The Benedict Option in Practice: Living the Rural Life is Surprisingly Normal

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?

Benedictine Renewal

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.

print

13 Responses to “The Benedict Option in Practice: Living the Rural Life is Surprisingly Normal”

  1. So weird for me to read this. I grew up in the country. The village about 3 miles away held about 200 people. I think everyone is called to care for and love the land God has given us. I know there were people who thought we were odd for wanting to be “away” from the noise and bustle, but it does make relationships stronger and getting to know someone deeply, easier. When you are planting your tomatoes and hot in the sun with nothing but each other as a distraction you learn things about a person. You are often called to rely on people you might not normally wish to rely on. And the biggest thing I noticed after marrying someone in a city. In a city, if you get in a fight, don’t like each other, or don’t get along, you don’t have to see them. Try that out with a population of 200! You have to learn tolerance. And it forces you to be slow. It forces you to notice the person on the street, because there are not a lot of distractions. You can’t just run to the store, go to a movie, go shopping. If you want to have fun, you have to find the nearest person or get a hobby. I like it. I miss looking at the animals and caring for them. And seeing the plants grow and looking at the lovely sky and just “being”. It’s nice to be at rest in God’s creation.

  2. Gervase Crouchback Reply

    Thanks for this. i live in Australia’s second largest city Melbourne (pop 5.20 million and growing) and look like moving to a town just outside the City ,where there is a Green wedge law-i.e no development. Due to it being a large rural parish the Catholic church round the corner holds -mass once a month midweek and Rosary every second week- or every Sunday Mass at the bigger town at the foot of the Great Dividing Range or the Cistercian Abbey between both towns. The volunteer fire brigade in the next street-this town came under ember attack on Black Saturday 2009,when 173 people died in the Hills not too far away and in adjacent hamlets,due to massive Bushfires, equal to 5 times Hiroshima bombs heat. wise. There is a railway preservation group,so for me as I enter the early years of my seventh decade I will -if we move- make the most of town life- the richness of both a Catholic rural community and a country town. Dominus Vobiscum

  3. After 38 years of city life in Sydney Australia, including 13 years of marriage to a country girl, we moved our family to a small country town some 300+ kms (or 200 miles) west of Sydney with a town population of 9,000. For the past 10 years we have lived on a 450 acre farm producing lambs and a little wheat, oats, or canola. While I had been relatively successful in the corporate world, we didn’t like what the city life was offering our family and a simpler life was calling us. Having the 15+ years relationship with the country through my wife’s family, through the grace of God I was able to see/experience the potential simpler life ahead of us. Jason and the response authors above are correct, you do appreciate people/neighbours more in the country and community means getting your hands dirty rather than throwing money at it for someone else to do. Within weeks of our country move, we were ‘accepted’ and very welcomed into our Church … it was though we had grown up in the town and were known to everyone. Strangers were genuine and made eye contact when you were introduced to them. Walking down the main street of town looking at peoples faces and saying g’day instead of walking while looking at your phone. Country people are different … and relationships are deeper and more meaningful than those I generally experienced in the city. My family’s care for and our participation in our Church and town community is active. Our kids are now young adults ready to tackle the world while having a great appreciation for what life can be like in that world if we have/adopt a country attitude. An equal benefit to country people is the closeness to nature, the space, the wide open unpolluted skies, and the spectacular majesty of God’s creation in the animals, birds, plants, and weather that He gives us. It’s particularly clear when our city visitors tell us how lucky we are to live in this place … no it’s not “paradise”, especially considering the flooding last year and the recent 40+ degree (Celsius) days we have experienced this summer, but you can always find something to admire in God’s creation. The move to the bush was not intended to be a spiritual retreat, but it is what I have now. The lack of distractions and reduced materialism have definitely helped. My faith has grown as I now have more people around me who believe in God and the Church, and with a higher number of older Catholics around me, they have shared their pre-Vatican II experiences, and coupled with the current dilemmas our collective faith is now experiencing, I have a growing interest/desire in the living in the true/genuine/traditional faith of Catholic Church. Despite my nearly 50 years of age, I only gained an insight and interest in the Church when dating my country girl wife … to later convert to Catholicism as a 23 year old … what a journey. May God continue to bless us all.

  4. As a fifth generation farmer, on the land that has always been in our family, I understand the rural “thing”. I was raised in the brick house that my great grandfather built, solid and serene, a brick as we call them convent Gothic with queen Ann accents added. my home parish is situated on some of the land that great grandfather owned where he first settled here from Halter Germany, (it went out of the family through marriage), he moved to current homestead when his sons came of age and built the current brick house. ti is in a little burg called Egypt, St Joseph Catholic church and a Massey Ferguson dealership, 8 houses a true breeze through. It is the smallest parish in the diocese of Cincinnati Ohio, My fondest memories are of mass letting out and EVERYONE standing outside and visiting for close to an hour every Sunday, till the mothers would start to complain about having to get dinner in the stove at home.There used to be a convent of the precious blood society just north of the church, for the irony of it the convent was named Mary’s flight( as in to Egypt) the church next door is St Joseph and the location is Egypt Ohio. The society had several convents in the area, all at the time dedicated to perpetual adoration, the main one was at Maria Stein (Mary’s rock) then Mary’s Garden, Mary’s Home, and Mary’s Flight cannot remember the rest,I believe 6 it total, all closed now. The Sisters having moved to Dayton Ohio, Vat 2 and all that jazz. Maria Stein still stands, houses the Shrine of the Holy Relics, the second largest collection of holy relics in the USA, now staffed and owned by lay people as is their Retreat House just north west of it. My parents still live in that great brick house, that I now own, and attend St Joseph, I live 3/4 mile west putting me in St John The Baptist parish, a slightly less rural but still country parish. different school system and all we relocated when I married. 5 miles away is the home seminary of the Society of the Precious Blood fathers, CPPS, as they are known, now a retirement home for catholic lay people, they having also moved to Dayton Ohio. I know this sounds silly to those who have not experienced rural life but, My youngest son Anton was killed at age three from an accident at home, and he is buried at St John, it still haunts me that he is not buried in the cemetery with his fore fathers and mothers and extended family two miles away at St Joseph
    PS this explains my blogging name

  5. forgot to add, the name Egypt came from the little community that great great grandfathers mother came from in Germany, spelled Egypten, now just a marker on the road, the wars ground it to dust,( I have been there it exists)

  6. “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.”

    Seems to me the giant agricorps are trying to do just that…and squeezing out the small family farm in the process by engendering a bunch of regulations that are physically or financially – sometimes both – impossible for us to follow.
    .
    I left the city in 1980; after six years in the military, I teamed up with my best friend to raise sheep. It extended eventually to include chickens (you can feed them scraps, too), and when we got too old to handle shearing ourselves, we switched to dairy goats. We’ve been at it for a little over thirty years now, and don’t regret a single minute of it.
    .
    An awful lot of Christ’s parables were based on agriculture. There’s the whole “Good Shepherd” theme, but then there’s also the vineyard/olive garden ones, and, of course, the Prodigal Son. Killing the fatted calf? That tells me the father in that story was a stockman.
    Anyway, my point here is, while our faith was strong before, living this close to the land has opened our eyes to see most of those parables in a new way.
    .
    In the late 1970s, there was a movement in New York City where community members would take over a vacant lot and turn it into a vegetable garden. The movement, unfortunately, didn’t last for long, because every single one of those lots was almost immediately vandalized by local gangs. But those who were involved in it did speak of a change in how they viewed life, and some of them enjoyed it so much that they actually left the city to become full-time farmers themselves.
    .
    We can’t all be farmers? Most certainly not true, even if your idea of farming is a container garden on your patio, or a small plot in your postage-stamp-sized back yard. I heartily recommend everyone give it a shot, even if you think you don’t have a green thumb.

    • I strongly disagree. We can’t all be farmers.

      I come from a family with cattle farmers (ranchers) in it, and my wife and I raise cattle. But if we take “being” a farmer to mean doing it full time, in the American West you likely cannot unless you were born into it, even if you were born close to it.

      My father’s family has been close to agriculture for decades, but we have not done it day to day since the 1940s when an untimely death took us out of it. Could we do it now? Not when buying a marginal outfit costs millions of dollars.

      We do garden, we do own cattle, and we do participate in my wife’s family’s outfit. But, let’s not fool ourselves, there are many people born in this region who cannot become full time in the modern industry as the wealthy from elsewhere buy places up they do not need to make a living from, nor intend to make a living from.

  7. Marc-Antoine Bigras Reply

    This brings to mind the words of Pope Benedict XVI during his homily for the canonization of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha: “May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are.”
    It seems to me that the Benedict Option undermines the attractiveness and power of the Christian message. Christianity is not a feeble candle in a strong storm that needs to be shielded as Dreher put it, rather it is a source of unending light. It would be a shame to pull this source of counter cultural light & truth away from the storm in a time of such great need.

  8. “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.”

    One thing I’d add is that some could indeed “figure out” how to be farmers, but because of where they live, it’s not an option. This tends to be the case, ironically, for those who live in the American West.

    Here in the American West there are vast acreages, but because they’re now priced at playground prices for the very wealthy, moving into agriculture has become an impossibility for all but the wealthy. Even those in the upper middle class cannot afford to become agriculturalist. This is, I’d note, a particular torture for many in this region, and it speaks to there being a basic injustice in the American system of land ownership.

  9. Joe Rathwell Reply

    Ihs

    My wife and I cant wait; we have worked are butts of in the city long enough that it is time to relax and slow go our real passion on a small acreage we just acquired. We are not so young but we are committed to the faith along with the sufferings and the mercy that comes with it

    ADMG

  10. Bien Landicho Reply

    I have lived in the city all my life and I have been wanting to move to the province and do farming for a long time now. I am saving money so I can make the move one day. How did you get started?

    • Really Real, what is actually ‘disappointing’ is your lack of understanding that Novus Ordo is the only option for most country people. Are you suggesting Jason shouldn’t attend Mass and/or participate in his parish?

Leave a Reply