I Would Rather Be a Peasant: Contemplating the Rural Life

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Aug 19, 2016

The month of July is just a recent memory. With the change of months, I reluctantly switched my Magnificat to the August edition.

I will miss the July issue and its inspiration. While I was recuperating from this summer’s foot reconstructive surgery, my father (in his role as Eucharistic Minister) dropped by almost daily to bring me the Gift of the Eucharist, and this afforded some time to visit with him. One of our conversations included the essay by Pierre-Marie Dumont about the July front cover artwork.

The cover image is The Shepherd’s Prayer by Jozef Israels from 1864, located in the Toledo Museum of Art. Our favorite part of the essay was this paragraph, in particular my bolded text:

It highlights an anguishing and mysterious aspect of this prophecy: in the coming new civilization—meaning ours now—the Word of God would no longer immediately touch hearts and minds. He who, directly or indirectly, has never worked the good earth by the sweat of his brow, never experienced seedtimes and harvests, never tended sheep or saved a stray lamb, finds himself de facto distanced from the Gospel and its parables. Let us not be saddened: we find ourselves spurred on to deepen our understanding of the Word of God, to improve our prayerful reading of it—and let us not forget that our Lord Jesus Christ remains present to the world even until his return in glory. But why not take advantage of our vacations in the countryside to rediscover, with a touch of nostalgia, a drop of the sap that nourished the fervor of our fathers in faith? (“The Prophecy Fulfilled before Our Eyes,” Pierre-Marie Dumont, Magnificat, July 2016).

I have been pondering this essay and image in many different ways. The modern human detachment from rural life and nature has long been a favorite topic of mine. I even wrote on aspects of this for my undergraduate history thesis at Franciscan University of Steubenville. This month brought forward different aspects of this theme.

The Disconnect from Nature

It seems fitting to have this call to rediscover our connection with labor and nature during the summer months. This is the season for vacations and many outside activities. Even if one isn’t laboring as a farmer, there is more possibility of interaction in nature. The Church also recognizes this season with many harvest blessings, such as for the feasts of the Transfiguration and Assumption.

For the farmer, late summer tends to be a time of waiting on the harvests (in the Northern Hemisphere). Spring had the initial work of plowing and planting. While there is maintenance, such as weeding, watering, monitoring from pests and diseases, this time becomes a test of patience and trust in God in the unfolding season. Even with all the modern equipment and chemicals, nature cannot be completely controlled. It is this waiting and watching to see if there will be a good harvest this year.

The essay brought to mind this quote from Jacques Philippe (which I shared in a previous post). He accurately describes modern man and his disconnect from God:

Contemporary man is often cut off from nature; he lives in a world that is reduced to a universe of tarmac, concrete, and all kinds of screens. He is the prisoner of a fabricated world, a virtual world, the projection of his own fantasies, instead of being in contact with creation. As a result, he is sometimes cut off from God—and from himself (Jacques Philippe, Thirsting for Prayer, pp. 74-75).

The past few weeks the weekday Gospels have included many of Christ’s parables. As the Magnificat essay mentions, modern man is separated from a rural way of living. So many of us have not experienced any aspects of working our hands with the land or animals. Jesus speaks in tangibles, and so much of modern life is intangible and not rooted in the earth. Our labor-saving devices have separated us from God. Although they can save us from extra work, they have actually created more work for ourselves spiritually to reach God. It is distressing to think that modern advances are the very things that have distanced us from the Gospel and parables.

The Ideal of the Agrarian Life

The Church has repeated that the family farm is ideal for living the Christian life in the world. I know some people have bristled at that claim, but there is evidence in the Church’s social teachings through many popes. In particular, Pope St. John XXIII in his Mater et Magistra states it quite clearly:

142. It is not possible to determine a priori what the structure of farm life should be, since rural conditions vary so much from place to place and from country to country throughout the world. But if we hold to a human and Christian concept of man and the family, we are bound to consider as an ideal that form of enterprise which is modeled on the basis of a community of persons working together for the advancement of their mutual interests in accordance with the principles of justice and Christian teaching. We are bound above all to consider as an ideal the kind of farm which is owned and managed by the family. Every effort must be made in the prevailing circumstances to give effective encouragement to farming enterprises of this nature.

... Those who live on the land can hardly fail to appreciate the nobility of the work they are called upon to do. They are living in close harmony with Nature—the majestic temple of Creation. Their work has to do with the life of plants and animals, a life that is inexhaustible in its expression, inflexible in its laws, rich in allusions to God the Creator and Provider. They produce food for the support of human life, and the raw materials of industry in ever richer supply.

145. Theirs is a work which carries with it a dignity all its own. It brings into its service many branches of engineering, chemistry and biology, and is itself a cause of the continued practical development of these sciences in view of the repercussions of scientific and technical progress on the business of farming. It is a work which demands a capacity for orientation and adaptation, patient waiting, a sense of responsibility, and a spirit of perseverance and enterprise.

Not everyone can be a farmer, but can we all find ways to adapt this “nobility of work” and Christian concept of man and family aligned with the connection with nature even in urban or suburban lives? Reading through this section of the encyclical has me pondering to find more ways to incorporate this agrarian life. I’m examining my suburban life. Would planting a garden, buying local food, shopping and cooking what is in season be ways to reconnect?

Recognizing Our Connections with Nature

Working with nature helps one align oneself to God more readily. We don’t realize our daily disconnects. Our food is shipped from all over the world, arriving in big box stores, wrapped in plastic and paper. We live in houses using materials from trees and other natural sources on plots of lands that have been stripped of most living things. We watch the weather forecast for our outdoor sports activities, not with an awareness of the nearby farmer’s need for his crops. Our clothing is all store-bought without thought of the sheep, cotton or flax crops and silkworms that make this clothing possible. We buy steaks, eggs, milk, butter, etc. without any thought of the origins.

Even in 1927 G. K. Chesterton in his Outline of Sanity was describing this modern problem of man:

When wars or revolutions cut us off from cows, the industrialists discovered that milk does not come originally from cans....

What is wrong with the man in the modern town is that he does not know the causes of things; and that is why, as the poet says, he can be too much dominated by despots and demagogues. He does not know where things come from; he is the type of the cultivated Cockney who said he liked milk out of a clean shop and not a dirty cow. The more elaborate is the town organization, the more elaborate even is the town education, the less is he the happy man of Virgil who knows the causes of things. The town civilization simply means the number of shops through which the milk does pass from the cow to the man; in other words, it means the number of opportunities of wasting the milk, of watering the milk, of poisoning the milk, and of swindling the man. If ever he protests against being poisoned or swindled, he will certainly be told that it is no good crying over spilt milk; or, in other words, that it is reactionary sentimentalism to attempt to undo what is done or to restore what is perished. But he does not protest very much, because he cannot; and he cannot because he does not know enough about the causes of things—about the primary forms of property and production, or the points where man is nearest to his natural origins.

Ninety years later, his description still rings true, and can be taken even further. Chesterton would be amazed that he could satisfy a craving for strawberries in November, or have fresh shrimp while visiting Notre Dame, Indiana, revisiting his 1930 trip. There are so many foods we eat with little questioning or understanding of what it took to get these luxuries.

Losing that Element of Control

Intimately interacting and working in nature reminds us of God and His wondrous gifts and might, and a reminder how weak and dependent we are on Him. Perhaps it is subconscious, but it seems modern man wants to shut out nature because it is a constant reminder that we are not in control. For example, weather can be analyzed, discussed, predicted, sometimes manipulated (as in seeding clouds), but never managed.

Our climate-controlled homes, offices, shops, cars are a convenient way to not be affected by the changing of the seasons. A person could avoid ever feeling the extremes of temperature due to the modern conveniences. But it is precisely those sticky, hot summers and those snow-filled icy-cold winters that bring more awareness of the presence of God. We have no control of the temperature. Dumont’s suggestion, “But why not take advantage of our vacations in the countryside to rediscover, with a touch of nostalgia, a drop of the sap that nourished the fervor of our fathers in faith?” is a positive suggestion, to enjoy and recognize the hand of God in nature. But experiencing the not-so-beautiful or destructive side of nature, such as the uncomfortable heat or flooding rains will also benefit our relationship with God.

Pitting Agrarian vs. Urban

Although Dumont refers to the “new civilization” in his essay, the separation between agrarian and urban living has been longstanding. And there has always tended to be a city slicker vs. country bumpkin attitude, with the urban lifestyle always posed as more enlightened and superior. Aesop’s Fables date back to before 500 B.C. and include the most famous fable of The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse that touches on this rivalry. The moral concludes that the simple, secure life is better than seeking luxuries while living in fear, but the rivalry continues to this day.

The essay also reminds me of a scene from a favorite old movie Born Yesterday, with Judy Holliday and William Holden. William Holden’s character is a journalist who is educating Judy Holliday. She reads Holden’s column that references Robert G. Ingersoll’s After Visiting the Tomb of Napoleon, but didn’t understand it, so a discussion ensues. “I’d rather be a peasant...” Holden quotes the essay in part;

And I said I would rather have been a French peasant and worn wooden shoes. I would rather have lived in a hut with a vine growing over the door and the grapes growing purple in the kisses of the autumn sun. I would rather have been that poor peasant with my loving wife by my side, knitting as the day died out of the sky, with my children upon my knee and their arms about me. I would rather have been that man and gone down to the tongueless silence of the dreamless dust than to have been that imperial impersonation of force and murder known as Napoleon the Great.

And so I would ten thousand times.

Living closer to nature helps bring home what matters the most: life’s simple pleasures. Pierre-Marie Dumont’s call to contemplate nature is a call to sort priorities and go back to basics that bring us closer to God, no matter where we live.

Being closely united with all our brothers and sisters through the Mystical Body of Christ is a reminder that there shouldn’t be a city vs. country antagony. Every action we do affects the whole Mystical Body. In particular, the farmer brings the food to our tables, making those who live in city or suburbs extremely depended on the work of the farmer. Instead of keeping that separation and snobbery against the agrarian life, the attitude should be uniting with our brothers and sisters in Christ, even if we are living in different circumstances. The Church’s liturgy is full of prayers for the rural life, but not just for farmer to pray.

One must point out that the public prayer of the church as contained in the missal, breviary and ritual is not for the exclusive welfare of the farmer, but for all the members of Christ’s Body. The man or woman in the city cathedral praying the Mass or using the sacramentals is praying for the good of the farmer; and likewise the farmer in the little rural church at Mass or any public service of the liturgy as well as in the use of the sacramentals and ritual is mindful of his brother’s needs before the throne of almighty God and in union with the eternal Priest, the Redeemer, our Lord Himself (Morrison, “Using Sacramentals”, Orate Fratres, Volume XXIV, February 1950, No. 3, pp. 128-132).

The hours for the Divine Office, the Angelus every six hours, those times of stopping for prayer were chosen because of the rhythms of the day’s labor with nature. The Church has traditionally lived and breathed with God’s nature and seasons.

I recently reviewed TAN’s reprint of The Rural Life Prayerbook. While originally compiled and written for those living the rural life, the prayers are universal, with sisters and brothers praying for each other and recognizing all of our dependency on God. This is another way of connecting with the rural life, no matter our circumstances.

I would rather be a peasant, but that isn’t where God put me right now. I can’t sell my home and start farming, but I will be praying to find small ways to make those changes to bring me closer to Christ. I will have to make extra effort to find more ways to stop and appreciate God’s gifts of nature, and recognize that connection with those who do work with our hands. I need to work on bridging that gap between me and the Gospels and parables.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Kansas Girl - Aug. 20, 2016 2:33 PM ET USA

    The author states plainly, "While I was recovering from ,,,foot surgery, my father dropped by almost daily ...." I don't see any ambiguity. On another note, I agree that working in the flower or vegetable garden is very therapeutic. I have gone through a hard summer, which included the breakup of a long relationship, and I know that working in the yard helps clear the mind.

  • Posted by: Dennis Olden - Aug. 19, 2016 4:45 PM ET USA

    I got as far as "While recovering from foot surgery, my father . . ." and stopped. Who was recovering from foot surgery?

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Aug. 19, 2016 4:41 PM ET USA

    Though few can be farmers, almost everyone can be a gardener, and raise a portion of his own food. It is a calming thing to see seeds become plants that provide food for us, as well as a new generation of plants for the next year. When I arrive at home exhausted, it is that garden walk and shirt full of tomatoes that restores my soul.