One of the members of our congregation turned two today. It’s amazing to watch her sing along with the chants and prayers that she hears every Sunday. She doesn’t yet know what most of these words mean, but she can sing parts of the Beatitudes, and parts of the Psalms, (for example) because she has heard them sung the same way every Sunday of her brief life. I was watching her do this today, and thinking about how her father, and our congregation, is cultivating the faith in her heart through fidelity to liturgy and Scripture sung to the same melodies (or slight seasonal variations), week in and week out.
The word “cultivating” brought to mind this passage from Ken Myers, in the introduction to one volume of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. I posted it some time ago, but it’s worth revisiting:
Cultures cultivate. A culture is more like an ecosystem than like a supermarket. And human persons, as encultured creatures, are generally less like independent rationally choosing shoppers than like organisms whose environment predisposes a certain set of attitudes and actions.
Cultures cultivate. Not that our activities are absolutely determined by cultural influences. We are rational beings, not just instinctual beings. We can make choices that go against the conventions sustained around us. We can lean into the prevailing winds, but only if we know how to stand somewhere solid. Only if we are not being carried by the wind. We need to be able to imagine alternative ways of perceiving reality.
Cultures cultivate, so if we want to offset the influence of cultural systems that distort or misrepresent reality, we need more than good arguments that analyze the distortions. We need cultural alternatives that provide opportunities for participating in a different way of telling the story of human experience.
For example, counteracting the materialistic reductionism of our time requires practices that convey to our imaginations the coherent unity of matter and spirit. Challenging the assumptions that human beings are best understood and best treated by social structures as autonomous choosers whose choices provide meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe requires settings in which submission and obedience to some order of things that precedes our willing is known as a delight and a blessing.
Distorted institutions and practices can’t be confronted only by arguments. They require well-ordered practices and institutions. Resisting cultural confusion is more than a matter of thinking outside the box. We need to be able to intuit outside the box. And to encourage well-ordered intuitions to those under our care, especially our children — because cultures cultivate.
I’m surprised by how often this simple fact is ignored by people who talk about cultural engagement. There are people who are honestly concerned about one trend or another in our social life, who regard those problems as the effect of bad arguments or bad intentions, and not, as they often are, as the product of some malformation or other in the shape of lived life. So they end up using malformed tools to repair the damage caused by the same malformed tools, thinking that better ideas, or a more clearly articulated list or priorities, or worst of all, the right political leadership, will fix things. To switch metaphors, they aren’t attending to the ecosystemic causes of those problems. They are applying more fertilizer or more water to plants that are suffering from a fatal amount of shade.
(Here is the space for my obligatory exhortation to subscribe to the Journal. I met somebody in Austin a couple of weeks ago who told me that discovering the Journal was a real turning point for his life as a Christian. It was for me too. I hear this often. Try it for yourself.)
The Benedict Option is not really about thinking new thoughts, but about taking up ancient Christian practices, and allowing them to cultivate the faith within us, our families, and communities, in a culture suffering from a fatal amount of shade.
Speaking of cultivation, when I got home from church today, I found in my email some photos sent by Marco Sermarini, my friend and a leader of the Tipiloschi, the lay Catholic community in San Benedetto del Tronto. When I was there last month (see here for those details), Marco took me to the top of a hill outside the city, overlooking the Adriatic. The community acquired the land and renovated a small house on it. They began to clear and to restore the land to make it into a retreat for the community, and for anyone else who wants to come be with them. Marco took me walking down what is going to be a promenade down an orchard. The Tipiloschi will be cultivating the land to bring forth fruit and vegetables, and in so doing will teach themselves and their children how to garden. The plan is to open the garden and orchard to schoolchildren, so they can learn about nature. In the photo above are some of the men of the community, working on the orchard walk. Below, a photo of some of the kids on the land, and a photo of a place for prayer and assembly they are building in the garden.
The Tipiloschi are cultivating more than land, you can see. They are offering, and offering joyfully, a cultural alternative that provides opportunities for participating in a different way of telling the story of human experience. At its best, that is the Benedict Option.
Hey, readers who have been praying for the restoration of my health, thanks so much. Today is the first day in a month that I have felt close to normal. I’m going to spend the afternoon working on the Ben Op book; this sinus-infection-turned-walking-pneumonia has derailed me, but I feel today, for the first time in ages, that I’m back on track. Prayers, antibiotics, and Mucinex — a great combination.