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Dorothy Day on Peter Maurin

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  • abarbas21
    Peter Maurin A Poor Man By Dorothy Day Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints and the details of such a death are precious. Plato said,
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 1, 2008
      Peter Maurin

      A Poor Man

      By Dorothy Day

      "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints"
      and the 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

      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 once 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 has 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 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.

      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 mater
      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 had 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
      avoice, 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

      Coming, and lead thee into the holy city of Jerusalem. May the choir of

      receive thee, and mayest thou have eternal rest with Lazarus, who once


      "We need to make the kind of society," Peter had said,
      "where it is easier for people to be good." And because his love
      of 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 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 tired 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 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

      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 to 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 the
      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

      - Originally published in June 1949/ Taken from Dorothy Day: Selected
      Writings, Edited by Robert Ellsberg, pp. 123-7

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