Postcard From La France Périphérique
“Welcome to La France périphérique,” said one of my hosts, a farmer. That is the phrase used dismissively for France outside the ring road around Paris. Basically, it means “flyover country.” I spent the weekend in a tiny village in the middle of the country, in the company of a couple hundred farmers and agrarians, members of Les Journées Paysannes (Peasant Days), a national group of French Catholics who live and work on farms, or who wish to identify and support those who do.
You readers know how much I love Paris. But this was a very different kind of France for me. It is hard to overstate how much I loved being around these people, these good, gentle farm people. I did not think it was possible to love France more than I do. Well, it was, and it is. That’s the kind of weekend I had. And let me say it here, first: you American agrarians, especially Christian agrarians: You need to know these people of the Journées Paysannes! They are eager to know who you are, to pray with you, to ask you for your prayers, and to share faith and friendship with you. I will repeat this later, but let me say now to make a point of reaching out to them. Here is a contact page from their website. If you use Chrome as a browser, it will translate it from French to you. On the contact page, Emmanuelle François speaks some English.
So, we met in Souvigny, the site of a 10th century abbey, a daughter house of Cluny. The JP invited me to be one of their speakers — this, after their founder, the saintly and Wendell Berry-like Jean-Louis Laureau read The Benedict Option in French, and said that they needed to reach out to me. As someone here put it to me yesterday, “You don’t write about agriculture, but everything you say in the book is how we agrarians are thinking.”
Think of a Catholic Wendell Berry. Here he is:
Saturday began with mass in the oratory chapel of the abbey. As an Orthodox Christian, I couldn’t take communion, but the human communion was profoundly satisfying, praying in that old, old stone chamber, where people were praying since before the Great Schism.
After the mass, I wandered into the main church to pray. It was a vast Gothic cave — a previous abbot did a radical rebuild during the Gothic centuries — and cold, and wet. But it was a pure joy for me to be there. Here are the tombs of SS. Mayeul and Odilon, former medieval abbots of Cluny, buried here:
In fact, their relics are in a side altar; their tombs were destroyed in the Revolution, that evil event.
There are a few Bourbons buried here too. Notice what’s at the feet of the effigy of the royal on the left:
After mass, I went over to the conference center, and met people. Did I ever! As I said, most everybody here is a family farmer or rural food artisan of some sort. The look on their faces is so very different from what you see in Paris. It’s funny, but my experience of the French is almost entirely with Parisians. Now, I like Parisians, but after this weekend I see that judging the character of the French by one’s experience with Parisians would be as absurd as judging the character of Americans by one’s experience of New Yorkers.
Saturday afternoon was devoted to speeches from various people, including Benoît Huyghe, a representative of a community called L’Arche (the Ark) — not the famous one founded by Jean Vanier, but a smaller one founded by the late Lanza del Vasto, an Italian Catholic philosopher and pacifist. His speech (which I read in translation) was very moving. Excerpts:
Our communities were born in 1948 founded by Lanza del Vasto. In L’Arche was a vineyard, he defines it as “a rural community living piously by families on the margins of society and against the common stream”. Rural life, family life, pious life: this is already what places us in a proximity with the intuitions of the peasant days. A little further, our founder adds: “we enter as we enter Carmel or La Trappe except that we can enter as a couple or family”, “we have (in common) the wishes, the rule, inner discipline “. We therefore also have an affinity with the monastic world which is more particularly the subject of one of the talks of these meetings. We are therefore happy to share with you our research which, to speak as St Benoit, is certainly not “a peak of perfection” but aspires to be “at least a beginning of life that we must lead”.
The withdrawal from the world is a strong act in itself of reprobation of the “structure of sin” (John Paul II) present in our societies, which lanza del Vasto called “system of sin”. But to leave the century is not enough if it is to reproduce its manners: “the battlefield of non-violence is the heart of man” (Vinoba). To become a man of peace is therefore to fight sin first in oneself. This sin, to circumscribe it, let us begin by defining it. Lanza del Vasto, in the rise of living souls, spoke of it in terms of “the spirit of profit and domination, or otherwise said of a spirit of predation on beings and things. In monastic vows one can see a direct therapy: poverty in response to the spirit of profit, obedience in response to the spirit of domination, and chastity that can be defined as the purity of the gaze delivered from every spirit of predation. In the Ark, our vow is broken down into seven accomplishments: work, obedience, responsibility, purification, simplification, truthfulness, and nonviolence. There are also the monk’s vows but indicated in a directional way as a journey: thus simplification for poverty and purification for chastity.
Lanza del Vasto, in his commentary on the Gospel, writes that two masters can not be used, and that Caesar must be given the coin bearing his effigy; but he also questions: Who does man bear the image of? To render man to God is the object of community life. One may well by virtue make his faith in the world grow, but that implies an ability to swim against the current in our era that turns its back on God. Or to put it another way, since the nature of man is religious and every man seeks God, our societies go astray and err on the way to seek him, because it is not enough to declare oneself atheist or agnostic to be free from all idolatry. Community life is a willing and thought-out frame to fight the idols that squat the heart of man in order to better “know, love and serve” God. Idolatry necessarily leads man to war. The meeting with the living God alone is able to transform him into a man of peace: “happy those who make peace they will be called sons of God”. Peace: signature that authenticates a man of God. The beautiful speech of the speaker, even with a beautiful beautifully theological vocabulary, can also be a way of making war since we know with Machiavelli that “the cunning is stronger than the force”. But I speak to peasants who have the sense of the concrete and therefore do not let themselves be “caught in the net of words or the harpoon of ideas”. What you live speaks more than what you say. How does this return to God incarnate in our lives?
This passage speaks well to the point of constant confusion with critics of the Benedict Option. All of us — even those who live in the city — must withdraw to the monastery of our hearts to fight our own tendency to sin, our own fault towards disorder and violence. It is easier to allow oneself to confront one’s own sin and brokenness from a place of silence and contemplation. Even if we don’t live in the countryside, we must make a space for contemplation and self-examination in our own hearts. This is the withdrawal I speak of in The Benedict Option.
Most of us have discovered farming life in the community; agriculture is the first of the trades. However, we are not specialists. We have summarily learned gestures, a rhythm with our elders. Our great educator is the nature that one only learns through time and experience. In our eyes the key word of a peasant worthy of the name, like the monk, is stability, or otherwise says a rooting that alone can produce fruit in its time. We must learn to know his land, his climate, his animals. Any agricultural book to be bought needs to sell itself as revolutionary and miraculous. But the characteristic of the miracle (even the truth, the one that is not a mirage for the credulous) is not to be a reproducible phenomenon.
Before learning from his agronomic practices, it takes 25 years of hindsight. See over time if yields are maintained, if weed management remains possible. And stay humble: what works in one place may not work elsewhere. Sometimes people who do not have enough courage to work a lot and earn little will become a teacher or a counselor: they bend less and earn more. “Beware of people who want you well, it is their good that they want you” (Lanza del Vasto). On this subject we met two permacultures: the first is a business plan that is terribly effective, which consists in robbing the wealthy city-dweller completely distorted by selling him a campaign dream; the word permaculture has become a marketing totem. Thus permaculture trainees visiting walked on our beautiful lettuce well headed for fear of tamping the ground walking on the bare land next door. The second is to rediscover a little wisdom in our practices, to look at what was happening among the elders, to observe and to experiment. Our ways of working are the following: 5 to 7 year long rotation, direct pasture and animal manure by the sheep. All Breton peasants in organic farming that we know and who ignore one or the other eventually lose their footing.
Again, this is Google Translate, so maybe things aren’t as clear as they might be. The point I want to underline is his remark that learning agriculture is not something you can do simply by the book. It is a craft tradition. This principle is also valid for the cultivation of our own hearts. This became very, very clear to me after a few years of practicing the Orthodox Christian faith.
I could write all day about that speech, but I’ll stop there. Jean-Louis Laureau, the founder of the JP (the Catholic Wendell Berry), spoke later in the afternoon. Here’s a part of his speech (again, run through Google Translate):
There can be no question, in such a short time, of telling the whole story that has governed our foundation, but of seeing the context and underlining its inspiration.
It was in 1991 that a small group of peasants and religious met for the first time in Saône-et-Loire. We were on the eve of the establishment of the WTO (World Trade Organization – 1993) and in Europe of the first reform of the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy – 1992). We had published a small booklet entitled “The peasant question on the eve of the year 2000”. At that time, France still had 900,000 farms (note however that it had more than 2 million in 1950). This reform of the CAP, it should be remembered, had the pretension of aligning the prices of cereals cultivated in Europe with world prices – so that their prices had abruptly decreased by almost half between 1991 and 1992. This drastic fall in prices was offset by the payment of bonuses. It was a fatal blow for the farmers and especially for the French peasantry.
And in the spheres of power we did not hide the consequences of this shattering entry of European agriculture into globalization: it was announced that the number of farms in France would decrease by half. And alas! this is realized, since today there are probably less than 450,000 agricultural estates in France. So between the end of the second world war and today – in less than 75 years – we went from more than 2 million to less than 450,000 farmers. This phenomenon of society is considerable, and yet it does not seem to have disturbed politicians, the media, or even some professional agricultural leaders – let alone the economists who considered this drastic fall as inevitable – and even beneficent. This is the historical context in which the Peasant Days were born.
It was so violent that we quickly wondered if our small initiative of the Journées paysannes made sense. The farmer’s trade was going to be maintained to “produce” food with a few thousand entrepreneurs as an industry, but the peasant life closely uniting work and family was likely to disappear. So, what is the point of nurturing with young, generous homes a nostalgia for the centuries of peasants, who have shaped landscapes but are dying out with no hope of return. Was the very small and very young association of the peasant days going to disappear? We were a bit like David facing Goliath. But what were and what are more than ever today, the five pebbles of our slingshot?
In verse 15 of chapter 2 of the book of Genesis, we read: “The Lord God placed the man (whom He had just created) in the Garden of Delights to grow and keep. ” Can we not see in this garden of delights where God places man from creation the premises of economy and ecology? Cultivating the land is getting everything you need from the garden to feed the family – the home economy. Even before sin, man is called to work without any trouble, and to cultivate the garden. And to keep the garden is to make it every day more beautiful, more pleasant to live. It’s this wonderful alliance of economics and ecology.
Then we read in chapter 2 of Genesis: “And the Lord God made this commandment:” You may eat of all the trees of the garden. But from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you will not eat, because the day you eat, you will certainly die. (Gen 2, 16-17) “The most cunning snake of animals” led the woman, then by the, the man with disobedience. This disobedience reaches in depth the alliance of man and woman and the alliance of man to the earth. To the woman, the Lord God says: “I will multiply the pains of your pregnancies, in pain you will give birth to sons. Your lust will push you towards your husband, and will dominate him over you. ” To the man, he says, “Because you listened to the voice of your wife and you ate from the tree I forbade you to eat, cursed be the soil because of you! By dint of pain you will survive every day of your life. He will produce thorns and thistles, and you will eat the grass of the field. By the sweat of your face you will eat your bread, until you return to the ground, since you were fired. »(Gen 3: 16-19)
But the Lord God, in his infinite goodness, does not abandon the creature, and his covenant with man is infinitely stronger than sin. All the stages of salvation that we go through each year in the liturgy, from Christmas to Easter, from the Passion to the Resurrection and the Ascension and Pentecost, are accompanied at every period of the history of the fight for holiness. This struggle through the family and the bond to the earth, and with grace, tends to establish the happiness of the union of man to his Creator and Savior, in view of eternal life.
One aspect of this struggle is experienced nowadays by those who are torn from the bond with the earth, by all sorts of breaks. Peasant life is destabilized by the break-up of the family that is no longer united in the work of the land, where everyone has their place, by a forced and haunting technology, by an economy that is no longer domestic, by a political increasingly dominated by a globalized and market economy. All this enslaves the farmer who is no longer master of his choices. It undergoes the demands of the European and globalized economy, the standards imposed on it, the techniques that it no longer assimilates. He is obliged to invest, to work more and more fruitlessly, since he no longer has any power over the price of his crops.
The rural exodus turned into despair and abandonment. Campaigns are desertified – helping farmers who have done wonders of community life – sometimes turns into jealousy and competition. Finally, this drastic reduction in the number of farmers is accompanied by the equally impressive reduction in the number of priests. In 1950, in many French regions, each village had a priest, pastor of the parish. Today, each priest is in charge of 7, 10, 20 to 40 and 50 steeples. We asked ourselves at the Peasant Days whether this human and spiritual desertification of the countryside was not the more general, more universal sign of the fragmentation of our Western societies. And so we decided to continue the Peasant Days as the day that succeeds the night, the spring to the winter. Fortified by Hope, given to us by the story of Creation, David’s victorious struggle against Goliath, the smallest mustard seed that becomes a plant where the birds of the sky shelter, the seed that, put on the ground, lifts and produces the ear and above all by the final victory while being silent and almost hidden from the Resurrection of Christ.
Thus, without any other means than the desire to submit ourselves, with grace, to the mission that the Lord confided to us, we sought to discover how the bond of man to the earth could be lived today and tomorrow – how he could even have a prophetic function of proclaiming the Gospel and the Kingdom. For almost 30 years now, our hope has been strengthened by noting two things:
• First, happy peasant families exist today; they are scattered, feel isolated; but they give birth to children; they are filled with gifts in the midst of many difficulties; they find solutions to sometimes inextricable situations, they are brave, heroic even sometimes.
• Then, coming from elsewhere, young students, rich or poor city dwellers, entrepreneurs or civil servants, teachers, philosophers and many others, many of whom are attracted by the ecological currents, come to join us, probably because they feel that the link to the land concerns them – and that it is for them a need to get closer to it in a virtual and chaotic world. It is then that the Peasant Days are becoming increasingly aware that the true ecology can only be integral in the sense of the doctrine of the Church and that the work of the peasant shaping the landscapes, cultivating the ecosystems is one privileged ways of respect for the earth and the love of Creation.
The proliferation of ecological movements reveal a beautiful search for defense of nature that we dare not call Creation. They often express the desire for a return to the Gardens of Delights, which Genesis tells us about. But for us, Journées paysannes, we know that this return to the garden of delights is impossible. There was sin and God sent his Son to forgive and repair – through redemption. The link to the earth, the search for family holiness are the joyous announcement on this earth of the Kingdom of Heaven. “Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and its righteousness, and all the rest will be given to you in addition. (Matt 6, 33)
Talking about that rural exodus is an extremely painful thing. France is currently suffering from an epidemic of suicides among its small farmers. Here is Pascal, a Breton dairy farmer I met this past weekend:
I should say that he was a dairy farmer. He had to give it up because the cost was crushing him. He told me that since he began farming, there have been nine suicides of farmers he knows around him. Nine farmers driven by debt and despair to murder themselves. Pascal did not want to be among them. He loves Jesus, and trusts Him. Today Pascal is trying to make his farm into a kind of ecological village. Pray for him. There are so many others like him.
How is it that people today are so interested in helping those on the other side of the world, but they ignore the suffering of the men and women in their own country, like these farmers?
Saturday afternoon I make a short detour to Paray-le-Monial, where the youth of a national movement called the Emmanuel Community — Catholic charismatics — were having a winter meeting. With my friend Henrik Lindell, a French Catholic journalist, we spoke to several hundred Catholic teenagers about media and the faith. It’s hard to express how encouraging it has been for me to see so many young French Catholics who are passionate about the faith. Indeed, the audience for The Benedict Option in France has been primarily those aged 18 to 35, I am told. I have asked several people here why that is the case. The answer is always some variation of: They all want to be truly, authentically Catholic, and they are tired of the old French Catholic narrative of Traditionalists vs. Progressives. You are showing them something new.
Indeed, I met a young French Catholic philosopher who lives in a community approved by a local bishop. François and several others — both single people and married couples — moved into housing provided by the bishop, and serve as a community reaching out to those who live on the margins of society in their town. Here is François:
If memory serves, there is an ecological component of their common life. They established the community inspired by the publication of Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si (which, in my own view, is very, very good). I mentioned to François that some of the top people around Francis have attacked my book as anti-Francis. He did not see what Sandro Magister wrote about the controversy, but François said he doesn’t understand the point.
“There is nothing in your book that should bother Pope Francis,” he said. I agree with him on that, but that is not the opinion of Father Spadaro, Cardinal Cupich, and others.
François invited me to come visit his community in the future, and I surely will. I had not envisioned a way of living the Benedict Option that integrated serving the poor, but it appears that these Catholics are doing it already. Creative minorities! I want to learn from them. It’s amazing, these possibilities!
(Nota bene: I really, really, really need to build a website so all the Ben Oppers can know each other.)
On Saturday night, there was a big feast. There were long tables on which all the farmers brought their specialities. My phone had run out of power, so I didn’t take any photos. But Lord have mercy, it was something great. Yes, it’s Lent, and no, Orthodox are not supposed to eat meat. But it is considered a greater sin to refuse hospitality. I tell you this to explain why I ate the pile of goose rillettes scooped from a crock by the farmer who made them, and plopped onto my plate. I realized at some point that this was my idea of heaven: being at a feast in the middle of the French countryside, surrounded by faithful Christian farmers and culinary artisans, with friendly people running up to me saying, “Here, taste this.”
Reader, I tasted it. And it was good.
I spoke to several younger farmers that evening. It was their first time at Les Journées Paysannes. They were thrilled to have discovered it. These were young Catholics — men and women in their twenties and early thirties — who wanted something more from life than to have a job in the city. They love tending beehives, raising chickens, growing vegetables, and such, but they are lonely for the company of other Christians. It quickly occurred to me that if more young city people could meet these young farming Catholics, they too would decide that such a life offers them a beautiful way to live.
The next morning we went to mass at the main chapel at Souvigny, celebrated by the bishop. Here is what it looked like before the mass:
The church was very cold; you could see your breath. But it was glorious, really glorious, to be there, where Christians have been praying for a thousand years. After the mass, I looked up to see the sunlight coming through one of the stained-glass windows. Behold, the Burning Bush:
My friend Yves Reichenbach, who is most responsible for bringing me to the JP meeting, invited me into the sacristy to see vestments that are centuries old:
At the conference this weekend were Imre and Kathleen de Habsbourg. Imre is an Archduke, the great grandson of the last Habsburg emperor (the Blessed Karl). He and his American wife Kathleen are very humble and kind, and quite serious about the faith. We were walking through the church together after mass, and he mentioned that he had just said a prayer at the tomb of his “Uncle Sixte” — a prince of Bourbon-Parma.
We emerged into the sunlight in front of the church, and drank spiced wine provided by one of the JP members. Afterward we went over to lunch. The wine served with the food was a grand cru St-Emilion (Bordeaux) made by Jerôme Dohet of Château Saint-Esprit (Chateau Holy Spirit). Here’s a little story in French about Jerôme. It explains that he studied law, but decided he wanted to live close to the land, and make wine. Then he studied viticulture, and has made a small winery for himself. He recently helped found Le Cercle de Cana (The Circle of Cana), an association of Christian winemakers in St-Emilion.
Here is Jerôme:
For me, it was pure pleasure to talk with him about how his faith informs his winemaking, and vice versa. This is how it is with the men and women of the Journées Paysannes: they want to live an integrated life of prayer, working with their hands, and living close to the earth. I felt like I had wandered into a Wendell Berry dream. I kept talking about him, and the French kept saying, “Who is this Wendell Berry? Tell us more.” If you are a follower of Wendell Berry, especially if you are a farmer of any sort, I strongly urge you to reach out to the Journées Paysannes. They are very, very eager to get to know American agrarians, especially Christian ones.
If I sound like a cheerleader, well, it’s because I am. It’s like when I first met the Tipi Loschi: I am so happy to shake the hands of the kind of people I dream about, and want to be, that I am overwhelmed by emotion. I had a conversation with a young woman named Matilde who is living in a group house in Nantes, in a Ben Op community she and her friends began. The local bishop approved of it. They didn’t overthink it; they just did it. I heard a number of times this weekend that local bishops had been eager to approve these various experimental communities. Why? I’m not sure, but my guess is it has to do with the fact that the general level of Christian living here in France is low. Certain bishops want to encourage creative minorities. I think that is marvelous.
Look at this copy of the French edition of The Benedict Option. It belongs to Michel, one of the JPs. It is full of notes he took before the conference:
Naturally it’s gratifying to any author to have his work thought about so carefully, but because for me, the Benedict Option (“le pari Bénédictin” in French) is not so much a book I wrote but something that I hope for myself and my children, this affects me at another level. At the heart of it is the realization, from meeting these people (and the Tipi Loschi), what I dream about actually exists already, and can exist in more places, if people have the desire, the vision, and the will to make it happen.
By the time you read this, I will be on my way back to the US. I apologize for not keeping up with approving comments, but it was hard to find wifi, or the time. Later, I will try to write about the last thing I did before heading home, which was to visit the cathedral of Amiens in Picardy, and visit a reconstructed World War I trench on the Somme front. My hosts, Thierry and Emmanuelle François, a farming couple who helps lead the JP, have the front running right through their land. More on this later.
For now, take hope: there are Christians of faith and vision who are living the Benedict Option now, in France. All over France, in fact. And if you are interested in doing the same, they want to hear from you. I left Souvigny with so much affection in my heart for these gentle people, who showed to me the truth of Benedict XVI’s statement that the saints are one of the really convincing arguments for the truth of the faith. I’m not canonizing these folks, certainly, but what BXVI meant was that when we see goodness incarnate in others, our own hearts are converted. Heart spoke to heart in Souvigny last weekend. Pass the good word on to others — and next year, if you are the Christian agrarian type, plan to be there yourself.
One more thing: I will always love Paris, but after this weekend, I don’t know if I will ever return. There are so many other places to see in France, and now I have new friends all over the place. It’s a grace that I don’t deserve, but I receive as a gift. In the weeks to come, I will be telling more stories of the Benedict Options I heard about at the JP weekend. So many people agreed to do interviews with me on e-mail. I can’t wait to introduce you to these good people.
P.S. Somebody please translate Wendell Berry into French. There is an eager audience.