Amid the twists and turns of COVID-19, I have been paying attention to some interesting trends. Many employers, whose workers are staying productive while working from home, are planning to encourage more remote work even beyond the pandemic. The virus has also motivated many people to leave cities for less densely populated areas—from wealthy individuals setting up shop in their second homes to scrappy millennials disillusioned with city life. Many of these people plan to make this relocation permanent since new ways of working remotely now make that more feasible.
As someone who has spent most of his adult life living in rural areas, I’m very hopeful about this trend. Eighty percent of the US population now resides in cities, which has led to overcrowding, glaring social inequity, and environmental challenges. It’s also drained the countryside of the critical mass of people required for healthy rural economies, agriculture, and cultural life. A significant demographic shift to the countryside could potentially reverse both of those problems: Everyone could win.
As the Church tries to find new ways to be Church during and beyond the pandemic, I’m excited to imagine how Christians and other people of faith might move to the countryside and craft new forms of intentional discipleship, devotion, and prophetic witness—and do so, as much as is possible, in community with others who share similar values and commitments.
Back the the Beginning
Fortunately, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The Christian tradition has a long, venerable history of intentional rural communities in various forms. Beginning in the third century, Christian hermits fled to the Egyptian desert to escape persecution and, later, what they saw as the decadence of imperial Christianity. They left the cities for solitude, but they ended up forming communal monastic cultures that would sustain Christianity and Western culture through the Dark Ages and beyond.
Recent centuries have seen the rise of Anabaptist communities such as the Amish, Mennonite, and Bruderhof movements. More recent still have been Catholic Worker farms and other intentional Catholic communities like Bethlehem Farm in West Virginia.
Some of these movements and communities may be more radical than most of us could or would commit to. But if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we can try new, bold, risky things even—and especially—in how we live out our spiritual commitments. And this “new monasticism” could take any number of forms, with varying degrees of commitment.
Regardless of the particular form they take, new ways of inhabiting rural areas as an act of faith and discipleship would have many common threads, like the “Twelve Marks” or “Nine Vows” articulated by the New Monastic movement. These might include spiritual formation and daily contemplative prayer; nonviolent peacemaking and solidarity with marginalized people; connection to and care for the earth; and commitment to intentional forms of community life such as geographical proximity, resource sharing, regular common meals, praying together, and shared works of mercy.
Positives and Pitfalls
The main point is the intentionality: Like the sacraments of Marriage, Confirmation, or Ordination, it involves making an explicit (and hopefully long-term) commitment to a certain way of life.
Such a movement faces many potential pitfalls, though. It could, for example, become a nondiverse movement of the privileged who have the kinds of jobs and income that allow them to leave cities—a new form of “white flight.” New rural pioneers could fail to create right relationships with the land and its First Peoples—as when the first wave of American pioneers ended up causing genocide, the Dust Bowl, and the near-extinction of American bison. New rural dwellers would certainly have to embrace some degree of asceticism: giving up easy conveniences and entertainment, driving longer distances for shopping and essential services, figuring out creative solutions for childcare and education.
On the other hand, the rewards of such a monastic movement could be manifold for its members and for the broader society.
I know from my family’s own experience that living in close relationship to the land fulfills something deep and essential in the human spirit. The simple tasks of tending to basic needs, like growing a garden or tending livestock, can create a clarity of mind and heart that can free us from the mostly empty distractions of social media and the news cycle, free us from the need to fill our lives with too many possessions, and free us for various kinds of creative pursuits and loving service.
Most importantly, when we cultivate some kind of intentional common life with others who share similar commitments—with all of the messy challenges that entails—we are touching on what is most real, authentic, and meaningful about being alive. What more important and satisfying work could there be than to be part of building, together, the necessary elements of a thriving rural economy and culture?
This kind of humble yet radical discipleship certainly isn’t for everyone. I myself am both attracted to it and terrified by it, with little idea if and how to step toward it amid the tangle of my midlife responsibilities. To the extent such movements “succeed” (whatever that means), they usually do so only in part. But I do take some comfort from those early monastics, who went to the desert not to be “successful,” but simply to be faithful. If Jesus is truly “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2), then there’s reason to hope that he might lead today’s faithful pioneers on a path of love that helps bring all of us toward a better future.
1) There are plenty of examples of new monastic communities in urban areas too. For a great example, check out Shane Claiborne and The Simple Way community in Philadelphia.
2) The Catholic Rural Life organization has spent decades promoting ethical agriculture, rural ministry, and care for creation. You can find many helpful resources at CatholicRuralLife.org.
3) For an example of the Church’s theological reflection on rural life, read “This Land Is Home to Me,” a beautiful pastoral letter from the bishops of Appalachia.