Wendell Berry, the Benedict Option, and the Vocation of Fatherhood

The phenomenon in the Catholic blogosphere of “The Benedict Option” was interesting.  I think it’s mostly over now, because I’ve seen less copycats coming up with other “[Saint] Options.” Most who came up with various “options” focused heavily on Rod Dreher’s choosing the right saint to imitate for the right reasons.  Most of them thought a “Benedictine” option just seemed too behind-the-walls, or something.  Should laity really imitate monks?  So I saw options in imitation of Dominic, Jeremiah, Josemaria, and others — and, to trump them all, Mary.  And, I would add, all of the saint-imitating proposals were worth the read.

But, most of the counter-proposals, I think, missed the “why” of the “success” of the idea of the Benedict Option (and it mostly still is just an idea).  The real kicker to the thing was the word option. Today people feel stuck in a secular and acedia rich rut, without option, and Dreher was giving us real steps to take to live differently (or so we thought).  And, speaking from the perspective of fathers, we wanted some path “out” of the way things are that was radical enough to change the drudgery of clocking in and out for a paycheck to support a rapidly disintegrating family. The book itself is worth reading, but it is still a broader philosophy.  I think what people really thought, or hoped for, was a tangible escape hatch from the way of the world today.

We know things just aren’t as they ought to be, but we feel lost in a sea of mobility.  Our mobile phones allow us to go so many places, but keep us from where we are.  The loss of family and culture has made us unbound by place and people, so we can leave at any moment without shame.  Jobs can be searched and interviewed for around the globe, so we could, in theory, go anywhere.  It sounds as if this is freeing, but the variety of “options” is debilitating, and it becomes impossible to take in, weigh, and decide upon such a mass of mobility.  So we just Google and collect ideas on things like Pinterest ad nauseum.  People feel stuck in their “freedoms,” but a human needs things like tradition, rootedness, and the binding to meaningful things.  We don’t actually want freedom to be ourselves, but meaningful things to give ourselves over to freely.

Wendell Berry uses the analogy of marriage for our bonds with place and people.  To apply such an analogy to our current state, we’re all just cohabitating with each other and everything else — having the appearance of union, but not actually bound, so we’re able to up and end it at any moment. Deep down we know that our feigned freedom (doing whatever makes the individual happy) is like a hipster sitting in a coffee shop dressed as a lumberjack — it looks like something, but at its core its fake.  That which limits our freedom, like love, is what really makes us free. Mobility and interconnectedness has gained us the world, but it is on an inhuman scale.  “How is a man the better for gaining the whole world, if he loses himself, if he pays the forfeit of himself?” (Luke 9:25, Knox).

Fathers, for their part, are increasingly aware of how important their presence is to the spiritual and human growth of their family, but this is almost always in tension with the practical and economic reality they face.  For them, the disintegration of society, culture, and family has been caused and furthered by the way their work divides them from home and altar.  Many eventually get bit by the agrarian bug, because the farm seems to be (and is) a place of obvious integration with nature, family, and work.

And while farming is not really an option for most, I do think that it is in our work that we men, as fathers, can have the greatest impact on how our lives unfold in more human ways into today’s societal environment.   We long for our “vocation” and our “work” to be the same thing, which is actually another common thread in Berry’s work, because, especially for the laymen, those things ought to be united in the common idea of “economy” – the union or meaning, work, place, and home.  Berry’s idea holds a fuller understanding of vocation than either the typical Catholic or secular society does.  “Vocation,” to many Catholics, means the overarching “state” of religious, clergy, or lay that a person is called to. “Vocation” in secular society means your trade, generally, but one merely chosen and trained for.  But to Berry, vocation is that particular state that includes a “thing” you make because we were made to make, and this he presents in contrast to a mere “job”, which is had for the sake of money alone:

“[Vocations] are specific kinds of work to which [people] are summoned by God or by their natural gifts or talents.  The kind of work may be cabinet-making or music-making, cooking or forestry, medicine or mechanics, science or law or philosophy or farming – any kind of work that is whole…  A “job,” by contrast, is understood as any work whatever that one can earn money by doing…” (Wendell Berry, The Art of Loading Brush, 79).

As the world offers a general “freedom to do whatever you want,” so to the “job market” seems to be a game of just finding the highest paying thing possible, without thought to what it might do to the soul or the family. “Meaning” at these jobs is affectedly presented by motivational speakers and posters, but so many men I’ve spoken with voice a desire for work to actually mean something. But I think we’ve witnessed enough to say that many jobs today drain us of humanity and drive us from things that matter, or mean, most.

Again, we feel “stuck” in this economic reality, but there are many men paving ways through the nature and reality of their work that re-integrates family and life, especially through home-based and family-friendly businesses.  I know almost every apostolate claims it is “transforming” and “building culture”, but these fathers, one by one, are probably only trudging toward such an actual transformation and renewal of culture.  Culture is much more like a tree than a building — it grows slowly and without calculated effort when the right conditions are present.  As TS Eliot said, “You can’t build a tree.”  The same is true for “building culture” — it can’t be done — but these small outposts of different ways of living are real “options,” ways out of the monstrous freedom and disintegration inherent to modernity.

Examples vary, from the home businesses like the “meatsmithery” of Brandon and Lauren Sheard and Saint in a Box of Justin and Angela Biance, but the uniting theme is a united economy of home, work, and faith.  Others are able to simply work from home — I have friends that are accountants, writers, and copy machine service providers that are able to be a part of home because their office is there.  This movement of fathers is a sort of reversal of the title of Alan Carlson’s detailed history of industrialism’s effect on fathers in From Cottage to Workstation; these men are moving from workstation back to some sort of cottage industry, one rooted in a household.  Butchering pigs and sending saintly gift boxes are very different, but both are businesses shaped by meta-economic motivations.

The “option” of integrating work and home isn’t bound to one exact pattern, but it is still a rewarding and perhaps necessary effort today.  And it is one that requires great imagination and creativity.  To regain the world for Christ I don’t think we can gather on the internet or in a conference room to create a grand plan, but I do think that small expressions of big ideas have the possibility to really “grow” culture.  For us fathers, it simply must begin with how and why we spend our time providing for our family, because they need more than money.  We have a lot of work to do.

Jason Craig

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Jason Craig works and writes from a small farm in rural NC with his wife Katie and their four kids.  Jason is the Executive Director of Fraternus and holds a masters degree from the Augustine Institute.  He is known to staunchly defend his family’s claim to have invented bourbon.

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  • An excellent, thought-filled article. Many of us sense that the overriding economic myth of our era is false, but we have trouble identifying alternatives. Wendell Berry and others (Schumacher, Pope Francis – especially Laudato Si, St. Francis) keep calling us back to reality. The divisions between work and home, home and community, work and faith, and so many others call to be healed. Thanks for writing this!

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