Vision Gives Us Life: A Lesson from Peter Maurin

A reflection on the prophetic vision of Peter Maurin.

By Paul Magno. Reprinted from The Little Way, the paper of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker, Washington, DC, Spring 1996.

Without a vision, the people perish.

It is essential to worthwhile living that we have a vision, individually and collectively, and that we know what it is at least well enough to articulate it. Of late, I’ve been reflecting on this question of vision, pondering its characteristics more than its content. This is what makes Peter Maurin’s book Easy Essays impressive. It calls for and rests on a vision. Peter knows what vision is and he knows how to explain it.

One element of his vision is this: Whatever you have is your gift to offer to others. So he says to workers that they need to see their labor as a gift to offer rather than a commodity to exploit. He says to the poor that they are God’s ambassadors and that they should ask for what they need without shame or embarrassment because it gives others an “opportunity to do good.” He tells intellectuals that they have the gift of knowledge and the responsibility to use it for the common good, for the benefit of others who don’t have the ability to integrate and synthesize thought. He tells the rich, one of our favorite “enemies,” that their wealth is their opportunity to practice personal charity and that doing so is essential. In Peter’s vision, we all have gifts to offer and should offer them because we will make the “common good” richer precisely in terms of human interaction.

Peter knows what he and the Catholic Worker should be about: “Bringing the social order to Christ” He knows that because he has a comprehensive and coherent vision that prompts that work. That vision prizes work, study and prayer, in the tradition of St. Benedict.It endorses voluntary poverty and peace-making, in the tradition of St. Francis.It holds up the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy as proper Christian practice and witness in the world. It seeks to find and remain close to the roots of both the material and spiritual life, a true radicalism

But what gives vision its quality?

Vision is not doctrine, ideology, or rule. It rests on something deeper, namely faith, and confidence in the tradition that has conveyed that faith to us. Peter keeps pointing us toward the deeper wellspring of his vision.In his words:

“Politics is politics and not worth our while, but mysticism is mysterious and worth all our striving.”

“When the Sermon On The Mount is our standard of values . . .”

“[We need to] foster a society based on creed, systematic unselfishness and gentle personalism.”

These are all Maurinisms that offer us an orientation for faithful living in practical terms that are constructive in Christian terms. They are insights into Peter’s vision which has these qualities:

It is inherently life-affirming and spirit-filled and has the suppleness thereof, rather than the rigidity of a set form.

It has an open and hopeful character.

It is invitational and in fact provides an optimistic premise for living rather than an antagonistic, mistrustful or combative premise.

It is not ingrown or cynical.

It is foundational for our work or accomplishments.

Still, not everything that could be vision is vision.

Take Isaiah 2:2-5, the “swords into plowshares” passage, for example. Here is a text we in the Catholic Worker community are all familiar with and have lived by in a very special way. It is a text that conveys a vision of peace and justice that comes with divine authority and human adherence to that authority. But if we try to control the text, treating it as dogma or law, we rob it of its prophetic power and deprive ourselves of the life it has to offer us as vision.

My father and I used to coach recreation league sports. One year our basketball team lost only one game and won the title. What bothered Dad as the season went on was that a kind of cockiness overtook these boys as they realized they could beat the other teams easily. This all came to a head midway through the season when they suddenly found themselves in a real game with another team. My father called a time-out and chewed them out for their attitude. “You think just because your shirt says Illinois on it, all you have to do is show up and the game is yours by right. Think again, boys. You have to go out and play this game, play it as a team, make some passes, take some rebounds, play some defense, take good shots or you’re going to do something you haven’t done before , which is to fail. You don’t own this gym “

We run the same risk with our attitudes toward our favorite truths in the world, even something as holy and crucial as peacemaking. If we think that we have a better idea of what is right and good to live for and live by, – and I really think that we do – that’s fine. But if we think that invoking those magic words automatically relieves us of the need to remember and relearn fundamental things about being human, such as Peter Maurin holds up for us, then our charism rings hollow. We don’t own the vision, we respond to its invitation. That is how vision is a foundation for right living. Fidelity to it is a continuous challenge and call to humility.

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