Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the right-wing French politician, delivered a solid speech to CPAC today. It’s embedded above. It was not the usual American conservative boilerplate. For example, check out this passage:
To open oneself to the outside, you must have a solid core. To welcome, you have to remain, and to share, you must have something to offer. Without nation, and without family, the limits of the common good, natural law, and collective morality disappears, as the reign of egoism continues.
Today, even children have now become merchandise. We hear now in the public debate, we have the right to order a child from a catalog, we have the right to rent a woman’s womb, we have the right to deprive a child of a mother or father. No you don’t! A child is not a “right”. Is this the freedom that we want? No. We don’t want this atomized world of individuals without gender, without fathers, without mothers, and without nation.
She went on to condemn euthanasia, gender theory, and transhumanism. Le Pen said that the fight cannot be political alone, but must take place in culture, in media, and in the education system. She ended like this:
I finish with a Mahler quote I like very much, a quote which sums up conservatism in modernity: ‘Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”
I like that quote very much too:
“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” — Gustav Mahler. #BenedictOption
— Rod Dreher (@roddreher) September 23, 2017
Michael Brendan Dougherty picked out the most unusual thing about her speech: how it inadvertently revealed how very, very Protestant most American conservatism is. Check out his short reaction piece for the details. That is what occurred to me as well, especially having just returned from a week in France. Even though The Benedict Option was written for an American readership, I find it so much easier to discuss it with French and Italian Catholics, for reasons that I have not been able to figure out. Hearing Le Pen in an American context really brought that out. Even American Catholics are a lot more Protestant in how they think politically than they realize.
I don’t say this as a put-down; it’s what you would expect from people raised in an overwhelmingly Protestant nation, one built on Protestant, classic-liberal principles. But there it is. My friend Fred Gion, a Catholic and political conservative in Paris, told me over a decade ago that the arguments in my book Crunchy Cons, which was being attacked by many US conservatives for being crypto-liberal, made perfect sense to European conservatives.
Continental conservatives in the Le Pen mold are more traditionalist, focusing on natural law, religion, and culture. Conservative US Protestants share a lot of the views of European conservatives, but there seems to be among conservatives from Catholic cultures a deeper sense of order unifying these principles. There also tends to be much more skepticism of the free market and individualism.
Readers who have thought more about this than I have: tell me why this is. Which principles define conservative politics in Britain and America as more Protestant than conservative politics on the continent? Let’s talk about this — but anybody, Protestant or Catholic, who wants to sneer at the other, keep it to yourself.
I agree with this from Dougherty as well:
And I have a warning for those who would warm to [Le Pen’s speech] uncritically. As my career grants me friendships with other conservatives across Europe, I notice the tendency in them and in myself to idealize or project hopes onto the conservatives in other nations. My Irish and English friends tend to be far more positive about Trump than I am. And I have been far more positive about some of their would-be champions than they can be. Unfamiliarity breeds fantasy.
This is true. I was asked quite a bit about Trump while I was in France. It was interesting to me that most of my interlocutors regarded him ideally, in contrast to Emmanuel Macron, whom they detested. I could tell that folks didn’t really understand why I was so cool on Trump. I bet that things would be exactly reversed in the matter of Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (but not her secular nationalist aunt Marine, whom I find unappealing!).
Because I don’t have cable television, I didn’t watch the CNN “town hall” on gun violence last night. Following the social media commentary, I am glad I didn’t see it. From the descriptions, it seemed all heat, no light. Several thoughtful conservatives I follow on Twitter said the whole thing played like a dream advertisement for the NRA, in that it played right into the fear among gun owners that the Left despises them and is eager to take away their guns.
Cards on the table: I am in favor of a significantly greater degree of gun regulation than many of my fellow conservatives are, and I get as annoyed with right-wing Second Amendment absolutists who insist that any attempt to control guns will lead to a civil liberties apocalypse as I do with left-wing First Amendment absolutists who hold that any attempt to control access to pornography is welcoming Big Brother. That said, it drives me to despair to see how so many on the left demonize guns so thoroughly that they imagine that guns themselves are the prime source of our mass violence problem.
Here’s what I can’t figure out: I grew up in a rural hunting culture, where guns were, and are, widely available. Nothing like this ever happened. If a troubled kid wanted to shoot up his school, the weaponry and the opportunity was there, in spades. But it didn’t happen. It doesn’t happen.
Look at this:
If conservatives are right that the cause of this country’s large # of gun massacres has nothing to do w the easy availability of heavy firepower, it must be the result of something uniquely terrible about American culture that drives so many to become homicidal maniacs, right?
— Damon Linker (@DamonLinker) February 22, 2018
Well, I believe that this country’s large number of gun massacres does have something to do with gun availability, but I also believe that there is something terrible about American culture. I don’t have a clear theory — does anybody? should anybody claim to? — but I want to offer a few thoughts toward one.
Here’s something Wendell Berry wrote in his short essay “The Joy of Sales Resistance”:
XIV. The main thing is, don’t let education get in the way of being nice to children. Children are our Future. Spend plenty of money on them but don’t stay home with them and get in their way. Don’t give them work to do; they are smart and can think up things to do on their own. Don’t teach them any of that awful, stultifying, repressive, old-fashioned morality. Provide plenty of TV, microwave dinners, day care, computers, computer games, cars. For all this, they will love and respect us and be glad to grow up and pay our debts.
XV. A good school is a big school.
XVI. Disarm the children before you let them in.
Of course, education is for the Future, and the Future is one of our better-packaged items and attracts many buyers. (The past, on the other hand, is hard to sell; it is, after all, past.) The Future is where we’ll all be fulfilled, happy, healthy, and perhaps will live and consume forever. It may have some bad things in it, like storms or floods or earthquakes or plagues or volcanic eruptions or stray meteors, but soon we will learn to predict and prevent such things before they happen. In the Future, many scientists will be employed in figuring out how to prevent the unpredictable consequences of the remaining unpreventable bad things. There will always be work for scientists.
Second, here is a piece from today’s NYT: “When Is My Child Instagram-Ready?” The idea that this is a question parents ask is a sign of our problem.
1. The Size and Model of Mass Schooling Is Alienating
Back in 1929-30, there were about 248,000 public schools in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. How many today? Far less than half. By 2013-14, the number had shrunk to 98,000.
When you consider that the U.S. population nearly tripled in that timeframe, there’s no question this factory model of schooling has grown exponentially. The numbers speak to the intense bureaucratization of a public school system that is becoming more centralized with less local control, packing ever-larger numbers of students in one place.
The natural effect is an emotional malaise that fuels a sense of confusion and detachment. I believe the sociologist Emile Durkheim coined the term “anomie” to describe this sense of isolation. Even the physical architecture of public schools is getting more estranging. They tend to be larger and more looming, almost blade-runner-like in their effect of shrinking and sequestering individuals to irrelevance.
There’s already much to be anxious about in those settings: the intensity of testing, the long days, the labelling, the constant social—and now, political—expectations that students must meet to fit in. The alienation of amassing larger groups of children enhances that.
I don’t agree with everything Morabito says in her column, but I think it is absolutely the case that the form of schooling in our current day ought to be critically examined for its social effects. Homeschoolers are accustomed to people asking us how we can possibly expect our children to be “socialized” if they don’t go to standard schools. There’s a polite answer that most of us use, but the real answer is something like, “Are you out of your mind?! Socialized to that standard?!”
Anthony Esolen, on his Facebook feed, commenting on the Morabito piece:
And this goes under the heading for that ever-bulging file, I Knew It Was Bad; I Had No Idea How Bad It Was.
One thing the author says here jibes with another datum I found some years ago. She says that seventy or eighty years ago — I cannot remember the year she cites — there were twice as many public schools as there are now. That was for one third of the population. The upshot is that each school is now SIX TIMES as large, take it all in all, as the typical school was in the past. We insist on viewing human beings as functionally interchangeable, and as no different en masse than in small and personal groups. That is a profound error, and one that only a post-industrial “culture” would make. A mansion with sixty people in it is not the same as ten homes with six people in each. My college, Princeton, was relatively small for the sort of thing it was, and there were features in it that retained something of the human intimacy of a small school; most notably, the construction of the old dormitories and the large rooms and suites in them brought small groups of people together in ways that high-rise dormitories with single cells for two roommates cannot. But if they multiplied Princeton’s enrollment by SIX, resulting in a mega-school of 25,000 undergraduates, it would be an entirely different kind of place, and would, I think, breed plenty of dysfunctions.
As I said, her datum fits with another: there used to be SEVEN TIMES as many school boards, at roughly the same time that she cites, as there are now. That means that TWENTY ONE times as many ordinary citizens were responsible for the oversight of the public schools. Parents, pillars of the community (businessmen, clergymen, the leaders of all the women’s charitable organizations, college educated persons), and former teachers would be involved, and that must have resulted in a close relationship between the school and the neighborhood. Sure, sometimes it would have grated on a teacher’s nerves, but against that we must place the feeling of belonging, of order, that everyone would have taken for granted.
Grown men and women do not really thrive, I think, in workplaces where no one knows more than a small fraction of his or her fellows. But they are grown up, they can suffer through it; children aren’t, and should not be expected to suffer through it. Break the schools up. Give each one a school board of volunteers from the community. Give them the go-ahead to try things out; maybe one school might be strong for music, another for arts and letters, another for trades. But by all means do not house children in places that must necessarily be impersonal, gigantic, and soul-crushing.
I wonder if the reason nobody ever shot up a school in these small Southern towns where guns are abundantly available, and boys are typically taught how to use them in hunting, has to do with the fact that society is (or has been) more coherent there. Life was far from perfect, but it made sense. Most people internalized a sense of social and moral order, such that they didn’t really think about shooting up schools.
Where is the moral order today? Where is the sense that life coheres, that there are limits, that there is meaning?
In related news, a new online publication for women sponsored by the Washington Post is pushing polyamory (“She had a hard time separating her desire for a primary partner with her interest in various kinks, so she compartmentalized in a way that enabled her to see multiple people”); and a magazine that is not Penthouse or even Cosmopolitan consults a gynecologist for advice about a procedure celebrated in a mainstream film of the sort you would have had to go to a fleabag theater to see 40 years ago:
In the newest — and, tragically, final — installment of the Fifty Shades franchise, Fifty Shades Freed, there’s a darkly memorable scene wherein human pommel horse Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) appears to be seconds away from feeding an entire spoonful of Ben and Jerry’s into Anastasia Steele’s (Dakota Johnson) vagina. After stealing the spoon from Anastasia — who, only minutes earlier, had been melancholically enjoying the midnight pint in the storied tradition of anxious rom-com heroines before her — Christian “playfully” drives the kitchen implement in the direction of her most precious innards. The spoon hovers in midair in the most twisted iteration of “here comes the airplane” imaginable.
Come to think of it, Teen Vogue in the past few months has advised teenage girls on the best way to be sodomized (the magazine’s chief digital content officer accused those objecting to it of “homophobia”), and published a “vibrator gift guide” for Christmas. The most tender, intimate expressions of love between a man and a woman, reduced to bestial gestures. Meanwhile, many schools are forbidding parents even from knowing what kind of indoctrination into this kind of filth their kids will be receiving at public school — and not even Republican legislators in some places resist.
And let’s not even get started on the fetishization of graphic violence in popular culture.
It’s almost as if the dominant culture and its institutions are radically dehumanizing teenagers, and are mystified as to why some of those teenagers don’t see others as human beings worthy of respect and care.
Yes, maybe Stella Morabito is right, and Wendell Berry is right, and the form of our schooling has to do with this dehumanization. I think they are correct, to a great degree. But that’s only part of the story. The other part of the story is the culture itself present in these schools, among the children who have been raised like embourgeoised animals, and utterly failed by their parents and all the rest of us.
Mene, mene, tekel upharsin. Exit this decadent empire, if you can. Our culture has a death wish, and it is receiving what it has prepared.
UPDATE: Reader Matt in VA writes:
I am surprised that you don’t draw out the parallel between school shootings and another common theme on this blog — early-onset transgenderism.
Both are to some degree social contagions and media/extremely-online-culture phenomena.
The most recent school shooting in Florida is depressing but the school shooting itself is not the only thing that is revealing. What is most interesting from a cultural-criticism standpoint is the way the shooting generated a simultaneous parallel media spectacle in the form of the survivors who were already making videos for Youtube while bullets were being fired and who had media handlers and hashtags ready to go before the bodies had a chance to get cold.
I have seen the faces of the *gun control NOW* kids about 1,000 times since the shooting happened less than a week ago. I don’t think I’ve seen any photos of the kids who got murdered at all.
Generation Z will have two big cohorts:
alienated dysfunctional (to a greater or lesser degree) kids who engage in activities ranging from incredibly dedicated online trolling to can’t-get-a-girlfriend PUA forum posting to going crazy and school shooter speedrunning like it’s a videogame
smarmy cold-blooded strivers born on third base whose reaction to traumatic and horrifying experiences is to seek–instantaneously, instinctively, even while bodies are hitting the floor around them– to convert them to clicks, engagement, and fodder to pad college resumes with killer ways to sell themselves as passionate self-starters and change agents, hugely effective at doing exactly what Silicon Valley wants most — generating likes, comments, and shares.
100 years ago, many young people (not too much older than these high school kids) responded to the carnage they witnessed and experienced on the Western Front — how? By carrying around a well-worn volume of Housman and writing poetry (*the* characteristic response of that particular generation to the war.)
Now, kids’ primary response to something like this is to trample over the freshly fallen bodies of their classmates in order to throw themselves in front of as many TV and smartphone cameras as possible. The narcissistic sociopathy (cloaked of course, in repeated hysterical assertions of moral self-righteousness based not on acts but on political positions) is related, in a way, to the murderous nihilism of the school shooters themselves. This is how the winners and the losers of today’s society conduct themselves.
Y’all remember around 2003, the media started propagandizing for gay marriage? I don’t mean “reporting on the emerging movement in favor of gay marriage”; that would have been entirely understandable. I’m talking about openly advocating for it, and ignoring counterarguments. I can remember as far back as 2005 being told by fellow journalists that there is no argument against it other than the naked assertion of bigotry, and that we were under no more obligation to be fair and balanced in our coverage of the issue than we would be if we were covering the Civil Rights movement.
This wasn’t in 2012 or thereabouts. This was in 2003-05, in journalism circles. And now, that view is mainstream. Don’t you remember the line about how this was only about giving the nice gay neighbors a chance to find some stability in their relationship, and that people who said otherwise were just cruel homophobes who were trying to scare people? Well, the script worked so well last time, why not try it again? That’s what’s happening. This is the Law of Merited Impossibility in action.
Take a look at Margot Cleveland’s piece on how the Indiana House gutted an informed consent bill that would have required public schools to allow parents to inspect educational material used to teach their kids about human sexuality and gender identity. The bill would have required schools to obtain signed parental consent before teaching kids about any of this stuff.
The state Senate passed the bill earlier this year by a comfortable majority. But the House Education committee — controlled by Republicans, note well — gutted it. Here’s Cleveland:
What does that mean? Schools may teach children as young as age five that a boy can become a girl or a girl can become a boy. Teachers may tell students that they must refer to a transgender student as belonging to a false sex and using incorrect pronouns. In other words, it allows exactly what transpired in a California kindergarten in August.
As I explained at the time, parents in California, as well as most other states, have no ability to prevent this type of indoctrination in public schools because “gender identity” is not considered “sex education.” In fact, in opposing Senate Bill 65, the ACLU of Indiana used this point to argue that the law should be scrapped, tweeting, “[g]ender pronouns are not sex education. Learning how to treat transgender people with respectful language should not be controversial.”
What the ACLU calls “respect,” however, is a demand for science denial and heresy. The Indiana legislature had a chance to prevent the public-school system from steamrolling parents who refuse to submit to the latest idolatry. Unfortunately, the House Education Committee bowed to the god of political correctness when pressured by LGBT activists. It’s a repeat pattern in a supposedly socially and fiscally conservative state with a decade-long GOP majority that in 2015 famously capitulated to LGBT activists in reversing a religious freedom bill to strip potential legal protections from religious people while extending extra legal rights to LGBT people.
Where are the Indiana conservatives? Where are the state’s Catholic bishops, its Evangelical pastors? Or is this just one more sign that moral and religious conservatives should abandon the public schools in states where legislators have capitulated?
Similarly, Mary Hasson finds some value in an Ohio judge’s opinion in that Michigan case in which the judge removed the transgender teen from his parents’ house in part so he could continue to receive medical treatment to become female-like. Hasson says that the judge expressed a lot of concern about the impartiality of medical experts in cases like these. As Hasson writes, “Put differently, the judge seems suspicious that just as everything’s a nail to a person with a hammer, every troubled kid is ‘transgender’ to a gender ‘specialist’ with hormones to dispense.”
The closing paragraph of the judge’s order quite likely foreshadows the looming fight on the horizon. The judge called on legislators to propose criteria for courts to use in deciding whether and when a minor has the “right to consent” to transgender treatment.
Parents’ rights have been eroded already by “mature minor” laws, which allow minors to consent to medical care regarding sexual and reproductive matters. For example, teens may consent to testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, receive contraception without parental notification, and undergo abortions (although some states require parental notice or consent, with judicial bypass options).
Parents’ rights have been curtailed in indirect ways as well, as states, cities, and school districts increasingly promulgate new regulations or policies that prohibit schools from informing parents—unless the child consents—that the child is expressing a new gender identity at school. Schools also integrate gender ideology into anti-bullying programs and general school culture, making it impossible for parents to “opt” their kids out of exposure to LGBTQ or transgender issues while keeping their kids enrolled in public schools.
If state legislators heed Hendon’s call, parents will face the terrible prospect of losing the ability to protect their children from the harms inflicted by self-serving gender “medical professionals”— “experts” bent on advancing an ideological agenda and growing an increasingly lucrative business.
By the way, the (non-political) site 4thwavenow, which is for parents and others skeptical of the transgender child/teen phenomenon, has a good analysis of the judge’s decision by a couple of lawyer parents in the 4thwavenow community. They say it’s balanced, and not a reason for pro-trans people to be triumphalist, or for skeptics to freak out. But they do add:
Know what you’re getting into when you seek psychiatric care for your child or teen. In this case, a referral for anxiety and depression “quickly turned into” a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Forewarned is forearmed.
A reader sends in a link to the above Firing Line episode (June 12, 1969), in which Billy Graham says the following (go to the 22:00 mark):
I think the Christians are going to have to get back to the early Church, of realizing that we’re living in the middle of a hostile secularism and paganism that has enveloped our country. And that we’re going to have to come to small groups, and live dedicated, disciplined lives, and that we might even suffer persecution.
Man, that’s something. Billy Graham was advocating for the basic Benedict Option when I was only two years old. He saw it all coming.
You know who else saw it coming in 1969? Father Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, who prophesied:
The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. It will not issue from those who accommodate themselves merely to the passing moment or from those who merely criticize others and assume that they themselves are infallible measuring rods; nor will it issue from those who take the easier road, who sidestep the passion of faith, declaring false and obsolete, tyrannous and legalistic, all that makes demands upon men, that hurts them and compels them to sacrifice themselves. To put this more positively: The future of the Church, once again as always, will be reshaped by saints, by men, that is, whose minds probe deeper than the slogans of the day, who see more than others see, because their lives embrace a wider reality. Unselfishness, which makes men free, is attained only through the patience of small daily acts of self-denial. By this daily passion, which alone reveals to a man in how many ways he is enslaved by his own ego, by this daily passion and by it alone, a man’s eyes are slowly opened. He sees only to the extent that he has lived and suffered. If today we are scarcely able any longer to become aware of God, that is because we find it so easy to evade ourselves, to flee from the depths of our being by means of the narcotic of some pleasure or other. Thus our own interior depths remain closed to us. If it is true that a man can see only with his heart, then how blind we are!
How does all this affect the problem we are examining? It means that the big talk of those who prophesy a Church without God and without faith is all empty chatter. We have no need of a Church that celebrates the cult of action in political prayers. It is utterly superfluous. Therefore, it will destroy itself. What will remain is the Church of Jesus Christ, the Church that believes in the God who has become man and promises us life beyond death. The kind of priest who is no more than a social worker can be replaced by the psychotherapist and other specialists; but the priest who is no specialist, who does not stand on the [sidelines], watching the game, giving official advice, but in the name of God places himself at the disposal of man, who is beside them in their sorrows, in their joys, in their hope and in their fear, such a priest will certainly be needed in the future.
Let us go a step farther. From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members. Undoubtedly it will discover new forms of ministry and will ordain to the priesthood approved Christians who pursue some profession. In many smaller congregations or in self-contained social groups, pastoral care will normally be provided in this fashion. Along-side this, the full-time ministry of the priesthood will be indispensable as formerly. But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world. In faith and prayer she will again recognize the sacraments as the worship of God and not as a subject for liturgical scholarship.
The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution — when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain — to the renewal of the nineteenth century. But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.
And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.
Two Christian giants who spoke to millions foresaw the ultimate crisis through which we’re now living.
Along these lines, you might have seen last week the piece that the prominent Vaticanist Sandro Magister wrote about the Benedict Option, and how it has become a matter of “global import” — in particular given the attacks certain liberal Catholics in Pope Francis’s circle have made on it.
Magister publishes a follow-up in the form of a letter and short piece by Leonardo Lugaresi, a scholar of the early Church who teaches at the University of Bologna. Prof. Lugaresi says that those who say the Ben Op is a return to the ghetto are wrong:
The “Benedict Option” overcomes the risk of becoming a self-ghettoization if – as I believe is in the author’s mind – it is armed with this strong “critical capacity,” which is the opposite of closure, and on the contrary is the true form of dialogue with the world that Christians, explicitly called be Christ to be the leaven, salt, and light of the world, can and must conduct.
In further remarks, Prof. Lugaresi writes:
So then, during the course of the first three centuries Christians did not do any of the things that we have just said:
1) they did not assimilate, because if a full and complete assimilation of Christianity into Hellenism had truly taken place, we today would not be here talking about it as a reality still existing and clearly distinct from the Greco-Roman cultural legacy;
2) they did not separate and close themselves off in a world apart, and did not take on the logic of the sect (at least when it comes to “mainstream” Christianity: there have been sectarian tendencies, but these have always taken, in fact, the way of new formations, which, significantly, have exercised their separatist criticism above all toward the “big Church” that has compromised with the world);
3) much less did they dream of, let alone plan, an exit, a secession, from the Roman world.
Of course, starting at the end of the 3rd century, with monasticism there would be in the ecclesial experience a form of estrangement from the “polis” and of choosing the “desert,” which would seem to present itself as this third option. This, however, concerns an élite group of individuals and is a critical self-distancing rather than an abandonment of the city. The monk indeed leaves the urban social context, but maintains with it a relationship that is very close and incisive, because he holds onto a relationship with other Christians who “remain in the world” and makes his anchoritic existence a parameter of judgment for all those who continue to live in the urban space.
There exists, however, a fourth modality of relationship that a minority group can have with the world that surrounds and “besieges” it, and it is that of entering with it into a strongly critical relationship and of exercising – including by virtue of its own capacity to maintain solidity and consistency of behaviors with respect to the judgments thus elaborated – a cultural influence on society, which in the long run can come to the point of bringing the general order into crisis.
The fundamental question that we should ask ourselves, therefore, is not: “How did the Christians conquer the Roman empire?” but rather: “How did they live as Christians in a completely non-Christian world,” that is, perceived by them as foreign and hostile to Christ?
Here’s a smart piece from Jon Ward on why there will never be another Billy Graham (answer: because the America that produced him is gone). Excerpts:
“The America that emerged from World War II and the Great Depression was exceptionally unified and cohesive, and possessed of an unusual confidence in large institutions,” Yuval Levin wrote in his 2016 book, “The Fractured Republic.”
“But almost immediately after the war, [America] began a long process of unwinding and fragmenting,” Levin wrote.
And so, the fact that American Christianity hasn’t given rise to a leader like Graham over the last two or three decades isn’t just a result of the fracturing of evangelicalism into different factions — the slick prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen, the strident right-wing triumphalism of Graham’s son Franklin and the theologically precise new Calvinists, to name just a few.
It’s also a story about the fragmentation of American life — arguably a reversion to the norm in American history rather than a departure from it.
The culture of mid-20th-century America was unusually cohesive and uniform. The mindset of most Americans was oriented toward joining groups and being part of something bigger. World War II also produced an increase in religiosity in general among Americans. “There was an upsurge of interest in religion in America at just about every level, from healing-oriented tent revivalists to intellectuals,” historian George Marsden said. “Especially in the late 1940s, even some mainstream thinkers talked about whether some sort of Christian renewal might be necessary if Western Civilization were to recover from its recent debacle.”
But as that cultural consensus gave way to the iconoclastic 1960s and 70s, America became more individualistic, less inclined to trust institutions. The Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, even the shock of the gasoline shortages all played a role.
Ward mentions that Evangelicalism — of which Graham was the most important standard-bearer — were theologically conservative low-church Protestants who rejected fundamentalism’s separatist thrust in favor of engagement with public life. This is a point not understood or appreciated by most people outside of Evangelicalism, including other Christians. To expand on Ward’s basic point in the Graham piece, I think it’s enormously important for contemporary Evangelicals to consider whether it is still possible for them to hold on to their theological conservatism while engaging with the fragmented post-Graham world.
The culture that produced Billy Graham and responded to his message was not only more unified, as Ward asserts, but it was also more Christian. The mainstream to which Graham and the Evangelicals of his day spoke to were more reachable because they shared a common culture, with a more or less common set of assumptions. Graham’s message echoed in the hearts and minds of Americans who heard it, even if they rejected it. You may not have responded favorably to Graham’s appeal, but you knew what he was talking about.
Today, not so much. Moreover, theological conservatism is highly contested even within Evangelicalism. On the one hand, among many, it has become thoroughly entwined with political conservatism, in a way that makes it toxic to many. Billy Graham avoided the Falwell-Robertson kind of political engagement, and after having been burned by his close association with Richard Nixon, made a special point of staying clear from politics. Today, though, it’s hard to disassociate the Evangelical “brand” from hardcore GOP activism.
On the other hand, theological liberals like Rachel Held Evans are pioneering an Evangelicalism that is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as practiced by angry and emotive liberals. If Falwell Jr. and his followers are the Republican Party’s Aging Religious Auxiliary, then RHE’s people are Woke Low-Church Progressives At Prayer.
I find myself thinking about that meeting of Catholic conservative thinkers and academics at which I was present a few years back — in particular the stark differences between the world that older Catholics see, and younger ones see. The older ones were working from a cultural framework that presumed a certain commonality, and the efficaciousness of rationality within that shared set of assumptions. The younger ones kept pointing out that that world is gone. What (in my view) they were talking about is two very different Catholic churches, though the division isn’t precisely like that of Evangelicals. The Catholic “conservatives” (a more precise term: the orthodox) still believe in the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church. The contemporary Catholic progressives believe in the primacy of their own consciences — and in their right to baptize as “Catholic” whatever they happen to believe.
How a church like that holds together, I don’t know. I bring it up here simply to point out that American popular culture strongly catechizes contemporary Americans toward the progressivist way of thinking. If you are going to be a theologically orthodox Catholic, you are going to have to be consciously and forcefully countercultural in all things.
Evangelicalism, like Protestantism in general, has always been fissiparous, but as Ward says, it emerged within a more unified and cohesive American culture. Now that that American culture is gone, and there are no guardrails left, how will they hold it together? Can they? Billy Graham has been retired from public life for some time now, but I believe that his death will be seen as a true milestone in American religious history.
To repeat my question: how will conservative Evangelicals hold on to their theological conservatism in a liberal, post-Christian culture? Whatever the answer, it will depend on jettisoning the categories that made sense in the life and times of Billy Graham.
“Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”
Billy Graham is dead. Long live Billy Graham! Open thread for your comments and remembrances. I agree with this Roman Catholic Princeton professor:
Billy Graham was like John Paul II, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He was firmly rooted in a particular tradition of faith, yet somehow spoke to–and in a sense belonged to–all of us.
— Robert P. George (@McCormickProf) February 21, 2018
As a child, I remember watching Billy Graham crusades on television. The “Just As I Am” altar calls at the end were deeply moving. I haven’t thought about them in many years, but that’s what remains in my mind as my deepest impression of Billy Graham. As a kid, I had never imagined that Christianity could be like that. These first two verses of the hymn, which ended every Graham crusade (at least every one that I watched), capture the simple but enormous power of Evangelical Christianity:
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot;
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
UPDATE: My friend Doug LeBlanc, an Episcopal journalist, writes in memory of Graham. He talks about how he grew up in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge as a real believer:
But my understanding of the gospel was impoverished. I thought it amounted to this: God is holy, we are not, and at the end of time our lives will be measured for the balance between good deeds and evil deeds. I knew Jesus died on the cross, but I thought it was because he was too good for this world and the time when he was present in it.
In the early 1970s, God brought many changes to the spiritual life of the LeBlanc household. My older brother, Randy, became a Jesus Freak, as hippies-turned-converts were called then, through a coffeehouse ministry called the Looking Glass.
My father was bewildered and thought Randy had joined a cult. Dad began reading Scripture more, and I think he was searching for a verse in which Jesus said, “Follow me, but don’t be a nut about it.”
I adored my older brother, in the way that causes older brothers endless grief: I wanted to hang out with him, to be friends with his friends, and to let some of his hippy magic rub off on me. Because of this, I responded well when Randy helped me grasp the more personal nature of Jesus’ death on the cross. It took the Jesus Movement for me to learn about the Atonement.
For a time the faith I shared with my brother felt like a great struggle between the with-it kids and their square parents, which gave it a flavor of forbidden fruit.
But then the Billy Graham Crusade came to town, stopping at LSU’s Tiger Stadium in 1970. Mom sang in the crusade’s choir, just as she sang in the choir at St. Luke’s. I cannot remember if Dad attended the crusade with us, but Graham’s message — which included references to Jesus’ Second Coming and the Last Things — began sowing seeds that what my brother had discovered might not be so fanatical after all.
LeBlanc talks about how the Graham crusade led his parents to deeper conversion, and led him to embrace Evangelicalism within the Episcopal Church, of which he remains a member.
I hope at least some of you readers will tell stories about how Billy Graham’s life, his words, and his deeds changed your lives.
This is the lede in a news story — not an op-ed, a news story — in The New York Times:
Chazzie is 11 years old. She has long, wavy hair and large, expressive eyes. She listens to Demi Lovato and Ariana Grande. She really likes playing Monopoly.
Chazzie was also assigned male at birth. But that, she says, isn’t what’s important.
“People just, like, see me as a girl,” she said.
On Sunday, Chazzie and five other transgender children and teenagers from across the country hung out in an elegant prewar apartment on the Upper West Side, ahead of their Tuesday appearance on NBC’s “Megyn Kelly Today.”
Emphasis above is mine. Just like that, the paper of record substitutes a gender-ideology category for actual biological science. This is a big deal. This is damned Orwellian. Does the Times make a point of denying scientific fact to advance culture-war narratives in other areas too? Does the Science section now have to subject its stories to the PC commissar?
As usual when it comes to all things LGBT, the Times engages in advocacy journalism. But you know, if you watch the Megyn Kelly clip in the link, you’ll see that she does it too. She introduces the story by telling viewers that what they’re about to watch will “likely inspire you to be a more understanding, supportive parent.”
UPDATE: I’ve learned since returning from France that a US judge removed a boy who wants to transition to a female identity from the custody of his parents, who opposed the move. So the state now reserves the right to take away your children if you do not want to let the children be injected with hormones to allow them to mimic the opposite sex. The Sexual Revolution is entering its Robespierre period.
UPDATE.2: I learned from the comments that last week, the Times celebrated another milestone in the march towards insanity:
When a transgender woman told doctors at a hospital in New York that she wanted to breast-feed her pregnant partner’s baby, they put her on a regimen of drugs that included an anti-nausea medication licensed in Britain and Canada but banned in the United States.
Within a month, according to the journal Transgender Health, the woman, 30, who was born male, was producing droplets of milk. Within three months — two weeks before the baby’s due date — she had increased her production to eight ounces of milk a day.
In the end, the study showed, “she was able to achieve sufficient breast milk volume to be the sole source of nourishment for her child for six weeks,” according to the journal.
The newspaper said that this news could signal “a next major stage in transgender parenthood.”
Scientists jacked a man up with chemicals that trick his body into lactating, and they call it motherhood. All this reminds one of that satanic master of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, who said:
The essential English leadership secret does not depend on particular intelligence. Rather, it depends on a remarkably stupid thick-headedness. The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.
Lie big and lie consistently, no matter what, and there’s no telling how far you can go.
UPDATE.3: On the transgender removed from parental custody case, reader DRK posts important clarifying information:
As usual with custody cases, the facts of the Cincinnati transgender teen custody case are considerably more nuanced than the narrative of “the gummint us coming to take away your baby and change her sex” so beloved by conservatives.
In ruling for the grandparents in the custody case of the transgender teen, the judge was no doubt influenced by the fact that the kid called a suicide hotline in 2016, saying that he felt suicidal because he’d come out as transgender to his parents and his father had told the teen that he should just kill himself. His parents took him out of a children’s hospital, where he’d been hospitalized for anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation, so he could go into “Christian therapy”, which evidently consisted of six hours of sitting in a room having Bible verses read at him. (So-called “conversion therapy” is illegal in Cincinnati, by the way, and may be the reason that CPS got involved with this in the first place). Both of these events were reported by the teen, who may be an unreliable narrator. What was witnessed by others was the incident where, in a family therapy session, the teen tried to read his parents a letter he’d written, and the mother stood up, pointed her finger at the teen, and screamed, “you’re a liar”; the teen started shaking and curled up in the fetal position. These are not the parents of the year, is what I’m saying.
Given that even the parents wished for the teen to continue residing with his grandparents (they only wanted custody for medical reasons, to make him re-enter Christian therapy), the judge made the right call. In a few months, this kid will be eighteen anyway. He’s an excellent student and is doing well with his grandparents, so the judge felt that their having custody would be the least disruptive to the teen.
Also worth noting that the judge in the case has serious reservations about this kid’s mental state. She has ordered that the child be evaluated by a psychiatrist not affiliated with the children’s hospital where he’s receiving treatment: she was troubled that 100% of the patients presenting for treatment at the transgender clinic at the children’s hospital have been judged appropriate subjects for hormonal therapy. She has asked for the legislature to create a framework for these kinds of cases precisely so that families don’t end up destroying themselves in court. Her ruling is interesting reading, she is clearly frustrated by the whole situation.
Let me preface this post by saying that I spent my last day in France making a quick trip to stay with a farm family in Picardy. I’ll be writing about that in a separate post. One of the things I did while there was visit a restored German trench from the Battle of the Somme. As it turns out, the trench went right through the farmer’s land. One million men died or were wounded in that battle.
One. Million. Men.
My hosts told me that everything I saw around me in the villages was built after the war. There had been virtually nothing left.
What we are going through today is, I think, the working-out of what happened there on the Somme — and, more broadly, World War I. That is not an original thought, of course, but if you want to see where Western civilization committed suicide, well, the Somme is as good a place as any to visit.
Millennials are derided as “snowflakes.” But feelings of intensified vulnerability are not limited to the young. Religious believers also see themselves under assault. Rod Dreher’s recent book, The Benedict Option, has struck a chord in large part because it is suffused with end-of-days sentiments. “If demographic trends continue, our churches will soon be empty.” “We’ve lost on every front.” “The public square has been lost.” We face a “thousand-year flood.”
When religious people talk like this, one would think secular people should be confident and secure. But that’s not the case. They express a similar pessimism. They watch The Handmaid’s Tale, a TV series based on Margaret Atwood’s imagined future of theocratic fundamentalism that forces women into sexual servitude. This dystopian pessimism was reinforced last fall when a number of powerful men were accused of sexual harassment. This led the New York Times to appoint a new “gender editor.” She told her readers that we need to battle against the “widely held perception that women’s bodies are available for public consumption.” There is peril everywhere, it seems. An academic friend tells me the administration at his university asks faculty to remove personal information from their curricula vitae—date of birth, home address, citizenship, marital status, and so forth. “It is good practice nowadays to not make this kind of personal information publically available.”
Our present cultural moment is one of suspicion, anxiety, and worries about vulnerability. Many, perhaps most, fear that they are being discriminated against and marginalized. And those who don’t? They often live in the fear that they will be accused of white privilege or some other sin. Perhaps this is to be expected. Patriarchy, racism, heteronormativity—they are said to infect everything. One area of public discourse immune from the postmodern hermeneutics of suspicion is wonkish policy debate. But this is dominated by economistic thinking, which takes as its first premise rational self-interest. Here, too, we’re pictured as eyeing each other with competitive suspicion.
The anxiety baffles me. Our society works pretty well. In many cities, crime is down dramatically, reaching historically low levels. The economy grows, both here at home and globally. American war-making has settled into a pattern of limited engagement that leaves most of us undisturbed. Meanwhile, public culture rings with warnings that things are heading toward disaster—global warming, resurgent racism, populism. Every week our office receives review copies of another book that promises to show us how to “save liberal democracy.”
Some point to social media as the source of our unease. It debases political discourse by reducing debate to brief punches and jabs. Others bemoan the general coarsening of our society. How can we feel at ease when TV hosts launch into rants liberally punctuated with f-bombs? And it’s not just celebrities posing as political commentators, but the commentators themselves, as well as those on whom they comment, including the present occupant of the White House. Then there is the general atmosphere of polarization and rancor, which beckons us to reach for rhetorical weapons. As many have pointed out, half of the country has difficulty talking to the other half. The red vs. blue divide has become cultural.
The chasm between reality and how we talk makes me skeptical of end-times rhetoric. It’s not the 1930s. Even the 1930s were not the 1930s of our overheated political imaginations. In this issue I offer a more modest explanation of our present travails (“Goodbye, Heraclitus”). Our crisis, I argue, emanates from problems in the upper reaches of society, not anger or protest from below. The unease at the top is the result of the decadence of our postwar political and cultural outlook. This failing consensus makes our leadership class increasingly unable to lead. And this, in turn, gives our present debates and challenges the atmosphere of crisis and doom. Those who need to lead us are frustrated with their ineffectiveness. They don’t like being ignored and tuned out. Like Americans abroad who imagine that foreigners will understand their English if they yell more loudly, the instinct of our elites is to insist upon their solutions (and their authority) with even greater force.
At the end of an era—and we are at the end of one, the postwar era—there’s a great deal of heat and not much light. We will have to endure a time of political and cultural disorientation. As we do so, let’s maintain our equilibrium. Our society needs people who remain focused on human realities rather than the apocalyptic visions and self-referential polemics of our disoriented elites. God’s truth illuminates reality, which means that as religious believers, we should be able to keep our cool in the present, overheated moment.
It is always a good thing for me to read sensible words offering caution about apocalypticism. I mean that. I take Rusty’s remarks with a sense of gratitude.
But — and you knew there would be a but — I simply cannot believe that from a Christian point of view, “steady on” is a sensible general option. No, I’m not saying “run shrieking for the exits” is what we should do, but it seems quite clear to me that we Christians (and all religious believers in the West) are in an intense crisis, one that will prove decisive for our future.
After all, Pope Benedict XVI himself spoke of the spiritual crisis of Europe as the worst since the Roman Empire’s fall. In a 2008 general audience in Rome, Pope Benedict commemorated the patron saint of his pontificate, saying in part:
Benedict describes the Rule he wrote as “minimal, just an initial outline” (cf. 73, 8); in fact, however, he offers useful guidelines not only for monks but for all who seek guidance on their journey toward God. For its moderation, humanity and sober discernment between the essential and the secondary in spiritual life, his Rule has retained its illuminating power even to today. By proclaiming St Benedict Patron of Europe on 24 October 1964, Paul VI intended to recognize the marvellous work the Saint achieved with his Rule for the formation of the civilization and culture of Europe. Having recently emerged from a century that was deeply wounded by two World Wars and the collapse of the great ideologies, now revealed as tragic utopias, Europe today is in search of its own identity. Of course, in order to create new and lasting unity, political, economic and juridical instruments are important, but it is also necessary to awaken an ethical and spiritual renewal which draws on the Christian roots of the Continent, otherwise a new Europe cannot be built. Without this vital sap, man is exposed to the danger of succumbing to the ancient temptation of seeking to redeem himself by himself – a utopia which in different ways, in 20th-century Europe, as Pope John Paul II pointed out, has caused “a regression without precedent in the tormented history of humanity” (Address to the Pontifical Council for Culture, 12 January 1990). Today, in seeking true progress, let us also listen to the Rule of St Benedict as a guiding light on our journey. The great monk is still a true master at whose school we can learn to become proficient in true humanism.
John Paul II spoke of the communist utopias. This alludes to why this crisis is far worse than most people think, given that they judge by the fact that “our society works pretty well.” Yes, historically speaking, it does. But guess what: techno-optimism was quite strong at the dawn of the 20th century. That all died in the Somme, and at Verdun. Or at least it ought to have done; Auschwitz should have finished it off. And if not that, then Soviet communism, and Maoism.
Point is, civilization is an extremely fragile thing. What concerns me — not as a Christian, in particular — is that we are fast losing a sense of what it means to be human. We are a people unmoored from transcendent values, from history, and from a sense of limits. How far can we go? Can anybody say with any confidence? The point is not that things are more peaceful and prosperous than they ever have been, but the growing sense — a realistic sense! — that it’s all a high-wire act without a net.
This past weekend, I met a French Catholic social activist who told me that he had appeared at a small demonstration in Paris last year in which he held up a sign saying that the gender of children is not a game. (I saw the sign: that is literally what it said.) He said that the media treated him and his fellow demonstrators as if they were the second coming of Adolf Hitler. He knew things were bad for people who believe the things that he does, but it deeply shocked him that his position is considered by the dominant culture today to be viciously bigoted.
Ten years ago is the blink of an eye. Had you told people in 2008 that this was coming, and coming fast, they would have accused you of scaremongering. Yet here we are.
As a Christian, specifically, I don’t know how fellow believers can be sanguine about what we’re seeing. The Western world will go on without Christianity, should it come to that, but as believers, we hold that this would mean the loss of countless souls. I want my children, and their children, and their children’s children, to profess the Christian faith. I believe their eternal destiny depends on this. Christianity in Europe is flat on its back — and we in the US are on the same path. Now is the time to sound the alarm! I strongly urge you to read my response from last October to the absurd remarks of Father Antonio Spadaro, a top Jesuit adviser to Pope Francis. His retro-1970s accomodationist rhetoric is based on an absurd read of the times, at least in the West. For US Catholics, sociologist Christian Smith delivers a bit of the bad news:
Just over half the young people raised by parents who describe themselves as “liberal” Catholics stop going to Mass entirely once they become “emerging adults”—a new demographic category that means either prolonged adolescence or delayed adulthood, defined here in Young Catholic America as ages eighteen to twenty-three.
But now, let’s put that sad trend in perspective: The picture isn’t all that much better for the children of “traditional” Catholics. Although only a quarter of those young adults say they’ve stopped going to Mass entirely, only 17 percent say they’re going every week, and in general, their allegiance to church membership and participation seems nearly as faded as the kids of so-called feckless liberals.
Nobody is safe. The time to act to sauve qui peut is now. One of the strongest points I’m taking away from my time in Paris is that young French Catholics (30 and under) know much better than their American counterparts what it is like to live in a post-Christian country — and they know that if they don’t live with more radicalism than their parents, they aren’t going to make it.
“The chasm between reality and how we talk makes me skeptical of end-times rhetoric,” my friend Rusty Reno writes. Just looking at the situation with Catholics and other Christians, what reality, exactly, is there to be skeptical about? I talked to a Catholic farmer this weekend who showed me his village church. They have one mass there every three months. There is one priest for 25 parishes.
On the up side, I met a young French Catholic couple who returned last year to France from Houston, where the husband worked in industry. They were part of a big, active Catholic parish in the city, and came home to France full of enthusiasm and ideas for living a more active Christian life. Reality is not dismal everywhere! But we have to be serious about our time and the challenges it poses. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.
“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.