The Hand on the Plow

Jul 28, 2015 by

The Hand on the Plow

I get the feeling that our entire civilization teeters on the edge of a knife. We have created an immense edifice of artificiality that bombards us from every side. REAL HUMAN INTERACTIONS are steadily being replaced by a virtual world. The interactions we do have on a human level are becoming more and more violent and immoral. Where do we go from here?

There has been a lot written lately about the Benedict Option. I have written in the past that I feel very strongly that this is a legitimate possibility for the future, albeit not the only possibility. As I read the pages of Laudato Si I am struck by how it resonates with the vision I have for the future of the world. It is unfortunate that so much focus has been put on a few verses about climate change, when indeed there is so much good in the encyclical. It is a call back to real human lives. The Gospel thrives when the world is most human. The middle ages were a time of immense faith and they were times that created the greatest artistic achievements, theological, and philosophical achievements. Now we create almost no art. Our theology is too often little more than sophistry, and our philosophy is one of materialistic individualism leading to nihilism. We must return to our roots if we are to get out of this quagmire!

I was reading today Romano Guardini’s book Letters from Lake Cuomo. They are letters written by the good priest upon his return to his home in Italy. It was one of the few places that had not yet industrialized at that time. However, his letters show with distress how technology was destroying human civilization. He noted that the great Christian culture of the middle ages was authentically human in its interaction with technology. There was a limit on what they created, although that limit was hard to put a finger on as even he admitted. Tools and technologies were aids to man’s abilities, not replacements for them. A proper brush allowed for more finesse when painting. A telescope magnified man’s ability to see the heavens, but didn’t replace it. The horse allowed a man to farm a larger acreage, but the horse’s limited stamina kept the man within the bounds of nature. All things were in tune with nature. Fr. Guardini contrasts the sail boat with the motor boat he sees crossing the lake. The sail boat stays directly within the power of man and nature. The motor boat does neither. The boat has a power of its own. The greatest technologies were both human and within the realm of nature, not above her. They worked with her as a child to its mother. Now we act a villain either willfully ignoring nature or overpowering her with our technologies.

Every technology has consequences. An old farmer back home once told us that tractors did immense harm to the community. He was old enough to have seen the last of the horse men give in and go to the oil-driven behemoths. Over the next half century he saw the tractors and farms get bigger as more and more farmers were pushed from the land. A tractor does not stay in the direct power of man or nature. It does as it wills and does not tire as animate things naturally do. It obeys no seasons or time, but goes without stop.  Technologies have consequences, and when the technology is not human scale then it does harm to humanity.

The question is how we begin to wean ourselves from the grip of this madness. Our first attempt at a simple agrarian community on the plains of southern Kansas….didn’t go so well. I still go over and over in my mind what we could have done differently. Our first problem was that our community was based in an economic relationship that became fragile and the whole thing crashed down. I’ve spent many hours thinking over what happened. It’s been almost a year since our friends moved away, and we’ve been away from my beloved St. Leo for two months. I still dream of a homesteading community of Catholics near a traditional Catholic parish. I think though now more than ever that Chesterton was right when he said that those who chose to lead the charge back to the land would have to make immense sacrifices. The question is how do we get started. How do we build a distributist agrarian community where faith can thrive in an authentically human way? I guess we take one step at a time.

For a long time I debated whether I would put my hand back to the plow. Sometimes the blisters from my former work cause me immense pain as a pick up the reins again. I sit here broke and broken wondering what I’m supposed to do from here. My former dreams are gone and I don’t really have a coherent vision to go forward. Yet, I’ll take up these reins again and see where God leads. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His justice and all these things will be give you besides.”

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  1. My favorite and most engaging parts of Laudato Si were the parts with liberal quoting from Guardini. I myself need to do more thinking and praying about how my technological tools affect my family and neighbors. Often, the devastating effects take years to manifest themselves and it’s that much more difficult to heal from the damage done. May God give us saints of wisdom and prudence to lead us all to more human lives!

  2. You’re in my prayers. Having worked many years with subsistence farmers in Brazil, I see the promise of that lifestyle. Small, well run farms can be both more productive per acre and much more sustainable than large scale agriculture. But it is a difficult life, especially when there is not a strong community network of neighbors and cooperatives. How can the rest of us support your efforts?

    • Matt

      Arthur, I agree with you that the community/cooperation aspect is a huge component of making small-scale farming sustainable. When I took my family to Lancaster, PA both last year and this year, I came to the realization that a Guided Amish Tour was really a Guided Amish Shopping trip! The drivers on these tours will tell you about the Amish and then proceed to take you to their shops where you can buy stuff. With the number of tourists visiting Lancaster, I’m sure this strategy provides a substantial financial boost to these small farms and cottage businesses. Perhaps, this is where one should consider that a small community of Catholics living on the land might benefit from someone in their group running a Bed and Breakfast and a small restaurant/cafe? Maybe the idea that Kevin has had of trying to gather other like-minded folks together is missing this? Just a thought.

      • Don

        The Bed and Breakfast is a good idea until Adam and Steve show up wanting to spend their honeymoon at your Catholic resort. They have already destroyed the cake baker and photographer. Just the reality of the times we live in!

        • Matt

          That can certainly happen, but every business has its risks. Regardless, a substantially rural agrarian community will never be composed of just farmers if it is to survive I think. Other occupations will be needed that are complementary. My suggestions are one set of possibilities. Others may have better ideas.

      • That almost strikes me as part of the problem. When everything is reduced to something retail based, it begins to have a Disneyesque quality to it that drowns out everything else. People ought to be able to live authentic lives without those lives becoming sort of a theme park.

        • Matt

          Pat_h, I see your point too. In some ways, I wonder if an intentional community can’t be started until an “intentional family” has picked a spot and established themselves in a way that’s in harmony with both the specific location and Catholic principles in general?

  3. eclare

    Where can I find that Chesterton quote, please/

  4. Your observations and that of Fr. Guardini’s in his Letters from Lake Cuomo are very astute and keen but there is one aspect you’ve left out. That is the replacement of the Tridentine Mass with the Novus Ordo Missa. This Mass not only functioned to a greater degree in the supernatural aspect but also it was the central point of a great and common Catholic Culture. It was, and is for many of us still the hub of the Catholic Cultural wheel. Before VCII you could travel anywhere in the world and have the commonality of the same Mass and Sacraments. However now with much local flavor added each Mass and locality is different. While this may seems insignificant it contributed mightily to the erosion of Catholic culture, influence and most importantly Faith in the modern world.

  5. This past week I happened to wonder through, largely by happenstance, a community in some ways such as you envision. I don’t know that I was wholly encouraged, but that may offer us some lessons. I’ll post my thoughts there, and then post a wider, hopefully not too dispiriting, comment.

    I ended up, as noted somewhat by happenstance, in a community of Russian Old Believers in Alaska, more specifically at the town of Nikolaevsk. It’s one of several such communities in southern Alaska. I ate an overpriced somewhat peculiar cafe there, which isn’t a comment on the town in general.

    I don’t mean to really fully compare us to the Old Believers, which are the descendants of the Russian Orthodox who refused to go along with Metropolitan Nikon’s reforms in the 17th Century. Frankly, I think Metropolitan Nikon was right and they created a schism that was fairly radically wrong. But they’ve managed to hang on, even in Russia, for all those years by self isolating and living a relatively agrarian life. That’s the interesting part of it.

    So the negative? Well, for one thing they appear to be having a hard time keeping younger members from not being lured by being “Americanized”, so now that they’re in the US (which they haven’t really been for all that long), it’s reasonable to ask if they’ll be able to persevere. Secondly, they do best, apparently, the more isolated they are, the opportunities for which are not nearly as good for we Catholics, who are much more numerous.

    Which leads me to my second, somewhat more positive comment here. To my surprise, Russian Orthodox Churches (the regular kind, not the Old Believers) are everywhere in Alaska. I wasn’t prepared for that, but they are. In looking it up, Russian Orthodox are statistically equal to Catholics in Alaska. 12.5% of the population is Russian Orthodox, 14% Catholic. Russian Orthodoxy is concentrated in the native population, and is part of their culture in some areas. That also provides a lesson, as because, as a minority culture, they’ve really preserved in that regards, against the odds. Isolation has something to do with that, but so does culture. The lesson, perhaps, is “yes, we are different, and proudly so”, which we should keep in mind.

  6. Okay, now for my second less cheerful comment.

    The last year that farm families in the US had economic parity with others in the US was 1919.


    That came at the end of an economic boom caused by World War One. Following the boom, the farm sector slipped into a depression. That was followed almost immediately thereafter by the onset of mechanization, which was slowed only by the Great Depression. The Depression, however, also brought in a series of farm policies which accidentally operated against small farmers, although that was not their intent, to some extent. Following World War Two, mechanization came in big time and the Department of Agriculture in the 1950s encouraged fence to fence planting. Farming has been in a mechanization arms race ever since, with fields getting bigger and bigger and farmers getting fewer and fewer.

    When we speak about isolated Catholic agrarian communities, we operate in this environment, and we have to ask if it is even realistic. I’m not saying it is, or isn’t, but I will note that many dedicated individuals who try an agrarian lifestyle in the US today fail. Those who don’t, often really derive their incomes from some other activity.

    The basic nature of it is that the deck is stacked against agrarianism in this day and age, and any community concept based upon that has to face it. That doesn’t mean its impossible, but it also doesn’t mean its purely possible. But what is the case is that as long as real individuals have to exist in a world with fictional “corporate” persons, things will be tough.

    So, while living simply as many wish is a laudable desire, I think perhaps focusing on the difficult legal realities we operate in, as they have an economic impact, is a must for the same people. It’s impossible to be an agrarian of any kind without being a distributist, and it will not be possible for real distributism to have an impact without its goals being addressed statutorily. Nobody today is willing to even attempt to do that, but that conversation needs to start taking place, and not just in regards to agriculture, but all small business.

  7. James


    We are heading rapidly towards times of persecution. Talk of “business as usual”, bed and breakfasts… For Catholics, those days have passed. We are called to something much greater than that. Much greater than ourselves. Our wills.

    What we need are communities of people who can support one another in the coming storm. Spiritually. And by helping one another with basic needs and necessities. From these little communities we will be called to rebuild Christendom, through the family, away from the distractions, ease and comfort of the burbs. Catholic education and catechism will be most important, if we wish to do His will for the salvation of souls.

    A good link below. And yes, it is a link!



    • Kevin

      James, I agree completely with your assessment of our times. The “everything is fine” mentality has to be dropped. Persecution is advancing rapidly, and we can ignore it only for so long. I see it everywhere encroaching as rights are steadily replaced with false rights. It is only a matter of time now. We need ways to gather together to strengthen and support one another. I think that first Christians will be marginalized and not allowed to participate in various aspects of society. If they persist then they will be arrested and eventually martyrdom. However, I think at the same time a general overall economic collapse will throw everything into disarray also. We shall see.

      • James


        Agreed. It’s difficult for me, as a husband, a parent, to plan our next steps. My head says move rural, but close to family, a good traditional parish, as I think these are both critical components of any move we make. But I have to take care of the family financially, meaning I may have to go back in the fray to work. I’ve been at home for 18 months. Pay much less, struggling like you all did in St. Leo, but not farming. Anyway, I’ll keep you and the family in my prayers.

        More than ever, or at least in the past 1500 years, Catholics really need to think of where their allegiance lies – with the Truth, or with the culture of consumerism and convenience. We also need to plan. Act. As we are called to rebuild civilization, which is hard, dangerous work. Catholic education – true Catholic education, the kind John Senior advanced at KU years ago, is also a necessary component.



        • “Catholics really need to think of where their allegiance lies – with the Truth, or with the culture of consumerism and convenience.”


          And in that, let me point out that, while I’m very rural, perhaps we’re overemphasizing the rural in this context. Let’s note that religious societies that have remained heavily rural in focus have become sort of like exotic religious islands, like the Amish or the Old Believers, while those which are rural as part of their culture, but not rural because of their religion, have wider influence (for example the conventional Orthodox of Alaska).

          Let’s also keep in mind that we were really more influential, or at least more adherent, when we were in the “Catholic Ghetto” in some areas of the country.

          In an odd way, recent events may have done us a favor. It’s easy to be gloomy about the present and near future, but we should face the fact that there’s been no Catholic social block since JFK was elected President. Well, suddenly, there is now. Quite a few comfortable Catholics in the pews and “liberal Catholics” there as well don’t want to be in it, but now people are really forced to choose. That will make us more distinct, and ultimately more influential, than we were last year at this same time, when we were just an interesting statistic.

  8. James


    Many rural families have brought the culture of consumerism and convenience into their homes. And many transplants want to have their way, their “influence”, when they move into rural areas. I’ve even seen Hutterite girls up here on cell phones, looking at mainstream secular fashions.

    It’s everywhere. And it’s everywhere accepted, regardless of setting, religious beliefs, and so on. We have drank the Kool-Aid. Our voting records support this…

    Generally speaking…


  9. Tommy


    Good to hear your updates as always. Be assured of our prayers, we too are longing for what you describe. I have finally excepted being an urban farmer, while potentially more profitable in ways, is less profitable for our family. Not sure when or where our next step is, but we are there with you.

  10. Robert Collins

    The Monastery is the best example of the corporate catholic life we have today.It’s economy right out of Acts 2 .A great part of the glue that holds it together is the initiation and the vows they take. The Cistercians have an extra vow called stability a promise that you won’t seek the greener grass.
    The success of the Catholic land movement will depend on such commitment.

  11. Ben Thorp

    Hi Kevin:
    We were briefly in touch a couple years back, when your farm was still going. At the time, I was struggling to hold on to a small Ethiopian restaurant my wife and I started almost five years ago. That struggle recently ended in defeat, and like you, I’m ruminating over where things went wrong and where to go from here.
    I’m wondering if one of the keys, in both our projects, was setting ourselves up in situations where we were basically competing with other businesses (in your case, agri-businesses; in mine, huge restaurant chains) which had overwhelming advantages, which stacked the odds tremendously against us from the very beginning.
    In my informal studies of distributism, there appear to me to be 2 schools of thought: the dominant school seems to hold that distributism needs to take hold organically, and as people begin to see its benefits, it will gain political clout and laws will change to support a truly local economy. But an older strain held that the laws and guilds etc. would need to be set up FIRST, or the first pioneers would be essentially committing economic suicide, which would be terrible for them but would also deter anyone else from following the same hopeless path.
    Of course, there are CSAs that can succeed, and there are small independent restaurants that make a go of it. But it seems like it’s much harder than it should be because of the way things are set up, and they usually succeed by skillfully playing the capitalist game on its own terms, rather than in a genuinely Catholic way. (For example, the restaurant business heavily rewards childless couples and people who are savvy marketers).
    Though it sounds strange, I’m wondering if a recent experience might contain more hope. I decided to try dumpster-diving for food: I read some optimistic posts online about the practice, but had no idea what the reality would be like. After striking out at a half-dozen places, I figured out the right type of store to hit. And hit we did: boxes and boxes of staples that had been discarded because they had hit the ‘sell-by’ date or were somehow blemished. A couple hours’ diving netted enough food to last a large family a week or two- and we left plenty behind!
    I’m just wondering if there is more truly Catholic logic in diving than in my failed attempt to enslave myself and my family in a mind-numbing spiral of Calvinistic effort trying to ‘play the game’ of capitalism.
    Now I’m seriously thinking about pursuing squatting rather than trying to keep up house payments driven by high interest rates, high insurance payments, and endless tax increases.
    But I think the flaw in all of this is ‘going it alone’: it makes so much more sense with a larger group, to share experiences with and build a community of faith with.
    Another part of me says this is crazy. But is it any crazier than our culture, where 1 in 3 babies is aborted? Where sex and life itself have lost meaning? Why should we try so hard to ‘play by the rules’ when the rules (and the game in which these rules were developed) is so obviously insane?

  12. Paul

    I sympathise with young families wanting to return to life on the land. As a farmer myself I understand the difficulties. In Australia at least farming from the beginning often involved considerable hardship, sacrifices we modern folk are not prepared to regard as reasonable. Sacrifices our children might find it difficult to forgive. It seems to me that many people today underestimate the degree of difficulty and expertise involved in making farming work especially in the current environment of “cheap” industrialised production, and the lack of a supportive farming community that was typical of rural communities even as recent as 30 years ago.

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