The Refuge of Small-Scale Book-Loving Community in a Post-Virtue Modernity

The Saturday of Souls 

after-virtue_square.jpegMANY THANKS to Shailesh Mark (a new friend gifted to me by the Eighth Day community) and our new weekly meetings, I’ve finally begun editing my dissertation for submission. This happens to coincide with the Cappadocian Society (an Eighth Day reading group for pastors and ministry leaders) finishing their second book: After Virtue by Alisdair MacIntyre. If you are familiar with MacIntyre, he is not an easy read and After Virtue is no exception. Of course, the first book selected by the Cappadocian Society indicates the caliber of this group, for it is just as difficult, if not more so: Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

If you have been involved in the Eighth Day community for more than a year, you probably know that Taylor is an important figure in my still-not-edited-or-submitted dissertation. The first half of the dissertation focuses on secularism. And two-thirds of that first half zooms in on Taylor’s A Secular Age as a masterful revision of the standard secularization theory and his grand historical narrative of how we have come to inhabit a secular age. The second half explores and clarifies the Neopatristic Synthesis of Fr. Georges Florovsky, which I argue ought to be the Church’s response to a secular age. The conclusion was written in a frenzied attempt to complete a first draft so I could return home to my wife and four children on Thanksgiving Day, 2016. My wife and eldest son had banned me from home three weeks earlier with a serious mandate: “You’re not allowed home until you’re first draft is written.” Consequently and unfortunately, my frenzied rush caused the conclusion to remain focused on Florovsky and his Neopatristic Synthesis. In other words, I failed to pull the overall thesis together by linking Taylor’s Secular Age with Florovsky’s Neopatristic Synthsis. And indeed, this was the one critique I received from my supervisor, Fr. Andrew Louth. In the words of Fr. Andrew: “I fear that your thesis may encounter the reaction, as Henry Chadwick once put it with his customary lapidary manner in another case: ‘Mr X, there seem to be two books contained in this thesis, and that is not the fault of the binder’.”

So as I work through my dissertation, editing and tidying it up, my primary concern has been and will continue to be a reflection on how to provide a better link between Taylor and Florovsky in the conclusion. In my first meeting with Shailesh, I recalled a meeting with Fr. Andrew in which he suggested I look at MacIntyre’s After Virtue. I failed to heed that early counsel. But I now think MacIntyre may provide the link I need for the conclusion to adequately tie a return to the Fathers with a secular age. We’ll see if that pans out over the next couple of months. If it does, I’ll share it with you. In the meantime, for the purposes of this note from my desk, MacIntyre leads me to one of the best novels I’ve read recently.

This morning I read a wonderful First Things piece by Stanley Hauerwas on MacIntyre: “The Virtues of Alasdair MacIntyre.” If you don’t know much about MacIntyre, this is the article to read for an introduction. The article concludes with the citation of a preface MacIntyre wrote to the Polish edition of After Virtue. And it is this preface that made me think of a novel that I peddled at the recent Symposium, a novel that I’ll continue to peddle here by offering you a few teaser passages. But first the Polish preface:

The flourishing of the virtues requires and in turn sustains a certain kind of community, necessarily a small-scale community, within which the goods of various practices are ordered, so that, as far as possible, regard for each finds its due place with the lives of each individual, or each household, and in the life of the community at large. Because, implicitly or explicitly, it is always by reference to some conception of the overall and final human good that other goods are ordered, the life of every individual, household or community by its orderings gives expression, wittingly or unwittingly, to some conception of the human good. And it is when goods are ordered in terms of an adequate conception of human good that the virtues genuinely flourish. “Politics” is the Aristotelian name for the set of activities through which goods are ordered in the life of the community.

The flourishing of virtues. A small-scale community. Ordered goods and practices. A conception of the overall and final human good. These are themes one cannot avoid in Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera’s fantastic novel The Awakening of Miss Prim. Take a few moments to read the following excerpts. If they strike your fancy as they did mine, please stop by Eighth Day Books to pick up your copy (or order a copy by giving them a call at 1.800.841.2541). And I urge you to resist the Amazonian temptation. Heck, resist Amazon and instead give some extra support to Eighth Day Books by supplementing Miss Prim with a provocative little booklet titled Against Amazon: Seven Arguments, One Manifesto. And then be sure to be creating a Christian culture in our post-virtue secular age by actively participating in a small-scale community!

61KrvhDSMEL._SX318_BO1_204_203_200_.jpgOn Families, Children’s Education & Women

Miss Prim at Feminist League meeting: “she found out that many families in San Ireneo invested all their time and expertise – in some cases, very finely specialized – in personally seeing to their children’s education and giving classes to the children of others as well, an activity that provided great social prestige. Many of the women there owned their own businesses, small establishments that were almost all located on the ground floor of their houses so as not to disrupt family life too much. Working hours didn’t seem to be a problem. Everyone was of the opinion that women, if anything more than men, should be able to organize their time freely. This meant that no one was surprised that the bookshop opened from ten till two, the solicitor’s office was open from eleven till three, and the dentist’s surgery began its day at twelve and ended it on the dot of five in the afternoon.” (52)


On Work and Leisure

Hortensia Oeillet, president of the San Ireneo Feminist League, on Amelia who works too many hours for Judge Bassett and thus in position of semi-slavery: “Imagine, the girl’s working over eight hours a day. It’s anachronistic and intolerable.”

Hearing this, it dawned on the librarian for the first time that her own working day, at the house of the Man in the Wing Chair, never lasted longer than fire or six hours. In the beginning she had attributed the relaxed timetable to her employer’s eccentricity, but she was now starting to see that it was a core value in San Ireneo. […] (53)

“Not only is it impossible for her to have a social life while working such hours, but she also has been unable to devote any time to reading and study which, as you know, is one of the main principles upon which our small community is based.”

The speaker paused for a sip of water before continuing.

“When Amelia arrived here, as I’m sure many of you remember, she was a young lady with a high opinion of both herself and her love of literature. That all changed when, within a few months of coming to live in the village, she discovered that what the world called literature, San Ireneo considered a waste of time. I still recall the morning when she entered my office, eyes shining with emotion and an old anthology of John Donne’s poetry in her hand. This was where she discovered that intelligence, this wonderful gift, grows in silence, not in noise. It was here too that she learned that a human mind, a truly human mind, is nurtured over time, with hard work and discipline.” (53-4)


A Refuge for the Exiles of Modernity

After departure from meeting, Miss Prim visited Horacio Delàs:

“This is a strange place, full of very odd people,” she said with a sigh.

“I hope you don’t think of me in that way. Remember, I’m one of them,” replied her host, offering her a glass of brandy. This she accepted gratefully.

Miss Prim assured him that she didn’t mean to include him. Since her arrival in San Ireneo she had tried to fit in, but her efforts had been in vain. There were too many unanswered questions, and the first of these was about her employer: Who was he? What did he do for a living? Why did he go to the abbey first thing every morning? Why did he spend whole days immersed in old books, forgetting mealtimes? Was he some kind of urban hermit? Miss Prim had heard of such people. Madmen devoted to a life of prayer, mystics who lived in the city in a state of constant worship just like the original hermits in the desert, or the mysterious Russian starets. Perhaps the Man in the Wing Chair was an urban hermit. […] (58)

“You see him go to the abbey every morning because he’s devoted to the ancient Roman liturgy. And he lives isolated in this small place occupying himself with parochial concerns because he was inspired by the old man in the abbey – who now almost never ventures outside – and is in fact the founder of this colony of sorts.”

“Colony? What do you mean?”

For the second time Horacio stared at his guest in amazement.

“Prudencia, are you telling me that you had no idea that San Ireneo was a refuge for exiles from the hustle and bustle of modern life? It’s precisely what attracts such a diverse people from so many different places! I’m beginning to think you accepted the job absolutely blind. I can’t believe you hadn’t seen that there was something unusual about our way of life until now.”

Emboldened by the brandy, Miss Prim confessed that she had noticed something. She’d been there long enough to take stock, form an opinion, and build up a mental picture of the place, if only a rather impressionistic one. She had, however, observed one or two peculiarities. In that one remote village, families of very different backgrounds had settled. They all owned their own houses, land, or small businesses. Primary goods were produced in the village, and there was a flourishing, (61) prosperous local trade. […]

Gradually, however, she began to sense that there was something hidden beneath the surface of the community. In the area around San Ireneo de Arnois there were no factories, large businesses, or offices. All the shops sold high-quality goods, produced locally. The clothes and shoes bore the signatures of three or four tailors and shoemakers; the small stationary shop, charmingly, sold goods made to order; the food shops were friendship establishments bursting with produce, handmade preserves, fresh milk, and bread just baked at the bakery on the corner. At first, Miss Prim thought she detected an environmentalist zeal, but soon realized she was wrong. Whatever was nourishing this village, it was far from green in hue. A quiet, peaceful community of home and business owners, that’s what it was. Life in San Ireneo was small-scale and, Miss Prim thought to herself, also unusually harmonious.

“Are they Distributists, or something?”

“They are, as well as many other things. Really, I am amazed, Prudencia. I’d have expected you to inform yourself before coming here,” admonished her host.

“Do people who believe in that sort of thing still exist? I thought those old ideas of returning to a simple, traditional, family-based economy had vanished long ago.”

“They definitely still exist. You’re in the place where almost all of them live in this country, And they’re not only from this country. Or hadn’t you also noticed the intriguing variety of surnames we have here?” (61)

“I’m surprised you’re one of them. I’d never have dreamed you were a utopian.”

Horacio took a generous gulp of brandy and regarded her affectionately.

“It would be utopian to imagine that the present-day world could go into reverse and completely reorganize itself. But there’s nothing utopian about this village, Prudencia. What we are is hugely privileged. Nowadays, to live quietly and simply you have to take refuge in a small community, a village or hamlet where the din and aggression of the overgrown cities can’t reach; a remote corner like this, where you know nevertheless that about a couple of hundred miles away, just in case” – he smiled – “a vigorous, vibrant metropolis exists.”

Pensively, Miss Prim placed her empty glass on the table.

“This does seem like a very prosperous place.”

“It is, in all senses.”

“So you’re all refugees from the city, romantic fugitives?”

“We have escaped from the city, you’re right, but not all for the same reasons. Some, like old Judge Bassett and I, made the decision after having got all we possibly could out of life, because we knew that finding a quiet, cultured environment like the one that’s grown up here is a rare freedom. Others, like Herminia Treaumont, are reformers. They’ve come to believe that contemporary life wears women out, debases the family, and crushes the human capacity for thought, and they want to try something different. And there’s a third group, to which your Man in the Wing Chair belongs, whose aim is to escape from the dragon. They want to protect their children from the influences of the world, to return to the purity of old customs, to recover the splendor of an ancient culture.”

Horacio paused to pour himself another glass of brandy.

“Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you, Prudencia? You can’t build yourself a world made to measure, but you can build a village. In a way, all of us here belong to a club of refugees.”

Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.

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