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.
NOTE: I put together a post on the Notes side with some links to things that I’ve found helpful in thinking about home and family life.
[…] Jake Meador has a great little essay on the need to avoid creating retreats by creating homes, and he points to Francis Schaeffer as a model. Give it a read. […]
I browsed your notes page on this topic and look forward to reading what Edith has to say about home, family, and work. I would be interested to read other Christian women’s perspectives, outside of the Schaeffer family, since so often it is women who fulfill the “homemaking” role and Christian men who think it sounds like a great idea. I know personally it is a lot easier to agree with these ideas theoretically than in practice, as making a home requires hard work, is often lonely, and can be mind-numbingly boring at times. How do we create an environment like this if we are called to work outside the home?
That’s a fantastic question. A few short thoughts in response:
a) The idea of the man working *outside* the home as primary bread-winner is from the industrial revolution, not the Bible. Scripture expects men to provide for their families, of course, but traditionally that often happened as they did a job that could be done at home–either farming on land they were living on or maintaining some kind of trade in the city that could be done out of home. The wedge that exists in the minds of many conservative evangelicals between the outside working world and the home is a modern innovation. (Read Nancy Pearcey on this in “Total Truth.”)
b) Men have an enormous role to play in creating a home, which is why I was very careful not to assign specific roles to specific people in the post. Christian men cannot act as if the home is somehow their wife’s concern and they don’t need to have any part in it. Again, that’s industrialization talking, not the Bible.
c) I think if one (or, preferably, both) spouses can find economically profitable work to do from home that’s a good thing. One of the chief problems we have today is the notion that the home cannot be a place of productivity, but only of consumption. So if we can find ways to make the home a workshop again, we ought to.
d) That ties in to the next point–often the reason that home-life seems so tedious is because all it is is coordinating consumption patterns and doing mindless tasks. 100 years ago home-making involved a number of skills that took time, patience, and discipline to hone. That is not the case today unless you want it to be. Our labor-saving devices have done for the home what assembly lines did for many crafts and trades–reduced comprehensive skills down to distinct, separate elements that a trained monkey could do.
All that to say, home-making *ought* to be a task that the husband and wife share in many ways and that involves doing good work that can support the family. (You might also consider reading Berry’s “The Body and the Earth” which you can find here: http://pages.stolaf.edu/sustainabilities/files/2014/08/Berry-BodyEarth-1.pdf)
Thanks for your reply. My mistake for imposing industrialized gender roles into your topic :) I suppose I see things that way because I am currently trying to understand my own role as a stay at home mom. Or chef. Or vigilante. Or whatever you want to call it. I definitely feel the strains of the home as a place of consumption, despite my working daily to create in it a nurturing environment. Living on one income forces us to create where we can and conserve where we can’t, but we still largely depend on external resources for our livelihood, and there is never enough money for gas to commute, food to buy, clothes to purchase, and other things we need to survive in our economy. I can’t say my own home is an “incubator” yet as you say, but I have been in these homes and understand the joy and witness of the Gospel they bring. Thanks for sharing.
There are many instances of men working outside the home in the Bible. In Prov. 31, the man works at the city gate. Peter worked as a fisherman at the shore. Other disciples worked in the marketplace. I don’t think the industrial revolution introduced the idea of men working away from home. If anything, the amount of time working has lessened in modern times, and new modes of travel have reduced the amount of time that men who travel (merchants, technicians, soldiers, diplomats, etc.) have to stay in the field.
Jake, I very much enjoyed this post. I too am a big fan of Wendell Berry. At times I agree with the tactic that you’ve explained in this post, but a few obstacles end up coming up in my mind. Could you comment on whether or not you confront these obstacles, and perhaps how I should?
1. When I think about creating homes/places like you’ve described, honestly I think about how enjoyable it would be for ME, not necessarily how beneficial it would be for others. I love the idea of having a little patch of land and getting out of the rat race of our industrial capitalism. I suppose something that’s beneficial for me isn’t necessarily not beneficial for others, but I still feel a bit guilty when I entertain thoughts of putting Wendell Berry’s advice into practice.
2. I can’t think of a sustainable “product” to make at home other than farming and taking stuff to a farmer’s market. Part of the difficulty is that for some of Wendell Berry’s advice to pan out, other people would have to choose to purchase higher-priced products because they’re local, or homemade, or whatever, and I’m not sure enough non-Christians (or Christians) would choose to do so for such ventures to work out in the long run. Food, maybe (Farmer’s markets are fairly popular), but beyond that I’m not sure.
Thanks for your post.
I very much enjoyed your perspective on our current American culture and what type of “evangelism” is needed to re-make it. Your words help me put my finger on things that have been deeply bothering me that I hadn’t seen summarized quite so clearly before. Also, it strikes me that your words on home, hospitality, affection and an entirely different way of life are what I have been driving at on my own blog. For example, https://goetschblog.wordpress.com/2015/05/27/the-difficulty-of-choosing-simplicity/ and https://goetschblog.wordpress.com/2015/02/04/sewing-my-net-or-why-ill-probably-never-get-a-mudroom/
[…] Home, Retreat, and the Benedict Option (Mere Orthodoxy, Jake Meador) […]
I enjoyed this article and your thoughts. Thank you.
One of the reasons I think the so-called Benedict Option is either unnecessary or simply an imaginary idea is that whenever people praise it they end up describing praiseworthy things which do actually exist. An “incubator” for human flourishing? That’s called a family which lives in a home. A home is a type of shelter—that is what the word l’abri means. The L’abri fellowship centers are very much like Opus Dei centers and and centers I’ve visited run by religious orders. People live there, work there and worship there and they sometimes sponsor conferences, workshops and retreats. They are homes, shelters from the world outside both physically and spiritually.
If the person who came up with the term “Benedict Option” decided to start something along the lines of L’Abri Fellowship or Opus Dei then I’d say go for it. But as we’ve suspected for some time, it is doubtful that he wants to actually do anything like that. It has become something to talk endlessly about and get other people to endlessly talk about, giving their opinions about the nature and scope of a presumed actuality. But this presumption is inaccurate; idea represented by the words Benedict Option itself is nothing more than a phantom.
[…] re-read this one, prompted by a post on the Mere Orthodoxy blog. I guess I just wanted to read about Mr. Bultitude […]
[…] – Jake Meador, Home, Retreat, and the Benedict Option […]
I love this article. It has become a manifesto of sorts for me and my future. As I write this I am standing outside the farmhouse at Littlefield Abbey and I have to say your description is spot on! I was beginning to doubt it could be after driving through the Iowa corn fields and pig smells for hours but as soon as we turned in the drive it was like we had entered another world. It honors the land and the place in its uniqueness and otherness and doesn’t fight it, but rather actually reclaims in so many ways what could be if industrial farming hadn’t completely distorted the landscape of this region. The house really is like Robinson Cruesoe meets the Lion the witch and the wardrobe too and I could totally see the bear using the toilet and Heide shooting him out! Love your imagery. Love what this article is saying. Love L’Abri and love love love Littlefield Abbey!
Thanks for writing this piece! God bless brother!