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The Forgotten Radical Peter Maurin:
Easy Essays from the
Catholic Worker

edited by lincoln rice
fordham, 864 pages, $34.95

In 1932, while covering a worker’s strike in Washington, D.C., Dorothy Day said a prayer. Since her conversion to Catholicism, she felt that she could no longer join such strikes. Joining a strike was an expression of ­solidarity—and fundamental philosophical differences prevented true solidarity with communist-­organized action. Frustrated, she visited the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (it happened to be December 8) and offered a prayer “that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.” ­Returning to her apartment in New York, weary from the eight-hour bus trip, Day found Peter ­Maurin, a perfect stranger, waiting for her. Maurin introduced himself and said that the editor of Commonweal and a “­red-headed Irish Communist in Union Square” had told him to look her up. Thus began the friendship that would spawn the Catholic Worker Movement.

Day insisted throughout her life that Maurin was a leader worth following. She stated in 1954 that “no one would ever realize how much Peter Maurin [was] responsible for,” but she did her best to make someone realize it anyway. When Catholic Worker communities around the country wrote to ask permission to name their farms or houses of hospitality after her, she would tell them to make Peter their namesake instead. She wrote angrily to ­William Miller when she realized that, contrary to her wishes, his history of the ­Catholic Worker Movement focused much more on her contributions than on Peter’s. And upon her death, she left behind an incomplete manuscript of her own biography of Maurin as well as dozens of columns in the Catholic Worker detailing ­Maurin’s convictions and the way he had lived them out.

When Maurin left the small, agrarian village in France where he had grown up, it was to discern a vocation with the Christian Brothers, a teaching order dedicated to serving the poor. He stayed with them for almost ten years before discerning out and becoming active in Le Sillon, a Catholic lay movement that promoted Christian democracy. After a few years, ­Maurin became disenchanted with Le Sillon and resigned from the group. In 1909, at the age of thirty-two, Maurin left France to homestead in the Canadian wilderness.

The hardships of farming the Canadian interior would have been sufficient in themselves, but they were exacerbated by the inability of the homesteaders to form any kind of community for lack of a common language. This contrasted harshly with Maurin’s experience of his home village. In a 1956 interview with Arthur Sheehan, he tells of two brothers, one married and one unmarried. The unmarried brother lived with his married brother’s family, and when the husband one day was crushed by a tree, his brother became the family’s guardian. ­Maurin offers this story as an example of “the true Christian spirit” that he hoped would characterize the Catholic Worker’s farm communes. Maurin’s homesteading venture in Canada lasted only two years. From there he made his way to the United States, where he traveled, taught, and did backbreaking physical labor for twenty years before connecting with Dorothy Day.

Maurin hardly ever spoke about his personal history. He was much too preoccupied with ideas, and his principal way of communicating his ideas was the idiosyncratic genre of the “Easy Essay,” the first complete scholarly volume of which has now been published by Fordham. Each Easy Essay consists of a number of sentences written in blank verse with lines broken by phrase. Many feature repetitive refrains and wordplay. They sound a bit like beatnik poetry. Day observed that Maurin “liked to consider himself a troubadour of Christ, singing solutions to the world’s ills, ­insinuating them into men’s ears with catchy phrases.”

Maurin was a communitarian, but his “personalist” brand of communitarianism was allergic to the authority and hierarchy essential to most communities. He believed in the power of example and respected the free will of others to such an extent that he wouldn’t so much as give an order. He spent one summer on the Catholic Worker farm breaking rocks in the hot sun, while a young man sat under a nearby tree doing nothing. The young man wanted to be told what to do, but Maurin refused on principle.

Maurin’s personalism demanded the practice of the works of mercy “at a personal sacrifice.” This principle culminated in the discipline of voluntary poverty, which he saw as “the basis for a Christian economy.” He decried government aid to the poor as a usurpation of Christians’ obligations. It was for this reason that the Catholic Worker never registered as a nonprofit organization or paid taxes.

Frequently, the young people attracted to the Catholic Worker distorted Maurin’s personalism into a kind of anarchy. But Maurin denounced with equal force the “rugged individualist” and the “­collectivist.” Both misused personal liberty. His view steered a course between the two: self-governance in the service of the common good.

Maurin’s commitments to personalism and communitar­ianism were grounded in the writings of Emmanuel Mounier and other contributors to the influential French journal Esprit, a leftist Catholic periodical. Maurin had a threefold vision of communitarian personalism. It centered on cult, which is to say liturgy, culture as embodied in literature, and cultivation, which means physical labor on the land.

Maurin’s Easy Essays don’t have much to say about what he termed “cult.” But in an interview, he explained that he meant liturgical prayer “and the relationship of our work to it.” Maurin’s example gives the clearest picture of what he had in mind. In addition to weekly confession, each day he spent an hour in prayer and attended Mass. At the end of his life, when his intellect had receded and his body was wracked with pain, he would “sit quietly in his seat [at Mass], oblivious to what was going on around him, yet at the Sanctus he would force himself to his knees.”

The essays themselves exemplify “culture,” but they are by no means the whole of what Maurin had in mind by that term. Maurin adopted as his own Lenin’s saying that “there can be no revolution without a theory of revolution.” The Catholic Worker newspaper was one way of disseminating the principles of Maurin’s “green revolution” (as opposed to the red communist revolution—green being the color of Ireland, and by extension the Irish missionaries whom Maurin esteemed as pioneers of an authentic Christian culture). He advocated “round table discussions” in order to “learn from scholars / how things would be / if they were / as they should be.” These discussions helped the “workers become scholars.”

In order for the “scholars to become workers,” Maurin envisioned “agronomic universities,” where working the soil would level men of different social classes. Maurin also viewed these institutions as a solution to the persistent problem of unemployment in industrialized societies. Though Catholic Worker houses of hospitality have been more successfully sustained than Catholic Worker farms, it was the farms that pulled together all the elements of Maurin’s thought. For him, the houses of hospitality did the necessary ad hoc work of tending to the immediate needs of the destitute, as Christ commands in the Gospels. But the farms would resolve the problem of unemployment altogether and give each person the opportunity to participate in meaningful manual labor: “The best way / to do away / with technological unemployment / is to place idle hands / on idle land.”

These were to be places “where each one works / according to his capacity / and gets according to his needs.” But the unqualified expectation was that all would live “on the sweat / of their own brow / and not [live] on the sweat / of somebody else’s brow.” While men labored together in the fields, they would be able to exchange ideas. Ideally, there would be the opportunity for liturgical prayer, to which all would be invited but none would be compelled. Several families would make up each commune, but families would live and dine in their own homes. Single people would be organically incorporated into these households, as in the example of the two brothers. This was the “new society” Maurin wanted to build “within the shell of the old / with a philosophy of the new / which is not a new ­philosophy / but a very old philosophy; / a ­philosophy so old / that it looks like new.”

From the social encyclicals of the Catholic Church Maurin derived a philosophy of labor that regarded labor as a gift and activity proper to the human person rather than as a commodity to be bought, sold, or coerced: “Labor is a means of self-expression / the worker’s gift to the Common Good. / There is so much depression / because there is so little expression.” Maurin saw that skilled labor returns man’s dignity to him in a way that mechanized labor cannot. This insight led him to uphold an agrarian ideal.

Maurin frequently encountered the criticism that none of his ideas were very practical. He was fond of quoting ­Chesterton in his defense: “­Christianity has not failed, for the very good reason that it has not been tried.” Moreover, Maurin wasn’t attempting to start a mass ­revolution—the “movement” ­element of the Catholic Worker was in large part a result of Dorothy Day’s ­influence. Maurin’s was a one-man revolution: “If a reformation / is even to begin, / it must be based on an ideal / that can stir the human heart.” He aimed to stir up one heart at a time, in the hope that each heart would stir another and eventually enough hearts would be stirred that an authentically Christian society would once again form.

Maurin offered an ideal, but it had its limitations. One obvious difficulty was that he never worked out the proper role of authority within communities. He wanted us to act according to our noblest desires, but he didn’t account for the persistence of our baser ones. Maurin seems to assume a well-formed conscience as the starting point for his philosophy. In the Catholic Worker houses, he came up against all the perversions of the human will that make that assumption unsound. There will be no “new society” until we have an account of the role of proper authority in forming consciences to truly perceive and choose the good.

Jacquelyn Lee is a junior fellow at First Things.

Photo by Tom Mascardo via Creative Commons. Image cropped.