Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
March 12, 2007
Humanity's highest spiritual achievements
One of the quirkier characters in 20th century Catholicism was the French peasant-philosopher Peter Maurin who, with Dorothy Day, founded the Catholic Worker movement in the United States in 1933. Maurin drifted into Day's life one day when she was perplexed about the direction her life should take.
Maurin scorned the view that "the best and the brightest" armed with analytical studies could save society. Taking personal responsibility for overcoming social problems was the only way to humanize society. People yearn for community, real community, not the collectivism promised by communism. "Christian charity and voluntary poverty are the pure means for the realization of a communist society," he said.
Maurin was a talker, a teacher, but not a man of action. He had no interest in material comforts and lived a most ascetic life as he went around trying to find people who would listen to his ideas.
Day described him as "a genius, a saint, an agitator, a writer, a lecturer, a poor man and a shabby tramp, all in one." Yet his ideas struck a chord with the former communist. Or, at least, Maurin hounded her with his ideas as she went about her daily routine until he made them strike a chord. It was she who put them into action.
The Catholic Worker is an eclectic movement, running soup kitchens, houses of hospitality and a newspaper. Today, more than 185 Catholic Worker communities are committed to non-violence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry and forsaken. Catholic Workers protest injustice, war, racism and all forms of violence.
Although Maurin was deeply religious, he never spoke about spirituality. His preaching was about unions, agriculture, business and cooperatives. His focus on such topics led many to conclude that he was irreligious. But Maurin was insistent that these are the vital concerns of religion. He saw the world as so shot full of the things of heaven that there was no need to preach on spirituality.
The Gospel would tend to bear him out. The Son of God became human and thus endowed humanity with divinity. Jesus went about healing the sick, feeding the hungry, proclaiming release for prisoners and announcing the good news to the poor. Jesus could have simply told people to pray, pay and obey. But the Gospels do not record him saying anything of that sort. Rather, it tells of him saying, "Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me."
Maurin insisted that Christianity is the religion that blesses poverty and blesses the poor. "The highest spiritual achievements belong to the poor," Day records him as saying. "Spirituality is on the wane and a time of spiritual decline is a time of bourgeois ascendancy."
He accused modern liberals of giving up the search for truth and falling into agnosticism. "The fruit of liberalism is secularism and secularism is the separation of the spiritual from the material."
Maurin said these things 70 years ago and they are truer today than ever. Today's bourgeoisie insist that the spiritual and the material be held as far apart as possible. This leads not to liberation, but to enslavement to the material and to consumerism.
Perhaps Maurin underestimated the power of prayer - its power to convert us away from the madness of consumerism. He was right about many things, but down-on-your-knees conversion is an essential step to moving one's own desires and thirsts for control out of the picture so that there is space for the Spirit.
In each of our lives, the reunion of the spiritual and the material are essential to the hoped-for liberation of society.
- Glen Argan
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