Alternatives to the Benedict Notion for Like-Minded People

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I think we’re fortunate in that people in our time are feeling a widespread desire to revive traditional culture. Whether it’s food, or art, or religion, or parenting, we’re swinging back from the ultra-modern chrome age in which everything was supposed to be new and advanced, to a more epochosyncretist era. The Benedict Option is not really countercultural – it’s part of a widespread surge of interest, and is both riding and contributing to that wave.

As I pointed out in my last post, I think that the generational dissonance created by social engineering programs such as ICC’s (Intentional Christian Communities) inevitably comprise the seeds of destruction. However, seeds of construction also bear fruit. The key is to avoid creating reactions – swings of the pendulum. If you kids hate the health-food you serve because of the way it tastes and feels, the next generation may see a McBacklash against the gains which our generation has made toward a return to nourishing and balanced menus.

On the other hand, if the food both tastes good and makes your children feel good, they may be inspired to do better than you have. The other day I picked up some day-old sourdough at a bakery and wanted to eat some for lunch. I always keep raw honey in my cupboard, and I had the idea to drizzle some on the bread instead of butter or oil. As I took the first bite the taste was so familiar and enjoyable that I instantly flashed back to a day when I was 9 years old or so, standing on a warm wood floor in the sun-flooded pantry of our farmhouse kitchen. My mom had bought sourdough and raw honey from a local bakery, and we were eating them together. For her it was a splurge, and she wasn’t able to repeat it. I hadn’t eaten it again for 21 years but the taste I recalled exactly.

My suggestion then is not to uproot, strain, and constrain ourselves with enormous changes in our lifestyles, but instead to invest in whatever betterment will be sustainable in our lives – because they give more strength than they drain from us – while inspiring our children with an ideal toward which they can take yet further steps.

A final note: as a very bad houskeeper, I learn my practical lessons hard. One of the hard lessons I’ve learned is that beneficial practices are impossible to permanently adopt without infrastructure. In other words, if you want your kids to remember to put their dirty laundry into a hamper instead of on the floor, you ought to keep a hamper in their bedroom and another in the bathroom. If you want to use more spices in your cooking, you need to keep a recipe box and a spice rack next to your stove. If you seriously believe you can air out the bedclothes for an hour every day before making the beds, you need to have a quilt rack in your bedrooom. If you want people to read, you need to put the television in a locked cupboard and fill bookshelves and tables full of interesting books in every room. If you want people to help keep the counters and kitchen floors dry, put a squeegee on the counter. If you want to train people to wash their own dishes, lock up all the extra dishes in a china cabinet for visitors, so that each house resident has only one cup, plate, fork, and cup. For every problem, there is a solution; and there is also a permanent fixture that makes the solution practicable, permanent, and behaviorally plausible.

There’s another side to this coin. If you put the infrastructure in place, and it’s good infrastructure that makes sense behaviorally, people’s behavior will change – at least to some extent – without force and pressure. That’s gold.

  1. Live near family. Don’t disrupt the intergenerational bonds, not even for the sake of whichever church or religion or ideology you’ve adopted, or joined. Granted those bonds don’t get as much mileage as they used to. That’s no reason to complete the damage by abandoning them altogether instead of cupping your hand around the smoking wick. (The only good reason I know of to do this is to avoid toxic or abusive relationships. Still, if there is even one decent family member in your whole circle of relation, it will reward you and your children to live near him.)
  2. While keeping familial bonds intact, build bonds also with fellow church members by living near them. This is not a step that is quickly and easily taken so I introduce it with hesitation. My reason for including it is the background of this post: rather than dream about moving to a town where everyone is Orthodox, why not see if you can stand living next door to even one Orthodox family?
  3. Share at least one communal practice with at least one other person. This is not as weird as it sounds – or at least, it doesn’t need to be. When I was a child, I spent hours and hours nearly every day running around yelling my head off, climbing trees, and playing hide-and-seek-spies-cops-and-robbers-boys-v.s-girls-on-bicycles-in-the-woods-Nancy-Drew with a crowd of other homeschooled children. About a third of the time we did this at my house, and the rest of the time we did it at their houses. How could our mothers’ households function when we were all visiting one another every day? Simply, our mothers visited one another during housekeeping hours and shared the burden. I don’t know if they actually helped one another with chores. I seem to remember that the host mother was usually washing dishes or folding laundry or vacuuming, and the visiting mother was keeping the host mother company at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, and occasionally lending a hand. Oh, they talked and talked. It seemed to imbue them with life and make them feel supported. I think it sharpened their minds and supported their spiritual growth, as well. And of course, if it was a day on which your kids spent very little time at home, it was a day on which no one was messing up your house. Meanwhile, the guest kids kept the host kids outside so the host mother could get things done. If you can’t do this, why not get together with someone once a week to make kimchi, or trail mix for the kids lunches, or yogurt, or bread? There are burdens to share, and burdens to insulate others from. If you have burdens that traditional cultures tend to share, find someone to share at least one of them.
  4. Increase your moral authority (credibility) by making your household happier. Besides serving more nourishing love-energized food, one way to do this is to improve your living space with traditional arrangements, furniture, materials, and tools. I recommend Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, and Cheryl Mendelson, Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House. Wherever you live, there are materials you can bring into the house that will connect you with the land and its spirit, there are arrangements of furniture that can influence people’s feelings and behavior for the better, and there are skills that can make life feel more real for people stuck in a virtual age. It’s counter-productive to strain yourself beyond the grace you’re given, the energy and health you possess, and the support you have access to. Nevertheless, even one change – like cleaning off the front porch and making it an inviting place to sit, or moving the couch to face a south window – can accrue lots of moral interest over time.
  5. Inspire your children with tales of the past and hopes for the future. Pass on your love of what is good, and your great-great-great-grandchildren will be eating the fruit. Don’t worry; you’ll be watching from heaven and getting the hugest kick out of it. If you don’t like how your kids are spending time or handling situations, mildly introduce a counteractive element. Perhaps the most powerful way to do this is to read to them. Even competing with the siren call of electronic entertainment, parents wield a lot of power with this single practice. Kids are strangely drawn to accept the offer of a busy parent to sit with them for half an hour, doing voices, asking comprehension questions, defining words, discussing storylines and characters, and most of all, just telling stories. The stories your children hear, and the feelings they see in you as you read them, will shape their moral beings to a greater extent than you can know. (It also makes them better readers than merely practicing their own reading can do. Children naturally want to learn skills by imitation, and the skill of  reading is no exception.) Another great way to do this is to casually and briefly relate sayings and stories from the Bible to every day life. (This is much more powerful than assigning Bible readings or devotionals daily.) If your child is excited about seeing a sparrow – well, get excited too, of course, but also recall that Jesus had a saying about a sparrow. If your child is interested in science – hey, King Solomon was a taxonomist. If one child is jealous over something good you’ve done for another child, there’s a parable about a farmer who paid some of his laborers too much and how the others resented it, and the answer he gave. The key, of course, is to relate these sayings and stories in a tone of voice and manner that is not reproachful, but instead contemplative, interested, and challenging. The Holy Scriptures, like other deposits of grace, are better used as a marinade than a meat pounder.
  6. Finally, why not stop a moment to take stock of the benefits of living in the time and place we do? There are some, no doubt – and God deserves to be thanked for them. Our ancestors and great men deserve to be honored and remembered for the good intentions with which they arrived at them. No doubt there will be times when people will look back to our era and wax nostalgic for something we take for granted. Let’s enjoy life, air conditioning, and search engines.

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