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Introduction (Two Agitators)

In her introduction to the 56-page pamphlet “Two Agitators: Peter Maurin — Ammon Hennacy” (The Catholic Worker, New York, 1959) Dorothy Day sketches a portrait of Peter Maurin and Ammon Hennacy and provides some background on their place in the Catholic Worker Movement. She marks similarities and differences between the two men, noting that their humility expressed itself in very different ways. Both men believed in the power of ideas and lived in a way that communicated their ideas as powerfully as any of their words.

This introduction to a few short selections from the writings of the founder of the Catholic Worker movement in the United States, and of Ammon Hennacy, one of its editors today, are brought out in this slight pamphlet to make men think. Though Peter Maurin, the French peasant, declared that there was no. party line at The Catholic Worker, he had a platform and the first plank in that was “round table discussions for the clarification of thought.” He quoted Lenin as saying that there could be no revolution without a theory of revolution, and he quoted Ibsen as saying that truth had to be restated every twenty years. I think that Ammon Hennacy in his life makes a restatement of Catholic Worker positions.

Peter was a French peasant from a commune in the south of France, many of whose brothers and half brothers and sisters, are teaching school in France today.

Ammon, one might say, is an American peasant, though we in America dislike the word. Peter came to this country in 1910 and died in 1949. He lived always as a worker and a poor man, taking literally the words of the Bible— “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” “Bear one another’s burdens.” And in the words of the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, not to resist evil; but if one strike thee on thy right cheek, turn to him also the other, and if a man will contend with thee in judgment and take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him. And whosoever will force thee one mile, go with him the other two. give to him that asketh of thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not away. You have heard that it hath been said, thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thy enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, do good to them that hate you and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you, that you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven.”

Ammon is not only an American peasant he is an American salesman. He likes selling things whether they are Fuller brushes or corn flakes, both of which he sold to help pay his way through college. He was so good a salesman of his book, “Autobiography of a Catholic Anarchist” that it is now out of print.

Peter’s book of “Essays” came out in 1949 and is also out of print, though we have reprinted many of them repeatedly in The Catholic Worker. Peter Maurln died in 1949 and of course the ideas of a man who is dead are far more acceptable than those of a living man. Peter was a cradle Catholic, Ammon a convert, baptized in 1952 by Fr. Marion Casey, diocesan priest in Minnesota. Peter always wtote impersonally, packing into hls short essays ideas which could be expanded into a book. He had a great reserve about himself, and told us only the               bare facts of his life. This was because he had profound belief in the power of the idea to change men’s minds and lives.

Ammon is the opposite and will tell you the story of his life at the drop of a hat; because he feels that so much of it illustrates what he is trying to convey in the way of ideas. I may be crediting him with a virtue which he does not possess, but it seems to me that there is a profound humility too, in Ammon’s talk of himself. Like all prophets, he has a keen sense of the emergency—“now is the time”—and what each man does now is going to have its effect on history. With Peter Maurin this meant constant repetition and great terseness of expression in the written word. With Ammon this humility meant, “What I can do, every man can do, if he will put fear far from him.” Ammon often says that he has the virtue of courage and knowledge, but lacks love; he knows how critical his attitude is about others. It is true he judges, but without malice.

Peter Maurin’s platform Included besides the round table discussions which could take place not only in formal conferences but on street corners, in busses, on a park bench or in “houses of hospitality.” These are set up in the slums of cities where people could gather to perform the works of mercy, and by mutual aid feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the harborless; as well as enlighten the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, rebuke the sinner, and so on through the seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy. Indeed the performance of these works and our interpretation of them astounds the faithful to the point of attack. Only this month, two Catholic journals of renown have printed articles attacking our particular interpretation of the teachings of Jesus Christ; It is true that the most visible of our work is feeding the hungry, sheltering the harborless. (We pay, at the present moment, $734 a month in rents for the remains of the group who were dispossessed from our House of Hospitality iast January. Some is for “flop” money, for cubicles on the Bowery. The rest of the rents are for scattered apartments and for a loft which is our headquarters.) This is the way we began back in 1933, with apartments and a store, and we have gone back to our beginnings, which is a healthy thing. Certainly there is not much chance of the Catholic Worker Movement becoming static.

Everyone wants to feel settled, stable, and to put down roots. But city dwellers are torn up again and again and finding a place to live, space to breathe, is one of the great problems of the day. Peter Maurin and Ammon Hennacy exemplify the free man in our day, men who are not dependent on place, home or office, field, factory or workshop. The world, and specifically, the United States, is their home. Tbere they are pilgrims and wanderers, preaching the gospel, witnessing the truth of their ideas. And their ideas shock and startle.

It used to shock Catholic policemen and the readers of the diocesan press to see Catholic Workers out on picket lines during strikes. We were the first recognized Catholic group to cover strikes and organizing campaigns in this way. We were the first Catholics to picket the Mexican and the German Embassy, to protest the persecution of the church in Mexico and the persecution of  Jews and Catholics in Germany. We have picketed the Russian Consulate and have consistently pointed out our fundamental opposition to atheistic communism.

Over and over again this last month before an investigating committee in Congress our use of the name Catholic has been disputed. We have as much right to use the name Catholic as the Catholic War Veterans have. We have used it for twenty six years without protest by our own Chancery office in New York City.

Sometimes, when people send us money to pay these bills for housing and feeding people, they tell us they want the money to go for bread, not for the propagation of our ”ideas.” But it is our ideas that make us do these things. “All men are brothers.” God is our Father and we must be “our brother’s keeper” It is the first murderer who asked that question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

We believe that we must love our enemies, do good to them that persecute us. We believe that we cannot say we love God and not love our brother. These profoundly simple but serious ideas have made us pacifists and have brought us into courts and jails. During the last five years we have been arrested each year for refusing to take part in the war game of the compulsory civil defense drill. There is no defense against atomic weapons, and we try to call attention to this fact by disobeying what is in effect a foolish law, a law which is not “according to right reason.” If this law compelled us to sin everyone would understand our position. But we fall into sin by “little and by little” as St. Paul says, compelling people to take shelter during mock air attacks, and ours is considered a foolish act. But its very folly compels the military, the Civil Defense, the police, the courts, the prison officials, and of course the public, to think of what we mean, what we are saying.

Then too, going to jail is visiting the prisoner, and that is a work of mercy. Being prisoners ourselves brings us closer to our brothers. It is truly compassion to share the sufferings of the prisoner. Printing articles about Morton Sobel, a prisoner sentenced to thirty years on insufficient evidence during the hysteria of the Korean war, is also visiting the prisoner. We are not afraid of “guilt by association.”  Fr. Gutzwiller says, “too many are busy taking care of the one sheep that remains safely in the stable while the ninety-nine lost are left to their own fate.” Our Lord dined with publicans and sinners and indeed we are all sinners by omission if not by commission, in ignorance if not with due deliberation. But Jesus said, in reply to those who asked “when were you in prison and we did not visit you?” “Inasmuch as ye did not do it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did not do it to me.”

Peter Maurin’s articles speak for themselves. Ammon’s chapters deal with two periods of his life, the time he spent in jail during the first world war, and how he came to be a “one man revolution.” There is a period then in his life when he married, built a house, raised two daughters and earned a living as a social worker, and made those compromises which the average man has to make living in the present social order. He never ceased, however, being the agitator. At the coming of peacetime conscription however, he refused to register, and due to the breakup of his family, and the passing of the withholding tax, he became a wandering migrant worker. It is this part of his life that makes up the second part of his writing.

For the last seven years, he has been a member of the Catholic Worker staff, and as one of the editors does a good deal of travelling and speaking. In this last year he has spoken to groups at Princeton, Yale, Brandeis, etc.

There is much to clarify in his thinking and writing. He uses words too loosely. When he rejects such words as “law and order” he is rejecting the disorder of the modern world. He himself desires the law and order of God; he is a follower of the Sermon on the Mount. When as an anarchist he talks of freedom, he is saying the same things St. Paul did when he talked of the liberty of Christ and—“for such there is no law.” When he talks of anarchism and the rejection of authority he does not realize that he more than any I know accepts the authority of the functional society, though not of the acquisitive. When he, like most Americans, reacts against the word “obedience” he is really reacting against “obeisance” and the lack of the recognition of the dignity of man and his conscience, but of all the men around the Catholic Worker he is the most obedient to his duty, his work, his daily routine and to the needs of others who call on him for help.         –

Whan he shocks, when his inexactitude of expression causes antagonism, I can only hope that with charity, those who know better, those who are skilled in theology, philosophy, economics and dialectic, will with meekness and charity, instruct him. The only trouble is that the best of men, laymen and priests, in their humility, feel his greatness and goodness and leave it to God to straighten out his mistakes. Certainly the way he lives is a challenge to all, and it can never be said of him, “What you are speaks to me so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” His life itself more than his words is the best thing about him.

As we go to press Ammon is again in jail in Sandstone, Minn. Federal correctional institution, serving a six month sentence for trespassing on the Omaha missile base and distributing The Catholic Worker. We hope he will be selling this pamphlet in the spring.

We will not be using the money which is sent for the care of the poor to pay for the printing of this pamphlet. Our printer (who also prints Variety) has given us credit these last 26 years, though once when we were very late we received a terse note, “pray and pay!” and the pamphlet will sell quickly enough to pay the bill. May it go forth with God’s blessing.

Dorothy Day
October, 1959

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