I’ve talked on this blog before about the Catholic community gathered around Clear Creek Abbey, the traditionalist Benedictine monastery in rural eastern Oklahoma. And now, Ian Lovett of the Wall Street Journal has written a lovely profile of them for the newspaper. Check this out — and savor the gorgeous photographs:
When the first few monks arrived in Hulbert, Okla., in 1999, there wasn’t much around but tough soil, a creek and an old cabin where they slept as they began to build a Benedictine monastery in the Ozark foothills.
Dozens of families from California, Texas and Kansas have since followed, drawn by the abbey’s traditional Latin Mass—conducted as it was more than 1,000 years ago—and by the desire to live in one of the few communities in the U.S. composed almost exclusively of traditional Catholics.
There aren’t many jobs nearby. The nearest bank, grocery store and coffee shop are nearly an hour’s drive on country roads. Yet many residents choosing to live near Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey say it is worth the sacrifice.
“Our goal in moving here was to form our children’s conscience and intellect in a particular way, without society taking that authority from us,” said Mark Wheeler, one of the first to settle on the outskirts of the monastery more than a decade ago.
The 100 or so people living here are part of a burgeoning movement among traditional Christians. Feeling besieged by secular society, they are taking refuge in communities like this one, clustered around churches and monasteries, where faith forms the backbone of daily life. Similar villages—some Roman Catholic, others Orthodox or Protestant—have sprung up in Alaska, Maryland, New York and elsewhere, drawing hundreds of families.
As the proportion of Americans without any religious affiliation continues to grow, more Christians are considering where they can go to live out their faith more fully. It has been dubbed the “Benedict Option,” in homage to St. Benedict, who as a young man left the moral decay of ancient Rome to live in the wilderness.
The rise of communities like the one in Clear Creek reflects the growing sense among many Christians in the U.S. that Western society is becoming hostile to their beliefs. Alarmed by cultural shifts such as gay marriage, the acceptance of transgender identity and ever more sexual content in mass media, conservative Christians overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump for president. Despite reservations about his personal character, many hoped that he would stem the tide of social change.
Rod Dreher, a Christian writer credited with coining the term “Benedict Option,” has a book on the movement coming out next month. In an interview, he said that conservatives were “deluding themselves if they believed that Mr. Trump could turn back the cultural forces sending some Christians into the woods.”
“We’re living in a post-Christian world,” Mr. Dreher said. “There needs to be some conscious separation from the mainstream to be able to hold on to the Christian faith.”
Read the whole thing. And if that link doesn’t work, go through Ian’s Twitter account:
Feeling besieged by secular society, some traditional Christians are creating their own communities:https://t.co/rCGPlmUZMa
— Ian Lovett (@iglovett) February 17, 2017
What I love so much about Ian’s story is that it shows in detail what life is like for this Ben Op community. It’s members speak eloquently for themselves — and about the realistic challenges they face living rurally. For example, the well-known classical educator Andrew Pudewa talks about how he and his family moved to Clear Creek from California with agrarian dreams, and got smacked upside the head by reality:
The family had hoped to live off the land but found it too difficult. “It’s hard to raise food,” he said. “It’s everyone’s dream, and no one is really successful at it.”
They did, however, create a new community hub at their publishing company. More than a dozen locals work there, saving them the commute to Tulsa. The company set up a makeshift community center, where local children—nearly all of whom are home-schooled—attend group classes. Ultimate Frisbee games, dances and the occasional wedding have been held on the company’s grounds.
Life here, Mr. Pudewa said, isn’t “about running away from something. It’s about running to something.” To “inculcate wisdom and virtue in children,” he added, “you surround them with goodness and beauty.”
Reading the story made me a bit sad for one particular reason: I went to Clear Creek last year for a great conference, and interviewed people about their lives there. Most of the Clear Creek material did not survive the entire editing process for The Benedict Option, unfortunately. Ian Lovett talked to me by phone for 90 minutes, and asked terrific questions. Yet he was only able to use a few lines from me. That’s just how it goes. Here’s a report I posted to this blog last summer from the conference:
Abbot Philip Anderson of the Abbey gave a marvelous reflection before lunch. “If we wish to save the souls of our children, we have to make some decisions,” he said. “The ‘Idea of a Village’ and the Benedict Option speak to that.”
He said that if we do get a “new and quite different St. Benedict,” as Alasdair MacIntyre said we need, we won’t know it for hundreds of years. We should not despair if the masses of American Christians don’t take the Benedict Option at first. Said the abbot, in a phrase recalling Pope Benedict’s view, “It takes only a small amount of yeast to cause fermentation.”
He added, “The Benedict Option, at its heart, means leaving the ordinary ways of American society” and regrouping. Speaking of the remote rural community around the abbey, where life is pretty hard, the abbot said, “To come out here you really have to be looking for something more than comfort.” But what’s happening there is affecting people in remote places. The Abbot has evidence.
He’s right about that. The Clear Creek laity I talked to did not sugarcoat the difficulty of their lifestyle. Joked Mike Lawless, “Agrarianism means you work twice as hard for half the money.” It’s important not to be romantic or idealistic about agrarianism — that’s one of the lessons I learned this weekend. I didn’t talk to a single person who regretted the move, but nearly every one I talked to said this life was a lot harder than they anticipated. Me, I would last about five minutes living that kind of life, and I think very few of us are called to it. But I admire them immensely for the sacrifices they have made, and the community they have built (there are about 100-150 people there). And Abbot Philip is right in the broader sense, regarding the Benedict Option: to take it, you are going to have to be looking for something more than comfort.
If you have any interest in taking the Benedict Option in an agrarian way, I strongly encourage you to make a pilgrimage to the Abbey, and spend some time with the lay community there. They’ll be straightforward with you about the highs and the lows. It is not an easy life they have chosen, but those who have stayed find it rewarding.
Note well in the story that the reporter talked to Father Marc Dunaway of the community surrounding St. John’s Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River, Alaska. That’s suburban Anchorage, though it was somewhat rural when they founded the settlement. Still, it’s not nearly as remote and as rural as Clear Creek. But that only means their model is more accessible to most folks. Everybody there lives within walking distance of the cathedral, which makes it easier for them to share a life in common. I’ve been there too, and it’s great — though as people will candidly tell you, it’s not utopia. Nobody believes in utopia, nor should they. That doesn’t mean that we can’t live better than we’re living today.
All things considered, I’m so pleased that a national audience will get a glimpse of the beautiful life the Catholics of Clear Creek have built for themselves. I don’t have the skills or the calling to live as they do, but I consider them a sign of hope because they show that the Benedict Option is possible, though it will take different forms depending on the resources, tradition, and calling of the people. Take their story, and take my forthcoming book, and start thinking — and talking — about what the Ben Op might look like for you and your community.
Hey, I don’t know if I mentioned it here, but they’re going to build an Orthodox monastery (ROCOR) here in south Louisiana, one that follows the Rule of St. Benedict!