Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Making A World Where It's "Easier To Be Good"

Imagine someone standing at Columbus Circle or Union Square in New York, chanting: "To give and not to take -- that is what makes man human." Such a person was Peter Maurin. His life-long goal was to promote order and justice, to contribute to creating a society "where it was easier to be good." His friend, close associate, and co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, spoke of him thus in April, 1972: "He talked about the 'Thomistic doctrine of the Common Good.' But he lived the folly of the Cross. He gave himself to all, would talk for hours and listen, too, even to a madman who came in one night and spent the night in talking. No one else would listen to him...Peter recognized the dignity and the tragedy of each human being and treated each with respect.

Born Aristide Pierre Maurin in 1877 into a poor farming family in the village of Oultet in the Languedoc region of southern France, Peter was one of 24 children. After spending time with De La Salle Brothers, Maurin served in Le Sillon, a movement founded by Marc Sangnier which aimed to reconcile Catholicism with French Republican and social ideals, and to provide an alternative to Marxism and other anticlerical labor movements. He moved for a short time to Saskatchewan, Canada, to try his hand at homesteading. Devastated by the death of his partner in a hunting accident, he then traveled to the U.S., eventually settling in New York. 

Maurin's vision to transform the social order consisted of three main ideas: 1) Establishing urban houses of hospitality to care for the destitute. 2) Establishing rural farming communities to teach city dwellers agrarianism and encourage a movement back-to-the-land. 3) Setting up roundtable discussions in community centres in order to clarify thought and initiate action. There are still Houses of Hospitality, each autonomous, but inspired by Maurin and operating according to his principles. There are also other farms, all different, but all based on the idea of the personalist and communitarian revolution

For 10 years, Maurin no longer practiced his Catholic faith "because", as he put it, "I was not living as a Catholic should." In the mid-1920s, he worked as a French tutor in the New York suburbs, and at this time, inspired by the life of Francis of Assisi, underwent a religious conversion. He ceased charging for his lessons and asked only an appropriate donation from his students. Perhaps this was motivated by St. Francis' view of labor as being a gift to the greater community, rather than as a way to promote oneself. Maurin began composing what would later be called his Easy Essays

Peter Maurin first met Dorothy Day in December, 1932, when Dorothy had just returned from Washington, D.C., where she had covered the Hunger March for Commonweal and America magazines. Dorothy had prayed, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, on December 8, 1932, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, for inspiration for her future work. She returned to her New York apartment only to find Maurin awaiting her in the kitchen. He'd been urged by George Schuster, then editor of Commonweal, to look her up. Maurin began immediately to share with Dorothy his ideas and convictions, the sources on which he relied, and the way he viewed all facets of daily life through the lens of his quest to make the world a place "easier to be good". 

Since Dorothy Day was already a trained journalist, Maurin suggested she start a newspaper to "bring the best of Catholic thought to the man in the street in the language of the man in the street." He initially proposed the name Catholic Radical, but the paper was eventually called and distributed as The Catholic Worker beginning on May 1, 1933, right in the midst of the Great Depression. Maurin's ideas served as the inspiration for the creation of houses of hospitality for the poor, for the establishment of the Catholic Worker farms, and the regular roundtable discussions, all beginning shortly after the publication of the first issue of the newspaper. 

Shortly after the paper's first print run in early May, 1933, Peter Maurin left New York for the boys' camp at Mt. Tremper, where he worked in exchange for living quarters. The Catholic Worker emphasized political and union activity, with the intention of fighting social injustice. Maurin felt that this wasn't radical or "personalist" enough. He believed that there should be more stress on life in small agricultural communities. He used to say, “There is no unemployment on the land.” 

For much of his life, Maurin lived in Easton, PA, where he worked on the first Catholic Worker-owned farming commune: Mary Farm. He joined those of the Catholic Worker movement who picketed the Mexican and German consulates during the 1930s, and also traveled extensively, lecturing at parishes, colleges, and meetings across the U.S., oftentimes in sync with Dorothy Day's speaking tours. 

In 1944, Peter Maurin began to lose his memory. His condition progressively deteriorated until he died, age 71, at Maryfarm near Newburgh, NY, on May 15, 1949, which, interestingly, happened to be the feast of St. Dymphna, patroness of mental health, the anniversary also of St. John Baptiste de la Salle, as well as of the Papal social encyclicals, Rerum Novarum (Leo XIII, 1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (Pius XI, 1931). In the June issue of The Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day describes his passing: "At eleven that night, Hans [Tunnesen] said, Peter began coughing, and it went on for some minutes. Then he tried to rise and fells over on his pillow, breathing heavily. Hans put on the light and...others came too, and there"e were prayers for the dying about the bedside. He died immediately, there was no struggle, no pain. He was laid out at Newburgh the first night, in the conference room where he had sat so often, trying to understand the discussions and lectures. Flowers were all about him from shrubs in the garden and from our neighbors. He wore for shroud a suit which had been sent in for the poor. There was no rouge on his grey face which looked like granite, strong, contemplative, set toward eternity. There was a requiem Mass in our chapel...Peter was buried in St. John's Cemetery, Queens, in a grave given us by Fr. Pierre Conway, the Dominican. Peter was another St. John, a voice crying in the wilderness, and a voice saying, 'My little children, love one another'..." At the Maurin's wake, many people were seen to surreptitiously touch their rosaries to his hands, showing their esteem for his sanctity. 

The Staten Island Catholic Worker farm, currently in Marlboro, NY, was named after Peter Maurin following his death, as would have pleased him.  His own words are fitting: "Cult, Culture, and Cultivation. 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 were 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." (From his Easy Essays

One can somewhat appreciate the major forces which motivated Peter Maurin's quest for justice and equality by simply looking at a list of authors he had recommended for Dorothy Day to read: Fr. Vincent McNabb, Eric Gill, Jacques Maritain, Leon Bloy, Charles Peguy, Don Sturzo, Romano Guardini, Karl Adam, Nikolai Berdyaev, Peter Kropotkin, Emmanuel Mounier, and Hilaire Belloc.

"The future will be different", Peter Maurin said, "if we make the present different.

1 comment:

John-Julian, OJN said...

I missed Peter by about five years—but his spirit was very much alive at NYC Catholic Worker when I was there in 1955. He was a strange person—both very simple and very complex. Clearly a devout man, but a little crazy on the side! He certainly had a massive impact on Dorothy.