In Praise of Catholic Homesteading 

5_1_SWhen the Papacy is vacant the whole Church looks longingly for a puff of smoke from a little chimney – the household of the Church feels lonely without Papa.   When it comes we rejoice, because our father has come home. When I see puffs of smoke from little homesteads in the countryside I feel the same – a father has come home to be with his family by living together on the land.

There’s a movement in the hearts of men, especially young fathers. They want to farm. I can’t count the calls I’ve received that begin: “I think God is calling us to homestead.” I can only describe it with that word: a movement. There’s no need for big organizations to promote it – its just happening. Call it another “back to the land” fad or what have you, but something is happening. Pope Benedict XVI recognized it too when he said:

“More than a few young people have already chosen this path; also many professionals are returning to dedicate themselves to the agricultural enterprise, feeling that they are responding not only to a personal and family need, but also to a ‘sign of the times,’ to a concrete sensibility for the ‘common good.”

I can’t say it any better. Men are moving back to the land for their families and as a response to the “signs of the times”. And you can put that negatively, bringing up the need to flee the horrors in cities or the vapid banality of the suburb, or positively by bringing up the need for family farms providing quality food to their neighbors. Whatever the motivation, something is happening. I’m here to encourage those of you that feel this movement: pursue it!

You’re not alone either. G.K. Chesterton dedicated the end of his career to writing about recovering an agrarian and craft-based culture through what came to be called “The Catholic Land Movement”, a movement he would sum up simply as: “Three acres and a cow.” He was joined by other brilliant men like Hellar Belloc and Fr. Vincent McNabb, author of The Church and the Land. The rise and fall of thise movement is fascinating, but the point is that you are not the first Catholic to look around and have that guttural reaction: this is not how man ought to live!

Some people will roll their eyes and scoff at the idea that we need more young farming families, seeing it as silly idealism, but I can’t see a need more real than food and family – can humanity go on without the two?

Yes, you’ll be accused of “turning back the clock”. And? “The question is not whether you can set back the clock,” pointed out John Senior. “Of course you can. Clocks are instruments…” We farmers and homesteaders aren’t reactionaries or extremists, we simply want to live as men have lived since the dawn of time and still do the world over. We feel like Joseph and Mary wandering in Egypt longing to return to the Promised Land.

The scriptures, especially the Psalms, paint the happy man as a man blessed by his family and the land: “Blessed is every one that feareth the LORD; that walketh in his ways. For thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands: happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee. Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house: thy children like olive plants round about thy table” (Ps. 128). Pope Pius XII, echoing the long tradition of the Church, praises farming thus: “God gave man the earth for his cultivation as the most beautiful and honorable occupation in the natural order” (emphasis added).

One of the greatest blessings of homesteading and farming life is the intimacy with nature. God speaks through nature – they sing his praises: “Through all the earth their voice resounds, their words, to the ends of the earth” (Ps. 18). Its not that we find “symbols” in nature of divine things, but that nature itself points beyond itself to the divine, and by living contemplatively on the land we learn to read the meaning of nature. In the book The Color of Blue: Recovering the Spirit of Contemplation, Benedictine monk Luke Bell says nature “is not something whose import we have decided upon: it is something given to us so that by contemplating it we may go beyond it to what it expresses.

“Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (CCC 32, Rom. 1:19-20). God speaks through things He has made, and it seems that the more we are surrounded by things we have made the harder it is to hear Him. For the many that are not called to live on the land, they are still called to find ways to listen to God through nature, because “[the natural world] expresses a design of love and truth. It is prior to us, and it has been given to us by God as the setting for our life” (Benedict XVI). The farm is where almost all of life – work, leisure, prayer, meals – takes place in that very setting

Today we are not only utilitarian of each other, but also of the land, forgetting how to wonder and enjoy. We confuse knowing about a thing with knowing a thing. Our use of each other and nature mingled with our prideful spirits of doing and building make us forgetful of the spirit of reception, which is essential to wisdom and salvation.

Sweet is the lore which nature brings;

Our meddling intellect

Misshapes the beauteous forms of things:-

We murder to dissect.

 

Enough of science and of art;

Close up the barren leaves;

Come forth, and bring with you a heart

That watches and receives. (The Tables Turned, Wordsorth)

But it’s not just the intimacy with the land that brings the homestead to life, but intimacy with your family. I think the witness of fathers bringing their families to the farm is important for the broader agrarian movement, not only because family-less farms have a short economic shelf life (who keeps it going?), but it’s the full flourishing of the human person not just in nature but in a family. “You can’t have family farms without families,” Chesterton pointed out. This land and family affair is just plain good for men. Pope Pius XII, having already witnessed the effects of industrialization, which separated fathers from nature and family, said that farming is “so close to nature and based so substantially on the family,” that it is known to “produce altogether different men.” In my experience so far, that’s very true.

Here’s an example of nature, family, work, contemplation, and prayer coming together on the homestead: We decided that this winter we’re only using wood to heat our home. We have natural gas, but, well, I don’t like it. Yes, the gas is cheap and easy, but that thing drudged up from the darkness under us doesn’t compare to the gift of kindling which falls as a gift from above and is literally stored sunshine (that’s what a tree really is). The cutting, chopping, stacking, and drying that my family and I have to do constantly (and it is a chore!) bring us together around a unified work, filling our time with an activity that is both deep in meaning and fulfilling, and cultivates a spirit of gratitude for the earth’s abundance. As the Psalmist said, we are blessed “by the labor of [our] hands”. (And not one part of it is taxable!) This direct contact with the world and each other cannot be recreated anywhere else, without artificiality akin to a petting zoo.

We homestead together. We all watch for signs of spring – swelling buds on the dogwood out front and new grass in the pasture that the chickens, cows, and pigs will turn into eggs, milk, and meat. We know what seed on rocky soil does. We know that grapes only fruit well when pruned. Christ’s words are all around us.

When we first got out to the country the kids were bored. In the city we had basically lived a life of entertainment – how to we keep the kids occupied? Questions like that never come up now – there’s always work and simple fascination right outside. And we work and are fascinated together. We don’t have a TV but I can promise you a thunderstorm crawling over the hills can’t be recreated with computer graphics. Have you ever seen a child chase a firefly in a pasture? Oh it’s good. And it’s obviously something that has to be re-learned because when friends and family come to visit they always want to go somewhere – an attraction up the road or a neat store in the next town up. This home-centrism is odd to them.

And we homestead with neighbors. There is no spirit of competition out here. Excellence comes from communion with your neighbor not out-smarting them. Farmers give away secrets, and will stop in to tell you the latest piece of wisdom gained. Men help men because it’s right, not just when it benefits them or helps their profits. That’s love. It’s more than systems and economics out here. “Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand,” said Wendell Berry, “it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.” And for those that think you can’t evangelize or witness to the Gospel in a rural setting I say: “Huh?” People with souls live out here too, and I have found that the deep spirit of community lends very well to witnessing to our Faith.

And as a father the great blessing is to be able to spend time with kids without simply being at the house. In the city, when I took time off to “just be with the family” it was actually kind of awkward. I basically just did stuff that my wife normally had to do alone, and as fun as it was it was a sort of disruption of the order that would need to be rebuilt when I left again for work. Helping your wife is good and necessary, but on the farm there is a sort of domain that I get to bring them in to which integrates seamlessly with the world inside.   The homestead is an extension of the house into a household, with levels of activity and work suited to different ages, etc. Its more than just “being home more”.

Now, I might be accused of being romantic, but the reason farming sounds so romantic is because it is. Sure, the reality of it involves blood, dirt, and manure, and its really hard, and sometimes that’s the case just with kids long before you step in the barnyard. There are neighbors here that will steal as fast as anyone in the city, and the beloved agrarian culture you read about in Wendell Berry novels is long gone, replaced by Dollar Generals, monoculture farming, and empty mills. And I also recommend that you give up the grandeur parts of your ideal: big colonial farmhouses and endless pastures.

The reality will be much humbler. But, like I said, I think we are in a movement of recovery and rediscovery. Men are remembering that “husband” means “house-bound” and that the word is also used to describe caring for the farm – “husbandry”. Farming and fatherhood just go together. I think the coals left from a more vibrantly burning culture of community, land, and God are being blown. And it’s getting warmer out here. I know some who have made it in a farming enterprise and others that have failed; I know those that stopped at the backyard gardening and others who homestead and live in a tiny house off-grid. I know some who left the city and returned jaded by the whole thing. It’s not for everyone. But it is for some, and those that try don’t regret it. And I think some of it – like the integration family, land, and God- is good for all. My point here is to say this: your dream is good, that desire is there for good reasons, and I encourage you to get your hands dirty. If the world seems too cold and lonely, maybe you just need to warm it up with a good tall compost pile.

Jason Craig is the Executive Director of Fraternus, which trains and equips men to mentor the boys into virtuous, Catholic men. Jason holds a Masters in Theology from the Augustine Institute and writes for TCM from his homestead in Western NC, where he milks cows and tends to a variety of plants and animals with his wife Katie and four kids (and counting).

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25 Responses to “In Praise of Catholic Homesteading ”

  1. Joseph Vanderhulst Reply

    Great stuff! People often mistakenly point to later dates like the 1920s or 1960s as the roots of the destruction of the family. But it started and became inevitable much, much earlier. With the industrial revolution in the 19th Century, for the first time in history, families were ripped apart and fathers were pulled out of their families for the majority of the waking hours of their family’s day. Before then, EVERY dad worked at home, whether on a farm or in a craft or in a profession. We take it for granted now that dad (or mom or both parents) “go to work” every day, as in they physically leave their families in order to work. This never happened before about 150 years ago. In my opinion, the moral bankruptcy that started to show in the 20s and 60s was the inevitable result of that first and fundamental breakdown of the family.

    • As Providence would have it, I read this very concept just last night in ‘The North & the South and Secession: an Examination of Cause and Right’, by Adam S. Miller.
      It had never crossed my mind yet now seems embarrassingly obvious.

  2. marcusjosephus Reply

    My wife and I have both been moved toward this. Though we ae no longer young, the desire deepens daily. Please God in 2 years we can take concrete steps toward this.

    • It disappointed me to learn you failed.

      As noted in my post below, I’m simply skeptical that with the modern agricultural economy that “homesteading” in this context is viable. I’d be curious as to your comments.

  3. Warming your house with wood is all well and good in north carolina, but it comes across as rather quaint to someone who has to heat their house using wood because they can’t afford to use the furnace. Try going through a week or two of -30° weather (Celsius that is) using wood and I won’t call you out for just play acting. This whole movement stems from a radical environmental mindset, God gave men great minds to discover the natural gas in the earth and to harness it for the betterment of all, let’s respect that.
    If you want to reject natural gas I hope the next time you take your chainsaw out to cut down a tree you don’t have any petrol in there either.

    • Mitchell, this movement stems from wanting to be good stewards of the earth God created and gave us dominion over. Some people wrongly prioritize animals and the environment over people, but the Catholic Church does not do that.

      Homesteading or farming does not preclude making use of fossil fuels. In fact, pound for pound the chainsaw is one of the best tools and uses of petroleum: it very quickly and without much effort can cut wood, a renewable resource, into usable pieces. It is not either-or, “all-in or your’re a hypocrite” type of purist mindset. Make wise use of the resources you have.

    • Thanks Mitchell. Good point. I’m not sure if you got to know me a bit more you would think I had a radical environmental mindset, though I’d be interested to hear more about what exactly that is. And what ever it is, this “whole movement” almost certainly does not stem from it. Also, I can see how it would seem I was rejecting pertrol altogether, which I’m not. I was trying to point out the opportunity for a contemplative attitude, not an attitude of contempt for all-things-modern. I drive a care and love my chainsaw. I don’t want to unthinkingly reject technology, but I also don’t want to unthinkingly accept ever convenience that comes available, and refuse to examine how it effects culture and family. So, in other words, I’m not rejecting natural gas, but I’m also not accepting that it is “for the betterment of all” – I’m pretty sure we could find some examples where petrol has been bad for folks – do you think that might be true at all?

      • I’m just pointing out that what you use for contemplation is what some people do for survival, it comes across as if you’re slumming it, to connect with a way of life your affluence doesn’t naturaly allow for. Perhaps my comment came across as unessarily confrontational, my point was just to express how silly your choice sounds to someone who uses wood as a necessity.
        I also wasn’t trying to imply you have a radical environmetalist mindset, however this homesteading movement is to me very remincent of the small house movement of environmentalists who don’t acknowledge that the only reason they can live in a such a way is because of the advances society has made through industrialisation. Just as you can choose to use wood to heat your house to create some feeling of simplicity, but you won’t give up your car or chainsaw because then you’d really be going back to “live as men have lived since the dawn of time” and you’d have no time to spend with your family, or blog for that matter…and no one really wants to do that.
        Again, just to be clear I only wanted to point out that your opportunity for contemplation is only an opportunity to you because of the affluence of your life, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, I just wasn’t sure if you even knew that some people live like that out of necessity.

        • I really like this response. So much of this “homesteading” movement is only possible because of the technology strides we have had in recent years. Real homesteading was a lot different back in the day than it is today. Back in the day, if the farm failed, they either had to sell the farm or die. Today, if the crop fails or cow dies, you just go to the store. That is why I would call “homesteading” a hobby farm. It is something you can do to help learn about the nature. I will have a hobby farm, not a homestead, and I plan on having 40 acres or more. Something to do with my family, but by no means in any sense of the word homesteading. If I get income from elsewhere for my life other than the farm, it is not homesteading.
          The comment on how natural gas comes from deep in the earth like it is a gross thing is kinda condescending to God’s creation of natural gas. And what do you think it was 10,000 years ago? Natural life that was capturing the sun’s energy, the exact same thing the tree is doing.
          Also, the article also goes the whole way through saying the farm is the most fulfilling way of life, and then only in the last paragraph says its not for everybody. Sending different messages in the article. Its the best way, but not for everybody. And a big movement to men to back to the land? I have not seen that. I live in rural USA and people are moving away to the cities. Either way, both our views are subjective and anecdotal.
          One more word of caution. I think this article gets pretty close to worshiping nature. I know it doesn’t, but hints of it are through out the article. Someone who does not know the Catholic teachings might get that from this article, that we can find God in nature and that is where I need to be because that is where I am closest to God. (Not Church/Eucharist.) Just a warning.

  4. Thanks for this.Down here in Australia farming can be very precarious due to the fact that we are the driest continent on earth. We have come through a ten year drought and are currently in another dry spell ,and many farmers are walking off the land or face bank foreclosure,which is bringing a lot of anger. However that does not stop people from making a tree change to rural areas. Not far from me is a place called Maryknoll- semi rural- where the National Catholic rural Movement set up a community in the 1950s. It is now part of a large SSPX church and school community,but nevetheless it started as a result of a priest reading Chesterton and taking his writings to heart and putting them into action

  5. Thanks so much for this beautiful article. I (a woman) am extremely drawn to moving out of suburbia and to the homesteading life. What is your advice for me who is a widow with two small sons aged 6 and 8? Your article is understandably geared towards men and fatherhood – what if that is missing?

  6. Paulette Simmons Reply

    This isn’t really realistic for the average American, much less the average Catholic American. Is there something wrong with living in cities?

  7. There is a downside that I have seen to the agrarian life. Though it can be humbling, it can also be a source of incredible pride, especially in the areas of individualism and self-sufficiency. A rejection of city life is oft confused, sometimes deliberately, with the rejection of the civilized life. Fortunately, the Church is a wonderful place for farmers.

  8. I don’t think you mean what you think you mean. Husband doesn’t mean “house bound” in the sense that he is bound to a house, but that a house is bound to him. It means one who is in possession of a household.

  9. Though I am not necessarily called to homestead–it does not fit in my wheelhouse per se–I would think it as a dream to be able to live in a community of Catholic men and families who farm and provide their small communities with fresh, local food which will nourish the whole of the family. I picture idyllic little farms in an idyllic Midwestern countryside where everything is owned by families and individuals within the community itself and everyone works for the betterment of their community, not their pocketbooks. Under the watchful protection of St. Isodore, I pray that all family farm operations will be bountiful and profitable and will serve their neighbors well.

  10. “This isn’t really realistic for the average American, much less the average Catholic American.”

    Indeed, at the present time there are many areas of North America where getting into agriculture is truly cost prohibitive. One of the truly ironic things about modern life is that, at this point in time, there are many more who would wish to be in agriculture than can afford to be, in contrast with earlier eras when many were in agriculture because they had to be and couldn’t afford to do anything else.

  11. Bert Clayton Reply

    That is an excellent thing to do! Society has exerted to push lewd, immoral, amoral proselytyzing on me ever since I’ve been in the faith. They talk about christian preaching, I think.it’s a case of their ownselves from.my experience. Let me tell you this too, powerful people who resent christians and the christian faith do have the means and resources for a re-education program that is every bit brainbwashing/thougt reform as stated by “Lifton”, also on Rick Ross website of thought reform. Where if others hadn’t interfered years ago subjecting me to these things, I would have pursued homesteading. Had all my bills paid off, money saved up, had beekeeping started and I was well on my way of getting out of SC low country and ready to head for the hills. Yet someone elses’ selfishness and desire to play barbie dolls with my.life messed up everything, from.my mind, body deep into my soul. Where to this day, I’d wished I got out sooner.
    Where anyone of faith, I would highly recommend doing what I dis, buy only what you need, pay it.off soon, then save or better, invest your money so it grows. If you like where you’re at, fine. You can invest your way up to buying a house with the capital to.pay for it or finance with land. Simply keep cost of living to the minimal. As the Bible says,.Owe no one anything butbto live them. If you disregard this, there’s the verse the debtor is always servant to the lender. Where most have a sense of obligation, so being financially bound in essence is a means of keeping someone in.bondage. Again it feels better to make payments to an investment as stocks or mutual funds where you realize the return of interest paid to you and even better than you paying extra money for finsnce to someone else! Or if you have a sideline thing, like mine was beekeepjng, but again, know it all old timers interfered, butted in.uninvited and dictate how I spend money, ignorant of profits in beekeeping as well as other needs like the physical activith, social interaction and then the financual returns. Then be concerned about hypocrisy where the same or similiar want you to buy a new vehicle or a new house, where such trashes all of ones efforts and hopes.
    Which if you know you want to homestead and if it requires financing, if you.knowvuou can get positive returns, jump in feet first.
    Which I’d also suggest soliciting others who’re likeminded where you support each other and can even get better prices of bulk land, that’s much cheaper than parcels. Sharing some common traits at the least, the faith being one, which if you’re busy, there won’t be much time to think about arguing about trivial matters, yet if one needs help, the other is there.

    Where I missed my opportunity because of others trying to play God, wanting to play barbie dolls with my.life andcact oh so wise. Stay away if.you can from such people as yhey’re like the plague, all they’ll do is make you sick.
    But.more power to those sick.of society and desire to be a sacrifice to God!

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