The Day I Met Peter Maurin
A first-hand account of meeting Peter Maurin. By Stanley Vishnewski. Taken from Wings of the Dawn by Stanley Vishnewsi and reprinted in The Catholic Worker, May 1976, p.1, 5.
The door opened. An old man came in. He wore a shabby, ill-fitting suit and heavy bob-nailed shoes. His pockets bulged with newspapers and pamphlets. I remember how the hob-nails in his shoes clattered against the wooden floor, as he went past us without speaking. I had the impression that he did not see us.
“That’s Peter Maurin,” Mary Sheehan said. “He writes the Easy Essays for the paper. He lives up in Harlem.”
I looked at the doorway through which the man had gone. I had thought that he was some “tramp” who had come in looking for something to eat.
Mary Sheehan must have sensed what I was thinking. “Peter doesn’t care how he looks,” she said. “He always has his nose stuck in a book. But what a brain he has. He knows everything about history. He could make a lot of money as a teacher.”
The envelopes were all addressed. I got up to leave. “Where are you going?” Mary Sheehan asked.
“Home,” I said.
She looked surprised. “Don’t you want to eat with us? Its almost five-oclock.”
“But. . . “I stammered.
“Oh, don’t be bashful,” Mary said. “Margaret expects you to stay for supper. There’s no sense going now. We will be eating in a few minutes.”
I sat down. Out in the kitchen I could hear plates being set down on the round table. Then there was silence. I looked at Mary. She smiled back. Margaret came to the doorway. “It is ready.”
I stepped aside to let Mary go ahead of me and then followed her into the kitchen. Peter Maurin was already sitting at the table. He was reading a pamphlet. Mary sat down next to him.
“Sit here,” Margaret told me. “I’ll put the food out” I noticed that there was an extra plate at the table. Margaret must have read my thoughts. “That’s the Christ plate. We always set an extra place for anyone who comes.”
I had not yet been introduced to Peter but he did not wait for an introduction. At that moment his face became alive and animated. He pointed his finger at me and said, “In the first centuries of Christianity the poor were fed, clothed and sheltered at a personal sacrifice and the Pagans said about the Christians: ‘See how they love each other.”‘
“Today,” he continued, “the poor are fed, clothed and sheltered by the politicians at the expense of the taxpayers.
“And because the poor are no longer fed, clothed, and sheltered at a personal sacrifice but at the expense of the taxpayers, Pagans say about the Christians: ‘See how they pass the buck.”‘
Peter spoke in a rhythmical sing-song. At that time I did not realize that he was reciting one of his own Easy Essays, but I had the feeling that he was quoting from something that had already been written. When he finished, he stared at me as if waiting for me to comment on what he had just said.
Margaret saved me from my embarrassment by asking Peter to say Grace. I bowed my head until it almost touched the plate. The meal consisted of meatballs, mashed potatoes, string beans, mushrooms, gravy, coffee, bread, butter and more slabs of apple pie.
“Someone gave us the food.” Margaret said. “We have to finish everything up or else it will spoil.”
Peter restrained from talking during the meal. Mary and Margaret did most of the talking. I just listened. During the course of the meal Margaret told Peter that I was a Lithuanian.
Peter put his fork down and looked at me through a pair of. glasses which were, perched precariously on the edge of his nose. “So you are a Lithuanian,” he said. “The Third Order of St. Francis was strong for many years in Lithuania.”
I was impressed by Peter’s remarks. He was the first person I had met, away from the Lithuanian community, who knew anything about my own culture. Most people didn’t even know where Lithuania was on the map.
“My people come from the country,” I said. “They were Lithuanian peasants.”
“I am a French peasant,” Peter said. “I was born on a farm in the Southern part of France. My family owned the farm for 1,500 years, since the time of St. Augustine. We had seven cows, some sheep and a mare. We used oxen to plow the fields. We raised most of the food we ate. My father worked the land until he was ninety years old.”
Peter had moved his chair in order to be closer to me. Margaret and Mary cleared the table and began to wash the dishes. Peter talked as though addressing an audience. He raised his voice slightly. He mentioned names of saints I had never heard of before.
Peter said, “In the Catholic Worker we must try to have the voluntary poverty of St. Francis, the charity of St. Vincent de Paul, the intellectual approach of St. Dominic, the easy conversations about things that matter of St. Philip Neri, the manual labor of St. Benedict.”
As Peter talked he rocked back and forth in his chair. Every once in a while, to emphasize a point, he would lean over and tap me on the knee. The wrinkles on his facie seemed to move up and down as he kept talking.
When he had concluded a statement he would stop talking and lean forward with his finger pointed at me. I, of course, said nothing. I didn’t know what to say. It was a new experience, for me, to have an adult treat me as an intellectual equal.
Later, I learned more about Peter’s methods of conducting discussions. He had expected me to make some comment on what he was saying. He had wanted me to state, what was on my mind. Once I had commented on what he had just said he would then have preceded to carry on, the conversation from there.
Peter would never dominate a conversation. He believed that a person had a right to finish a statement without being interrupted. He would never answer a question directly. “I am not a question box,” he would say, “I am a chatter box.”
I finally asked the question that was on my mind. “What is the purpose of The Catholic Worker?”
To this day I do not know what color his eyes were but I know that he looked at me more intently than anybody had ever looked at me before. Peter leaped up from his chair. He looked down at me.
“The purpose of the Catholic Worker,” he said, “is to create a society where it will, be easier for men to be good. A society where each person will consider himself to be his brother’s keeper. A society where each one will try to serve And to be the least. God wants us to be our brother’s keeper. He wants us to feed the hungry at a personal sacrifice. He wants us to clothe the naked at a personal sacrifice. He wants us to shelter the homeless. To serve man for God’s sake, that is what God wants us to do!”
I was fascinated by Peter’s flow of language and his learning. I was impressed by what he was saying. I had never met a man who talked as he did. I glanced around the room. Mary was playing with the cat who was named Social Justice. Margaret was holding her baby. I looked at the window and realized it was getting dark. But Peter was just warming up to his subject. I could sense that he was interested in me.
“We need enthusiasm.” Peter said. “Nothing can be accomplished in the work of social reconstruction without enthusiasm.”
I was happy to hear Peter say this. I realized that the only talent I had to offer was enthusiasm, enthusiasm and still more enthusiasm!
Cover photo: Peter Maurin making a point. Courtesy of Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries.