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Home, Retreat, and the Benedict Option

June 1st, 2015 | 10 min read

By Jake Meador

Just off a state highway in northern Iowa there is a place called Littlefield Abbey. It’s a two-bedroom farmhouse on about five acres of land on the edge of a small Iowa town that belongs to a pastor at a church in the nearby town. If you don’t know it’s there, you’ll drive right past it down the highway.

But if you know the place you’ll turn down the drive and come down a bending driveway with a canopy of trees hanging overhead. You’ll come round the bend and see an old fountain, a large front porch, a barn, two cabins, and a host of animals. There are, predictably enough I suppose, an overwhelming number of farm cats. There are several goats and chickens. There is an old dog named Jewel. You’ll hear her before you see her, but there is also a dairy cow named Phronzie (pronounced fron-zee) who, for whatever reason, is much easier to milk when she is being sung to.

If you have read Lewis’s That Hideous Strength then imagine St. Anne’s-on-the-Hill in small-town Iowa and you understand Littlefield Abbey. It wouldn’t surprise me to walk into the bathroom at Littlefield Abbey and find a large brown bear docilely lounging by the bathtub. Nor would I be surprised if Heidi, one half of the couple that owns the home, were to walk into the bathroom and cheerfully shoo him out as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world. If you have not read Lewis’s marvelous book, then imagine a cross between The Swiss Family Robinson and Professor Kirke’s home in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Littlefield Abbey is a place where the creativity, work, and thrift of the former meets the delight, mystery, and joy of the latter.

Likewise in Rochester MN there was a place called Toad Hall. It’s an old prairie box home located on West Center Street about a mile west of Mayo Clinic. It was home to Denis and Margie Haack, co-directors of Ransom Fellowship. Influenced by L’Abri and the writings of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, Denis and Margie came to Rochester in the early 80s from their home in New Mexico in order to study with Dr Schaeffer while he received treatment for cancer at Mayo Clinic. Their children, accustomed to the adobe houses of New Mexico, called the home Toad Hall because it reminded them of Toad’s home in The Wind in the Willows. After Schaeffer died in 1984, the Haacks stayed on and created another place of refuge and hospitality, where people could be truly seen and welcomed. The Haacks have since moved from Toad Hall to a new house they are calling The House Between, but everyone who received their hospitality at Toad Hall will remember that place.

Both of these places, Littlefield Abbey and Toad Hall, have in different ways derived something of their life from the work of L’Abri, which I already mentioned above. The simplest way of defining L’Abri is to call it a residential study center founded by Francis and Edith Schaeffer in their Swiss home in 1955. But to reduce L’Abri to those terms is like reducing a perfectly cooked steak to an exact yet unimaginative phrase like “a large amount of protein.” It’s accurate but somehow wrong.

Today L’Abri has a dozen branches scattered around the world in places ranging from Rochester, MN (where I lived for two summers) to the Schaeffer’s old home in Huemoz, Switzerland. In fact, my family is currently spending a couple days in Rochester as students and I am writing this in the main house, sitting in a chair looking out the large back window onto what we call “the point,” which is a drop off in the backyard where we have a fire pit and lawn furniture that overlooks all of downtown Rochester. Though it has been nine years since I lived in this place as a student I have continually come back to it as a sort of spiritual home. “Home” is the best way of defining L’Abri.

Home, of course is an increasingly foreign idea to many of our friends and neighbors and even, sadly, to Christians—which is precisely what makes L’Abri necessary. Many of us haven’t experienced home because the dominant values of our current society, as well as its daily routines and economies, are almost without fail antagonistic to home-life. You can sum up the modern west with a quote from Justice Sandra Day O’Connor which was later quoted by Justice Anthony Kennedy: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

This notion of defining one’s own concept of existence necessitates a commitment to capitalism, which materially enables the self-expression, as well as a resistance to older understandings of being human that would, if practiced, constrain our individual autonomy.

As a result, we are taught to seek out self-fulfillment through market-oriented work while neglecting older forms of human community, most notably the family and the home in which the family has thrived. Our children, what few we have, are raised in daycares maintained by “professional” childcare workers while their parents work elsewhere. These same children are then educated in government-run schools designed to eventually produce good workers that will reinforce this ideology. Our homes lie empty much of the day while both parents work and then serve as consumption centers for 2-3 hours at night before everyone goes to bed.

As Wendell Berry has written elsewhere, the modern idea of marriage, two careerists deciding between themselves how to share resources, has all the conditions of divorce. The trajectory of our lives is thus a constant tugging away from home, place, and relationships of affection and toward abstractions like “professional success,” “individual expression,” and “self-fulfillment.” This is true even in many Christian circles. The result of all this is the destruction of any clear notion of home because no other result can happen when we dedicate ourselves so completely to life outside the home. L’Abri and the places it has inspired are, by their very nature, a strong rebuke of that inhumane, machine-like society, a world that Tolkien would say had a mind of metal.

So when I say that L’Abri is home, I mean that it is a refuge from all that, that it is a place where people are treated as human creatures made in God’s image deserving of dignity. The work that became L’Abri began because the Schaeffers’ oldest daughter was attending college in Zurich in the 1950s and was meeting students who in many ways anticipated the sort of students that would spark the cultural revolutions of the 1960s in Europe and America. Many of these students would come to the Schaeffers’ home on weekends and find themselves falling into conversation with Francis about the various questions they were asking and thinking about while at university.

And Dr Schaeffer, unlike many Christians in his day, not only was capable of keeping up with their questions and reading, but actually loved to do so. He had read Sartre and Camus and many of the other leftist writers of post-war Europe. Later he would come to know the films of Ingmar Bergman and would listen to the Beatles and Pink Floyd. Indeed, Schaeffer discussed these films and musicians while lecturing at Christian universities in America throughout the 1960s at a time when most of these schools didn’t even allow their students to see any movies, let alone the work of a filmmaker like Bergman.

All of these things found their way into his daily talk with students as well as his lectures. Most of the students that came, including one who would become a L’Abri worker himself and who would be my tutor during my first stay here, hadn’t met a religious believer like that, a believer who actually showed an interest in the things they loved. But Schaeffer did. He believed, as he said many times, that honest questions deserve honest answers. And he wanted their family’s home to be a part of answering those questions for the students that his children kept bringing home.

So over the next 29 years he and his wife Edith created a place in which honest questions could be received, discussed, and, in time, answered. Edith’s remarkable gift for hospitality, place-making, and cooking played a major role in the creation of this place. Together the Schaeffers made L’Abri the sort of place where questions could be considered and answered in a way that went beyond mere debate and the exchanging of cognitive principles and ideas that simply lived in one’s head. It’s one thing to argue theology over a cheap burger and fries at the local greasy spoon. It’s quite another thing to do so in a home that lives up to that great and oft-abused word.

Jock McGregor, my tutor during my second term at L’Abri, explained it to me this way: He said that L’Abri is a place that challenges it’s non-Christian students by sharing the Christian faith with them while also welcoming them with a hospitality that is directly attributable to that faith. So as these students consider the intellectual claims of the faith they can’t simply look at the teachings of the faith in an exclusively intellectual way. They are not just principles to be affirmed or rejected. These students are forced to reckon with the undeniable delight of the place and the fact that the people who have created it say it all comes from Christianity. You are, essentially, being asked whether you believe in apples as you enjoy a slice of apple pie.

This is, of course, how all evangelization ought to work but most of the people reading this essay, Christian or not, will have had the experience of being lectured by a boorish believer about why their religious beliefs are true. In such circumstances it is easy to dismiss the person with an exasperated wave of one’s hand. L’Abri, however, is a place that resists such simple dismissals of religious life.

In light of recent conversations, you might reasonably think that L’Abri sounds an awful lot like Rod Dreher’s much-discussed Benedict Option. It’s an intentional community in which people, many of whom are Christian though not all, share life together in a way that resists the accelerated pace and materialist values of the modern west. Indeed, the word “retreat” has often been used to describe L’Abri and L’Abri itself may even invite that characterization since it’s name is the French word for shelter.

But it’s significant that L’Abri’s impact has not been limited to its own institutional life. Nor can L’Abri’s work be reduced down to the thing that a former resident learned while living there or the way it equipped a former resident to do market-focused task X. These are the measures of many modern institutions, of course. They are most notably the measure of the modern university which has become as much a part of the post-industrial “knowledge economy” as Wall Street. But it is not the measure of L’Abri. Rather, L’Abri has become a different world and it has begotten other places like it, places like Littlefield Abbey and Toad Hall.

The begetting is the key. The Benedict Option cannot simply be a refuge or haven from the forces that exist outside of it. It must also be an incubator, a place that remakes the world. If the Benedict Option is not an incubator as well as a retreat it will fail. The world outside does not regard these places with benign indifference. It will either attack them directly as we may see in the post-same-sex marriage world or it will simply eat away at them over time through more gradual but no less deadly means.

This is why Dreher rightly insists that the Benedict Option would be necessary even without the added challenges posed by same-sex marriage. The technocratic, materialist west will grind these places down into nothing just as the industrial economy has obliterated the idea of human people existing as creatures in a family.

Yet this work is not hopeless. The 60 years of L’Abri tell us what can happen in time as these places transform the minds and hearts of the people who come to them and help them to imagine another world. The work of L’Abri is no longer confined to those dozen places that are explicitly affiliated with the institution. It does continue there, but it has also unleashed the people touched by those places to remake the world in their local contexts. Thus it moves forward in places like Littlefield Abbey and Toad Hall, places where the possibility of another world seems immediate and tangible thanks to the warmth, tenderness, and delight that seems to almost exist innately in the place.

A year or so ago I asked a friend who had worked for Russell Kirk what it was like to live at the Kirk’s legendary home in Mecosta, MI. He said that crossing the threshold into the house was like entering another world, like stepping into the wardrobe and sweeping aside the fur coats to discover a snowy forest, a lone lamppost, and a faun walking by carrying a parcel. He also said that if Christianity is ever going to thrive again in the west it will only do so by creating places like that.

We cannot, I took him to mean, go on living our lives in basically parallel ways alongside the non-Christian culture in which the only substantive differences between us and them exist in our heads. The differences must run deeper because if they do not then our Christianity will wither in time, worn away by the forces of a materialistic western culture that knows little of the humane values of love, affection, and humility, all of which are necessary for human flourishing. If the church is to thrive, then we must create places of warmth and hospitality. We must create homes for ourselves and for those unfortunates who have never had a home.

But the demands of home are practical demands. Creating a home takes time and requires sacrifices of us. These demands force structures upon our lives that constrain our autonomy but through which we arrive at true freedom. This means that the differences of the faith must touch our material lives in tangible ways. We cannot go on having both parents work full-time jobs outside the home, thereby reducing the work of home-making to the coordination of consumption patterns and reducing the home itself to a kind of high-dollar storage shed. We cannot go on entrusting the formation of our children to government-run schools that reinforce rampant individualism and undermine more humane values. We cannot go on living life at a pace that makes silence and contemplation and the sharing of unhurried time impossible. These are the routines, habits, and customs that will eventually devour Christian community. We must, instead, find creative ways of cultivating places that remake the world, places like Littlefield Abbey, Toad Hall, and L’Abri.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).