Brianna Heldt is a writer, speaker, and radio show host. She blogs at www.briannaheldt.com, has been a featured guest on BBC Radio, and her work can regularly be found in other online publications as well. A convert to the Catholic Church, Brianna explores topics ranging from faith and social issues to adoption and large family life. She and her husband make their home in Denver, along with their eight children.
A few years ago I picked up John Senior’s The Death of Christian Culture and, his follow-up, The Restoration of Christian Culture. Somewhere along the way I’d become intrigued by the Catholic Land Movement—maybe it was the road-trip we took to Wisconsin that spring, where we passed quaint pasture after pasture of cattle and corn, or perhaps I was just tired of living with seven children on an urban city block, perpetually teeming with pedestrians and dogs.
People here in Denver own a lot of dogs. We have a lot of kids, instead. I’m not entirely sure what all that means, but I do know people here also run a lot of marathons, whilst I prefer sitting and eating Trader Joe’s cookie butter by the spoonful. So, there’s that.
In any case, I was compelled by this idea of ordering one’s life around the liturgical year, the natural world God created, and the reclaiming of a healthy and faith-filled culture. I was also (as all Christian mothers are) genuinely concerned about imparting good Christian values to my children. We were homeschooling back in those days and, being the introverted homebody that I am, this whole concept of retreating into the rural Catholic ghetto sounded mighty nice.
Fast-forward a few years, and we now own a home on a little over an acre—across the street from a horse farm, and bordering multiple lots of grazing alpacas. (Why do so many people raise these funny little creatures? Clearly I’m missing something here.) We belong to a nearby vibrant (and lately, growing) parish community, marked by a reverent Liturgy where my sons serve at the altar and my daughters in the sacristy. And while I am no longer homeschooling, five of my seven school-aged children attend a classical school, where they learn about things like Monet and Ancient Rome, and dissect cow eyeballs.
But we have not gone back to the land, as it were. Or to the land in the first place, since we weren’t exactly there to begin with. Because while we have some space now to run and play and litter with soccer balls and rusty bicycles, we also have no plans for even a modest vegetable garden—much less some sort of sustainable farming situation. In spite of all the horses and alpacas (in addition to two donkeys and, yes, a few dogs too) roaming all around our property, I also live a mere four minutes from Costco and a most delightful sushi restaurant, my kids participate in neighborhood club sports, and my husband is employed not as a farmer, but as an electrical engineer.
He has designed something on the space station, though, and occasionally gets to wear a lab coat. So that’s kind of cool.
We are, for better or worse, those typical Catholic suburb-ish dwellers who live in and amongst the world. And even though I’ve made peace with the fact that I have access to raw fish and shopping malls instead of an isolated mid-western dairy farm, I do still think about some of those ideals and general principles I’d read about those years ago. And more recently I’ve really enjoyed reading about what folks are calling the Benedict Option, which makes really great sense. The culture wars are more or less over, we are a post-Christian society now, and we Catholics must consider how best to nourish and grow our families and faith.
And it begs the question: for those of us unable to uproot and relocate, can something good come from remaining in cul de sacs, neighborhoods and cities, instead of in rural agrarian communities? Is it possible for God to use us right where we are, without our sacrificing a faith-oriented life?
Shortly after we moved into our present home, there was a knock on the door. It was an elderly woman named Marge (who can’t walk or see very well), delivering a pie and wishing us a warm welcome to the neighborhood. She was excited that children were moving in, because there really weren’t any kids on this street before. And in the years since, she has been known to shown up in our yard with a gleam in her eye and eight cans of cold soda, occasionally she’ll come and ask if she can just sit and watch the kids play their game of kickball, and when we heard the mysterious sound of gushing water late one evening, my husband hurried across the street to help Marge turn her sprinkler system off until she could get a repairman to come fix the geyser the next day.
Then there was the time I backed over one of those aforementioned rusty bicycles, it got caught under my van, a neighbor noticed me struggling to get it out, and came to my rescue. (This fellow was also a real, honest-to-goodness hoarder, and no longer lives nearby because he was forced to move out under the supervision of the sheriff. And he kept the ruined bike for the metal, so that may have influenced his motive in helping me. But, you know, details.)
In any case, all of this is why I love Leah Libresco’s vision for creating a modified Benedict Option, of providing a place for Catholic community and sharing and essentially just doing life together without necessarily “fleeing or rejecting the world”. We can pursue the good, engage in authentic relationships, and meet one another’s needs even while living amongst elderly neighbors and semi-homeless hoarders. There is a small group of us ladies at my parish, for example, that occasionally meets for coffee and conversation, and for the past few summers my husband has organized semi-weekly evening basketball games at the park, where the husbands play while the kids run around and the wives chat. (The only drawback being that this particular park mysteriously has no restrooms. For reals. We just make sure not to drink too much water before we go. We are, clearly, a rugged bunch here in the CO.)
And that doesn’t even begin to touch on all of the opportunities for engagement in our culture that are so very desperately NEEDED—like foster families, for example. No matter who you are, this is an absolutely beautiful expression of openness to life that will profoundly change the way you see parenthood, love, and sacrifice. These are society’s most vulnerable children, living right here in our communities, and they deserve the opportunity to be placed in good homes with safe people, regardless how temporary it may be. And then for adoptive families like us, having a nearby network of support is crucial for not only your children but also for yourselves, particularly when it comes to the behavioral, psychological, and emotional issues these kids are bound to experience at some point. I am so grateful for the amazing adoption community we have found here in the Denver metro area.
So, I’ve decided that maybe the real key to ushering in and experiencing a Catholic cultural renaissance is organizing your life around things that matter. And cutting back on anything that doesn’t give you joy or present much of a spiritual benefit. I figure you can do this without exhausting yourself in an attempt to stick a round peg in a square hole—if you’re like my husband and spend forty hours a week in a cubicle instead of a corral, drop the sad trombone and remember that you are providing for your family. Consider the benefits that accompany a clock-in-and-clock-out job situation, which in some ways can potentially afford more, not less, flexibility. (I grew up in a ranching community, and trust me—if cows broke out of a field, you dropped everything and fixed the fence. If it was harvest time, you were putting in long and arduous hours outside of the house.) Plus, if my husband had not been hired as an engineer right out of college, we would probably not have been able to adopt four children in need of a home. Furthermore, if we lived in an extremely remote location, my daughters with Down syndrome might not have convenient access to resources, therapies, appropriate medical care, or public transportation when they’re older and wanting some semblance of independence.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that in my view, there are pros and cons to both the rural and less-rural lifestyles. And while I will always have a twinge of Catholic-farm-envy when I see folks really making a full-steam-ahead go at this whole Benedict Option thing, I am also encouraged that we can bring Jesus’ love to our families, positively impact the culture, and do what we can, with what we have, right where we are. Even amongst hoarding neighbors, funny-looking alpacas, and copious amounts of children that never put their bikes away.