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The Benedict Option in Practice: Living the Rural Life is Surprisingly Normal
February 23, 2017
Some tend to treat a move to the country as if it is a move to something wildly different from “normal” life. As someone who lives in the country, I have an opinion there, but first – a lot of people are talking about rural life these days, so where did all this talk come from?
A lot of the conversations seem to stem from Rod Dreher’s idea that Christians take a “Benedict Option”, which as I understand it seems like the simple proposal that we continue to engage the world for Christ, yet ensure that we have enough space, especially for our families, that allows for a Christian culture to really exist and grow, instead of living in constant reaction to the increasingly hostile world around us. Or something like that.
The whole idea seems to have struck a nerve since so many people have weighed in on it. And despite the fact that Mr. Dreher has repeatedly insisted it is not a retreat from the world, people cannot help but think it means (a) retreat in defeat and (b) you should probably retreat to the countryside and be a farmer. He has a book coming out on it soon – perhaps the critics will read it?
Dreher was responding to hostile and ugly secularism, and blogging Christians have responded to the response, offering alternative “options” to help persuade all those poor saps that are running to the hills and “hunkering down” in the Benedict Option. I’ve heard of the Francis option, the Jeremiah option, and the St. Josemaria option. All of them basically saying don’t retreat – engage! Perhaps the authors hope their “option” will get as much play as Mr. Deher’s, but all of them, Benedict Option included, are simply Christians doing the necessary discernment of “how much am I in the world but not of it?”
I’d point out that the reason the “Benedict Option” resonates more than others is because of the fact of Benedictine renewal. It was the Benedictines that had so much to do with preserving civilization and renewing culture in the midst of darkness after the collapse of the Roman Empire and the birth of Christendom. It’s a historical reality recognized and written about by, among others, Alasdair MacIntyre (where Dreher got the idea), Christopher Dawson, Bl. John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Day (an oblate) and her coreligionist Peter Maurin, John Senior (an oblate), and not to mention Pope Benedict XVI, who I think is pretty clear-sighted on problems and solutions.
What’s So Special About St. Benedict?
I once asked an abbot of a monastery why it was that the Benedictines have been so central to renewal – the rule they live by, after all, says nothing about keeping the outside world afloat. “It is a practical and doable rule centered completely on God,” he said. “We orient all of life and work in that direction and it seems the world around us follows.” Sounds good enough to me.
Perhaps Carrie Gress, a philosophy professor at Pontifex University, has put the whole “option” thing to rest by proposing the “Marian Option”. I mean, c’mon, can any other option be as good as Mary’s? Dr. Gress explains:
The Marian Option, unlike the Benedict Option, doesn’t generally require anything drastic, like significant changes in one’s community, occupation, or location (although she may inspire you to do these later). What it does require is simply the full and active recognition that she is our mother and, therefore, a tremendous advocate of grace, protection, conversions, and victories through the rosary.
In my experience men who give themselves over to Marian devotions wholeheartedly actually tend to have significant changes in community, occupation, and location. In fact, only weeks after I made a Monfort style Marian Consecration, all of those things changed for me. But, my point again here is this – going to the country is not necessarily “drastic”, and moving to the countryside is perhaps a decidedly tame option.
As someone who is “out there”, I’d like to offer a few observations – dispatches from the Benedictine Option if you will. Again, it seems that Dreher is trying to tamp down the “run to the hills” mentality, and I do live in the hills, but perhaps the vantage point from the hills – the cliché depiction – can help us to see the issue a bit clearer.
What Being a Country Catholic is Really Like
First, people live out here too. And they have souls. I have near daily contact with people, but it is deeper and more meaningful contact that my experience in a city. We are conscious of being neighbors, unlike the stacks of people in apartments that don’t move past polite smiles (if that). (Really, I’m not attacking apartment dwellers – this is an observation from my experience.) Friends I’ve made out here are coming into the Church, especially because we have a parish of beauty and solid preaching. Evangelization does not require a consolidated population.
Second, nature is great. Humanity is a part of nature, we are nature’s stewards, and living in close proximity is living in the most “normal” of settings. As G.K. Chesterton once noted, the city is the only habitat where people have to leave (i.e. visit the countryside) to have a retreat. Living close to it helps us to see and feel our relation to it, which helps to temper the extreme and anti-life sentiments that view humanity as a total drain on nature’s goodness and therefore it would not be all that bad if we self-exterminated, perhaps starting before birth even.
Third, homesteading is a great reward, but it also draws you to your neighbor. Nearly everyone has some kind of contact with land in the country, whether a cousin cuts hay from the land, most keep a small garden, and a few keep a pig to eat scraps. There’s a lot of overlap, but the different things people “specialize” in draw them together for bartering and the pure gift of sweet corn.
Let me just correct too that “we can’t all be farmers” comment. Removed from land and season and weather for a generation or more leaves people removed from the tradition of farming, the culture of agriculture. In other words, you can’t be a farmer not because it’s not a good option or its reactionary, but because you don’t know how, and you likely cannot get it halfway figured for years. People dismiss “running away to be farmers” as if farming were just one more complex system they could arrange into success like strategically choosing stocks. This shows how little they know of it, and how little they think of farmers.
So, maybe we can’t all be farmers, but for those of you that want to venture toward land and neighbor, come on.
Jason Craig works and writes from a small farm in rural North Carolina with his wife Katie and their five kids. Jason is Director of Program and Training for Fraternus, a mentoring program for young men, and holds a masters degree from the Augustine Institute. He is known to staunchly defend his family’s claim to have invented bourbon.
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