Voluntary Poverty at Heart of Catholic Worker Movement

(cjd.org) … The great message which Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, has for the world today is the message of voluntary poverty.

John Cort, friend of Peter’s and still living, said that the most vital message of the Catholic Worker movement is the praise of voluntary poverty.

Voluntary poverty is liberating. It frees people to use their skills in the service of others without wage concern.

Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, tells us that because Peter had chosen to be poor he had remained free; he had time to think. He lived a rich and abundant life because of that very poverty (Catholic Worker, February 1945).

Peter understood something that St. Francis knew, that detachment from material things is the mysterious key to spiritual freedom, to joy and to the ability to possess things as God wishes us to possess them, on loan, as it were, for this life (Arthur Sheehan, Peter Maurin, Hanover House, 1959, p. 11) Peter quoted Johannes Jorgensen’s biography of St. Francis, who taught that our work should be given away as a gift.
Opposed Wage System

Dorothy Day speaks further of Peter’s voluntary poverty prior to their starting the Catholic Worker movement: “For the seven years before I met him, he had worked as caretaker in New York State at a boys’ camp during the winter. As far as I could gather, he lived with the horse in the barn. He mended the roads, broke rock and cut ice.

“Peter was vehemently opposed to the wage system, so he received in return for his labor, which he pointed out was voluntarily given, the return gift of enough food and clothing from the village store to supply his needs, a place to sleep and the use of the priest’s library, without which he never would have stayed upstate so long. He never refused to give alms, no matter how poor he was. He believed in poverty and loved it and felt it a liberating force. He differentiated between poverty and destitution.” (The Long Loneliness, Harper San Francisco, pp. 178-179).

Jesus and Voluntary Poverty

Jesus, the Son of God, practiced voluntary poverty. He chose to be born in a stable without any of the accoutrements of a middle class life style.

“The great mystery of the Incarnation,” Dorothy Day said as she spoke about the inspiration for the daily life of those in the Catholic Worker movement, “which meant that God became man that man might become God, was a joy that made us want to kiss the earth in worship, because His feet once trod that same earth. It was a mystery that we as Catholics accepted, but there were also the facts of Christ’s life, that He was born in a stable, that He did not come to be a temporal King, that He worked with His hands, spent the first years of His life in exile, and the rest of His early manhood in a crude carpenter shop in Nazareth. He trod the roads in His public life and the first men He called were fishermen, small owners of boats and nets. He was familiar with the migrant worker and the proletariat, and some of His parables dealt with them. He spoke of the living wage, not equal pay for equal work, in the parable of those who came at the first and the eleventh hour.

“He died between two thieves because He would not be made an earthly King. He lived in an occupied country for thirty years without starting an underground movement or trying to get out from under a foreign power. His teaching transcended all the wisdom of the scribes and pharisees, and taught us the most effective means of living in this world while preparing for the next. And He directed His sublime words to the poorest of the poor, to the people who thronged the towns and followed after John the Baptist, who hung around, sick and poverty-stricken at the doors of rich men.” (The Long Loneliness, pp. 204-205).


by Louise and Mark Zwick

Read more: http://www.cjd.org/paper/roots/rpoverty.html


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