With Martin Steffens, in Paris

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 Laureau and Yves Reichenbach (L to R)

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.