Thursday, May 20, 2010

139 / Easy Essays

Jim Forest writes here about Peter Maurin, the co-founder, with Dorothy Day, of the Catholic Worker movement, and the author of a series of "Easy Essays" that exemplify the movement's visionary qualities:

Through his years of reflection and hard labor, Maurin came to embrace poverty as a gift from God. His unencumbered life offered time for study and prayer, out of which a vision had taken form of a social order instilled with basic values of the Gospel "in which it would be easier for men to be good."

As often as his work allowed, he made his way to New York City, staying in Bowery flop houses. His days were spent either at the Public Library or expounding his ideas to anyone who showed interest. After all, he reasoned, "the way to reach the man on the street is meet the man on the street." He was a born teacher, lively, insightful and good humored, and found willing listeners, among them George Shuster, editor of Commonweal magazine, who gave him the address of Dorothy Day, a Catholic convert supporting herself as a freelance journalist.

Maurin introduced himself to her in December 1932.
To many Maurin would have seemed just one more street-corner prophet. Day quickly came to regard him as an answer to her prayers, someone who could help her discover what she was supposed to do. Maurin believed Day could "move mountains, and have influence on governments, temporal and spiritual." But first she needed a truly Catholic education. Maurin wanted her to look at history in a new way which centered not on the rise and fall of nations but on the lives of the saints. She had to understand that sanctity was what really mattered and that any program of social change must emphasize sanctity and community.

Maurin proposed that Day start a newspaper to publicize Catholic social teaching and promote steps to bring about the peaceful transformation of society. Day responded positively, though unsure how she would ever find the money for such a venture. "In the history of the saints," Maurin assured her, "capital is raised by prayer. God sends you what you need when you need it. You will be able to pay the printer. Just read the lives of the saints."

He saw no point in struggling for better hours or more pay in places where the work was dehumanizing. It was time, he said, "to fire the bosses." But where, he was asked, could they go? How would they live? "There is no unemployment on the land," Maurin replied. The Catholic Worker should stand for a decentralized society stressing cooperation rather than duress, with artisans and craftsmen in worker-owned small factories, and agricultural communities. Coming together in agricultural communities, worker and scholar could both sweat, think and pray together and in the process develop "a worker-- scholar synthesis."

Maurin was often accused of being a utopian romantic longing to return to travel backward rather than forward in time. But Day gradually became more open to his critique of assembly-line civilization and came to share his view that improved, unionized industrialism wasn't enough, that community was better than mass society.
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.

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