Dorothy, Peter, and the Man at the Back of the Church

Growing up in the “Coal Regions” of Northeastern Pennsylvania was a special experience – especially for a Catholic family. My small town had so many Catholic churches, it seemed like there was one on every corner. Growing up Eastern Catholic was easy, too, because all of my friends knew “who we were,” and could visit one of the three Byzantine Catholic Churches in town. I appreciate that aspect of my hometown more now, living in the heavily German/PA Dutch region of Central Pennsylvania. There are Catholics here, and the local diocese is thriving. But it’s still so different from the coal town of my childhood. That’s why I’m so fortunate to have a Catholic Church (with an Adoration Chapel) close to my home. A quick visit with Jesus, or partaking in daily Mass are blessings easily taken for granted. Any opportunity to be in the Lord’s House, and experience His real, Eucharistic presence, should inspire both gratitude and humility. Note the emphasis on humility, as it’ll be important in a moment.

I’m really good at judging books by their covers. No, I’m not talking about an ability to size up a Barnes and Noble display and produce reviews worthy of the New York Times. That would be a noteworthy talent! What I mean is that I am quick to judge others, based on impressions formed without having a conversation, let alone getting to know them. It’s not that I do this all the time – but more often than I’d care to acknowledge. With some honest self-reflection perhaps others might also admit of this “talent” for reaching quick conclusions based on appearance alone. Business gurus tell us the first impression means everything. The Gospel tells us our personal impressions don’t tell the whole story, since angels – and God Himself – sometimes come in strange disguises (cf. Hebrews 13:2, Matthew 25:35-45). I was challenged by this lesson at Mass one Fall morning.

In the chapel of the church where I often go for daily Mass, a group of “regulars” fill the pews. Though it isn’t my parish church, I’ve been incorporated into this group of retirees, stay at home moms, and others whose schedules are as flexible as mine. There is a man who often sits in the last pew of the small chapel. In appearance, he’s kind of scruffy and unkempt. He mostly keeps to himself, sharing in the Sign of Peace, but otherwise sitting silently through the Mass. He looks – for lack of a more polite term – like “a bum.” I notice that people generally avoid sitting near him, if they can help it. One or two women seem to look out for him, smiling warmly, exchanging a few words, and even chauffeuring him to the store. But for the most part, people keep their distance, unsure of sitting near someone who is so…unlike the rest of us.

Recently I saw this man at the grocery store, wearing the same clothes I see him in every time he comes to Mass. He pushed his cart along, catching wondering looks from the few shoppers attentive to those around them. My grocery list fulfilled, I made for the checkout line and paid for my items. As I placed the last package in my cart and started for the door, I heard someone shout “Hey!” just behind me. It was him. The man said, “Don’t you go to the parish?” “I’m not a parishioner,” I replied, “but I try to get to daily Mass.” His face wore the smile of someone who’d run across a friend for the first time in awhile as he said, “I thought I recognized you. I see you at Mass. Will you be there Friday?” I said I hoped so, and he said, “Good. I like to see you there.” Smiling back at him, I said good bye and God bless, and went on my way.

The encounter in the grocery store really made an impression on me, and made me examine my tendency to not only make snap judgments about people, but to let those judgments take pride of place over love; to believe I know it all rather than taking the time to know a person. It also reminded me of a story I remembered reading about Peter Maurin, co-founder (with Dorothy Day) of the Catholic Worker Movement. You can read about Maurin here, and I recommend learning more about this saintly man. Peter Maurin was an… “eccentric.” He cared little for possessions or position, happily identifying with “the man on the street,” while endeavoring to emulate the saints. When he met Dorothy Day in 1932, she couldn’t have realized a movement would be born of their friendship; a movement inspired by the Gospel to regain a sense of community among people, in which the race “to have and to do” would be replaced by the desire “to give and to be with.” One can only imagine the shock and disappointment Maurin (and Day) would experience if they saw the shape 21st century consumerism has taken – not to mention the sight of so many people walking down the street, meeting for dinner, or riding the bus with heads down and fingers typing, tapping and swiping. Having seen the brutal assaults on humanity wrought during the Second World War, they may have been overwhelmed by the sophistication with which we now perpetrate crimes against human dignity: from terrorism and torture, and attacks on human life at its beginning and ending; to the more “subtle” discarding of those we find undesirable by “swiping left” – or avoiding them at Mass because they “look different.”

Peter Maurin was an authentic radical; not what we think of today as a violent extremist, or a political rabble-rouser. He believed that societal/cultural change for the good was only possible with a radical (at the root) shift in our thought and behavior. Only by getting back to the roots of the Gospel and Jesus’ example can we see God in each other, and thus be inspired to follow Jesus’ mandate to love each other with His own merciful love (cf. John 13:34-35, Matthew 5:43-48). Maurin believed that if there is to be a “revolution” that changes the world, it will be accomplished in the radical return to love of God and neighbor (community), performing the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy (action), and sharing Christ in and through the ordinary aspects of daily life. Maurin worked toward and prayed for such a revolution by developing relationships in which the love of Christ could be shared over a meal, in a “round table” discussion, or as he worked side-by-side with other men and women in manual labor. He shared Christ with anyone who would listen, and offered both spiritual and material comfort and aid for those whom others would not so kindly describe as “eccentric.”

Dorothy Day relates many stories about Peter and his radical plan for changing the world, but the one I remembered when I met the disheveled man from daily Mass at the grocery store continues to move and to challenge me. Peter was to give a talk for a women’s group and Dorothy herself saw to it that he made it on the train. When hours passed and he hadn’t arrived at his destination, one of the women called Dorothy, distressed that there was no sign of him at the station. Everyone who’d arrived on that train was gone, save for one man, “a bum” asleep on a bench. Immediately, Dorothy knew that was Peter. Peter Maurin, the Catholic thinker with the radical idea that we should live the Gospel boldly and faithfully, who was sought after for his intellect and ability to teach, and advocated for a return to the Christian ideals of community and hospitality. Peter Maurin was overlooked as “a bum,” insignificant, undesirable, and ignored because his appearance didn’t meet expectations. He might just as well have been the unkempt, quiet man sitting in the last row of the chapel in a small town in Pennsylvania.

Books have covers, but they don’t reveal the story inside. For that, we must take them in hand and open them to discover the story for ourselves. People are a lot like books in that way. We may think we have all we need to know about a person by looking at “the cover.” It’s only in humbly approaching another person with wonder, and with the patience to discover what’s inside, that our expectations are shattered, freeing us to share in their story. And that can have radical consequences for both of us.

“I want a change, and a radical change. I want a change from an acquisitive society to a functional society, from a society of go-getters to a society of go-givers.”

~Peter Maurin

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Merton – On Nonviolence

The most basic principle of the ethic of nonviolence is that all life is sacred.  Such an ethic holds that each person is a son or daughter of God and that all have been created by God to live in peace and love and in harmony with nature.  The ethic of nonviolence, which is an ethic of love, roots itself in such values as care, cooperation, compassion, equality, and forgiveness.

Jesus, the incarnation of the nonviolent God, spent His life teaching and practicing nonviolence.  Jesus called His followers to embrace God’s nonviolent reign of peace by taking on others’ violence in a non-retaliatory way and accepting suffering in order to right wrongs.  Jesus taught: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to that person the other as well.  If a person takes you to law and would have your tunic, let that person have your cloak as well.” (Matthew 5:38 – 41)  In a final act of nonviolence immediately before He died, Jesus cried out: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

In the 1960s, by becoming a voice of protest against various forms of violence, Trappist monk and priest Thomas Merton continued Jesus’ mission of proclaiming the gospel of nonviolence.  Merton declared:

 [By] being in the monastery I take my true part in all the struggles and sufferings of the world.  To adopt a life that is essentially … nonviolent, a life of humility and peace is itself a statement of one’s position. … It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of and protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny, which threaten to destroy the whole human race and the world with it.[1]

In writing about nonviolence, Merton adopted Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha, soul or love force that always attempts to overcome evil by good, anger by love, and untruth by truth.  Merton agreed with Gandhi that to live nonviolently is to root one’s life in the conviction that love is the deepest human power.

For Merton, nonviolence and contemplation are inherently related. Contemplative awareness of one’s unity with all that exists leads to the realization that one is called to practice nonviolent love for all one’s fellow humans and the rest of creation.  Merton reflects:  “Our deep awareness that we are truly at one with everything and everyone in the Hidden Ground of Love we call God demands of us that we live a nonviolent love.” [2]

As a practitioner of nonviolence, the contemplative person actively resists social evils such as racism, addiction to war, and nuclearism. In his writings on racism, Merton notes that in various periods of American history White Americans conceived of African Americans as subservient and subhuman, i.e., as non-persons.[3] According to Merton, over time the deep-seated sin of racial prejudice ate away at American society like a cancer.[4]  Merton stresses that in Christ there is no racial division; all are equal. For Merton, only by truly becoming brothers and sisters will African and White Americans eliminate racism in America.

As a staunch proponent of the abolition of war,  Merton insisted: “There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere.”[5] With this in mind, Merton advocated the development of a program of multi-national disarmament so that, instead of nations expending annual budgets of billions and billions of dollars to secure more and more armaments, it would become possible to enable the global population to have access to food, medicine, housing, and education needed to live decent human lives.

In the case of nuclear war, Merton maintained that conditions agreed upon for a just war do not apply.  Merton stated: “A war of total annihilation simply cannot be considered a ‘just war’, no matter how good the cause for which it is undertaken.“[6]  Merton believed that nuclear war would lead to the decimation of nations and the wholesale disappearance of culture.  It would be a moral evil second only to the crucifixion.[7]

For Thomas Merton, sowing seeds of nonviolence in our world is the moral imperative of our time. This entails treating each person with reverence and not allowing anger, hatred, or resentment to linger in one’s heart. Commitment to nonviolent living involves a person’s embracing love as the power that refuses to retaliate in the face of provocation and violence.  In doing so, as a follower of Jesus’ nonviolent way of being, one contributes to the development of a world freed of racism, war, and nuclearism so that sisters and brothers in the global community are enabled to join hands in abiding peace.

Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, Ph.D., is professor of theology and chair of the on-campus undergraduate theology program at Saint Joseph’s College.

[1]  Thomas Merton, “Preface” to the Japanese Edition of The Seven Storey Mountain, trans. Tadishi Kudo (Tokyo: Chou Shuppanasha, 1966.

[2] Quoted in William H. Shannon, Silence on Fire: Prayer of Awareness  (New York: the Crossroad Publishing Co., 2000) 67.

[3] See Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence  (South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968) 16.

[4] See Thomas Merton, Passion for Peace, Ed. William H. Shannon (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1997) 175.

[5] Thomas Merton, The Catholic Worker, October 1961, 1.

[6] Thomas Merton, Peace in a Post-Christian Era, Ed. Patricia A. Burton (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2004) 66.

[7] See Merton, Passion for Peace, 46.