Where scholars become workers

Peter Maurin’s vision of scholars and workers written for the spring issue of the London Catholic Worker. The outbreak of COVID – 19 delayed the mail out of the newsletter so I am posting this editorial here. 

Peter Maurin

For this issue of the London Catholic Worker there is a theme: the work of our hands, or, indeed, just plain work. Peter Maurin, founder of the movement, had much to say about work and workers. Dorothy Day describes him as a ‘workingman’. One of 24 children, raised in a peasant family in France, he had tried homesteading in Canada, and joined work gangs in America before they met.

In Easy Essays, the series of declamatory poems he published over and over in the Catholic Worker newspaper, Maurin describes his vision of ‘scholars and workers’ living together and learning from each other, in farming communes and ‘outdoor universities’. The scholars would learn to use their hands and become ‘dynamic’ and a ‘driving force’ while the workers would learn — it’s not so clear what the workers would learn. Although he repeats this pairing many times, it takes a bit of imagination and further reading, to see who these scholars and workers might be and the work they’ll be doing.

Dorothy Day writes in her introduction that Maurin was wary of ‘class consciousness’ and didn’t like the use of the word ‘worker’ in ‘Catholic Worker’. He saw the houses of hospitality and farms as communities, that would build ‘a new society in the shell of the old’, a vision of equality that would benefit everyone. The scholars and workers will join communities, along with ‘down-and-out’ businessmen, academics, college professors. Perhaps in nineteen thirties New York these were the people who weren’t used to mopping the floor. ‘In the Catholic Worker/ people learn to use their hands/ as well as their heads.’ (See left hand column)

Day writes also that Maurin was ‘literal’. Through ‘daily practice of the works of mercy’, the scholars will become workers. They will be feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, literally by hand. Scholars will do the manual work and learn from the manual work. This remains the main business of a Catholic Worker house.

These days in London, the scholar and the worker could easily be one person. Scholars take menial jobs. Everyone’s a worker one way or another. College lecturers and pizza delivery drivers, catering staff and cleaners all struggle to get by on a zero hours contract. Employees forced to work such long hours they are unable to care for themselves, can install an app. that will summon a cleaner, a driver, a nutritious meal even someone to buy a birthday present, which creates even more precarious jobs.

At the London Catholic Worker, at least, this working with the hands and the head person is one and the same. When Urban Table first started, I remember a certain volunteer. He reminded me of a character out of Absolute Beginners, with a slightly greying quif and cigarette trousers. He did the manual work of the soup kitchen as if it was nothing, tossing the tables and chairs around, washing up and wiping down, all the while keeping up a stream of jokes, film sound tracks, and celebrity gossip. Being new to volunteering, I thought: here is someone who really knows how to make light work.

Over ten years later, all sorts of PhD students and businessmen come and volunteer at Urban Table. A few make heavy weather of chopping onions or avoid the washing up. But I’ve heard some say they learn something new every week: that carrots can be black or yellow, as well as orange, that potatoes are not a staple and that a meal is not a meal without rice. Nothing focuses the mind like hearing one of the guests outline his budget for the next two weeks under Universal Credit.

The ‘daily practice of the works of mercy’ is not just humanitarian work. Here I encourage you, the reader, to reflect on your own experience of working with your hands. In this newsletter there are several examples. Ghazal Tipu, an office worker, interviews an activist cobbler. Margriet Bos ‘looks into the kitchen’ at Giuseppe Conlon House and sees cleaning, fixing and building. While mending sleeping bags, Anne M. Jones, is faced with the injustice and cruelty of the refugees’ situation in Calais. Johannes and Nora both talk of the effects of this work on their own mental health.

For myself, waking in the small hours at the local night shelter, I discover fears I haven’t been attending to: fear of intimacy, of cultural misunderstandings, of humiliation – I’m sometimes treated like a servant – and awkwardness at my own house – owning privilege.

Dorothy Day writes, ‘Love casts out fear, but we have to get over the fear in order to get close enough to love them.’

The first Easy Essay is called, ‘Blowing the dynamite’. Maurin says, accusingly, that the ‘scholars’  – yes them again – have placed the message of the Church, ‘in an hermetically sealed container and sat on the lid.’

The next work for the works of mercy, then, is to teach us to love.

Where scholars become workers

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s