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Gardeners, Knights, And the Benedict Option

One of the reasons one goes to the Eighth Day Institute Symposium in Wichita is to meet people like James Lewis III. He’s a Catholic high school teacher and small farmer who, along with his wife and their five children, plants on a five-acre plot in suburban Wichita. James gave a talk at the Symposium called “Gardener & Knight: The Benedict Option with the Great Commission.” It was about how we should stage a strategic retreat from the culture for the sake of being able to serve the people in it.

Folks, it was a great talk. I wish everyone skeptical of the Benedict Option could have heard Lewis’s presentation. What he and his family are doing with their farm is a model of the Benedict Option.

“We’re living at the end of the Republic, but it’s not the worst thing,” he began. “We have options. One of them is the Benedict Option.”

He said that a key mark of the Ben Op is self-restraint. Self-restraint (a fancier word is “asceticism”) is required if we are to order our lives rightly, by the will of God instead of our own. Lewis recalled Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard commencement address [1], where the great Soviet dissident spoke of the spiritual and moral dying of the West, paralyzed by lack of voluntary self-restraint.

A knight, he says, exemplifies courage, self-restraint, and perseverance in service of a higher end. This makes the knight a “witness” to the world. To be a true knight, he said, you have to be willing to be unusual. Even something as simple as having no TV in the house is enough to make you stand out as a freak in today’s world.

“People will ask, ‘How do you live that way? You ask back, ‘Well, how do you live that way?’ We live in different worlds.”

When Lewis and his wife got married, they thought of moving out to the west side of Wichita (“Catholic Disneyland,” he called it), but decided to move instead to the other side of town. He taught in an east side Catholic school, so he could be closer to work. Besides, there were a lot fewer Catholics in that area, and the Lewises felt a calling to befriend and to serve them.

They have ended up making a lot of friends simply by having a sign that reads, “Eggs for sale,” he said. That is, having a small suburban farm that sells fresh meat, eggs, and produce to the neighbors has built connections that they would never have made had they moved into a place where more people shared their values.

The best story Lewis told was about the time he decided he needed to expand his amateur agrarian operation to include sheep. Knowing nothing about livestock auctions, he showed up one day at a sheep auction where most of the farmers were Amish. They saw he wasn’t one of them, and moved away from him. The only man present who helped him was a Good Samaritan named Mohammad, an Iraqi Muslim immigrant. Mohammad showed him how the auction worked, and stood up for him when he made a mistake and could have been taken advantage of.

He and Mohammad have little in common besides sheep, but they have become friends. Sometimes they even talk religion. And through raising sheep, he’s come to know others in the “sheep community,” even some fallen-away Christians. Lewis said his family doesn’t make friends for the sake of proselytizing, but neither do they hide who they are.

He told a story about some neighborhood kids whom he caught chasing his sheep. When they were caught, Lewis and the children’s father decided on a punishment for them. Lewis asked them what they thought was fair. The kids offered to pull weeds on his farm. So they spent the day doing just that, and stayed for dinner. Before the meal, the family prayed. The neighbor kids had never done that, and were suddenly very curious about how everyone knew to say the words together.

It was the start of something.

Lewis talked about a neighbor who hasn’t been to church in 30 years. But they’ve become friends, and help each other out on their small farms. One day the neighbor, who has 12 TVs in his house, asked, “James, how do you have such a happy life?”

Lewis told him it has to do with what he values (or rather, Who he values), and how he uses his time to live out those values. These are the kinds of conversations that come up from simply living out an agrarian life and being open to neighbors.

“The farm is a witness,” Lewis said. “I want to use it to order all things to God.”

Lewis told a story about a man he met at a bus stop one day, a man who described himself as a former “meth lord.” The man had been to prison for his crimes, and spoke of what he had done in somber, dramatic tones. As they talked, he ended up sobbing, talking about how a Protestant pastor had helped him turn his life around.

“I made the body less like the image of God,” Meth Lord told Lewis. “It was hard for people to know God when they were on my potions. I was the opposite of a doctor, who uses potions to heal the body.”

Lewis said that comment taught him a lesson about how we all move through life. We either take what we have and fashion it to bring people closer to God, or to move them away from Him. There is no middle ground. Everything we do has a theological meaning.

Lewis told another story about how selling vegetables at the farmer’s market brought him into contact with one of his former high school students, a young woman who was in a very bad place, selling her body to feed the child she had by a man she was no longer with. He spoke to her, offered to help her get out of that life. Over and over, being out in the world gives him a chance to be Christ for people who need the Gospel.

So, I asked Lewis, I see how well you do going out into the world. Tell us what practices you follow in your family to keep the domestic monastery well-ordered.

First, he said, there’s a life of prayer. There’s daily mass, and he and his wife each take a separate hour to go to adore the Blessed Sacrament. They are Benedictine Oblates who read Scripture together with kids, and alone.

Second, they fast from television, and work hard to curate the media (online and otherwise) their kids are exposed to. They filter out a lot of negative things. The kids don’t have freedom to explore the Internet. They have a list of pre-approved sites their kids can explore, but if the kids need to go beyond those for homework, Lewis is sitting by their side as they do.

Third, they have a deep regular spiritual relationship with the monks at a Benedictine abbey (“If you don’t have a relationship with a monastery, you are practicing spiritual contraception”), as well as a strong relationship with solid friends who do share their religious faith.

Fourth, they follow Cardinal Newman’s maxim: “A gentleman is merciful to the absurd.” This means that they treat all people who come to them “as persons first,” not their ideologies.

“My wife, when she first met me, and even now, and my professors at Benedictine and at the University of Dallas, were merciful with me,” Lewis says. “How can I not be with others?”

Lewis approaches people in the spirit that Pope Benedict XVI approaches books. He reads all kinds of authors, carefully considering what they have to say, and why, without ever accepting anything evil.

Lewis talks to everybody he meets in a natural, friendly way — this is easy to imagine, because he’s a gregarious guy, easy to talk to — and seeks to share the goods of his life with them. Those goods are material and spiritual — that is, they include his Christian faith.  He says he is always honest about his faith, but never pushy. He regards sharing his family’s spiritual and material goods as a form of “solidarity” with his neighbors. All his neighbors, not just the Catholic ones.

It’s a compelling vision, and quite a contrast to the Amish who saw a young farmer struggling at the livestock auction to understand where he was and what he was supposed to do there, and walked away because he was not like them. Not everyone who takes up the Benedict Option will be a suburban farmer, of course, but I hold the Chestertonian spirit in which James Lewis lives out his Benedict Option vocation as a model. It will be a great pleasure to tell you more about him and his family in the Benedict Option book.

And you know, this is why it’s important to go to events like the Eighth Day Symposium. As I heard several times in Wichita over the weekend, people like us, we need to find each other. I’m telling you, that little bookstore on the prairie [2] is midwifing a community whose bonds stretch beyond the boundaries of central Kansas.

via EighthDayBooks.com [3]

via EighthDayBooks.com

35 Comments (Open | Close)

35 Comments To "Gardeners, Knights, And the Benedict Option"

#1 Comment By Reader John On January 19, 2016 @ 7:53 am

I had to choose between that talk and several other breakout sessions, one of which in particular (with Hans Boersma) was timely for my blossoming understanding of some metaphysical shifts in Western history. It sounds as if I’d have done well either way.

#2 Comment By Kansan On January 19, 2016 @ 8:48 am

Sounds like a really good talk. I wish I could have been there this weekend as I’d hoped to be and suggested I might be, but a pretty unavoidable conflict came up. The talks aren’t available as recordings, are they?

[NFR: They are, but you have to be a paid-up member of the Institute to access them. — RD]

#3 Comment By Makenna On January 19, 2016 @ 8:51 am

Mr. Lewis’ talk was quite beneficial to me. I have been philosophically/theoretically drawn to the idea of the Benedict Option, since I have been introduced to it by your blog. However, his talk was practical and gave me an idea of how to escape BenOp idealism, even while not in a position where I can physically remove myself from the culture like he has done. The entire symposium was just marvelous and as I headed out of town, I felt some immediate sense of homesickness for the Eighth Day community. Thank you for sharing the event here and it was a pleasure to briefly meet you.

#4 Comment By Caroline Nina in DC On January 19, 2016 @ 9:09 am

Rod–any chance you can get ahold of the talk in its entirety? This was such a magnificent post, and such an inspiration…

#5 Comment By workingdad On January 19, 2016 @ 9:32 am

Think about how not having a TV and CABLE will make you different from those around you, but also how much it could save you per year. ~$60 for cable a month translates to $720 a year. Or, cut out expensive phone plans and just have basic service or ones that run on wireless internet, $200 a month down to $80 saves $120 a month, thats $1,440 a year! People spend way too much on unnecessary junk that only take our independence. If any BenOp is going to be successful they must be financially independent, and changes like this will make a big difference.

#6 Comment By James Lewis On January 19, 2016 @ 9:32 am

Reader John, Hans is about 10 times the speaker I am!

#7 Comment By Caroline walker On January 19, 2016 @ 9:47 am

How I love this.

#8 Comment By Anastasia On January 19, 2016 @ 10:08 am

What a wonderful piece, Rod. Thank you so much. I’ve been having trouble relating to the Ben Op idea, mainly because a) I don’t live in the US, so I don’t feel threatened by the cultural war battles you often mention, b) the Ben Op as I understand it has seemed overly negative, not “how can our family be leaven in this society” but “how can I protect my family from all the bad influences out there,” and c) I don’t like living with a siege mentality, which I find suffocating and downright depressing, if not lacking in joy and gratitude.

But Lewis’s way of life isn’t much different than the kind of life my husband and I decided to follow when we first got married many years ago. During those first few months, he asked me, “What do you think of the idea of practicing hospitality as the basis of our marriage?” My husband got his early Christian training with Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker, and hospitality as a way of life — as *the* Christian way of life — came natural to him. And so we began our Ben Op life avant la lettre.

At a certain point what struck me is that Christian marriage, and Christian life in general, can be conceived of as a series of concentric circles. In the center is the couple, who practice hospitality to each other by inviting each other into their lives, into their very bodies, and working hard to give each other a happy, healthy place to live. Then there’s the next circle, the children who are welcomed into that married life. Then the couple’s immediate family. Then their friends and neighbors. And finally total strangers, whoever God decides to bring to their door, either literally or figuratively. This is exactly what Lewis is writing about: a “well-ordered domestic monastery,” a life of prayer, fasting, and hospitality. I can’t imagine living any other way.

#9 Comment By bmj On January 19, 2016 @ 10:49 am

If you don’t have a relationship with a monastery, you are practicing spiritual contraception.

Rod, I’m wondering if you can provide a bit more context around this comment. I read it as being a bit flippant, or at least hyperbolic. If I wanted to be generous, I could read this as “if you want a truly rich spiritual life, then find yourself a spiritual director.” As written, though, it kinda raises my hackles.

[NFR: Ask James; it was his phrase. — RD]

#10 Comment By John Mark On January 19, 2016 @ 11:15 am

I hope you continue to be an evangelist for this. God may have raised you up or this very purpose. I was brought up in what might be called cultural fundamentalism, wherein a desire to be holy that became marred by legalistic, pharisaical, perfectionistic and miserable thinking. But this is simply, I think, a call to devotion to God. I would like to think that John Wesley, my spiritual grandfather, would approve (even though I am sure he had bias against all things Catholic. That was a different time). As would William Law, and Brother Lawrence, and many other saints of the past.

#11 Comment By SJ On January 19, 2016 @ 11:22 am


#12 Comment By DFB On January 19, 2016 @ 11:55 am

Perhaps the broader textual context of “Cardinal Newman’s maxim: ‘A gentleman is merciful to the absurd'” bears further exposition, certainly more than the musings of the late Mr. Francis linked in the post following the one above:

“Hence it is that it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast;—all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny. If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds; who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it. He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust; he is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive. Nowhere shall we find greater candour,consideration, indulgence: he throws himself into the minds of his opponents, he accounts for their mistakes. He knows the weakness of human reason as well as its strength, its province and its limits. If he be an unbeliever, he will be too profound and large-minded to ridicule religion or to act against it; he is too wise to be a dogmatist or fanatic in his infidelity. He respects piety and devotion; he even supports institutions as venerable, beautiful, or useful, to which he does not assent; he honours the ministers of religion, and it contents him to decline its mysteries without assailing or denouncing them. He is a friend of religious toleration, and that, not only because his philosophy has taught him to look on all forms of faith with an impartial eye, but also from the gentleness and effeminacy of feeling, which is the attendant on civilization.

Not that he may not hold a religion too, in his own way, even when he is not a Christian. In that case his religion is one of imagination and sentiment; it is the embodiment of those ideas of the sublime, majestic, and beautiful, without which there can be no large philosophy. Sometimes he acknowledges the being of God, sometimes he invests an unknown principle or quality with the attributes of perfection. And this deduction of his reason, or creation of his fancy, he makes the occasion of such excellent thoughts, and the starting-point of so varied and systematic a teaching, that he even seems like a disciple of Christianity itself. From the very accuracy and steadiness of his logical powers, he is able to see what sentiments are consistent in those who hold any religious doctrine at all, and he appears to others to feel and to hold a whole circle of theological truths, which exist in his mind no otherwise than as a number of deductions.

Such are some of the lineaments of the ethical character, which the cultivated intellect will form, apart from religious principle. They are seen within the pale of the Church and without it, in holy men, and in profligate; they form the beau-ideal of the world; they partly assist and partly distort the development of the Catholic. They may subserve the education of a St. Francis de Sales or a Cardinal Pole; they may be the limits of the contemplation of a Shaftesbury or a Gibbon. Basil and Julian were fellow-students at the schools of Athens; and one became the Saint and Doctor of the Church, the other her scoffing and relentless foe.”

– John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, “Discourse Eight: Knowledge Viewed in relation to Religion” (1852)


#13 Comment By Charles Cosimano On January 19, 2016 @ 12:02 pm

I don’t know. Obviously this life has no appeal to me at all. I can just see it raining and all the sheep are in the living room with my wife watching television. BAH! I live a Charles Addams cartoon often enough as it is.

But what confuses me is the knight part. When does he get to flog the peasants and burn villages? And where does he buy his armor? Good armor is not cheap. His idea of knights is sort of, well, crazy. I have no idea where he got that nonsense, but it sounds like some sort of 19th century novel and not the real thing. I mean knights were true Cosimanian Orthodox and half the fun of it was flogging peasants and burning villages.

Now about things coming to an end. I really think everyone should look at Unknown World, a genuinely weird science fiction movie made in 1951 about a Ben Op community that wants to move to the center of the earth to escape the coming nuckular holocoust.

Ok, I’m having a lot of fun here but this fellow really is the sort of person that makes good suburbanites twiddle their fingers around their ears. I know my Grandmother, who actually grew up on a farm, would be laughing her head off.

#14 Comment By Chela429 On January 19, 2016 @ 12:05 pm

I love to hear about this. He sounds like a good man live his life simply and he and his family are happy. They have ties to their church, community and family. He’s placing an emphasis on relationships instead of material goods. That is happiness. The ties that bind us.

#15 Comment By Stubbs On January 19, 2016 @ 12:13 pm

Great post, Rod. Thank you.

#16 Comment By Sam M On January 19, 2016 @ 12:33 pm

What a great story. Thanks for sharing it. This guy can come teach at my school any day!

I think he’s a really interesting model for the BenOp. To a certain extent, does his experience obviate the need for it? By that I mean, he posits that the other side of town is the “Catholic Disneyland.” By that I assume he means it’s a lot of like-minded people coming together and, collectively, creating a culture in which their faith can flourish. That sounds an awful lot like… the Benedict Option.

As I mentioned once before, what is the locus of the BenOp “community” in Hyattsville. Is it the school at St. Jerome? The parish? The part of town where those people are moving?

This guys kind of seems like the farm. And his position seems almost more like mission work than BenOp community building. I know that these are not as separate as some people insist. (“I refuse to head to the compound in the hills!”) And i know that the BenOp will take many forms. So I will be interested to see how you work this into the analysis.

Whatever you call it, though, this guy’s approach strikes me as really cool.

#17 Comment By James Lewis On January 19, 2016 @ 2:18 pm


It is perhaps too flippant (and a little unmerciful) to call not visiting monasteries spiritual contraception. For that, I repent and appreciate the criticism. I do not think monastic life or an association with are necessary for goodness or salvation.

It is phrase I believe I first read in John Senior, and it struck me. Here is the context he used the phrase in. “For the rest of us, laymen and priests in the active life, we must put this on our agenda: Encourage young men and women–particularly women, who have the greater aptitude–to do as Our Lord said, “Be perfect.” Of all the possible careers the young might consider and choose, they must put God’s choice first and consider the possibility of a call to the contemplative life. That again is not a choice but an obligation. And this means that books must be made available describing and explaining the life, visits and retreats must be arranged if houses of contemplative prayer with the Latin liturgy can be found. Parents, priests and teachers who fail at this have committed sins of spiritual contraception against the next generation. For priests and religious who abandon or disgrace this life, it were better by far if a millstone were tied about their necks and they were cast into the sea.”

Senior, John (2008-10-01). The Restoration of Christian Culture (p. 62). Ihs Press. Kindle Edition.

I gave the talk mostly off the cuff and the QA was even more so. But what I do mean is that Monasteries are treasures of good (not false) ecumenism, culture, and worship. Their peace and rejection of materialism is often the best cure for modern disillusionment and the culture of death. (Assuming the monasteries are living out their vows and charism. Experiences may vary.)

So again, I accept the criticism and will amend future writing.

#18 Comment By Anne On January 19, 2016 @ 2:33 pm

Total aside: I’m impressed by the attractive appearance of Eighth Day’s store. By comparison, Portland’s Powell Books, the famed “big city block of books,” looks like your typical used book store, a shabby chic wonder. Of course, that’s just part of their retail strategy. Anyway, Eighth Day looks good. I’d like to see it in person one day.

#19 Comment By James Lewis On January 19, 2016 @ 2:41 pm

@Charles Cosimano

I know my Nana, who grew up on a farm, often did (before her passing) call me crazy for returning to the Land. Of course, her Cajun father insisted that she never was meant to be more than a concubine and forbidden from learning English. Luckily, the Nuns at her school taught her the vernacular and we have a progressed as a society to instead insist on a bit more autonomy.

The title with the word Knight was the organizer’s idea. So ask that of Erin Doom. The Knight part, though if I were to guess, came about when I describe the following theme in my talk: It takes a bit of bravery to overcome come both the not knowing what I am doing and in people’s near constant critique of a life different than the mainstream.

The Garden part refers to the goods material and often spiritual that I share with people. These goods mostly from my imperfect weedy garden often soften the prick of the conscience that comes from a life contrary to the culture of death (of which we are all immersed).

For clarity: I am generally against the bashing in of peasants’ head.

I do not plan to avoid the end of the world or even of our republic. I am sure I would not move the middle of planet or even somewhere else more remote if I could. I plan to live well through the end.

It is a fair criticism to say I am odd. And I appreciate the fun you have had.

[NFR: I see you are just now becoming acquainted with our Uncle Chuckie. He’s part Aleister Crowley, part Wilfred Brimley, in marinara sauce. — RD]

#20 Comment By Jeremy Hickerson On January 19, 2016 @ 2:44 pm

great post, Rod.

#21 Comment By Anne On January 19, 2016 @ 3:49 pm

This is a pretty idealized vision of farming. Not exactly the way it’s traditionally been done. But all kinds of people seem to be trying it. I know a number of Portlanders have been starting up small farms in scenic areas outside the city to offer tourists “farm fresh” produce and even “farm to table” dining. Why not adopt or adapt that sort of lifestyle for the BenOp?

Well, for one thing, it can’t possibly be as easy as this sounds. There’s a reason why farming became a dying field, so to speak. It’s hard work. And I’m not talking about religious self-restraint or asceticism, although the two might seem to go hand in hand. After all, you might as well pray daily at 4 am, because you’ll be up anyway (!).

I spent my early childhood on a “gentleman’s farm,” a tiny acreage (a barn, three milk cows, a chicken coop full of chickens and a dozen or so “head of” sheep) located within the environs (then) of Portland. And all I can remember is watching my mother wring the necks of Sunday dinner (a great way to raise up vegetarians) and feeling imprisoned by the fact that, no matter what, we had to get the heck home before dark or the cows would explode from their unmet need of milking. (A crisis that would recur before dawn the very next day.) Having animals to milk is like remaining forever in the mode of new parenthood without the fascination of an actual infant to compensate: you’re trapped… and normally too exhausted to socialize, much less win souls by the mere charm of being so darn happy. Of course, I suppose converts to farming can be like converts to anything, running on the ether of their felt good fortune.

Still, if BenOp enthusiasts think this is the life for them, I’d suggest a book written more recently than the middle ages — namely,”The Egg and I,” the classic Pacific Northwesterner Betty MacDonald penned in memory of her husband’s “swell idea” to leave city life for the self-sufficient lifestyle of a modern-day chicken farmer.

#22 Comment By Charles Cosimano On January 19, 2016 @ 5:01 pm

[NFR: I see you are just now becoming acquainted with our Uncle Chuckie. He’s part Aleister Crowley, part Wilfred Brimley, in marinara sauce. — RD]

Wilfred Brimley??????

Rod, there are times I really worry about you, like on your occasional attempts to imitate Victor Killian.

Oh, and James, I make jokes about just about everything because everything pretty much strikes me as funny at my age. But for odd, you need the right helmet. If you are going to ride around your five acres on the atv, you need a nice, Roman one like my girlfriend in 1990 and I wore when we rode around her five acres singing the Banana Splits song. Her boys were so embarrassed…

[NFR: Because you’re actually cuddly. Nobody believes me when I say that, but I have seen you up close and personal. — RD]

#23 Comment By James Lewis On January 19, 2016 @ 7:04 pm

Would this work?


#24 Comment By BadReligion On January 19, 2016 @ 8:27 pm

I’m glad somebody mentioned that knights are no good. They symbolize feudalism, which conservatives actually seem intent on reinstating. When my group of fellow Radical-Left street-fighters here in DC were organizing a protest a few years ago, we wanted to go with a knights-slaying-dragons theme, until we realized what a bad idea that was.

More importantly, I have a visceral, physical reaction to situations like that of the kids described above, who are so incredibly sheltered. The music I discovered in adolescence, sometimes via television (and now, in adulthood, write and perform) saved my life, essentially. It’s gotten me through dreadful times and given me so many happy ones, and yet I imagine my parents would have disapproved (in a few cases) had they looked and listened closely, and I guarantee my grandparents would have.

The same is true of the prose, comics, and poetry I read, the films I watched, and the games (analog and digital) I played. I just can’t imagine life without all of that. It goes far beyond mere distraction and entertainment. I’ve been moved, educated, and so much more, and now I try to do that for others. Thankfully, going away to college is an option for enough people to discover, a la Pleasantville, that the world outside is hardly a hellhole. That, and kids can just rebel earlier, and they probably will. Hell, they do it in Iran and Saudi Arabia!

[NFR: Well, if you want your kids to grow up to be radical-left street fighters, then one should raise their kids as you were raised, and not in a Benedict Option way. You don’t have kids, do you? — RD]

#25 Comment By Charles Cosimano On January 19, 2016 @ 8:42 pm

[NFR: Because you’re actually cuddly. Nobody believes me when I say that, but I have seen you up close and personal. — RD]

You will be happy to know my wife agrees with you.

“Would this work?”



#26 Comment By Charles Cosimano On January 19, 2016 @ 8:48 pm

“Still, if BenOp enthusiasts think this is the life for them, I’d suggest a book written more recently than the middle ages — namely,”The Egg and I,” the classic Pacific Northwesterner Betty MacDonald penned in memory of her husband’s “swell idea” to leave city life for the self-sufficient lifestyle of a modern-day chicken farmer.”

The opening half hour of “Holiday Inn” is another good curative, as Bing Crosby tries farming and ends up in the loonie bin. But you can’t go by me. Where others see amber waves of grain, I see a good place to put a Walmart.

#27 Comment By Known as 332 On January 19, 2016 @ 9:32 pm

James, without taking away from Hans (his first presentation was great), what was important about your presentation was that you showed the starting point…in your case, you.

That you made 1 decision at a time, lived it, and decided whether it was good or not. Highlighting that the starting point wasn’t a full blown philosophy of how to live in the 21st century and 100 families ready to take over a town…but you doing things to help you…your family…and people you encountered…to do something a little better and a little more holy.

For many of us, it’s finding an entrance ramp and taking a step or two. And as a top-down thinker, I have to force myself to stop and absorb that.

Many thanks

[NFR: Yes, exactly. I didn’t see Hans’s presentation, but I’ve just finished outlining his book “Heavenly Participation” from the notes I made when I read it. It’s a very important, illuminating book. That said, James’s talk was very much the kind of thing that Hans talks about in his book: showing what it’s like to enter into sacramental truth. Don’t discount it, James. I can make all the arguments I want in the Benedict Option book, but if I am not able to show them what these arguments mean when incarnated in real life — that is, when lived out — it’s only abstract. You are the living, breathing, real deal. — RD]

#28 Comment By Anmalone On January 19, 2016 @ 10:56 pm

Ahh, Mr. Lewis! How very blessed we are to have you teaching our children, even if only for one year. As I told your father-in-law, you will be the teacher my boys talk about in 30 years as having the greatest impact on their lives. Just reading this article makes me want to be a better person! God bless you and keep you safe, end of the Republic or not 🙂

#29 Comment By BadReligion On January 19, 2016 @ 11:30 pm

Actually, my upbringing was not designed to make me into one thing or another (or nothing so specific), and there were certainly no political outcomes in mind! I imagine I would have rebelled, had that definitively been the case, as so many kids in such situations do.

I wasn’t even referring (primarily) to political implications, though that was a part of it. I was mostly thinking of the emotional support and reinforcement I found in music and elsewhere (and I know you know what I mean), along with different realities into which I could escape, while simultaneously learning about and dealing with reality. That’s why Asimov said sci-fi was the ideal genre.

No, I don’t have children, and I won’t. That decision was made in childhood, and has never wavered. I’m keenly interested in supporting children, parents, and caregivers in activism and in life more generally, as we all try to live with (and hopefully struggle against) the effects of neoliberalism on our communities and lives. “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind” is a good (if not great) book on the subject.

We do care about some of the same things, as it happens.

#30 Comment By Duane On January 20, 2016 @ 2:44 am

Rod, please elaborate on what you were hinting at when you wrote

“Not everyone who takes up the Benedict Option will be a suburban farmer, of course, but I hold the Chestertonian spirit in which James Lewis lives out his Benedict Option vocation as a model.”

I don’t know enough about GKC to guess what you meant here by Chestertonian spirit.

[NFR: Robust, cheerful, festive. — RD]

#31 Comment By bmj On January 20, 2016 @ 6:59 am

[NFR: Ask James; it was his phrase. — RD]

Yeah, I understand that…I was just wondering if he gave any other context around that line.

Just to be clear, I’m not trying to dismiss his whole presentation because of this line (it sounds really fascinating)–I’m just trying to sort out this line.

#32 Comment By Darth Thulhu On January 20, 2016 @ 7:13 am

This is a lot of good, solid, practical, beautiful work. Thanks for sharing.

I highly encourage underlining warm bonds with “Iraqi Muslim Mohammed”-style Good Samaritans at every possible opportunity. It’s both a loving practice and a practical inoculation against the never-ending social media hypersensitivity tempests.

When you can honestly demonstrate that your communities are obviously more tolerant, more loving, more social, and more just than those of your critics, you will (deservedly) win. It will take a few decades, but you will win.

#33 Comment By Jake V On January 20, 2016 @ 10:54 am

>>He told a story about some neighborhood kids whom he caught chasing his sheep. … The kids offered to pull weeds on his farm. So they spent the day doing just that, and stayed for dinner. Before the meal, the family prayed. The neighbor kids had never done that, and were suddenly very curious about how everyone knew to say the words together.<<

This is fantastic.

The old adage remains true. Children who grow up seeing their parents reading become readers. Children who grow up seeing their parents not watch a lot of TV grow up not watching a lot of TV. Children who grow up praying….

#34 Comment By James Lewis On January 20, 2016 @ 4:59 pm


I think it is fair to say only the highlights are presented here. There are some really tough things we have had to deal with. And we do not make enough money off the farm to live off of. You are also right in insisting that making a living solely off the land, subsisting in being dirt poor is not something I am interested in. In the talk, I mention I only grow or invest money that I can afford to loose. So it is a little like gambling, but distinct in that the odds are in my favor.

And so practically, though we wish we could, there is a good reason we do not do milk animals. And our operation is incredibly small. I limit what I do so I can still have a day job (teaching high-school and moonlighting as an adjunct).

Almost every single farmer I know has the second job off the farm too. Well, except for the ones that operate tractors that essentially factories. Even then I would wager most of them have a second job too.

Finally, the Benedict Option is not about escapism via a farm or any other avenue of sentimental tradition. It is about forming communities that are based on ideas like self-restraint and virtue. It is essentially a rejection of materialism, banality, and wastefulness, at least for me. My hobby farm is simply my means of doing this.

#35 Comment By FH On January 27, 2016 @ 6:23 am

Mr Dreher, for observant Jews, the Benediction Option is the most obvious decision we make. I must live, to a greater or lesser degree, in self-conscious communities of like-minded Jews. Lacking such removed community, my religious life would be almost impossible. But beyond the practicalities of living within walking distance of a synagogue, with easy access to kosher food, etc…. — it’s important for me to know that when my children are with friends on saturday, they are in shabbat-honoring homes, learning Torah either formally or by osmosis …..

The only difference with me is my enlightening experiences with devout Protestant and Catholics. I typically feel much more simpatico with our handful of serious Christian friends than even with fellow Jews who are openly atheist and inherently hostile to what you would call a “sacramental” life.

[NFR: thank you for this. I would a thousand times rather my children be good friends with Torah-observant Jews than with nominal Christians. — RD]