Why has my family chosen to swelter through the summer, cooled only by ceiling fans, breezes from open windows, shade and cold showers? For that matter, why do we subject ourselves to the various forms of discomfort and inconvenience presented by rural living? Why do we spend countless hours in hot fields and a hot kitchen, stooping over crop rows and cutting boards to grow and preserve our own food? Why do we stubbornly heat our home every winter with firewood from our land, when forced-air heat is available at the flick of a switch?
It is not because we are averse to technology or modernity; I love my iPod. While we may have some misgivings about it, our feet are planted firmly, and gratefully, in the 21st century. We have no romantic notions about the good old days, keeping in mind that thenas now in many poorer nationsif you made it past childbirth, you could look forward to a life of back-breaking labor, few educational opportunities and, in all likelihood, an early death by injury or illness. It is not because we harbor some secret self-loathing and desire to suffer. It is not because we seek a self-righteous purity and remove from the surrounding culture and economy either. Then why?
Much of todays talk about climate crisis and ecological stewardship centers on the idea that technology and efficient use of resources will end up saving our future. These are crucial pieces of the puzzle, but a deeper truth hurts: we will not navigate our way toward a socially and ecologically sustainable future without personal and communal sacrifice. Whether we choose to make sacrifices out of solidarity and moral conviction or are forced to do so by some ecological or economic collapse, we in the first world countries will soon have to start living much less high on the hog. I dont relish this thought, but I want to start living in a way that readies me for it. I want to toughen up.
Of course, you dont simply think your way into a new way of living; you practice. In tangible and concrete ways, in incremental steps, you prepare, you train, you discipline yourself. What Im talking about, really, is a new form of asceticism.
The early monastics took to the Egyptian desert because they thought they could be in touch there with the really real, the material of an authentic spiritual life. The desert was not for the faint of heart. It provided freedom from the distractions of urban life, but it also required radical asceticism simply to survive. It may be hot in Indiana, but its really hot in the desert. At least we have plentiful water and arable land!
Like the desert fathers and mothers, my wife and I feel that a rural environment is the best place for us and our three children to live out our vocation. And like the desert monastics, we have come to acceptsometimes joyfully, sometimes grudginglythat our attempts to live more simply and justly in a rural setting entail a degree of deprivation, discomfort and self-denial. Asceticism involves disciplinephysical, mental and spiritual. At their best, the desert monastics disciplined their minds and bodies, not out of self-abnegation or to strut their egos, but so that they could flower more fully in a spiritual sense.
My family is committed to living ever more sustainably, both for the future of our planet and for our own good. We have a passive-solar home, fluorescent light bulbs, efficient appliances, even some solar panels for electricity and hot water, and we try to conserve energy every way we can. But relatively speaking, even with these efforts, our privilege is vast and our asceticism is tame. If we go without air-conditioning, for example, it is no great act of heroism or creativity. Plenty of folks on this planet do it every day in much worse conditions, and all of us did it throughout human history until the last century. But even that relatively minor sacrifice means several tons of carbon dioxide do not get pumped into our global greenhouse, and a little less coal gets ripped out of a strip mine in Montana or a blown-off mountaintop in Appalachia.
I do not like to feel hot. Maybe its my Nordic genes. I would much rather freeze than sweat. So lets not be romantic. I do not enjoy soaking through work clothes and nice clothes alike or spending hot afternoons and evenings fighting heat-induced torpor, desperate for a breeze from weather or fan. My wife grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania without air conditioning, and she bears it better than I, who grew up in a suburban house with painted-shut windows, where the turn of season in spring and fall meant simply moving the thermostat switch from heat to cool.
The choice to forgo air conditioning, however, brings us other gifts beyond a cleaner environmental conscience or the concrete benefits of a better bottom line on our electric bill. Its nice to feel a little less at the mercy of technology. I have no doubt that many buildings are so poorly designed and constructed that air conditioning, once a luxury, has become a necessity. I am also aware that air conditioning has relieved the misery and extended the lives of countless people with various health concerns. But in our family, we have been encouraged by the realization that we dont need air conditioning to survive the summer. We are tougher than we thought, and our house, while hotter and more humid and somewhat uncomfortable at times, is livable.
In fact, it is more than livable. On my good days, I can even say that I enjoy it. One thing I have always detested about air conditioningor much of modern technology, for that matteris not just its large environmental footprint, but the sense of separation it creates, a disconnection from the outside worldwhich is, of course, the real world. My understanding of Catholic sacramentalism and the theology of the incarnation is that true spiritual practice brings you closer to the world, rather than farther from it; open windows do too.
Turning off technologyair conditioning, cellphones, even my beloved iPodmakes one pay attention to things and invites the practice of mindful awareness. When you open the windows, your senses open. When its baking inside, you notice any small shift of breeze, slight drop of temperature or humidity, or a blessed rain shower. You notice the cycle of the day, from pleasant mornings to brutal afternoons to merciful evenings after dusk. You notice your own body as it attempts to maintain its equilibrium as best it can in the circumstances. On our farm, through the screens we can hear the birds heralding the morning, the thrum of cicadas and the chorus of bullfrogs singing into the night, the throb of field equipment and all the neighborhood dogs, goats, cows, coyotes and roosters. And yes, we smell the manure I just spread on the fields and the skunk who frequents our grounds at night.
On my bad days, of course, I just steam in resentment and discomfort. Those days invite kenosis, self-emptying after the model of Christ, who could have had all but chose less. Those days can become sacred if we offer up the discomfortand even resentmentto God out of a sense of higher purpose and calling. As with Lenten fasting, those days by grace can build up spiritual muscle and strength.
Strength is not the ultimate goal of asceticism, however, nor is ecological responsibility. On some level, ascetic practice might toughen you up, but the truer, deeper fruit is a softer heart: gratitude and a sense of solidarity that leads to compassion. When we cease to notice things, we lose the capacity to give thanks. But when ascetic discipline sharpens our awareness, we can come to see that we swim in an ocean of gifts, gifts we might not even have asked for or wanted, but which nonetheless draw us closer to the divine and to the world.
When we turn off our technology and leave our windows and our hearts open to the world we live in, we realize that we are not essentially separate from it. Hot and humid as our river valley may be, it is still our home, our place of belonging, a place with which our own fate and fortunes are intertwined for better and for worse. And if we belong unavoidably with the rest of the world, with all its creatures human and nonhuman, how can we not come to care about someone or something beyond us and our stuff? It is not just the breeze or the sounds of nature that waft through our open windows; we can also hear the cries from Sudan and Iraq and sense the smog from Shanghai and São Paolo.
Asceticism takes a multitude of forms, and our farming life is a journey of discovering and discerning what sacrifices yield the most spiritual and ecological fruit. I do not pretend to have arrived at the right or perfect practice, much less pretend to know what choices are best for anyone else. I am sure, however, that we who are privileged have to scale back our lives in some way. And I trust that if we undertake it as a spiritual discipline, we will not only make the future possible. We will be authentically open to the present.