Larry Chapp’s Benedict Option
Readers, I invited Catholic theologian Larry Chapp to write something about the Benedict Option and his family’s project, The Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm. I’m proud to publish it below. As you will read, Larry and his wife Carrie are the real deal.
By Larry Chapp
The Catholic Worker believes in creating a new society within the shell of the old with the philosophy of the new, which is not a new philosophy but a very old philosophy, a philosophy so old that it looks like new. — Peter Maurin
In 1933, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker Movement to keep Catholic laborers from joining the Communist Party. Maurin was a strong advocate of Catholic Social Teaching, believing that the social order could be changed, not through political revolution, but through the living of the Works of Mercy. Lay people living a radical Christianity would transform the world. Day, a convert to the faith, credited Peter Maurin with her own Christian formation. His vision for the movement included roundtable discussions for the clarification of thought, houses of hospitality to practice the works of mercy, and farming communes.
Fast-forward eighty years. In the Spring of 2013, after years of prayerful soul searching, my wife Carrie and I pooled our resources with a former student of ours from DeSales University and started the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm in Harveys Lake, PA. Carrie had been introduced to the life of Dorothy Day when she was in college at a time when she was just coming alive in her Catholic faith. Day became her role model – a lay woman living the faith radically. Theologians by training, she and I had spent the majority of our adult lives as university professors and academic administrators. She had students read Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, any chance she could. The student, now Father John Gribowich, had been teaching high school theology and earning graduate degrees in Theology and Art History before entering seminary for the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Suffice it to say, none of us had any previous farming experience. In fact, our knowledge of farming was less than zero, since we not only lacked the requisite skills, but we were also filled with all kinds of dumb stereotypes about what farming was all about. But we all shared a common vision of the need to live a more radical Christian life as a witness to our troubled culture.
What drove us to this madness? In a nutshell, it was the growing realization of the radical nature of the crisis we face as Christians in the modern world — the realization that modern culture, since it is now post-Christian, presents the Christian faith with a unique challenge never before seen in its history, one that calls for a more radical form of Christian living as a response.
The naysayers are constantly trying to make it seem as if there is no real crisis here, that this is just business as usual — the Church has faced numerous crises “like this” before and has weathered them all. They poke fun, sarcastically, at people like Rod Dreher for being “alarmist” and “paranoid” and “hysterical”, and so on. But we knew that this is simply not true, that this is a false point of view, and profoundly so. We knew that the way of life we were engaged in — intellectual work for the Church for which we were nicely compensated, living in the suburbs and enjoying trips to Rome and nights out at fine restaurants — was “moral” and “decent” and “not sinful”. But, it became obvious to us that there was an approaching storm for which we were not spiritually prepared. We needed to lead a more radically committed form of Christian existence with a more ascetical focus that would be a pedagogy for our souls.
What all such “naysaying” misses about the crisis we face is precisely the uniqueness of a post-Christian culture with a form of secularity that is the counter image of that which it rejects. In other words, “secularism” is not a one size fits all term. Like all cultural and social realities, it is what it is in virtue of its unique historical context. And modern Western secularism arose precisely as a reaction against Christianity as a public force. As such, its founding narrative, its myth of origin, is a tale of the triumph of science and Enlightenment-based reason (objectivity defined as the enforcing of the fact-value distinction) over the benighted ignorance and superstition of the Roman Church in particular. Therefore, modern secularism is reactive in nature and what it is reacting against is Christianity.
But it was not enough to merely marginalize the faith as a public power. Because what the Church provided (the spiritual glue that held things together) had to be replaced, secularism emerges, as William Cavanaugh points out, as a simulacrum of the Church, with its own dogmas, first principles, eschatology, ecclesiology, and soteriology. Central to this new dogmatism is the belief that the modern secular State alone can “keep the peace”, that it alone can provide us with “progress” and, therefore, “salvation”, and that it alone can preserve us from the “violence” that Christianity brings in its wake. Note well, therefore, a central dogma of this new faith: Christians, especially the “serious” ones, are dangerous to the social order.
Carrie, John, and I, independently of each other, began to get the same intuitions in our prayer life and in our discernment: “Wake up. The old order is dead. The center will not hold. The hour is near. Launch out into deeper water”. We were led to seek a simpler, more secluded life, and to be ready to feed people. The intuition was not that of despair or flight or escape or survivalism or “doomsday prepping”. Our farm is not a “compound” with a defensive perimeter, a year’s worth of dried foods, and some hand grenades buried underground in an old school bus. As befits the pacifism of a Catholic Worker, we do not own a gun. If the Zombie apocalypse happens and hordes of the undead come seeking our canned tomatoes … they can have them.
“I want a change, and a radical change. I want a change from an acquisitive society to a functional society, from a society of go-getters to a society of go-givers.” — Peter Maurin
Rather, the intuition we all got was of the need to live a more radical form of the Christian life than the very comfortable and bourgeois life in which we were entangled. And the word “entangled” here is important, because what we realized was that it was not possible to remain as we were, while striving to be “detached” from what we had. We were too infected with the bacillus of modernity to pull that off. Rather, the intuition was that the form and structure of modern suburban existence (which we were living) was clogging our souls with the flotsam and jetsam of consumerism … of the tyranny of “stuff”, that modern consumeristic capitalism absolutely demands the creation of a kind of “collective of concupiscence” that infects us all with that aforementioned bacillus of “acquisition”, even as we console ourselves with such bromides as “I can own all of this stuff and live the way I do and live a ‘worldly life’ because I am ‘detached’ from it spiritually.” Jesus would beg to differ: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In other words, we realized that our path had to be a more ascetical one, a more radical one, because “business as usual” meant stagnation and decline.
But even more than the irresistibleness of consumerism as a dissolving, moral acid, was the intuition growing within us of the deep nihilism and atheism that undergirds this secular project. Man, viewed as a constitutively worshipping being, is negated in secularism. It must be for the secular project to justify itself — because true worship of the Triune God has a regulative effect in our lives that lifts us out of this broken Kingdom and into the Kingdom of Christ’s resurrected and ascended body. It focuses the mind on “the one thing necessary” and motivates us to ascetical simplicity even as it reminds us that we are citizens of a different order of being, a different “regime”. It relativizes all absolutizing political and social projects insofar as the affirmation of the Kingship of the One God, so central to the act of Christian worship, places the dignity of the person, and thus of culture, outside of the regulative provenance of the State. The secularist therefore understands what many modern Christians do not, namely, that the most “political” thing a Christian does is to worship liturgically. As Bishop Robert Barron points out, when St. Paul declared to his communities “Jesus is Lord” he was saying something dangerous and revolutionary. Dangerous and revolutionary because its affirmation necessarily entails the denial of its opposite: “Caesar is Lord”.
And so, central to our decision to start a Catholic Worker farm, was the realization that it is all for nothing if it is not oriented to the praise and glory of the Triune God. Days on the farm begin and end with the praying of the Liturgy of the Hours. It is the most important thing that we do – and the most “political” thing that we do. We have a small chapel filled with icons and candles and incense. I cannot tell you how often young people visit our farm for the first time and are on our standard “tour” and when they reach our chapel they stop, and their eyes open wide, and they just want to sit and “rest” in that presence. Such is the nature of the thirst and the hunger we all share as a result of the spiritual malnutrition inflicted upon us by our culture.
Readers of this blog are familiar with Rod’s proposed Benedict Option. What we are doing here is an attempt at precisely what he is calling for. Our farm seeks to create a space where people can rediscover the linkages between worshipping the Triune God, study, voluntary poverty, ascetism, localism, working the land, developing artisanal skills, and the rediscovery of “leisure”.
None of this is done out of a false sense of nostalgia for the past or a romanticizing of “the land”. Some of the food we grow is kept for our own use and preservation, but most is given away to others. Sounds simple, but it is actually much harder than we imagined. You must nurture and care for the soil, amending it with compost and livestock manure, but always in the right measure. You must mulch the plants and weed the beds constantly. You must be on your guard against insect invaders and root rot and fungal overgrowth. And throughout it all, you are at the mercy of the elements — as in this past summer where we in the Northeast have suffered through what can only be described as a monsoon of endless rain and little sunshine. You then have to harvest at just the right time and preserve what you have harvested under great pressure because everything is ripening at once and the clock is ticking.
This is how getting back to the land educates the soul. Manual labor expended in less than ideal conditions, with no assurance of positive results, induces either undifferentiated bitterness at the unfairness of existence, or it creates an asceticism of the will where one learns to accept whatever it is God places upon you. As my friend David L. Schindler is fond of saying (quoting Mother Teresa I believe): “Success is not a Gospel category”.
Our vision is rooted in the agrarianism of Peter Maurin. Maurin viewed the Catholic Worker farms as “agronomic universities” where people from the cities, beaten down by the soul-killing forces of industrial, factory-based, capitalism, could rediscover the linkages between “cult, culture, and cultivation”. And while it would be wrong to demonize urban living, there is a very real sense in which Maurin believed that the recovery of a more contemplative and mystical form of existence is best facilitated by a return to the land. Not without reason are almost all Benedictine Monasteries agricultural enterprises. I could go on and on about why this is necessary today, but a short blog post does not lend itself to such analysis. I will leave it to the reader’s good sense to understand why this is true. Suffice it to say that Peter Maurin was a “small is beautiful” localist, communitarian, and back-to-the-lander, long before such things were fashionable.
Following Dorothy Day’s example, my wife and I became Oblates of St. Benedict. We have come to believe that in order to survive the coming storm, a return to some form of monastic spirituality will be required of all of us, including the laity. Some form of a monastic “alternative” to the status quo will be required in order to keep the faith alive and re-evangelize the culture. In short, some form of the Benedict Option will be required.
The Benedict Option calls orthodox Christians to a deeper awareness of the profoundly anti-Christian challenges our culture is putting before us. Peter Maurin always spoke of the three C’s — cult, culture, and cultivation. The only way we will endure the coming storm of cultural barbarity is to form deeply intentional communities of Christian intellectual discourse, moral ecology, and liturgical practice — not so that we can “escape” the world and shun our brothers and sisters who remain within it, but so that we can know ourselves better and come closer to God so as to be better able to serve our neighbor in love.
We have real enemies in the culture. But hatred of our enemies is not allowed to us. And so there is no question of abandoning the culture because that is, quite simply, neither desirable nor possible. But we cannot drink from the same poisonous well, and so we must cultivate new sources of “living water” in order to share it with everyone. And “everyone” means, literally, “everyone”. We cannot be accused of “us vs. them” thinking. That kind of approach is not an option for a Christian. But if you do not “have” a Christian sensibility of the big questions of life, then by default you will “have” the template provided by our culture.
Along with our food production we also raise a small flock of sheep, which is probably the heart and soul of what we do on the farm. Carrie shears the sheep and processes the fleece, which is a very labor-intensive process! She then spins the wool into yarn and knits things for the homeless. There is certainly something very edifying about knitting a wool cap with wool from animals that we raised with love and care and hard work, some who needed our help just to be born. All of our sheep have names, so when my wife knits a cap, I ask her, whose fleece was that? And she will say “Oh that was from Rambo” (our ram). Such experiences mold the soul in positive ways.
Carrie also teaches others what she calls the “fiber arts”. Young people, both male and female, are really drawn to this, and I think it is because artisanal skills have that kind of timeless appeal. When you master a tactile skill, through hard work and repetition, and that skill is related to something as elemental as making the clothes you wear, it does something to the soul. Furthermore, when that skill requires of you an involvement in the developmental process from start to finish, it engenders a sense of pride and accomplishment that breeds the right kind of independent confidence.
And what would a farm be without chickens! We raise our chickens for eggs and give most of those eggs away to our parish. When we have visitors, we love having the little kids collect eggs and just touch a real chicken — there is something magical about it. The chickens also provide us with wonderful manure for compost and fertilizer. Lately, we have had a huge problem with predators killing our chickens. We have foxes, coyotes, raccoons, possums, skunks and weasels — and they all love to eat chickens! So, once again, nature teaches us the law of patience in the crucible of loss and frustrating defeat.
Then there are the court jesters of the farm world: Goats! How we love our goats. Such wonderful, people-oriented animals goats are, almost like dogs. We raise La Mancha dairy goats. We share the milk with our neighbors, but also make cheese and yogurt and soap. But the most fun of all is teaching these skills to others, especially young people. Ever teach a little child how to milk a goat? Pure joy! It is also exciting for so many of our visitors when they get to do something as simple as bottle feed a baby goat.
Another great feature of our farm is that we raise pigs and offer them to churches for pig roast fundraisers. You have not really “tasted” pork if your only experience is the stuff you get from industrial agricultural at the grocery store. Everything we do here is organic. And the pigs we roast have a robust flavor that has to be tasted to be believed. Pigs are highly intelligent but hard to care for. They are destructive, eat enormous amounts of food, and they smell (boy do they smell!). But the end product is one of nature’s greatest achievements!
I would be remiss if I did not mention that there is an intellectual side to the farm as well, and this side of our ministry is just as important, if not more so, than all the rest that we do. We host what Peter Maurin called “roundtable discussions for the clarification of thought”, because in order to live lives oriented around the “Good” you first need to have a theoretical and theological understanding of what that means. There are several colleges and universities near us with many young professors in a variety of disciplines who have discovered our farm and are thirsty for the intellectual stimulation that this project brings to the table. Our meetings often revolve around articles drawn from the journal Communio: International Catholic Review, including an article of mine that focuses on Dorothy Day’s views on poverty.
I hasten to emphasize as well that these round table discussions are open to everyone. Truly. There is a “professorial core” group that is essential to its identity, but the focus is on how all of this stuff translates into a faith language that the average person can understand. That is how Peter Maurin structured both his meetings and his writings, which have come to be called his “Easy Essays”. In fact, we have many ordinary, non-professorial people who attend our discussions and they usually end up stealing the show!
We also host numerous groups of volunteers who enjoy getting their hands dirty and witnessing what we do here. Most of our volunteers come from local churches and two local colleges: Kings College in Wilkes Barre, and Misericordia College in Dallas, PA. Pictured below are a group of amazing young people from Misericordia.
Finally, we have an “open farm” policy which means we welcome visitors who just want to come and pray and eat and work and socialize with us. We do not have much room for overnight accommodations, so most people make day trips. If you want to know more about us, you can go to our webpage at www.dorothydaycwfarm.org or our Facebook page under the name
Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm.
Many thanks to Rod for allowing us to share all of this with his readers. Peace and blessings to all.
Below, our Border Collie “Leo” (named after Pope Leo XIII) with our ewe Fern. If you visit, he will greet you whether you like it or not.