Peter Maurin: A Poor Man

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by Dorothy Day

[This essay, written to commemorate the death of Catholic Worker cofounder Peter Maurin, was originally published in the Catholic Worker newspaper in June 1949. It is reprinted here from Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, edited by Robert Ellsberg (Orbis, 1992).]

Our Lady of the Wayside

"Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints," and details of such a death are precious.

Plato said, "Other people are not likely to be aware that those who pursue philosophy aright study nothing but dying and being dead. But if this be true, it would be absurd to be eager for nothing but this all their lives, and then be troubled when that came for which they had all along been eagerly practicing."

And St. Paul said, "We will not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them that are asleep, that you be not sorrowful, even as others who have no hope."

So it is with a spirit of joy that I write this month, because Peter is no longer suffering, no longer groaning within himself and saying with St. Paul, "Who will deliver me from the body of this death?"

No, we are sure that he welcomed Sister Death with joy, and that underneath him he felt the Everlasting Arms.

I am writing this in New York, up in my room on the third floor, and all winter, he waited up here for the weather to clear so that he could go to the country. He had to lie in bed much of the time, and the plaster is all picked off the wall by the side of his bed. He must have been very weary of lying in bed, he who had traveled north and south, east and west in this vast country. Everybody was always so reassuring, exclaiming how well he looked, how bright he was, but we who had known him these past seventeen years felt only the tragedy of the death in life he was living. Truly he practiced for death a very long time

Peter was the poor man of his day. He was another St. Francis of modern times. He was used to poverty as a peasant is used to rough living, poor food, hard bed or no bed at all, dirt, fatigue, and hard and unrespected work. He was a man with a mission, a vision, an apostolate, but he had put off from himself honors, prestige, recognition. He was truly humble of heart, and loving. Never a word of detraction passed his lips, and as St. James said, the man who governs his tongue is a perfect man. He was impersonal in his love in that he loved all, saw all others around him as God saw them. In other words, he saw Christ in them.

He never spoke idle words, though he was a great teacher who talked for hours on end, till late in the night and early morning. He roamed the streets and the countryside and talked to all who would listen. But when his great brain failed, he became silent. If he had been a babbler, he would have been a babbler to the end. But when he could no longer think, as he himself expressed it, he remained silent.

For the last five years of his life he was this way, suffering, silent, dragging himself around, watched by us all for fear he would get lost, as he did one for three days; he was shouted at loudly by visitors as though he were deaf, talked to with condescension as one talks to a child for whom language must be simplified even to the point of absurdity. That was one of the hardest things we had to bear, we who loved him and worked with him for so long - to see others treat him as though he were simpleminded.

The fact was, he had been stripped of all. He had stripped himself throughout life; he had put off the old man, to put on the new. He had done all that he could to denude himself of the world, and I mean the world in the evil sense, not in the sense that "God looked at it and found it good." He loved people, he saw in them what God meant them to be. He saw the world as God meant it to be, and he loved it.

He had stripped himself, but there remained work for God to do. We are to be pruned as the vine is pruned so that it can bear fruit, and this we cannot do ourselves. God did it for him. He took from him his mind, the one thing he had left, the one thing perhaps he took delight in. He could no longer think. He could no longer discuss with others, give others, in a brilliant overflow of talk, his keen analysis of what was going on in the world; he could no longer make what he called his synthesis of cult, culture, and cultivation.

He was sick for five years. It was as though he had had a stroke in his sleep. He dragged one leg after him, his face was slightly distorted, he repeated, "I can no longer think." When he tried to, his face would have a strained, suffering expression.

He had always been a meager eater, getting along on two meals a day, never eating between meals. He used to say when he was offered anything, "I don't need it." But toward the close of his life, he was inclined to stuff down his food hastily like a child, and he had to be cautioned to eat slowly. Perhaps this was a hangover from the hunger of a childhood in that large family where there was never too much to eat. There were twenty-three children in all, over the years.

Other habits clung to him. When I'd go in to see if he was warm enough, I'd find him lying in bed with his pants folded neatly and under his head, and his coat wrapped around his feet, a habit I suppose he got from living in flophouses where clothes are often stolen. And once I found him sleeping in the dead of winter with only a spread over him, in a stony-cold room. Someone had taken his blankets.

One thing we can be happy about is that he felt he had finished his work before his mind failed. He used to say, "I have written all I have to say; I have done all I can; let the younger men take over." So he suffered, but not with the feeling that there was much still that he could do.

Recently we tried to record Peter's voice on a wire recorder, and we had him read aloud all his essays on Houses of Hospitality. His voice strangely enough was louder and clearer than it had been for a long time. We spent quite a few days over this, Dave Mason and I, because Peter tired easily. Then, after we had triumphantly made a fifteen-minute spool, someone else tried to work the machine and erased it all.

For the past two months I had been at the farm, and while returning from the funeral of Larry Heaney, I received a telephone call telling me of Peter's death. Just before I had left, I had told him of Larry's sudden death, and he said yes, to my question as to whether he remembered Larry. He had loved him very much, had sent him his quotations listed as cult, culture, and cultivation over the years, and rejoiced in his total acceptance of his teaching. When I said to him, "Now you will have someone waiting for you in heaven," his face lit up in a radiant smile. He had not smiled for months; there had only been a look of endurance, even of pain on his face.

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That was our goodbye. Over the telephone in Avon, Ohio, at Our Lady of the Wayside Farm, I heard the news. It was midnight and I had already fallen asleep. Dorothy and Bill Gauchat were still awake. When I hung up the receiver Bill suggested we say Vespers of the Office of the Dead for Peter, so we knelt there in that farm living room and prayed those beautiful psalms that are like balm to the sore heart.

No matter how much you expect a death, no matter how much you may regard it as a happy release, there is a gigantic sense of loss. With our love of life, we have not yet gotten to that point where we can say with the desert father, St. Anthony, "The spaces of this life, set over against eternity, are brief and poor."

John Filliger shaved him Saturday, and Michael Kovalak had dressed and cared for him on Sunday, conducting him to the Chapel for Mass that morning, taking him to and from his room to rest. He had looked in again at Peter at nine Sunday night and found him sleeping rather restlessly. At eleven that night, Hans said, Peter began coughing, and it went on for some minutes. Then he tried to rise, and fell over on his pillow, breathing heavily. Hans put on the light and called Father Faley, our resident priest. Michael, Eileen, and others came too, and there were prayers for the dying around the bedside. He died immediately, there was no struggle, no pain.

Peter was buried in St. John's Cemetery, Queens, in a donated grave. He was another St. John, a voice crying in the wilderness, and a voice, too, saying, "My little children, love one another." As the body was carried out of the church those great and triumphant words rang out, the In Paradisum.

May the angels lead thee into paradise; may the martyrs receive thee at thy coming, and lead thee into the holy city of Jerusalem. May the choir of angels receive thee, and mayest thou have eternal rest with Lazarus, who once was poor.

"We need to make the kind of society," Peter had said, "where it is easier for people to be good." And because his love for God made him love his neighbor, lay down his life indeed for his brother, he wanted to cry out against the evils of the day - the state, war, usury, the degradation of man, the loss of a philosophy of work. He sang the delights of poverty (he was not talking of destitution) as a means to making a step to the land, of getting back to the dear natural things of earth and sky, of home and children. He cried out against the machine because, as Pius XI had said, "raw materials went into the factory and came out ennobled and man went in and came out degraded"; and because it deprived a man of what was as important as bread - his work, his work with his hands, his ability to use all of himself, which made him a whole man and a holy man.

Yes, he talked of these material things. He knew we needed a good social order where we could grow up to our full stature as men and women. And he also knew that it took men and women to make such a social order. He tried to form them, he tried to educate them, and God gave him poor weak materials to work with. He was as poor in the human material he had around him as he was in material goods. We are the offscourings of all, as St. Paul said, and yet we know we have achieved great things in these brief years, and not ours is the glory. God has chosen the weak things to confound the strong, the fools of this earth to confound the wise.

Peter had been insulted and misunderstood in his life as well as loved. He had been taken for a plumber and left to sit in the basement when he had been invited for dinner and an evening of conversation. He had been thrown out of a Knights of Columbus meeting. One pastor who invited him to speak demanded his money back which he had sent Peter for carfare to his upstate parish because, he said, we had sent him a Bowery bum, and not the speaker he expected. "This then is perfect joy," Peter could say, quoting the words of St. Francis to Friar Leo.

He was a man of sincerity and peace, and yet one letter came to us recently, accusing him of having a holier-than-thou attitude. Yes, Peter pointed out that it was a precept that we should love God with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and not just a counsel, and he taught us all what it meant to be children of God, and restored to us our sense of responsibility in a chaotic world. Yes, he was "holier than thou," holier than anyone we ever knew.

"Don't forget," Mary Frecon, head of the Harrisburg house said before she left, "don't forget to tell of the roots of the little tree that they cut through in digging his grave. I kept looking at those roots and thinking how wonderful it is that Peter is going to nourish that tree - that thing of beauty." The undertaker had tried to sell us artificial grass to cover up "the unsightly grave," as he called it, but we loved the sight of that earth that was to cover Peter. He had come from the earth, as we all had, and to the earth he was returning.

Around the grave we all said the Rosary and after the Benedictus we left."

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