Wednesday, August 12, 2009

farming and Flatland

First, a quick word of thanks to Fr. Austin ( for kindly making mention of my blog on his – I admire his consistency in posting so regularly and always having something good to say. Even when I go long stretches without posting I don’t often come back feeling like I have much to say that is worthwhile.

To that end, a few interesting things (interesting to me): I am presently staying at Bethlehem Farm ( in southeast West Virginia, a Catholic farm run by an intentional community of young Catholics. One of the founders of the place, Colleen Fitts, happens to be the sister of a former co-worker of mine from St. Louis University, so they both invited me to come visit. An exciting place: 15 or so groups per year come for weeklong missions, rather like Klagetoh, the Brothers’ place in the Navajo Nation, but they also grow a lot of their own food here, cook almost exclusively vegetarian food, and have a good mix of community living setups – long-term folks, summer volunteers, single and married folks, shared prayer, the works. As much as I am enjoying these few days here for their own sake, I will be keeping an eye out for ideas that could work in Klagetoh, especially involving bringing more people there for longer-term volunteer opportunities (summer, semester, year, whatever) - for college students or recent grads.

I just read a little book by Edward Abbott, entitled Flatland; written over a hundred years ago, it tells a story from the perspective of a being living in a two-dimensional universe. A being from 3-D space tries to explain what his universe is like, to no avail – the 2-D being simply can’t fathom anything so beyond his experience. It has reminiscences of Plato’s “Cave Allegory,” from The Republic, as well as The Matrix, but it poses the question to us of our capacity to imagine realms of reality and experience beyond our own. I could see it working as a reading for an intro theology class or something like that.

Just started in on The Sacred Canopy by Peter Berger, a sociologist. He is doing a sociological analysis of religion, not to reduce religion to sociology, but to remind us that religion has a seriously sociological element to it. In particular so far he has spent a lot of time talking about religion as a legitimizing factor for a particular arrangement of power structures. For example, he has a chapter entitled “Theodicy” (which of course piqued my interest since I taught a course on theodicy, or the question of why bad things happen to good people), in which he argues, “One of the very important social functions of theodicies is, indeed, their explanation of the socially prevailing inequalities of power and privilege. In this function, of course, theodicies directly legitimate the particular institutional order in question.” (59) So, if we say, “Everything happens for a reason,” we give support to the current state of affairs, since by our logic, whatever is happening, no matter how terrible it is, must have a good reason for being so. That means that we don’t have much theological pressure to change the state of affairs (whatever it might be). Of course, most of us at one time or another have likely said, “Everything happens for a reason”; we do at times feel like things have lined up too perfectly to be mere coincidence (and that may well be the case), but if everything is happening according to plan, then God presumably wants our world to be the way it is, undercutting the impetus for social change and neglecting the gospel stance that things are NOT the way God wants them to be. “May thy kingdom come, may thy will be done” (making explicit the usually implicit subjunctive) means that “thy will” isn’t being done, at least not in full. People that challenge that social arrangement, however, usually end up in trouble (can you think of any significant religious leaders who never got themselves in trouble with their religious group and/or their society for critiquing the status quo?), because to shake up the ordered worldview of the religion seems to risk plunging them back into chaos: “When the socially defined reality has come to be identified with the ultimate reality of the universe, then its denial takes on the quality of evil as well as madness.” (Berger 39) In Flatland, after our two-dimensional narrator is given an experience of the 3-D universe, he tries to explain it to the other beings in his universe, he is summarily silenced and imprisoned for threatening the secure worldview that they all inhabit. Thomas Merton and Walter Brueggemann both see poetry as closely akin to prophecy, not in making rhyme schemes, but in articulating an alternative to our “settled” vision of the world – what we presume to be obvious, self-evident, in the very “nature” of the world. Such thinkers and seers use analogy, metaphor, poetic language, something other than flat, “final” prose to call into question both our certitudes and the arrangements we have settled on as a society to avoid seeing those who get chewed up by those arrangements.


St Edwards Blog said...

I am here courtesy of The Concord Pastor, whom I have had the great delight of meeting in person at liturgy as his parish. Should you find yourself in the Concord environs Br. Patrick, you must go too!

Your blog is quite interesting and I spent a lot of time on it the other day when Fr. Austin first linked there. I immediately added you to my own sidebar.

I have never read Flatland but have heard a lot about it. And where you are sounds so very intriguing. There is a lot to ponder about intentional living and just how hard it is to do.

Thank you for your generosity in what you post. It doesn't have to be daily, it just needs to be authentic and that it seems to be.

Peace and blessings in abundance and prayers for your journey,

Anonymous said...

It has begun. Your readership is now in the blossoming stage, perhaps explosively so. Courtesy of the Concord Pastor, Father Austin, who so gratiously introduced you to me and others such as me who are interested in what you have to share. I have not met Father Austin, but know you to be authentic and without agenda. A great blog ....

Br. Patrick said...

Thanks, friends, for your kind comments. As I mention on the main page, this is a labor of love, and hearing from people is a rare treat that helps keep the fire burning to keep at it. Mutual prayers!