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New Ideas Of The Village

Report from my weekend at the first ever Benedict Option conference

Where on earth to begin about my weekend at the Idea Of A Village conference, which the Catholic community in the middle of nowhere without wifi, dang it around rural eastern Oklahoma’s Clear Creek Abbey put on? I will start by pointing out the image you see above, of Mere Orthodoxy‘s Jake Meador and Your Working Boy enjoying homebrewed beer and grass-fed beef together, was a highlight of my weekend, and indeed my year. Jake and I have been corresponding for years, and he has turned the blog which he edits and helps write into a must-read for all informed orthodox Christians, especially those interested in the Benedict Option.

Jake graciously agreed to join me in talking to a group in the afternoon, in which both of us talked about ecumenism within the Benedict Option, and Jake focused on Evangelicalism and the Ben Op. I learned so much, and I’m not going to go into it here, because it’s going to be in the book. What I can happily report is that there were a surprising (to me) number of Evangelicals at the conference, and they were well-received. There is tremendous opportunity for all of us — Catholic, Evangelical, and Orthodox (yes, some of my pravoslavie tribe came, woohoo) — to work together. I have long believed that, but this weekend, I saw it in the flesh.

(I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s short book Life Together on the flight to Tulsa. It gave me some new insights and ideas about how to talk Ben Op in the language of Protestantism.)

A deeply frustrating mix-up on Saturday night kept me from interviewing Jake on camera about Evangelicalism and the Ben Op. He agreed to do it earlier in the day, but when I went looking for him near sunset, I couldn’t find him. I thought maybe he had to leave. So I went to see the Back 40 with Mike Lawless and Andrew Pudewa, two of the conference organizers and Catholic agrarian pioneers here. By the time we got back, Jake was still there, but there was no time to conduct an interview because Ralph Wood, John Nieto, and I had to get back to the abbey before the doors closed for the night. It was the only negative note on an otherwise terrific weekend, but it was a pretty big one.

But, as I said, it was a terrific weekend. Here’s a shot of Mike and Andrew on the Back 40, or whatever they call it:

Mike Lawless and Andrew Pudewa
Mike Lawless and Andrew Pudewa

Those guys moved out here from California with their families a few years ago (10 for the Lawlesses, seven for the Pudewas, if I remember correctly), to be near the abbey, whose traditionalist congregation is booming, and explore life as Catholic agrarians within a community united around the Latin mass. If you’re a homeschooler, you almost certainly know Andrew Pudewa, founder of the Institute For Excellence In Writing. IEW’s curricula is terrific, and has been a tremendous blessing to the Dreher family. Traveling is hard on my family, because it puts more work on Julie when I’m gone, so I have to be careful about which invitations I accept. This one was a no-brainer. If I hadn’t wanted to go anyway, Julie would have made me, out of gratitude for what Andrew’s work has meant to our family. I was gobsmacked by the size of IEW’s operation. They have a big headquarters near the abbey, and employ a number of their community there. It’s very, very impressive.

On Saturday morning, I had breakfast with my pal Lance Kinzer, who drove down from Kansas, and a Catholic homeschooling mom who flew in from Silicon Valley for the conference (hey my friend, I’m not mentioning your name because I want to protect your privacy; drop me a note if you want me to name you). My new California friend told us about homeschooling and living on a small income in one of the most expensive, secular places in America. I was genuinely stunned to hear her say that most of the homeschoolers in her area that she meets are Muslims, who want to keep their kids out of the public (and private, presumably) schools in the area because of the moral climate there. This fact added to the sense I’ve been getting from corresponding with and reading Jones, a Muslim reader of this blog, that we conservative Christians who take the Benedict Option are going to need to work harder to form friendships and alliances with American Muslims.

The day kicked off with a keynote address by me, laying out the basic case for the Benedict Option. Then the great literature scholar Ralph C. Wood of Baylor talked about why we need the Ben Op, and focused most of his remarks on Walker Percy’s Love In The Ruins. With the possible exception of Jake Meador, Ralph, a Baptist, is the most articulate and enthusiastic Evangelical supporter of the Ben Op. He is also a dear friend and a great man (though he would surely object to my saying so). If you have never heard Ralph speak, and you’re planning to come to Walker Percy Weekend on June 3-4 — tickets still available via the website! — you are in for a treat. Imagine a member of the Inklings who talked like a Texas Baptist preacher with a peppery sense of humor. That’s Ralph.

Ralph quoted Pope Benedict XVI — then Cardinal Ratzinger — from an interview he gave to journalist Peter Seewald, published in 1997 as Salt Of The Earth:

Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures. Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live in an intensive struggle against evil and [that] bring good into the world — that let God in.

The Church will, in the foreseeable future, no longer simply be the form of life for the whole society. … The church will be … more a minority Church; she will live in small, vital circles of really convinced believers who live their faith. But precisely in this way she will, biblically speaking, become the salt of the earth again. In this upheaval, constancy — keeping what is essential to man from being destroyed — is once again more important, and the powers of preservation that can sustain [man] in his humanity are even more necessary.

Substitute “Christian” for Catholic, and understand “Church” as the entire Body of Christ, Catholic and otherwise, and you will get why Ralph believes (as do I) that this prophetic insight of the former pope’s is so critically important.

Next, 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.

The afternoon lecture was by John Nieto of Thomas Aquinas College. “The village is not sufficient for human happiness,” he said, “but it is necessary for human happiness.” By this he meant that living in a small, interdependent community — not isolated from each other — is important to human nature. Prof. Nieto said that both the political and cultural left and right in this country agree that man cannot be free until he achieves total dominance of nature. This is the seed of our doom and destruction: we are fighting against human nature. We are fighting against reality.

“Happiness is the fulfillment of human nature,” he said. “The village helps you see that.”

Then we had the afternoon sessions, and after that, homebrewed beer made in the community (the kölsch was my favorite, but all were special), and barbecue made from grass-fed beef raised right there in Clear Creek. And then, music and folk dancing. I had so many wonderful conversations with all kinds of people, some of which will go into the book (so don’t ask me to repeat them here). I want to note how good it was to spend time with Hank Reynolds, whose wife is “Professor Carol,” whose courses homeschooled kids can take online. “I think your son was in one of our classes,” Hank said. Really? I dunno. Julie is the headmistress of the Fort Awesomeshark Military Academy (what my son Matthew named our homeschool). When I was able to contact Julie online again, I asked her if that was true.

“Yes!!” she texted. “He took the Imperial Russia course. Professor Carol is awesome.

“Well, I met her husband Hank, and he gave me her Early Sacred Music course.”

Came the text: “NO WAY!!!!”

I’m here to tell you, potential education Ben Oppers: with people out there like Andrew Pudewa, and Hank and Carol Reynolds, there is so much richness, and so much support. Julie knows this world much, much better than I do, and I was really sorry that she couldn’t make this conference. I’m really nothing more than a publicizer; it’s people like her who are going to make this thing work.

On Sunday morning, I joined the community for High Mass in the abbey, as an observer (as an Orthodox Christian, I can’t take communion there) and as one who prayed with these brother and sister Christians. And then it was off to the airport, and home.

Again, I have far, far more material than I can share with you on this blog, because after all, I have a book to write. But look: be encouraged! You are not alone. Something is happening, and many of you readers will be a part of it. I’m grateful to Andrew Pudewa, Mike Lawless, Josh Martin, the Clear Creek Abbey, and all my hosts and new friends I made this past weekend.

One more thing. Look at this doorknob on the gift shop at the monastery:


That’s ironwork by George Carpenter, the blacksmith from the community. His work is all over the monastery, and it is something to behold.



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