“Welcome to La France périphérique,” said one of my hosts, a farmer. That is the phrase used dismissively for France outside the ring road around Paris. Basically, it means “flyover country.” I spent the weekend in a tiny village in the middle of the country, in the company of a couple hundred farmers and agrarians, members of Les Journées Paysannes (Peasant Days), a national group of French Catholics who live and work on farms, or who wish to identify and support those who do.
You readers know how much I love Paris. But this was a very different kind of France for me. It is hard to overstate how much I loved being around these people, these good, gentle farm people. I did not think it was possible to love France more than I do. Well, it was, and it is. That’s the kind of weekend I had. And let me say it here, first: you American agrarians, especially Christian agrarians: You need to know these people of the Journées Paysannes! They are eager to know who you are, to pray with you, to ask you for your prayers, and to share faith and friendship with you. I will repeat this later, but let me say now to make a point of reaching out to them. Here is a contact page from their website. If you use Chrome as a browser, it will translate it from French to you. On the contact page, Emmanuelle François speaks some English.
So, we met in Souvigny, the site of a 10th century abbey, a daughter house of Cluny. The JP invited me to be one of their speakers — this, after their founder, the saintly and Wendell Berry-like Jean-Louis Laureau read The Benedict Option in French, and said that they needed to reach out to me. As someone here put it to me yesterday, “You don’t write about agriculture, but everything you say in the book is how we agrarians are thinking.”
Think of a Catholic Wendell Berry. Here he is:
Saturday began with mass in the oratory chapel of the abbey. As an Orthodox Christian, I couldn’t take communion, but the human communion was profoundly satisfying, praying in that old, old stone chamber, where people were praying since before the Great Schism.
After the mass, I wandered into the main church to pray. It was a vast Gothic cave — a previous abbot did a radical rebuild during the Gothic centuries — and cold, and wet. But it was a pure joy for me to be there. Here are the tombs of SS. Mayeul and Odilon, former medieval abbots of Cluny, buried here:
In fact, their relics are in a side altar; their tombs were destroyed in the Revolution, that evil event.
There are a few Bourbons buried here too. Notice what’s at the feet of the effigy of the royal on the left:
After mass, I went over to the conference center, and met people. Did I ever! As I said, most everybody here is a family farmer or rural food artisan of some sort. The look on their faces is so very different from what you see in Paris. It’s funny, but my experience of the French is almost entirely with Parisians. Now, I like Parisians, but after this weekend I see that judging the character of the French by one’s experience with Parisians would be as absurd as judging the character of Americans by one’s experience of New Yorkers.
Saturday afternoon was devoted to speeches from various people, including Benoît Huyghe, a representative of a community called L’Arche (the Ark) — not the famous one founded by Jean Vanier, but a smaller one founded by the late Lanza del Vasto, an Italian Catholic philosopher and pacifist. His speech (which I read in translation) was very moving. Excerpts:
Our communities were born in 1948 founded by Lanza del Vasto. In L’Arche was a vineyard, he defines it as “a rural community living piously by families on the margins of society and against the common stream”. Rural life, family life, pious life: this is already what places us in a proximity with the intuitions of the peasant days. A little further, our founder adds: “we enter as we enter Carmel or La Trappe except that we can enter as a couple or family”, “we have (in common) the wishes, the rule, inner discipline “. We therefore also have an affinity with the monastic world which is more particularly the subject of one of the talks of these meetings. We are therefore happy to share with you our research which, to speak as St Benoit, is certainly not “a peak of perfection” but aspires to be “at least a beginning of life that we must lead”.
The withdrawal from the world is a strong act in itself of reprobation of the “structure of sin” (John Paul II) present in our societies, which lanza del Vasto called “system of sin”. But to leave the century is not enough if it is to reproduce its manners: “the battlefield of non-violence is the heart of man” (Vinoba). To become a man of peace is therefore to fight sin first in oneself. This sin, to circumscribe it, let us begin by defining it. Lanza del Vasto, in the rise of living souls, spoke of it in terms of “the spirit of profit and domination, or otherwise said of a spirit of predation on beings and things. In monastic vows one can see a direct therapy: poverty in response to the spirit of profit, obedience in response to the spirit of domination, and chastity that can be defined as the purity of the gaze delivered from every spirit of predation. In the Ark, our vow is broken down into seven accomplishments: work, obedience, responsibility, purification, simplification, truthfulness, and nonviolence. There are also the monk’s vows but indicated in a directional way as a journey: thus simplification for poverty and purification for chastity.
Lanza del Vasto, in his commentary on the Gospel, writes that two masters can not be used, and that Caesar must be given the coin bearing his effigy; but he also questions: Who does man bear the image of? To render man to God is the object of community life. One may well by virtue make his faith in the world grow, but that implies an ability to swim against the current in our era that turns its back on God. Or to put it another way, since the nature of man is religious and every man seeks God, our societies go astray and err on the way to seek him, because it is not enough to declare oneself atheist or agnostic to be free from all idolatry. Community life is a willing and thought-out frame to fight the idols that squat the heart of man in order to better “know, love and serve” God. Idolatry necessarily leads man to war. The meeting with the living God alone is able to transform him into a man of peace: “happy those who make peace they will be called sons of God”. Peace: signature that authenticates a man of God. The beautiful speech of the speaker, even with a beautiful beautifully theological vocabulary, can also be a way of making war since we know with Machiavelli that “the cunning is stronger than the force”. But I speak to peasants who have the sense of the concrete and therefore do not let themselves be “caught in the net of words or the harpoon of ideas”. What you live speaks more than what you say. How does this return to God incarnate in our lives?
This passage speaks well to the point of constant confusion with critics of the Benedict Option. All of us — even those who live in the city — must withdraw to the monastery of our hearts to fight our own tendency to sin, our own fault towards disorder and violence. It is easier to allow oneself to confront one’s own sin and brokenness from a place of silence and contemplation. Even if we don’t live in the countryside, we must make a space for contemplation and self-examination in our own hearts. This is the withdrawal I speak of in The Benedict Option.
Most of us have discovered farming life in the community; agriculture is the first of the trades. However, we are not specialists. We have summarily learned gestures, a rhythm with our elders. Our great educator is the nature that one only learns through time and experience. In our eyes the key word of a peasant worthy of the name, like the monk, is stability, or otherwise says a rooting that alone can produce fruit in its time. We must learn to know his land, his climate, his animals. Any agricultural book to be bought needs to sell itself as revolutionary and miraculous. But the characteristic of the miracle (even the truth, the one that is not a mirage for the credulous) is not to be a reproducible phenomenon.
Before learning from his agronomic practices, it takes 25 years of hindsight. See over time if yields are maintained, if weed management remains possible. And stay humble: what works in one place may not work elsewhere. Sometimes people who do not have enough courage to work a lot and earn little will become a teacher or a counselor: they bend less and earn more. “Beware of people who want you well, it is their good that they want you” (Lanza del Vasto). On this subject we met two permacultures: the first is a business plan that is terribly effective, which consists in robbing the wealthy city-dweller completely distorted by selling him a campaign dream; the word permaculture has become a marketing totem. Thus permaculture trainees visiting walked on our beautiful lettuce well headed for fear of tamping the ground walking on the bare land next door. The second is to rediscover a little wisdom in our practices, to look at what was happening among the elders, to observe and to experiment. Our ways of working are the following: 5 to 7 year long rotation, direct pasture and animal manure by the sheep. All Breton peasants in organic farming that we know and who ignore one or the other eventually lose their footing.
Again, this is Google Translate, so maybe things aren’t as clear as they might be. The point I want to underline is his remark that learning agriculture is not something you can do simply by the book. It is a craft tradition. This principle is also valid for the cultivation of our own hearts. This became very, very clear to me after a few years of practicing the Orthodox Christian faith.
I could write all day about that speech, but I’ll stop there. Jean-Louis Laureau, the founder of the JP (the Catholic Wendell Berry), spoke later in the afternoon. Here’s a part of his speech (again, run through Google Translate):
There can be no question, in such a short time, of telling the whole story that has governed our foundation, but of seeing the context and underlining its inspiration.
It was in 1991 that a small group of peasants and religious met for the first time in Saône-et-Loire. We were on the eve of the establishment of the WTO (World Trade Organization – 1993) and in Europe of the first reform of the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy – 1992). We had published a small booklet entitled “The peasant question on the eve of the year 2000”. At that time, France still had 900,000 farms (note however that it had more than 2 million in 1950). This reform of the CAP, it should be remembered, had the pretension of aligning the prices of cereals cultivated in Europe with world prices – so that their prices had abruptly decreased by almost half between 1991 and 1992. This drastic fall in prices was offset by the payment of bonuses. It was a fatal blow for the farmers and especially for the French peasantry.
And in the spheres of power we did not hide the consequences of this shattering entry of European agriculture into globalization: it was announced that the number of farms in France would decrease by half. And alas! this is realized, since today there are probably less than 450,000 agricultural estates in France. So between the end of the second world war and today – in less than 75 years – we went from more than 2 million to less than 450,000 farmers. This phenomenon of society is considerable, and yet it does not seem to have disturbed politicians, the media, or even some professional agricultural leaders – let alone the economists who considered this drastic fall as inevitable – and even beneficent. This is the historical context in which the Peasant Days were born.
It was so violent that we quickly wondered if our small initiative of the Journées paysannes made sense. The farmer’s trade was going to be maintained to “produce” food with a few thousand entrepreneurs as an industry, but the peasant life closely uniting work and family was likely to disappear. So, what is the point of nurturing with young, generous homes a nostalgia for the centuries of peasants, who have shaped landscapes but are dying out with no hope of return. Was the very small and very young association of the peasant days going to disappear? We were a bit like David facing Goliath. But what were and what are more than ever today, the five pebbles of our slingshot?
In verse 15 of chapter 2 of the book of Genesis, we read: “The Lord God placed the man (whom He had just created) in the Garden of Delights to grow and keep. ” Can we not see in this garden of delights where God places man from creation the premises of economy and ecology? Cultivating the land is getting everything you need from the garden to feed the family – the home economy. Even before sin, man is called to work without any trouble, and to cultivate the garden. And to keep the garden is to make it every day more beautiful, more pleasant to live. It’s this wonderful alliance of economics and ecology.
Then we read in chapter 2 of Genesis: “And the Lord God made this commandment:” You may eat of all the trees of the garden. But from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you will not eat, because the day you eat, you will certainly die. (Gen 2, 16-17) “The most cunning snake of animals” led the woman, then by the, the man with disobedience. This disobedience reaches in depth the alliance of man and woman and the alliance of man to the earth. To the woman, the Lord God says: “I will multiply the pains of your pregnancies, in pain you will give birth to sons. Your lust will push you towards your husband, and will dominate him over you. ” To the man, he says, “Because you listened to the voice of your wife and you ate from the tree I forbade you to eat, cursed be the soil because of you! By dint of pain you will survive every day of your life. He will produce thorns and thistles, and you will eat the grass of the field. By the sweat of your face you will eat your bread, until you return to the ground, since you were fired. »(Gen 3: 16-19)
But the Lord God, in his infinite goodness, does not abandon the creature, and his covenant with man is infinitely stronger than sin. All the stages of salvation that we go through each year in the liturgy, from Christmas to Easter, from the Passion to the Resurrection and the Ascension and Pentecost, are accompanied at every period of the history of the fight for holiness. This struggle through the family and the bond to the earth, and with grace, tends to establish the happiness of the union of man to his Creator and Savior, in view of eternal life.
One aspect of this struggle is experienced nowadays by those who are torn from the bond with the earth, by all sorts of breaks. Peasant life is destabilized by the break-up of the family that is no longer united in the work of the land, where everyone has their place, by a forced and haunting technology, by an economy that is no longer domestic, by a political increasingly dominated by a globalized and market economy. All this enslaves the farmer who is no longer master of his choices. It undergoes the demands of the European and globalized economy, the standards imposed on it, the techniques that it no longer assimilates. He is obliged to invest, to work more and more fruitlessly, since he no longer has any power over the price of his crops.
The rural exodus turned into despair and abandonment. Campaigns are desertified – helping farmers who have done wonders of community life – sometimes turns into jealousy and competition. Finally, this drastic reduction in the number of farmers is accompanied by the equally impressive reduction in the number of priests. In 1950, in many French regions, each village had a priest, pastor of the parish. Today, each priest is in charge of 7, 10, 20 to 40 and 50 steeples. We asked ourselves at the Peasant Days whether this human and spiritual desertification of the countryside was not the more general, more universal sign of the fragmentation of our Western societies. And so we decided to continue the Peasant Days as the day that succeeds the night, the spring to the winter. Fortified by Hope, given to us by the story of Creation, David’s victorious struggle against Goliath, the smallest mustard seed that becomes a plant where the birds of the sky shelter, the seed that, put on the ground, lifts and produces the ear and above all by the final victory while being silent and almost hidden from the Resurrection of Christ.
Thus, without any other means than the desire to submit ourselves, with grace, to the mission that the Lord confided to us, we sought to discover how the bond of man to the earth could be lived today and tomorrow – how he could even have a prophetic function of proclaiming the Gospel and the Kingdom. For almost 30 years now, our hope has been strengthened by noting two things:
• First, happy peasant families exist today; they are scattered, feel isolated; but they give birth to children; they are filled with gifts in the midst of many difficulties; they find solutions to sometimes inextricable situations, they are brave, heroic even sometimes.
• Then, coming from elsewhere, young students, rich or poor city dwellers, entrepreneurs or civil servants, teachers, philosophers and many others, many of whom are attracted by the ecological currents, come to join us, probably because they feel that the link to the land concerns them – and that it is for them a need to get closer to it in a virtual and chaotic world. It is then that the Peasant Days are becoming increasingly aware that the true ecology can only be integral in the sense of the doctrine of the Church and that the work of the peasant shaping the landscapes, cultivating the ecosystems is one privileged ways of respect for the earth and the love of Creation.
The proliferation of ecological movements reveal a beautiful search for defense of nature that we dare not call Creation. They often express the desire for a return to the Gardens of Delights, which Genesis tells us about. But for us, Journées paysannes, we know that this return to the garden of delights is impossible. There was sin and God sent his Son to forgive and repair – through redemption. The link to the earth, the search for family holiness are the joyous announcement on this earth of the Kingdom of Heaven. “Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and its righteousness, and all the rest will be given to you in addition. (Matt 6, 33)
Talking about that rural exodus is an extremely painful thing. France is currently suffering from an epidemic of suicides among its small farmers. Here is Pascal, a Breton dairy farmer I met this past weekend:
I should say that he was a dairy farmer. He had to give it up because the cost was crushing him. He told me that since he began farming, there have been nine suicides of farmers he knows around him. Nine farmers driven by debt and despair to murder themselves. Pascal did not want to be among them. He loves Jesus, and trusts Him. Today Pascal is trying to make his farm into a kind of ecological village. Pray for him. There are so many others like him.
How is it that people today are so interested in helping those on the other side of the world, but they ignore the suffering of the men and women in their own country, like these farmers?
Saturday afternoon I make a short detour to Paray-le-Monial, where the youth of a national movement called the Emmanuel Community — Catholic charismatics — were having a winter meeting. With my friend Henrik Lindell, a French Catholic journalist, we spoke to several hundred Catholic teenagers about media and the faith. It’s hard to express how encouraging it has been for me to see so many young French Catholics who are passionate about the faith. Indeed, the audience for The Benedict Option in France has been primarily those aged 18 to 35, I am told. I have asked several people here why that is the case. The answer is always some variation of: They all want to be truly, authentically Catholic, and they are tired of the old French Catholic narrative of Traditionalists vs. Progressives. You are showing them something new.
Indeed, I met a young French Catholic philosopher who lives in a community approved by a local bishop. François and several others — both single people and married couples — moved into housing provided by the bishop, and serve as a community reaching out to those who live on the margins of society in their town. Here is François:
If memory serves, there is an ecological component of their common life. They established the community inspired by the publication of Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si (which, in my own view, is very, very good). I mentioned to François that some of the top people around Francis have attacked my book as anti-Francis. He did not see what Sandro Magister wrote about the controversy, but François said he doesn’t understand the point.
“There is nothing in your book that should bother Pope Francis,” he said. I agree with him on that, but that is not the opinion of Father Spadaro, Cardinal Cupich, and others.
François invited me to come visit his community in the future, and I surely will. I had not envisioned a way of living the Benedict Option that integrated serving the poor, but it appears that these Catholics are doing it already. Creative minorities! I want to learn from them. It’s amazing, these possibilities!
(Nota bene: I really, really, really need to build a website so all the Ben Oppers can know each other.)
On Saturday night, there was a big feast. There were long tables on which all the farmers brought their specialities. My phone had run out of power, so I didn’t take any photos. But Lord have mercy, it was something great. Yes, it’s Lent, and no, Orthodox are not supposed to eat meat. But it is considered a greater sin to refuse hospitality. I tell you this to explain why I ate the pile of goose rillettes scooped from a crock by the farmer who made them, and plopped onto my plate. I realized at some point that this was my idea of heaven: being at a feast in the middle of the French countryside, surrounded by faithful Christian farmers and culinary artisans, with friendly people running up to me saying, “Here, taste this.”
Reader, I tasted it. And it was good.
I spoke to several younger farmers that evening. It was their first time at Les Journées Paysannes. They were thrilled to have discovered it. These were young Catholics — men and women in their twenties and early thirties — who wanted something more from life than to have a job in the city. They love tending beehives, raising chickens, growing vegetables, and such, but they are lonely for the company of other Christians. It quickly occurred to me that if more young city people could meet these young farming Catholics, they too would decide that such a life offers them a beautiful way to live.
The next morning we went to mass at the main chapel at Souvigny, celebrated by the bishop. Here is what it looked like before the mass:
The church was very cold; you could see your breath. But it was glorious, really glorious, to be there, where Christians have been praying for a thousand years. After the mass, I looked up to see the sunlight coming through one of the stained-glass windows. Behold, the Burning Bush:
My friend Yves Reichenbach, who is most responsible for bringing me to the JP meeting, invited me into the sacristy to see vestments that are centuries old:
At the conference this weekend were Imre and Kathleen de Habsbourg. Imre is an Archduke, the great grandson of the last Habsburg emperor (the Blessed Karl). He and his American wife Kathleen are very humble and kind, and quite serious about the faith. We were walking through the church together after mass, and he mentioned that he had just said a prayer at the tomb of his “Uncle Sixte” — a prince of Bourbon-Parma.
We emerged into the sunlight in front of the church, and drank spiced wine provided by one of the JP members. Afterward we went over to lunch. The wine served with the food was a grand cru St-Emilion (Bordeaux) made by Jerôme Dohet of Château Saint-Esprit (Chateau Holy Spirit). Here’s a little story in French about Jerôme. It explains that he studied law, but decided he wanted to live close to the land, and make wine. Then he studied viticulture, and has made a small winery for himself. He recently helped found Le Cercle de Cana (The Circle of Cana), an association of Christian winemakers in St-Emilion.
Here is Jerôme:
For me, it was pure pleasure to talk with him about how his faith informs his winemaking, and vice versa. This is how it is with the men and women of the Journées Paysannes: they want to live an integrated life of prayer, working with their hands, and living close to the earth. I felt like I had wandered into a Wendell Berry dream. I kept talking about him, and the French kept saying, “Who is this Wendell Berry? Tell us more.” If you are a follower of Wendell Berry, especially if you are a farmer of any sort, I strongly urge you to reach out to the Journées Paysannes. They are very, very eager to get to know American agrarians, especially Christian ones.
If I sound like a cheerleader, well, it’s because I am. It’s like when I first met the Tipi Loschi: I am so happy to shake the hands of the kind of people I dream about, and want to be, that I am overwhelmed by emotion. I had a conversation with a young woman named Matilde who is living in a group house in Nantes, in a Ben Op community she and her friends began. The local bishop approved of it. They didn’t overthink it; they just did it. I heard a number of times this weekend that local bishops had been eager to approve these various experimental communities. Why? I’m not sure, but my guess is it has to do with the fact that the general level of Christian living here in France is low. Certain bishops want to encourage creative minorities. I think that is marvelous.
Look at this copy of the French edition of The Benedict Option. It belongs to Michel, one of the JPs. It is full of notes he took before the conference:
Naturally it’s gratifying to any author to have his work thought about so carefully, but because for me, the Benedict Option (“le pari Bénédictin” in French) is not so much a book I wrote but something that I hope for myself and my children, this affects me at another level. At the heart of it is the realization, from meeting these people (and the Tipi Loschi), what I dream about actually exists already, and can exist in more places, if people have the desire, the vision, and the will to make it happen.
By the time you read this, I will be on my way back to the US. I apologize for not keeping up with approving comments, but it was hard to find wifi, or the time. Later, I will try to write about the last thing I did before heading home, which was to visit the cathedral of Amiens in Picardy, and visit a reconstructed World War I trench on the Somme front. My hosts, Thierry and Emmanuelle François, a farming couple who helps lead the JP, have the front running right through their land. More on this later.
For now, take hope: there are Christians of faith and vision who are living the Benedict Option now, in France. All over France, in fact. And if you are interested in doing the same, they want to hear from you. I left Souvigny with so much affection in my heart for these gentle people, who showed to me the truth of Benedict XVI’s statement that the saints are one of the really convincing arguments for the truth of the faith. I’m not canonizing these folks, certainly, but what BXVI meant was that when we see goodness incarnate in others, our own hearts are converted. Heart spoke to heart in Souvigny last weekend. Pass the good word on to others — and next year, if you are the Christian agrarian type, plan to be there yourself.
One more thing: I will always love Paris, but after this weekend, I don’t know if I will ever return. There are so many other places to see in France, and now I have new friends all over the place. It’s a grace that I don’t deserve, but I receive as a gift. In the weeks to come, I will be telling more stories of the Benedict Options I heard about at the JP weekend. So many people agreed to do interviews with me on e-mail. I can’t wait to introduce you to these good people.
P.S. Somebody please translate Wendell Berry into French. There is an eager audience.
On Thursday, my last night in Paris, I spoke at a church gathering with Martin Steffens, a young Catholic philosopher who is an expert on Simone Weil. I don’t speak good French, so I had to rely on a translation for his words, but everything he said about Christianity and the modern world struck me as profound and original. He’s published several books in France, and last night, after hearing him speak, I can’t remember the last time I felt so acutely the pain of not being able to read French well. Some American publisher would be very wise to read Martin Steffens and buy translation rights.
Anyway, we had something of a public dialogue – difficult to conduct given that I had to wait for things to be translated, and Martin and the audience did as well. I was frustrated with myself for not being clearer, but we were very well received. There must have been 200 or so people there in the crypt of the church, most of them in their 20s and 30s (my translator told me that it appears the main audience in France for The Benedict Option is 18-35 year olds). People stood in line for nearly an hour to have me sign their books (they did the same for Martin).
The message I kept receiving over and over was some version of: Thank you for saying these things. I have been thinking them too, but was unable to speak. It is hard to overstate the enthusiasm from French young people for this book. I have seen nothing like this among Americans, even when they praise the book. I began to get an idea where this intense reaction comes from when, after the talk, on the way to a nearby café, I spoke to a young American woman (and a Hillsdale graduate) who is here teaching. She said that having been here for four or five months, “You can feel the laïcité seeping into your bones.”
Laïcité is the word the French use to express the ideology behind the separation of Church and State. It is not simply a matter of law, but a very powerful mentality, one that drives religious faith out of the public square. On this trip, I’ve heard at least three French Catholics speak in various ways of how hard it is to be openly religious here in France. Tonight at dinner, a man spoke of a Catholic diplomat friend who said that the closer one gets physically to France, the harder it is to talk about God.
As you know, I am pessimistic about the decline of Christianity in the US, but we have a long way to go before we reach the level of the faith here in France. And yet, this beautiful country was once strongly Christian. Here in the town of Moulins, where I am today, an old farmer, Jean-Louis Laureau, told me that when he was a young man in the 1950s, nearly every soul in his village went to mass regularly. One Catholic family had twelve kids, and produced four priests. Today, it’s a ghost town for the Church. There are no priests, and you have to drive a far distance for mass.
This collapse happened in a single lifetime. Do not ever think that it couldn’t happen in America. In fact, the process is well under way. The more I talk to French Catholics – older and younger alike – the more concerned I become about the relative lack of alarm among American believers about our own situation.
Jean-Louis is the founder of a national organization of Catholic agrarians, called Les Journées Paysannes. I had dinner with its leadership last night, almost all of them real farmers. I will be writing more about it this weekend (I’m here for their national conference). I spoke with a Breton dairy farmer who was the fifth generation on his land, and the last. He had to close down. Couldn’t make it in this agribusiness-dominated market. He said over the course of his lifetime farming there, nine — that’s right, nine — of his neighboring farmers committed suicide. The crisis of small farmers in France is critical. Again, more on this later.
Interestingly, among the young French Catholics I’ve met (by “young,” I mean in their 20s and 30s), I don’t sense any sort of panic. In fact, their faces almost glow with the radiance of faith. But many do feel quite alone and besieged, and seem to resonate with the Benedict Option vision, as it describes the world that they live in.
Someone told me that a particular French bishop was praising The Benedict Option to the skies. Another man told me that some Benedictine monks of his acquaintance who had read it did not like it; if I understood the man correctly, their critique was more or less the same as the people around Pope Francis, who see the Benedict Option as strictly moralistic and separatist.
The man asked what should he tell those monks who didn’t like the book. It wasn’t clear to me until someone explained later that this was his precise question, so I didn’t have a good answer for him. But tomorrow I’ll search him out, and I’ll tell him that he should ask the monks for their ideas about what to do, given that the Benedict Option is the wrong move, from their point of view. Seriously: it is clear that the John Paul II/Benedict XVI style has not been as successful as one wishes, but is going back to 1970s-style Catholicism really the answer to the grave problems the Church faces in the West? Can these monks possibly think so? I would also ask them: what is the Church for? My impression from talking to some – not all, but more than a few – Catholics of my generation and older is that they are content to manage terminal decline.
If I were a believing Catholic in my twenties and thirties, I would want to have nothing to do with that defeatism. See, people say the Benedict Option is defeatism because it rejects the hope that Christians have a realistic chance of meaningfully influencing the wider society. There are still lots of Christians – conservatives and liberals both – who think of the Church (Catholic and Protestant) as a player. To adopt a Benedict Option way of thinking is to vacate the battlefield, they say.
To me, though, theirs is the real defeatism. It is a kind of Christianity that depends on the respect of the world for validation. Of course I wish the Church had more influence over the direction of popular culture, including politics. I believe that Christians should use every means offered to them to advocate for truth, justice, and the common good. But what does any of this mean if we cannot even pass the faith on to our children? This is a question that ought to haunt – and I mean haunt – both conservative and liberal Christians.
How did Jean-Louis’s village go from being fervently Christian, and fecund, to a secular ghost town in 60 years? Nobody, least of all me, has any easy answers for how to reverse this trend. But to accommodate oneself to this post-Christian – and indeed positively anti-Christian, in many ways – order is going to mean spiritual death for the Church.
It’s well under way. I have no patience — none — for Christians who want to temporize, to ignore the great emergency, and to think that everything is going to be fine if we just sit still and wait, and make nicer with the world. If you sit there and do nothing, you’re going to die. It’s that simple. If you sit around waiting for your bishop, your pastor, the institutional church, your political leaders, or anybody else to save you, you’re a fool. We are facing a situation that is unprecedented in the West in the Christian era — and we’re all in this together. If you don’t like what I propose, then I invite you to propose something better — something that’s not the same old thing, repackaged differently.
Today I will meet the man who wrote the following e-mail to me this week. Here, readers, is a source of hope:
We have to rebuild a society bottom-up and not rely in ancient forms of organisations who are not relevant anymore today; worse who might look like Christian movements but work in fact for the opposition or the enemy as you name him.
Your solution: just follow the Rule of Saint Benoit is excellent. Your are going a step further (if possible) than Pope Benedict in his famous speech in Les Bernardins in Paris in 2008 when he proposed the example of Benedict the monk and his rule to the French and European world of culture.
Because you are proposing a simple and practical way of buiding a christian life in the actual world, who is not only unconcerned about religion, but severely hostile. But if Providence has put us here at this very moment, we have got to do something, here and now. Not only to save our souls, but also our fellow men.
Not far from Souvigny, we have an extraordinary parish priest. Let’s say our modern curé d’Ars in the old province of Berry. He has a very acute and profound spiritual sense, his masses are superb, gathering slowly more and more people. But he doesn’t forget the world we are living in. He has asked to a small number of parishioners to start up a non-profit organisation to build up a network of Christians living here. A Christian should not stay alone; he needs his human brothers and sisters.
We are farmers, forest people, craftmen, doctors, teachers and entrepreneurs and so on living locally.
We try to establish among us and our families trust, solidarity and mutual assistance.
We try to promote any local development project be it in education, farming, forestry, economy (in the old greek sense) etc, respecting environment and local culture, in the framework of Christian ethics and Christian Social teaching.
We all live in Boichaut, full in the middle of France, in what sociologists call “La France Périphérique”, away from the mainstream country. Most of us were born here; others, as my wife and myself, decided recently to live here. Tough and very nice. But it is probably a good place to start with The Benedict Option. Away from the mainstream and unnoticed until it is needed that we expand to other places.
We forgot the Benedict Option in our statutes until now, but this will be corrected soon, since I am profoundly convinced by your excellent book. The Holy Providence has found an inspired interpreter. God bless you for what you have accomplished.
Ambitious, no? We are few, with little means but we all have faith in the Christian message and want to embody it in our whole lives, not only on Sundays. And the immense luck to have an excellent spiritual guide, our priest.
I have bought several copies of your book to discuss it among us. No need to build a doctrine of what we should do; you have already done that. An immense thanks for the time and efforts spared. We need only to be fully convinced by what you propose and start to work, and pray. If it is good, the Holy Providence will help us; if not we would at least have tried. She will decide, but we are confident and faithful and not too naive.
I am coming to Souvigny next weekend. I didn’t kwow Les Journées Paysannes before, but it looks like a nice start.
Stunning, at least to me. This man gets it — and he and his parish community have already been living the Benedict Option, thanks to the leadership of their priest. Last night, Jean-Louis Laureau told me that he loved my book because finally somebody has written about the spirit by which his community has sought to live for the last 30 years. I am here to give a talk to these French Catholics, but I am under no illusion that I have anything to teach them. Rather, I am here to learn from them — and, I hope, to give them encouragement. As an American, it is at times shocking to hear how hard it is to be a believing Christian in France today, but it is soul-stirring to see how bright the light burns in those who are still holding on. You should come see it for yourself sometime.
And you Christian agrarian Wendell Berry fans in America, please reach out to the Journées Paysannes. They are your brothers and sisters — and they need your help. By the way, nobody I’ve talked to here knows Wendell Berry’s work. I’ll be quoting him in my talk on Sunday. Somebody really needs to translate Berry into French. People here (and not just among the farmers, but also in Paris) were visibly delighted when I spoke of him.
OK, off to start the day, helping the French build the Resistance. More later. This morning, I’ll be praying with them in the church at the Souvigny priory, one of the oldest daughters of the Cluny monastery, and where two of its abbots are buried. This is deep France. This is deep Christian history. I am a stranger here, but I am at home.
Take a look at this clip, which two sources independently tell me that Baylor University compelled incoming freshman to watch in August 2017. This is a cleaner version of what was first required in 2016, I am informed:
It’s about teaching the concept of sexual consent. It’s rather crude. I’m told that the university took down the page where it was promoted. One can imagine why they took the page down — but a source sent me an image archived on the Wayback Machine.
Discouraging, for sure. Sex, in this video, is nothing but a bodily function. What is Christian about it at all? Is this being shown in other Christian universities?
In related news, did you see that athletes at the Winter Olympics have been given a record number of condoms? What a world…
Hey readers, last time to see me this go-round in Paris:
Thursday, February 15, 2018 – 8:30 pm
Exchange with the philosopher Martin Steffens
Organized in partnership with the association ICHTUS
Crypt of Saint Ferdinand des Ternes
23, rue d’Armaillé – 75017 Paris
M ° Charles de Gaulle-Étoile or Ternes
Off to Souvigny in the Auvergne on the weekend, then back to the US on Monday.
Come say hello!
That, my dears, is what you call a Grand Marnier soufflé. Julie and I split it tonight after dinner (and don’t get huffy with me; Lent doesn’t start for us Orthodoxes until Monday).
Julie and I had a late lunch of galettes and Breton cidre, then daundered around the city this afternoon. We stopped at my favorite secular shrine for a birthday shot (I’ll go have a dozen oysters there tomorrow):
Then we went into the church of St. Germain des Prés to admire and to pray. I love this statue of St. Benedict in an austere side chapel:
Afterward, we strolled through the Latin Quarter, and ended up at Mariage Frères to buy tea for ourselves and our daughter, who loves tea from this special place. How did a fathead like me end up with a wife so beautiful? It is a mystery:
Then, under grey skies, in a drizzle, we made our way to the church of St. Etienne du Mont, where what is left of the relics of St. Geneviève of Paris remain, along with the slab that was her tomb. I have a special devotion to this great 5th century saint, the patroness of Paris. During the French Revolution, a mob broke into her tomb, stole her body (which had been venerated there for over a thousand years), carried it down to a square by the Seine, burned it, and threw the ashes in the Seine. Parts of her bones were spared, though, and the stone on which her body lay from the fifth to the ninth centuries is still in the church. It’s inside the structure on the left of this photo. In the center, I do believe that is a shard of the saint’s bone, inside the glass cylinder. I lit candles for friends who asked me to remember them in prayer:
I prayed a litany before the saint’s grave. Then we went back to the hotel to rest before dinner.
We dined at a classic French bistro near the Boulevard Montparnasse (sad news, by the way: Le Bec Rouge, the neighborhood Alsatian joint where I first tried choucroute garni, has permanently closed). That’s where we shared the transcendent Grand Marnier soufflé. Before, though, I ate stuffed morel mushrooms. Look at these beauties:
As we started our meal, a wonderfully wacky French couple came in and took the table next to ours. They were in late middle age, full of zest, and regulars at this place, given the reception they received. He looked like a beanpole Woody Allen, with a corona of fluffy curls framing his gaunt face. He looked like a tofu eater who teaches sociology at NYU. His wife was the Belle of the Boca Raton Ball, wearing sparkly clothes that were not appropriate for her age, her hair bottle-blonde, her lips pouty from injections, and mascara like fondant spackling her Botox-paralyzed face. If Charo were a cake left out in the rain, she would have been this woman.
I loved her instantly. She spoke rapid French, impossible for me to understand. When my morels arrived, she looked at them and squealed, “Formidable!”
The couple ordered a big bowl of some kind of creamy soup with shaved black truffles on top to share. They clinked their spoons as a kind of chin-chin before diving in. No kidding, they were really cute, clearly still very much in love with each other. I wouldn’t even bother telling you about them except for this one thing, this very, very impressive thing, this thing that will make them live forever in my memory.
The waiter brought their entrée out, and my jaw hit the floor. It was a massive cut of beef, at least four pounds of meat. The waiter sliced it tableside, and served each one a large platter of beef scarlet red with blood. They were beside themselves with delight. Formidable, indeed.
How on earth is that woman going to eat all that beef? I thought. I couldn’t have done it myself. And Tofu Man, can he really put all that bloody meat away? With the fried potatoes too?
I sat there and watch Charo eat every slice of her steak. Not only did she eat it, she ate it lustily. It was something to behold. Tofu Man at every last morsel of his beef too, but she, she is an Amazon who among us walks. These two oddball French folks clearly have an appetite for life.
As we stood to leave, we bid them farewell. I asked her if she had ordered the Grand Marnier soufflé for dessert.
“Mais bien sûr!” she squealed. But of course!
Cuchi-cuchi, mes amis. Happy Valentine’s Day from Paris.
Monday night’s Benedict Option event at a church hall in Paris went well. The hall was full, and people seemed interested. Last night, I went down to Tours, and had a lovely time speaking to folks. I stayed with the family B., a real Benedict Option Catholic family. It is so, so encouraging to meet fellow Christians who see things like I do, and who are enthusiastic believers, as well as quite obviously “creative minorities,” as Benedict XVI told Christians to be in the post-Christian world. That family, and others I’m meeting here, are such an inspiration.
“The Benedict Option” has now crossed the Atlantic and become a question of global import. A question that is certainly of no little account, because it concerns the future of Christianity in an ever more post-Christian era.
The American Rod Dreher, author of the proposal and of the book, is now traveling around France on a conference circuit and has given an exhaustive interview to the Catholic magazine “la Nef.” His book has been translated into French, and will soon be available in other languages.
But it has been the frontal attack that “La Civiltà Cattolica” has unleashed from Rome against “The Benedict Option” that has ratcheted up even more the level of the controversy.
Dreher is not Catholic. He used to be, now he is Russian Orthodox. But it is above all in the Catholic camp, and initially within the Catholicism of the United States, that his proposal made a splash and produced a very heated discussion.
It is a proposal, in fact, that radically brings into question – in addition to contrasting them with each other – both the current pontificate of Francis and that of his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
The Benedict of the “option” is not pope Joseph Ratzinger, but Benedict of Norcia, the great saint of the 5th and 6th centuries who was able to generate a formidable rebirth of Christian faith and culture in the chaos that followed the collapse of the Roman empire, that rebirth which the other Benedict, the pope, evoked masterfully in his memorable address of September 12 in Paris, at the Collège des Bernardins, essentially proposing that the Catholics of today grasp and revive his lesson, at the present juncture of civilization.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that from Rome, from a pope like Francis who is the standard bearer of an opposite vision, “The Benedict Option” should have been thrust onto the index through that organic mouthpiece of Jorge Mario Bergoglio which is “La Civiltà Cattolica” directed by the Jesuit Antonio Spadaro.
The rest of the piece examines the argument between myself and a couple of Jesuits around La Civiltà Cattolica. Regular readers of this blog will already be familiar with it.
What I especially like about Magister’s article is that a Vatican journalist of his stature to has said that the Benedict Option is the vision around which the older, Benedict XVI vision of the Catholic Church, is coalescing in the age of Pope Francis and his “new paradigm.” I am honored that Magister thinks so, and am profoundly pleased that with this essay of Magister’s, Benedict XVI no doubt will know now that this ex-Catholic who nevertheless believes in his cultural vision am on his side.
I did not seek to pose The Benedict Option in contrast to Pope Francis, or in criticism of him. You won’t find in the book one word of criticism of Pope Bergoglio. But Francis’s top allies — the Jesuits of La Civiltà Cattolica, and Cardinal Cupich of Chicago — have laid down the gauntlet. This struggle is important. This morning, I spoke to a veteran Catholic journalist in Paris, who told me, “The battle is here, now.” Indeed it is.
Had a well-attended talk last night here in Paris. Off to Tours shortly to speak there this evening. Don’t let snow deter you! I will be handing out Mardi Gras beads, so who in their right mind would want to miss that?
Mardi 13 février 2018 – 20h30
Amphithéâtre de la DDEC
33, rue Blaise Pascal – 37000 Tours
Back in Paris for a Thursday night event:
Jeudi 15 février 2018 – 20h30
Échange avec le philosophe Martin Steffens
Organisé en partenariat avec l’association ICHTUS
Crypte de Saint Ferdinand des Ternes
23, rue d’Armaillé – 75017 Paris
M° Charles de Gaulle-Étoile ou Ternes
This in my inbox tonight:
Thank you for writing The Benedict Option. It offers a sober wake up call to Christians in the West.
I’m writing in response to your recent article “Life in post-Christian Britain” as a 33 year old reformed Christian in the UK. There are two points I would like to make.
We have an extremely powerful LGBT movement in the UK spearheaded by “Stonewall” who call themselves a human rights charity but are a LGBT pressure group. I recently went to a public lecture by their CEO (Ruth Hunt) who was open that they have sought to work in non-democratic means, seeking to get legislation passed which they knew would not have public approval at the time. They are extremely intelligent, focused and well resourced and know how to apply pressure to politicians. They have also secured a place in the church of England, writing anti-bullying guidance for CofE schools. Unbelievable.
At the presentation I attended, Ruth said that one major pocket of disapproval for LGBT lifestyles is the Pentecostal church. They know that they will not be able to take on the leadership of these communities directly so their strategy for this is to target teenage girls in these communities through outreach programs, to try and persuade them that LGBT lifestyles are an acceptable alternative. These girls can then be advocates for LGBT “rights” in their communities. They have run pilot programs and are now moving to roll out. These are smart, smart people who are prepared to play a long game.
My second point is that I am extremely rare in being concerned about Christian education. Most evangelicals I know think it is selfish, and possible sinful, to take children out of state education because of the evangelistic opportunities one can have at the school gate. It is also argued that children can’t be kept out of the world indefinitely. None of this makes sense. There is a deep, deep naiveté amongst most Christians and when you consider what we are up against, we are going to be eaten for breakfast. I just find a deep seated objection to thinking the way you do in the Benedict Option but with no clear rationale as to why.
That said, there are a few Christian schools which have been set up in the UK in the last few years which are excellent, however most evangelicals I speak to are suspicious about them.
One often hears US Evangelicals claiming the same thing about public schools. My guess is that it’s far, far more likely that the Evangelicals kids are going to get “evangelized” by the popular culture than the other way around. I also wonder if some parents who could afford these schools for their kids aren’t simply rationalizing the fact that they would rather get the free education than make a sacrifice to pay for them.
Anyway, yes, the reader is correct: I’ve been doing this long enough to where I can see that many, maybe most, objections from conservative Christians to the Benedict Option don’t make a lot of sense.
It was epic, and continued to be epic as we made our way through Heathrow to catch our connecting flight to Paris. I’ll spare you the gory details. I haven’t seen her so sick in years. She was so pale (green, actually) and weak that it appeared we weren’t going to be able to get on the plane for the short hop to Paris.
A British Airways employee manning that particular gate was incredibly kind in that moment of distress. Without complaining, but instead showing gentleness and understanding, he ordered our bags taken off that flight — holding the flight at the gate — so we could catch a later flight. But when he checked the computer and found that the next flight wouldn’t be for six hours, Julie said it would be better to go ahead and take it, so she could get to the hotel and rest.
Again without complaining, and showing nothing but tenderness and compassion, he ordered the bags re-loaded, and escorted us down to the plane. Julie was sick on the plane, and in the taxi all the way to the hotel, but as we live in the best of all possible worlds, airsick bags were well deployed.
She’s resting now, and doing better, but will probably have to spend the first full day in Paris in bed rehydrating. Awful! But the one good thing that came out of that experience was witnessing the compassion of this stranger to a couple of distressed travelers. Had he been merely professional, that would have sufficed. But he went above and beyond that call.
Last night I tweeted this:
You know who is one of the kindest and most decent men in the world? A man named Gavin who works at Heathrow, and who helped my wife when she fell spectacularly ill with food poisoning as we were connecting to Paris. I wish I knew his last name. I'd tell the Queen!
— Rod Dreher (@roddreher) February 11, 2018
The manager of the airport’s Twitter account wrote to ask for more information. I gave them the flight and gate information (I wasn’t sure that his name was Gavin, but Julie said she thought it was.) Anyway, this came this morning
Hi Rob, we have identified the staff member. He works for @British_Airways and he will be rewarded for his kindness. Thank you for tweeting us, stories like this make us happy. ❤
— Heathrow Airport (@HeathrowAirport) February 12, 2018
How satisfying! Everybody tweets when something goes wrong while engaged in air travel. It’s important also to tweet when, despite things going very, very wrong, things also go very, very wright. Whatever that gentleman’s name, Julie and I are grateful for his kindness, his traveling mercy. His good deed made me resolve to be kinder to people I meet in everyday life. Me being me, who knows how long that will last, but I appreciate the inspiration.
Discouraged by Cardinal Cupich’s relativistic “new paradigm” speech? Read Archbishop Charles Chaput’s muscular defense of Pope John Paul II’s 1998 encylical Fides et Ratio, which is, obviously, about the connection between faith and truth. Excerpts:
Finally, without vigorous philosophy, theology and the very life of the Church risk slipping into emotivism. In the name of being pastoral, the Church threatens to become merely indulgent, malleable, affective, and practical; in effect, anti-intellectual. This is exactly the wrong moment for that kind of mistake.
We live in a time when Christian truth is increasingly misunderstood, disdained, or simply unknown, even among baptized Catholics. Michael Polanyi would have recognized our culture’s contradictions, and its emerging shape. It’s a mix of “fierce moral scepticism [paradoxically] fired by moral indignation. Its structure is exactly the same as that of the moral inversion underlying modern totalitarianism”—a contempt for traditional morality, fused with and fueled by ferocious moralizing for social change. Rational consistency is irrelevant. Passion becomes its own justification.
At a more immediate level, the pastor of a local church must meet his people in their hearts and real lives, but also in their minds. We’re beings made for the truth. Thus a clear, appealing presentation of the faith plays a vital role in forming Christians. As a bishop, I sometimes hear from parishioners that one of their concerns with some priests has to do with the content of the homilies they hear each week. They’re happy with calls for kindness or generosity, but they also hunger for homilies that present the substance of the faith, its mysteries and doctrines, in ways that are accessible and attractive. That kind of homily isn’t easy to do. But it’s impossible to do if we don’t have a credible theology, one informed by the strong philosophical traditions of learning that are at the heart of the Church and her patrimony.
Writing in the wake of Vatican II, the Italian Catholic philosopher Augusto Del Noce made three simple observations. First, our era is a “peculiar combination of the greatest perfection of means with the greatest confusion about goals.” Second, in the face of modern atheism—often less a hatred of God than a technology-driven indifference to him—“for a large part of today’s religious thought, the quest for aggiornamento simply means surrendering to the adversary.” And third, much of what styles itself as Christian progressivism, no matter how good its intentions, serves as the instrument of that surrender.
For Del Noce, the Church’s mission in every era is to bring the world into line with eternal principles while respecting the good in those things which are new. Much of progressive thought does the “exact inverse, since [it seeks] to bring Catholicism into line with the modern world.” By stressing action over contemplation and politics over metaphysics, progressivism reduces the supernatural core of Christian faith to a system of social ethics—a kind of baptized, humanitarian chaplaincy to a world that doesn’t need or want it. The result is obvious. The proof, for Del Noce, would be the hollowed-out national churches that now mark much of northern Europe.
A truly great Catholic intellect, in contrast, speaks from the heart of the Church because he or she is both a rigorous thinker and deeply attuned to the Word made flesh, wisdom incarnate. The confusion that dogged the Catholic world in the years immediately after Vatican II emerged in part from the absence of that kind of rigorous intellect fused with a deep and sincere faith. John Paul did much to heal the confusion. But it has never entirely disappeared, and it’s alive in our own day with new force. This is why the substance of Fides et Ratio is so important—not just for scholars, but also for everyday Christians who turn to the Church for guidance and a path to eternal life.
Read the whole thing. And read it in conjunction with the Cupich address. There is a titanic intellectual and spiritual struggle going on in the Catholic Church today. Whether or not you are a Catholic, and especially if you live in the West, this matters. A lot.