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, 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 is midwifing a community whose bonds stretch beyond the boundaries of central Kansas.