Back to the Land, Back to the Lord

Property, prosperity, prestige, success, power, popularity—none of this lasts, emphasizes Marcus Grodi, author of “Life from Our Land”. In fact, they can all be distractions from attaining that which is most important.

Marcus Grodi is familiar to many as the host of The Journey Home television series on EWTN and as founder of the Coming Home Network International. A native of Ohio, he studied polymer science at Case Western Reserve University and worked as an engineer before receiving his Master of Divinity degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. After more than fifteen years of youth, young adult, and pastoral ministry, he entered the Catholic Church in 1992, along with his wife Marilyn and their two sons, JonMarc and Peter (a third son, Richard, entered through baptism).

The author of several books, including two novels, Grodi’s most recent book is Life from Our Land: The Search for a Simpler Life in a Complex World (Ignatius Press). He corresponded recently with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about his new book and several of the topics addressed in it, including nature, agrarianism, spirituality, stewardship, technology, and life in 21st-century America.

CWR: This is a rather unique book in that it’s not easily placed into a settled genre. It has some autobiographical qualities and it discusses various philosophical and practical issues relating to “living off the land”, but it is not—as you emphatically state—about how to farm. How would describe the book in a few sentences? What were your main goals in writing it?

Marcus Grodi: Your opening statement says it well, because even when I go into a bookstore, I’m not sure where to look for it! There are elements of Nature, outdoor living, autobiography, economics, agrarianism, Distributism, a little bit of “preaching” and apologetics, but mostly I wanted to discuss rediscovering the most important priorities of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

There have been many times in history when Christians were claiming that the warnings of 2 Timothy 3:1-5 were surely coming true in their lives! But with one ear to St. Paul’s warning and the other to the evening news, it’s hard to believe there has ever been a time closer to fulfilling these details. All around us are people who seem oblivious to Eternity—and I don’t just mean our neighbors who don’t go to Church. I mean Catholics and non-Catholic Christians who have slowly over time become acclimated to a truncated version of the Gospel.

The ease, availability, and speed of technology, as well as a culture defined by the pursuit and accumulation of wealth, has carried so many of us along on a rollercoaster of supposed progress—and the only time many of us notice how completely our lives have been altered by technology is when we try to do anything “the old fashioned way.” We quickly give up and return rejoicing to the newer, easier, quicker, cheaper way, because the muscles we need to do things “the old fashioned way”, as well as the patience, have all atrophied. And the point of this is that this is also true of our faith—the disciplines, devotions, and service that once were normal have been supplanted by the easier, quicker, and more readily available. And of course, I’m not pointing fingers—this is true of me, too, which is what the book is about.

In this book, I’ve tried to describe how I came to discover this; how I rediscovered the core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by tending sheep, cattle, and other livestock; by failing at gardening; by trying to understand what is going on with our culture and economy; by getting a grip on preparing for the future of my family when the day comes that I no longer have an income to pay the bills; by understanding what is happening to my friends and family as they fail to see the need of Christ and his Church — and for some this has meant not coming to see this before passing on to their reward; and to ask myself, with all the opinions out there, how can I know which opinion is true? My goal in writing this book was hopefully to help at least a few more to find their way through the narrow gate.

CWR: Early in the book you write, “I’m a believer! But I’m also a forgetter, and I have come to realize that nature is a great reminder.” What are some of the things you are reminded of when in nature? How does our distance from the nitty-gritty of nature—as a culture and nation—affect the way we see, think, and understand reality?

Grodi: Christians tend to think that God gave humanity only minds and hearts to know him, or maybe also eyes and ears to read and hear his Word written or preached—but since the senses are gateways to our passions, they must be controlled! Yet, St. Paul wrote, “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20). I have come to experientially realize that God gave us our senses first to know him through the world around us. The devil knows this, of course, and does everything possible to turn and distract the attention of our senses, and consequently our minds and hearts, away from anything that might point us to God.

And so we fill our lives and surround ourselves with stuff that, in reality, only celebrates the creativity and ingenuity of mankind. We fill our houses and extra storage units with stuff that entertains or satisfies, or maybe distracts us from uncertainties, or gives us confidence that we are prepared to meet any crisis! And we plan for our “retirements”, we doing everything within our means to make sure we gave enough money to ensure that the stuff just keeps on coming! But in the process, we have isolated ourselves from seeing, hearing, touching, and tasting, and thereby recognizing with gratitude the most basic messages of God’s love and provision in his Creation.

People today, for example, are all a tither about whether the world is facing global warming and whether mankind might be causing it—and the philosophical fears from both sides are that we might lose our ability to enjoy life as we have come to know it! But does anyone even wonder why we aren’t experiencing climate change all the time? Why does this planet even continue to spin on it’s axis without faltering, day after day, after year, for centuries? How can this world continue to spin with such clockwork accuracy, and our seasons be so predictable that we might even be disturbed when it seems our climate might be changing? Do we recognize in awe the providential care of our Creator, without which there would be no tomorrow? Being out in nature, looking up at the night sky, listening to the symphony of his creatures, feeling the breeze, the warmth of soil, the coolness of a spring, the rise and setting of the sun, all of this reminds me that he never ceases to smile on His creation, and this then puts everything else into perspective.

CWR: You have a chapter on stewardship. What is a properly biblical and Catholic understanding of stewardship? What relationship does it have to the ecological movement(s) of recent decades?

Grodi: When mankind was created in the image of the Trinitarian God, we were then given dominion over God’s Creation (Gen 1:26f). This means we have the responsibility before God to take care of the world the way he takes care of it, in imitation of him—in his image. Throughout history, however, Mankind generally has failed at this; mostly Mankind has treated Creation as if it is merely our playground to do with and to abuse as we see fit. If our consciences confront us about anything, we feel guilty about how we may not have loved God or loved our neighbor as we should, but how many of us feel the least bit guilty about how we have taken care of the land around us or the critters that struggle to live on it? I know full well the next thing I’m going to suggest will label me a kook, but how many of us feel the least bit guilty for our contributions to the hundreds of tons of road kill produced every year? Because our culture and our lives have become so dependent upon faster and faster transportation, it never crosses our mind that God might not be pleased with how flippantly we treat animal life. Certainly God cannot and won’t hold us accountable for the thousands of animals killed every year by cars, trains, planes, windmills, insecticides, and fertilizers! Why, they’re just animals anyway! With no souls! Surely God doesn’t care if animals are killed in the process of progress!

And then, of course, there are those whose whole “gospel” is about saving animals; who equate animals and humans; who feel a four-year old child is certainly no more important than an adult gorilla, or in fact less important, since humanity has been a scourge, a deleterious infestation, on “Mother Earth”, and the best thing that could ever happen to this world is if humanity were permanently removed from it! For them, it doesn’t matter where we came from or where we are going; all that matters is that when we die, we will become nothing more than fertilizer returning to “Mother Earth” all that we took from her.

Stewardship, however, means humbly recognizing that God has created his world with a hierarchy of responsibilities, and the core of these responsibilities is service. Within the Church, there is a hierarchy of responsibilities, from the pope on down through bishops, to priests, to laity, but this is not to be a hierarchy of power from above but of humble service. St. Paul said that this is also true of the family: The husband and father has the responsibility of headship, but this is not to be one of overpowering but of service, as Christ loved the Church (Eph 5: 23). The same is true of our stewardship of the world: there is a hierarchy of responsibility, with Mankind on top, not to overpower, but to serve responsibly in love, so that one day when we stand before our Creator, we can present this world back to him as our humble offering, better than we found it. In the meantime, St. Paul said that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:19-21).

It’s not so easy to see this when confined between the man made walls of a concrete city, but when one journeys out into the country, and walks through a woods or a field or along a stream, or sits silently listening to the birds and the myriad other noises of creation, one can compare and contrast what mankind has done to either ease or compound the travail of Creation. Are we passing along a world better or worse than we found it?
Marcus Grodi (Youtube/Franciscan University of Steubenville)
CWR: In reflecting on economics and the push for never-ending progress, you write that “the more we—as individuals, families, and a culture—define the American dream as the accumulation of more and more things (which requires more and more money), the more we have set our families and culture on an unsustainable death spiral toward political and economic chaos.” What are some practical ways in which people can escape this spiral? What sort of spiritual virtues and habits are necessary in order to align our economics with an authentic vision of humanity and the material world?

Grodi: I need to be cautious here because I am not an economist or a financial advisor—I don’t even play one on television! I have several chapters addressing this in my book, but even in these, I don’t pretend to give hard fast rules—even the Church is hesitant to give this kind of advice. Rather, I believe this involves each person rethinking Christ’s call to simplicity and detachment, in the context of the responsibilities each of us has according to our vocations.

The problem is (as I discuss in one of my chapters) we in 21st century America are more than ever like the proverbial frog in a pot, or like hundreds of travelers all crowed together on a moving walkway—we are moving forward in our lives trusting the opinions and practices of everyone around us who in turn are trusting financial advisors, lawyers, bankers, investors, and politicians, none of whom any of us know or whose values we know. Whose opinions are you trusting with the investments you have put away to take care of you and your family in the future, twenty-thirty years from now? Can you be certain that they have a better handle on what your needs will be in twenty years than you do?

Instead, Christ called his followers to be so detached from the world—from the love for money, and the accumulation of stuff—that if the world around us were to fall, our souls would not be in jeopardy. This involves living the Beatitudes, and particularly, trying to practice subsidiarity as much as possible: We are not to look to the federal government, or the state, or some nameless broker to take care of us; rather we need to look from near to far. We need to begin with ourselves and our families (in partnership of course with God) to provide all we need; what we can’t provide, we then can look to our neighbors, our community, and those providers nearest to us; only then should we reach out beyond to the county, state, and only last to the Federal government. We need to strengthen our communities by keeping our expenditures and investments as close to home as possible—which is why I believe the growth in on-line internet businesses will be one of the key factors in the future unsustainable death spiral of our economy and culture. Instead of sustainable locally owned and operated businesses (like the once “ma & pa” sellers of clothing, furniture, food, books, tools, etc.), mega online providers now provide all of these products cheaper. So in the end all of these local businesses are driven out of business.

And when we buy something from the internet, where does the money go—and the taxes? Does it even stay in our country? One thing is for certain: it does not strengthen your local community where you may be planing to spend the rest of your life. Truth is, what is there beyond food, water, clothing, and shelter that any of us truly need, especially as we face old age—and especially if, as we grow older, we decide to dedicate more and more of our lives in service to others and less in feeding our own self-centered desires?

CWR: You reflect in several places on the meaning and place of technology. How should Christians view technologies? What are the spiritual dangers of being so reliant on various forms of technology?

Grodi: There is now a smartphone app in Russia that allows a person to use their smartphone to take a photo of anyone, any stranger walking along a street, and then automatically gain access in social media to all of that person’s personal information. A co-founder of the app responded to concerns: “In today’s world we are surrounded by gadgets. Our phones, televisions, fridges, everything around us is sending real-time information about us. Already we have full data on people’s movements, their interests and so on. A person should understand that in the modern world he is under the spotlight of technology. You just have to live with that.” He also said, “we cannot stop technological progress so we must work with it”.

What kind of world are we now living in? Before the internet and especially social media, our lives could be private. We didn’t worry about someone accessing our private information and then using it to empty our bank accounts or purchase products in our name, or control or destroy our lives. I remember a time when we never conceived of this danger, or a time later when we could still protect ourselves by staying as uninvolved as possible with the internet. But now, our culture has surrendered too far into it, and, as the author above believes, we just have to live with it. Or do we?

I suspect that a frightening majority of people today are so far surrendered to the escalating technological “progress” that they see no reason to resist learning to “live with it” and “work with it.” The problem is, what is this all doing to our soul? Is this all making us better people? Are we happier? Healthier? More at peace with ourselves and our neighbors? Is our world safer than it was, say, when our parents or grandparents were born?

I believe that all technologies are built upon abilities that God has placed within his Creation. Mankind has not created anything—it was all there waiting to be discovered, developed, and implemented. The question is whether we use what we have been given according to God’s standards, or ours. Most new technologies that replace older technologies are accepted because they make life easier, quicker, cheaper, or provide opportunities to obtain wealth, position, or power—and not necessarily because the new technology does things better (i.e., a gas powered string trimmer does not cut a field better than a hand powered scythe. It might be quicker and easier, but not better.)

The problem is that often whenever we move from an older technology to a newer technology we lose the ability and patience to return to the older technology, and often that older technology becomes no longer available—i.e., we can no longer go back. (I can guarantee that almost anyone reading this interview could not pick up an old hand powered scythe and harvest a field of wheat!) So, have the newer, easier, quicker, cheaper technologies made us stronger, more holy, humble, patient, caring people? Or just people with more stuff, wanting more stuff, needing more places to store our stuff, and more time on our hands to just play with more stuff?

CWR: St. Thomas Aquinas, as you point out, noted that the husbandman has “one of the highest occupations in the community of man…” For those who don’t know, what is a “husbandman”, and why does Aquinas hold him in such high esteem?

Grodi: A “husbandman” was another name for a farmer, but not essentially equivalent. In Aquinas’ day, a husbandman was someone who provided, with his own hands and resources, all the food, water, clothing, and shelter his family needed. Therefore, since his focus was on providing the necessary material goods for his family—which are necessary to be able to develop a spiritual life—Aquinas considered his work and therefore his occupation one of the highest—in contrast to merchants who mostly focused on making money from selling unnecessary material goods so that they could in turn buy the necessary material goods their families needed. It’s for this reason that “farmer” is no longer a synonym for “husbandman” because today’s modern farmers rarely focus on growing the necessary material goods for their families; rather, they grow crops to sell to gain money to buy both the necessary and unnecessary material goods their families need and want. They have become more what Aquinas would have called merchants.

Since, as Aquinas points out, the amount of food, water, clothing, and shelter any family needs for a day, a month, or a year is measurable and predictable, than a husbandman’s life and work was measurable and manageable: once he had done in a day what was necessary to provide his family with these necessary material goods, his work was done. However, for a merchant who focuses on making money from producing and selling unnecessary material goods, his work is never done, because there is no natural limit on how much money or unnecessary material goods a person needs. One can only eat or drink so much, so there is a natural limit; but how much money and how many gadgets and collectables and cars and fancy clothes, etc., etc., does a person “need”? And if our planning for our “retirement” involves putting away enough money to provide all the unnecessary material goods to which we have grown accustomed, then what “number” will ever be sufficient? When will we ever have worked and saved enough?

CWR: In hindsight, what were some of the lessons you learned from “Y2K”? Why are they significant?

Grodi: Back in 1999, millions of people around the world were concerned about what might happen when the clocks on all computers changed from “99” to “00”. Would the computers decipher this as the new year “2000” and move forward, or as “1900” and shut down, locking the entire country, the entire world into electronic and economic chaos? (Any of you remember this, or admit to being concerned?) My view was that God was using this seemingly insignificant flaw in our worldwide computer infrastructure to force us to recognize how vulnerable our world had become, and how necessary it was for us to become detached from our dependence upon things of this world. In essence, God was using this to call people back to gospel simplicity.

But did the world learn anything? Hardly. Our world today is far more attached to dependence upon our computer infrastructure than ever before—and it would only take a minor strike on only a few power plants to put our entire nation into chaos.

For me the main lesson from Y2K was: do not attach our detachment to anything—to an event, a day, or a person — because when the event, day, or person comes and goes without effect, so goes our detachment—and we become even less willing to consider detachment than we were before. Today we are far more willing to trust our lives to our technologies than we were 16 years ago, even though today our lives are far more vulnerable to these technologies. I don’t think we learned a thing from Y2K.

CWR: Near the end of the book, you focus on “being” and “abiding”. Why are those words and concepts so important?

Grodi: “Being” and “abiding” are biblical terms that describe the necessary journey of conversion for every follower of Christ. A person begins by “being in Christ” through faith and baptism. But life “in Christ” does not stop here, we must “abide in Christ”, or remain or continue to live out our faith and baptism every day for the rest of our lives. We can do this through the graces of the sacraments but it takes our willful obedient response. If we cease to “abide in Christ” through sin or neglect or laziness, etc., Jesus himself said we can lose our place in the kingdom—in danger of being “thrown into the fire and burned” (Jn 15:1f). This is why our Lord also said that “being” and “abiding” in him were not enough; we must grow into “loving”.

All of this describes the journey along the road toward the narrow gate that leads to life, which involves a narrowing of life, a growing detachment from things of this world, from sin, and from ourselves, to an attachment in love with God for others. And this September, when the Church elevates Mother Teresa to sainthood, we will be celebrating one whose whole life was dedicated to living the journey of being, abiding, and loving for the sake of Christ.

CWR: What does the simpler life have to teach us about salvation? How has being a farmer and living “on the land” affected how you understand and live the Gospel?

Grodi: It has helped me rediscover what in the end is most important. None of this is anything so profoundly new, but things which we all know but too often take for granted and ignore: property, prosperity, prestige, success, power, popularity—none of this lasts. In fact, they can all be distractions from attaining that which is most important—hearing in the end those words from Him, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” In the end, how have we loved? When we are gone, and our spouse, and children, and grandchildren, and friends are all gazing down at our grave, how will they remember us? As one who lived selfishly or selflessly loved? If we arrive in heaven, by the grace of God, how will he introduce us to those we meet there? As one who loved? Lord, help us to let go of ourselves for the sake of everyone else whom you have called us to love.