverty was one that saw things for their utility, not the joy of their possession” (90). Dorothy said of Peter and poverty: “He used those things he needed, in the way of clothing and food, as though he used them not” (80).

In his Easy Essays Peter referenced St. Francis of Assisi on voluntary poverty:

St. Francis thought

that to choose to be poor

is just as good

as if one should marry

the most beautiful girl in the world.

We seem to think

that poor people are social nuisances

and not the Ambassadors of God.

We seem to think

that Lady Poverty is an ugly girl

and not the beautiful girl

that St. Francis of Assisi says she is.

When Peter first brought his ideas to Dorothy, he emphasized three facets of his program: Cult, culture, and cultivation. By cult and culture, he meant the beliefs that bind a society together and the expression of these fundamental beliefs through the liturgy and literature. Peter Maurin and Dorothy related to the monks at St. John’s College where Dom Virgil Michel became a giant in the liturgical movement. The monks came to give talks at the Worker. Some of the Hours of the Divine Office were prayed at the Catholic Worker and Workers were encouraged to go to daily Mass whenever they could. By cultivation, Peter meant sustainable, subsistence agriculture. He told us that the early Irish monks had exemplified all three parts of his program:

When the Irish scholars decided

to lay the foundations of medieval Europe

they established: Centers of Thought

in all the cities of Europe as far as Constantinople

where people could look for thought

so they could have light,

Houses of Hospitality

where Christian charity was exemplified,

Agricultural Centers

where they combined

(a) cult— that is to say, Liturgy

(b) with culture— that is to say Literature

(c) with cultivation that is to say Agriculture.

Sicius points out in a special chapter that Peter was way ahead of his time in his advocacy of organic gardening, diversified farming and “growing what you eat and eating what you grow,” in your area rather than the model of massive agribusiness and shipping food all over the country and the world. Sicius develops this topic, emphasizing that Peter was an early leader in the whole area of sustainable agriculture, local economic activity supported by a sound cultivation of the land, not for profit, but for subsistence.

Defending Maurin’s understanding of the land and issues in agriculture, Sicius makes the strong statement, “…to some the farm always remained a manifestation of Peter’s eccentricities rather than his genius. Nothing could be further from the truth” (p. 135).

In the midst of the Great Depression, when unemployment was at an all-time high and there was financial collapse on all sides, except for the wealthy few who kept all they had at that time, Peter used to proclaim, “There is no unemployment on the land.”

Along with French personalists like Emmanuel Mounier, he observed that history had been reduced to “a brutal individualized struggle over finite things” as opposed to a society based on the common good. Sicius points out that those whose scholarship Maurin quoted on the state of a world which had lost the harmony between the spiritual and the material, between finite and infinite values, had not yet been widely accepted; he was ahead of his time.

“Where most saw technology moving the world toward greater harmony, he saw an increasing imbalance between rich and poor, and between resources and consumption. And where others credited the rise of good will through the spread of liberal idealism, he saw a disintegration of order due to the impossibility of creating a workable ethical system within an economic system based on greed” (125).

Dorothy emphasized in her manuscript about Peter, as she had often done in The Catholic Worker newspaper, that he believed and taught that the workers should own the means of production, “an ownership that brought responsibility and not a share in the stock, which was a bribe..” (46) He talked of a philosophy of work, “of the dignity of work, the dignity of the worker, the goodness of God’s goods…”

Peter’s economic ideas were related to the papal social encyclicals.

Peter wrote in one Easy Essay about the contrast between always seeking profit and gain and his definition of what a Christian personalist should do:

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 to the other fellow.

He is altro-centered, not self-centered.

He has a social doctrine of the common good.

Dorothy’s commented that with these Easy Essays on generosity without seeking personal gain reflected Peter’s depth of spirituality: “Peter was no empty cistern. He was not giving what he had not got. The divine life was in him. He was so conscious of that overwhelming fact that he was a child of God, an heir of heaven, that he made others feel it. ‘By the feast of our baptism, we are partakers of divine life,’ he would remind us. ‘Grace is like the blood of Christ in our veins. Our relationship with each other is closer than that of blood.’ …All of us who have worked with Peter these past fifteen years [ed. note, 1932-1947] feel that Peter is one of those who have grown in divine life, while we have been but babes” (48-49).

Peter’s Catholic faith shines through many of the Easy Essays even while he is addressing economic issues. In addition to his insistence with the long tradition of the Church that lending money at interest at was wrong, one of his major themes was the need to have a functional society rather than an acquisitive one (what is basically needed rather than consumerism). This theme is combined with that of the Works of Mercy in the following Easy Essay:

On the Cross of Calvary

Christ gave His life to redeem the world,

The life of Christ was a life of sacrifice.

We cannot imitate the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary

by trying to get all we can.

We can only imitate the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary

by trying to give all we can.

What we give to the poor for Christ’s sake

is what we carry with us when we die.

Dorothy Day is an incredible model for our time. We pray as a community at Casa Juan Diego with our guests for her canonization. We would like to include Peter Maurin in this prayer because as Francis Sicius says,

“It is absolutely certain that without Dorothy Day there would have been no Catholic Worker, but it is also certain that without the spiritual influence of Peter Maurin, there would not have been a Dorothy Day with the perspective capable of creating that movement” (xxvii). He adds, “Had Christ himself come to Dorothy Day, the change in her life would have been no more radical. For in Peter she saw Christ” (161).

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXX, No. 3, May-July 2010.