American idyll: Catholic Worker and reality T.V.

‘We just got a call from a producer for a reality TV show,” announced a member of our Catholic Worker farm community to a few of us working in the garden. Skeptical, we kept our hoes moving, preparing to sow the first seeds of spring. We wondered aloud if this was some kind of bizarre prank. “They sound pretty serious,” she said. “They want us to be featured for a show on intentional communities.” We laughed. “What are they going to do,” we joked, “film us splitting wood and weeding vegetables all day?”

The schmoozy, fast-talking New York producer was persistent. As she called with greater frequency and desperation, I began to reflect more on why a film crew would possibly want to spend a few months chronicling our lives.

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Our Catholic Worker farm in Iowa, where 14 of us raise food organically and strive to live spiritually integrated lives, is home to me, my wife and three other families. We are grounded in the dignity of manual labor. In our chapel, where we meet for prayer before the start of our day, hangs a luminous icon of Sts. Isidore and Maria, patron saints of farmers. We are striving for an existence that is more—to use a trendy word—sustainable. More than half of our diet comes from our own land. There are solar panels and an outdoor solar shower. We use our 90-year-old wood-burning cook stove to heat our home and cook most of our meals. I keep up with our woodpile and tend our flock of chickens, while others mind our Jersey cows and care for our handful of beehives. All of us garden in our no-till, raised vegetable beds and help host retreats for those on the margins.

What appeal could such a place have to young adults drawn to the drama of reality TV? I believe it has something to do with our culture’s overly romanticized view of farm life—as a kind of “American Idyll”—which stems from the yearning to reconnect to what has been lost amid our frenetic, distracted lives. As evidenced by the fact that seven out of 10 U.S. workers admit to being either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” from their work, many have chosen the path of financial security at the cost of freedom and spiritual fulfillment.

My own odyssey to the “simple life” on a Catholic Worker farm didn’t happen overnight. I look back and recognize lots of small decisions that hardly felt momentous at the time but that now form the foundation of who I am. I started growing flowers in my apartment. I spent a summer providing hospitality for homeless women. I volunteered weekly at a thriving urban farm run by hip activists, turning compost and plucking weeds against a bleak backdrop of vacant lots, prostitutes and heroin addicts.

Before long, I was devouring the writings of the poet and farmer Wendell Berry and the “Easy Essays” of Peter Maurin, the peasant philosopher and co-founder of the Catholic Worker. I became enthralled with their compelling argument that the urgent task of our age is to renew the vital links between health and holiness, land and the common good. After an encounter with a young family in Iowa who were looking to build a community on their farm, the next step along my path became clear. I packed my things into a friend’s truck and moved to this quiet valley dotted with crags and springs that teem with watercress.

Of course, our homestead is not a utopian fantasyland. Community has been an ongoing school of sorts, in which we are learning how to collaborate, navigate conflict and support one another. Inspired by a nearby monastery’s practice of “chapter of faults,” we’ve created a ritual in which we cultivate a prayerful space to work out inevitable tensions. But we believe the hard work is worth it, as it is through community that we can help each other live into the world we long for, a world where creation might flourish more fully.

So though we debated whether or not to participate in the proposed show, wondering if viewers might benefit from observing our successes and failures in pursuing a holistic way of life, we ultimately decided that such an experience could not be fully transmitted through the weird world of reality TV. Our lives can only truly be communicated through the messy, earthy and occasionally ethereal real world. And while one could travel to our obscure hollow to experience what an alternative path might look like, it is more imperative that each of us create such openings in our own place and time.

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