Thursday, February 27, 2014

Curmudgeons

I’ve known him for years. He is a somewhat irritating, impatient curmudgeon whom I will not name in order to protect him and me.

He has some decided opinions about politics and religion which challenge me and often leave me in search of a response.

In the political arena he insists that the United States Constitution is a covenantal document, an agreement between the government and the people, and that the government has no authority to unilaterally change the covenant.

“It was agreed among the founders of this federal government and the people,” he says, “that all power is originally vested in and consequently derived from the people, and that government is instituted by them for their common interest, protection and security.”

He was quoting the ratification document composed by the Convention of the State of New York. And he quickly added, “The other states ratified the Constitution on the same grounds after months of debate. No president, congress or court can willy-nilly change the pact. Any change requires the assent of the people!”

“And,” he continued, “I shudder when I recall Benjamin Franklin’s agreeing ‘to this Constitution, with all its Faults, if there are such’ and his belief that ‘this is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years, and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being in capable of any other.’”

I had never thought of the Constitution as a covenant, and I too shudder when I I have to wonder if we are nearing the point of despotism. I search for a response.

In the arena of religion, and he insists that the Gospel (the teaching of Jesus) is a covenantal document, an agreement ratified between Christ and Christian through Baptism, and that no believer, let alone the Church, has the authority to unilaterally change the covenant.

“Most followers of Christ are Christian in name only,” he says, “picking and choosing which teachings they will take seriously and which they will discreetly discard.”

He quotes the teaching of St. Paul, “I am amazed that you are so quickly forsaking the one who called you by the grace of Christ for a different gospel (not that there is another)…Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than the one that we preached to you, let that one be accursed” (cf. Galatians 1:6-8).

“And,” he continued, “I remind you of what the Italians say, 'Traduttore e traditore' (A translator is a traitor). Just look at the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel. One of them is traditionally translated, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers,’ but it could just as correctly be translated, ‘Blessed are the pacifists!’ Even you have to admit that the differing connotations of peacemaker and pacifist are obvious!

I had never thought of that Beatitude as a declaration of Christian pacifism, but I suspect that Jesus was as much a pacifist as a peacemaker. I search for a response.

Human history includes a litany of curmudgeons. I think of Thomas Paine, Friedrich Nietzsche, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, George Patton.

Christian history has its share of curmudgeons as well, some of whom we call saints. (I’ll be discreet and not presume to name any of them in order to protect me.)

They are not bad people. American writer and editor Jon Winokur explains, “ A curmudgeon's reputation for malevolnce is undeserved. They're neither warped nor evil at heart. They don't hate mankind,  just mankind's absurdities. They're just as sensitive and soft-hearted as the next guy, but they hide their vulnerability beneath a crust of misanthropy… Curmudgeons are mockers and debunkers whose bitterness is a symptom rather than a disease. They can't compromise their standards and can't manage the suspension of disbelief necessary for feigned cheerfulness. Their awareness is a curse.

Curmudgeons, then, are valuable persons in the course of history. They challenge our long-held assumptions and irritate us if we become too comfortable.

The trick for those of us who do not think of ourselves in curmudgeonly terms is to be patient enough to listen to what they say and assess wherein lies the truth.

We may not like to think that our nation is so corrupt that we need a despotic government, or that Jesus’ beatitude was a call to a pacifist mentality.

I can easily argue that as a people we are not corrupt (our nation’s selfless service and humanitarian aid test the indictment).

I can argue that Jesus became so angry that even he became violent in the Temple, overturning tables and driving out animals.


And yet, having acknowledged all that, I still have to wrestle with the challenges of the curmudgeons and continue to search for a response.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Twentieth Century St Francis

Not many people know about Peter Maurin, and still fewer would ever have heard of him were it not for Dorothy Day. She considered him the founder of the Catholic Worker movement.

Dorothy often wrote and said that she was good at seeing and criticizing the social injustices borne by workers, prisoners, and the poor, but Peter had a program to help them and change the system.

Maurin, a one-time Christian Brother from France, accepted the notion that Jesus meant what he said when he told his disciples to feed the hungry, to sell their possessions and give the money to the poor, to see Him in the least of our brothers and sisters.

Peter was often mistaken for a bum in his unpressed and ill-fitting suit, but he was widely-read, a born-teacher, and a determined but gentle “anarchist.”

Peter’s anarchism was totally non-violent; he wanted simply to change the rules of society and culture in order to overcome destitution, homelessness, and injustice.

Those who knew him recalled that he was forever talking, whether out on the street, in a Catholic Worker House, or on a university stage. He formulated his insights into what are now known as “Easy Essays,” summations of wisdom and direction for applying the Gospel of Jesus and the good judgment of others.

It was Peter who persuaded Dorothy to publish a newspaper (The Catholic Worker), to open hospitality houses to serve the homeless (Catholic Worker Houses), and to establish farms and garden communes in order to get people back to the land.

Some of Peter’s ideas seemed to some na├»ve and impractical. He urged Christians to have a “Christ room” in their homes to accommodate people without shelter. He insisted that anyone who has clothing he does not need, he should give it to the poor. He warned against the growing tendency to let the state rather than the individual person provide assistance to those in need.

Peter could be described as a 20th century St Francis. He lived a life of voluntary poverty, did not shy away from manual labor, and, in the words of Dorothy, “was a free and joyous person.”

He was fond of capturing in slogans or simple essays his ideas and the many he borrowed from his reading of philosophers, socialists and popes.

He wrote, for example,  “The world would be better off  if people tried to become better. And people would become better if they stopped trying to be better off.”

On another occasion Peter said, “The Sermon on the Mount will be called practical when Christians make up their mind to practice it.”

And some wit once challenged Peter with the question, “Why did God create bed bugs?” Peter’s response: “For practicing our patience, probably.”

Peter gravitated to Dorothy because he thought she shared his vision. She admits in her biography of the man, “Let it be conceded right away, before going any further, that I do not pretend to understand Peter Maurin…I do not understand, for instance, why he talks about the things he does to the people he does. Why, for instance, given an opportunity to talk to a group of striking seaman, during the 1937 waterfront strike, should he pick out the subject of Andre Gide and his reactions to Soviet Russia, and discourse for two hours?”

And yet she acknowledges, “I have always thought of Peter as an Apostle to the world.”

Peter was one of those rare souls who embraced the Gospel wholeheartedly and determined to live it. He took it seriously, and urged all he met to do the same.

Maurin died in 1949, and most of the world is no longer aware of the man and his message. Nonetheless, his example and insights still challenge those who come to know them.

Dorothy concluded her biography of Peter with these observations: “Peter has a message for all, though all are certainly not called to go out as he did among the poor, as a teacher and worker…Poverty is a thing of the spirit as well as the flesh. But we do not see enough of Peter’s kind of poverty. His message of poverty is for all, and his message of personal responsibility is for all.”

 “The truth,” he said, quoting the Norwegian poet Henrik Johann Ibsen, “must be restated every twenty years.”

After 65 years it seems more than appropriate to restate one of Peter’s essays for reflection and maybe even application:

A personalist is a go-giver not a go-getter. He tries to give what he has and does not try to get what the other fellow has. He tries to be good by doing good to the other fellow. He is other-centered not self-centered. He has a social doctrine of the common good. He spreads the social doctrine of the common good through words and deeds. He speaks through deeds as well as words. Through words and deeds he brings into existence a common unity, the common unity of a community.