Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Sheep Stories Volume One

One of the many reasons we farm and ranch the way we do is something that Rod Dreher calls the Benedict Option. It means to form intentionally different communities that resist the culture of death. Much like St. Benedict formed monasteries at the end of the Roman West. By creating a community around the Word and different than the death around him, this Saint preserved Western Civilization or as some call it Christendom. 

St. Benedict, pray for us! 
Alasdair MacIntyre, from whom I believe Rod Dreher found the term and who is one the Thomists of our time wrote in After Virtue:
  • It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead— often not recognizing fully what they were doing— was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another— doubtless very different— St. Benedict.

  • MacIntyre, Alasdair (2014-04-30). After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition (p. 263). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition. 

I believe that the Benedict Option includes (or perhaps supposes) the self-restraint of brave Christians. Bravery, that I think we can recall the mythos akin to the mythos of the knights of old.  Solzhenitsyn prophesized the need for this self-restraint if we are to save the West from its death via materialism and skepticism. (Most people seem to define "skepticism" as a rigorous doubt of any fact which they would prefer not to believe. And I would define materialism as largely a reversal of means (material) and ends that alienates persons from meaning.

This bravery is not just for our sake, though. It is for the benefit of the world. Which came from Christ, and Christ came into the World. But the World does not know Him. I pray that we in this room can bring this Light to whole world.

It is by this courageous self-restraint that we will become witnesses. And it is through our witness that we become an invitation. And this invitation, if sincere and to the depths, becomes friendship, and even perhaps the rarest of relationships: the virtuous friendship. In these best cases this reciprocal love leads to eternal life. The final point to which we ought to order all of our actions.

The follies that come with seeking out and meeting these challenges by which I could refine my self-restraint are often the best stories. One of these adventures has been starting a small 'organic' farm. (More on the quotes later)

And perhaps you too have had visions of moving out on just a few acres. You would raise a permaculture paradise seeking after a preternatural replication of Eden. Vegetables, raw milk, honey, rotationally grazed cattle, and sheep come to you when they hear your voice. And so I sought to be an icon if you pardon the term in a self-deprecating story of the Good Shepherd.

My Vision of Heaven on Earth

So here we have the progress from bravery to the friendship you have happened when you live out the Benedict Option. I yearned to be a shepherd. I had already been farming, earning money by it. Feeding my family and learning better the meaning of the agrarian parables of our Lord. I figured I could continue the lesson and add some additional value to my farm.

I learned up South Hutch, something like every third Thursday, there is a small animal auction that focuses on sheep and goat. Perfect. Except new and way out my wheel-house. You learn when you become a student of agriculture without being born into it that everything you try is more out your wheelhouse than you estimate.

An example of a fine auction house. 
To fit in, I dressed the part. I drove my pickup an hour or so north. Now, there is something about being green (new) to the farm and ranch business that no matter have brave you are that people just sense. So in the middle of the auction house, me and two of my brood sat. There formed around us a ring of empty seats in an otherwise crowded Amish auction house. And it was there in this Amish Auction, which has its own truly alien vernacular I met my friend,  Mohamed Al-Malichi. No, not that Mohamed Al-Malichi. My Malichi spits at the name of the other, but I digress.

We talked sheep between lots. I was looking for a lot of 7 sheep. He taught me about choice, in which if you bid the highest get to pay the price of the bid by the pound for a certain number of animals.

A large lot of sheep, numbering more than the Biblical 40 came charging in. Malachi, in my view the expert in all things Bovine, said these were good specimens. I called choice. An assistant auctioneer called choice (not so) loudly back. He then left the ring at the behest of something I did not see. I won the bid at something like $1.50 a pound. And all 40 of the sheep left the pin. 40 Sheep at an average of 150 pounds. If you did not follow the math there, I saw the financial ruin of my farming business in a stampede out that gate.

Now, thank God, for the great Commission. I mean not only because by it our ancestors were converted by the Apostles and their successors, but it gave me the courage to have made friends (of at least utility) with an obviously Muslim man. For Mohamed Al Malichi, before I could overcome my stupor and act, yelled out "Wait!"

And then some excited Arabic.

And then AL-Malichi correct the auctioneer that I had called choice. (Remember the man who acknowledged me had left.) Now, after the sheep were called back, I was lectured for not calling choice after an explanation of the rules of the auction for everyone to hear. And this time, I won "choice" of the lot for 69 cents.

Who says you have no friends at an auction!

I was not really given "choice", but "gate" for some reason. I did not hear or understand the explanation of what that meant at that tense moment. I did see what it was, though. The biggest meanest Scotish Highlander (a breed of sheep) in the lot went through the gate first along with 5 others in the heard.

Now, following the advice in a book: Apostolic Farming, the Servant of God Catherine Dougherty, I do things as cheaply as possible and never go into debt for anything related to the farm. This means, btw, if we ever have a bad season, it is money that we can loose. It also means that it is hard to grow too fast. But it means most of all that sometimes I live a comedy of errors by doing it the hard way. Maybe I should say (or type) Adventures if you consider these comedic moments rightly, as Chesterton would have it.

This means I did not have a livestock trailer, but a piece of what is called a cattle panel cut in half strapped to the top of my Chevy. It was cut in a way that there were essentially spikes every 6 inches across the length of the tail gate. This spikes were about 8 inches in length.

 (This part of the story is funnier if you recall would I have would have had to do with the extra 36 sheep earlier.)

After paying, it was time to load up the sheep. Remember in the commentaries you have read about the Lukan infancy narrative about the lowliness and even perhaps the uncleanliness of those shepherds of our Lord's time? One of the modern day shepherds, who meet all the of Biblical Shepherds who hear the Gloria for the first time, drove the sheep to the loading pin by shocking them, yelling at them, and spitting more tobacco. You could say I thought he did this “Vesuviusly” . I believe the sheep thought so too. Now usually, the sheep are driven into a trailer via ramp and gate.

"No trailer, eh," my modern day shepherd says. "Aye," I say. "Well, I operate your tailgate while you load them." So I picked up each sheep. Starting with the Bella, the angsty, Scotish Highlander, alpha of the little pack. She weighed more than 200 pounds. The rest were more like ewe lambs, or maybe yearlings. Bella was not easy to load up, and around a gate, and in between a tailgate and money saving spikes of doom. The ewe lambs would have been easy to load, though, if Bella had not been so vigorous in her attempt at escaping each time the tailgate came down.

This was the first clue that Bella had not read the book on sheep that included things like how docile they can be. Sheep go to Heaven, my word.

Now perhaps, I was not as green as I am letting on so far. I had taken care of goats many times before. I was even babysitting goats for another small time farmer friend who was away visiting family and needed to someone to milk his goats. I was good at goats. I had two of my own, I bought from Kevin. I was raising them for meat. My kids were friendly with the kids.

I though it was just be a matter of not shocking and yelling at the sheep for them to be tamed. And indeed at the height of our relationship, Bella at from my hand once. But largely because my sheep came from an large factory farm, and also because I had not given them the standard expensive medicines, they became sick.

I held many dying sheep in my hand. I was a friend of the dying, though animals. And this is why we have a hard time imagining becoming a small time certified organic farm. This and a distrust of the government which makes my intone Joe Salitoon and chant “Everything I want to do is illegal!!” Safe practices are important to us. And we follow all the laws we know about. Even if that means not doing business. But this also means I want less of Ceasar in my life during what looks like the Last Battle.

And so my Sheep came to know my voice and run away from me. For my presence in the pasture meant they were to be caught, held, force feed medicine and stabbed with life saving needles. I bought six sheep. 4 times they manifested different worms. All of which they brought with them from a sick system. I was the mediocre shepherd.

But here I remember the Augustinian Principle that God allows evil for greater good comes from it. For my sheep lived on land leased from a near by neighbor. Both are Christians who do not go to Church. Former Armenian and Methodist Couple. Both on either their second or third marriage. Together, I believe partly because how pitiful of a shepherd I was, they would help me when they saw the opportunity. This leads to fellowship and eventually to sharing of theology.

Because of this sheep founded friendship this couple would often come to me when ever Pope Francis would be reported as saying something crazy. We get to look up the context together and talk about what the Faith actually says and why. They are open but difficult to nail down on coming back to Church with me.

There is also another sheep founded friendship that was deepened by my miserable first attempt at shepherding. Another neighbor down the road listened to me scold his kids, with his permission, about chasing my sheep. Running my sheep around seemed at the time like a venial form of cattle rustling. And had I not my tempered by ten years of teaching Religion to teenagers I might have lost my temper finding them. I marched them home making them abandoned their bikes and my truck we walked and I interrogated in a calm quite voice for about a quarter mile back to their house.

Their father was impressed enough at this he asked me to keep talking and resolve the conflict. I used what in my industry is called Love and Logic. They came up with their own consequence that involved a day of helping my weed. They also shared two meals with us. Praying before meals was a shock for them. For their family is also culturally Christian but they are un-churched for a generation and a half now. 

Their father would also help me with some shepherding duties and I would help in payment split wood.  We of course would talk about everything under the stars. And sometimes we even go beyond those. In those months where the need for farm work and wood splitting is less we began to laps around our country miles. I started this practice after I had read of a practice of the Maltese where people often stroll in the evening. Even my neo-pagan Christian friend gets the idea now that we speak to every one and listen to them for the sake of community. It builds peace and subsidiarity in our small country neighborhood.

He may not always accept the invitation to walk, I go nearly every evening at sundown, but he makes sure to tell me he wants to be invited. Solidarity requires sharing our material good first and then also our spiritual ones. Living this out is a long process, but though the road is narrow the end is bliss. 

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