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The Necessity of Agrarianism

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Southerners have pointed to the benefits of an agrarian way of life for generations, that it is the mode of life best suited to caring for the creation and for inculcating virtues in man:  humility, dependence on God, patience, generosity, hospitality, supplying the needs of one’s household, patriotism, and so on.

But there is something more in agrarianism that seems to be overlooked here in the South at the moment, something key to ‘working out our salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2:12):  The hard work of tilling the earth (and the contemplation of the creation that is closely bound up with it) is both a spur to repentance and right living and a safeguard against sin.  In exploring these intertwined ideas, we will delve into the writings of the Holy Fathers of the Church, those most helpful guides to the Christian life, who are also a part of the Southerner’s Christian inheritance but whose writings often go unread by them.

St John Chrysostom (+407), the ‘Golden-tongued’, one of the greatest preachers to arise in the Church, with his commentary on Genesis 3:17-19, is a good place to begin.  In it one will hear emphasized, amongst other things, the familiar theme of human limits often found in Southern agrarian literature:

3:17-19  And unto Adam He said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it:  cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.  Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee, and thou shalt eat of the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken.  For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return (KJV).

 . . . Behold the reminders of the curse!  Thorns it will bring forth, He [God] says, and thistles.  I will do this so you will endure severe labor and cares and spend your whole life in sorrow, that this might be a restraint for you, that you might not dream that you are higher than your station; but that you might constantly remember your nature and might henceforth not allow yourself to come to a similar state of deception.

“Thou shalt eat of the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.”  See how after his [Adam’s] disobedience everything was not as it had been before in his life!  I, He says, bringing you into this world, wanted you to live without afflictions, without labors, without cares, without sorrows; to be in contentment and prosperity and not be subject to bodily needs, but to be a stranger to all this and enjoy perfect freedom.  But since such freedom was not of benefit to you, I will curse the earth so that henceforth it will not be as it was formerly, giving forth fruit without sowing and cultivation, but will do so only with great labor, exertion and cares.  I will subject you to constant afflictions and sorrows, and force you to do everything with exhausting efforts, that these tormenting labors might be for you a constant lesson to behave modestly and know your own nature (Genesis, Creation, and Early Man, p. 269-70).

Another remarkable Father, St Symeon the New Theologian (+1022), speaks in a similar way:

And so it is that these are our sins, that is, that we do not patiently bear the temporal chastisements of God and do not give thanks for them but becoming presumptuous as if we were enemies of God we go in a certain sense against that Divine decree that states in the sweat of thy face thou shall eat thy bread (Gen. 3:19), and we exert all our strength so as to find repose and we do not find it because there is no opportunity for us to escape from labors and sweats, and from this being yoked to needs, no matter what we might do.

Therefore, fortunate is he who endures all these temporal chastisements with gratitude, confessing that he has been justly condemned to them for the ancestral sin.  Yea, he will find repose from his labors; for by reason of these chastisements the All-good God has given death to men, so that those who bear them with gratitude might rest from them for a time, and then might be resurrected and glorified in the day of judgment through the new Adam, the sinless Jesus Christ and God Who was delivered up for our trespasses, and was raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25) (The First-Created Man, p. 61).

This is a warning to us not to live a life of ease (which has become the goal of modern man) that dulls the soul.  Without hard work to humble us, our pride will swell, and another disastrous fall into evil with all its terrible consequences will follow.  Too much mechanization, labor-saving devices, and the like - that is, attempts to undo the Fall and to conjure up Eden here in the world apart from God’s ways - are a threat not just to human dignity, sound economics, and the like, but to our spiritual health, our very salvation.  But here our memory can be put to good use - in particular, the memory of the Paradise we have lost:

 . . . let us note the spiritual benefit of being close to Paradise, of still seeing the place and state from which man had fallen and to which he is called to return.  St. John Chrysostom writes:

The view (of Paradise), even if it aroused in Adam an unbearable grief, at the same time afforded him much profit:  the constant beholding (of Paradise) served for the grieving one as a warning for the future, so that he would not fall again into the same (transgression) (Genesis, pgs. 285, 288).

But can we see Paradise at all today?  In a sense we can.  Blessed Fr Seraphim Rose (+1982) says,

Even in our fallen state, can we not be reminded of Paradise and our fall from it in the nature that surrounds us?  In the animals it is not difficult to see the passions over which we should be masters, but which have largely taken possession of us; and in the peaceful murmur of the forests (where so many ascetic strugglers have taken refuge) can we not see a reminder of the Paradise of vegetation originally intended for our dwelling and food, and still existing for those able to ascend, with St. Paul, to behold it (p. 252)?

Here we find a great encouragement not to transgress, lest we mar what few traces of Eden remain in this world.  Toward such remnants the South has been keenly attuned from her beginning, and this may partly explain her slowness to embrace ugly, urbanized Modernity.

Abba Dorotheus of Gaza (+565), another highly gifted spiritual teacher, also enjoins us to remember Paradise, this time, however, as a goad to advancement in the spiritual life:

In Orthodox ascetic literature, where the aim constantly kept in view is our restoration to Paradise, the unspoiled and dispassionate nature of Adam before the fall is held up as the model and goal of our ascetic struggle.  St. Abba Dorotheus writes, in the very first words of his Spiritual Instructions:

In the beginning, when God created man, He placed him in Paradise and adorned him with every virtue, giving him the commandment not to taste of the tree which was in the midst of Paradise.  And thus he remained there in the enjoyment of Paradise:  in prayer, in vision, in every glory and honor, having sound senses and being in the same natural condition in which he was created.  For God created man according to His own image, that is, immortal, master of himself, and adorned with every virtue.  But when he transgressed the commandment, eating the fruit of the tree of which God had commanded him not to taste, then he was banished from Paradise, fell away from the natural condition, and fell into a condition against nature, and then he remained in sin, in love of glory, in love of the enjoyments of this age, and of other passions, and he was mastered by them, for he became himself their slave through the transgression (pgs. 251-2).

Fr Seraphim comments further,

The awareness that Adam’s state in Paradise was the natural human condition, and the one to which we may hope to return by God’s grace, is one of the greatest spurs to ascetic struggle.  . . . With the fall of man, Paradise ceased to be a reality of this earth and was placed out of our reach; but through the grace of God made available to Christians through the Second Adam, Christ, we may still hope to attain it.  Actually, through Christ we are able not only to gain back the state of Adam before the fall, but to attain a state even higher than that:  the state which Adam would have attained had he not fallen (p. 252).

The angelic monk and bishop St Isaac the Syrian (7th cent.) goes into more detail about what this restoration looks like:

The humble man approaches ravenous beasts, and when their gaze rests upon him, their wildness is tamed.  They come up to him as to their Master, wag their heads and tails and lick his hands and feet, for they smell coming from him that same scent that exhaled from Adam before the fall, when they were gathered together before him and he gave them names in Paradise.  This was taken away from us, but Jesus has renewed it and given it back to us through His coming.  This it is that has sweetened the fragrance of the race of men (footnote, p. 235).

For a specific example of what St Isaac speaks of, we may look at the life of St Paul of Obnora, Russia (+1429):

 . . . another Saint (St. Sergius of Nurma . . . ) went to where St. Paul was living in the forest and saw there a wondrous sight:  “A flock of birds surrounded the marvelous anchorite; little birds perched on the Elder’s head and shoulders, and he fed them by hand.  Nearby stood a bear, awaiting his food from the Saint; foxes, rabbits, and other beasts ran about, without any enmity among themselves and not fearing the bear.  Behold, the life of innocent Adam in Eden, the lordship of man over creation, which together with us groans because of our fall and thirsts to be delivered into the ‘liberty of the children of God’ (Rom. 8:21) (p. 239). 

Such are the deeper benefits of Christian agrarianism, rare though they are in this world:  not simply healthy soil or neighborhoods, but an experience of Eden here and now.  But it cannot be stressed too greatly that these spiritual heights are only obtained by long years of difficult struggle to chasten and heal the body and soul, to make them vessels overflowing with the love of God - this has nothing to do with the cheap emotional euphoria of Transcendentalism and other false religions.  And chief among those disciplines, as shown in the third chapter of Genesis, is the cultivation of the earth.

There is much kinship between these various teachings, sermons, and lives and what one finds in Southern history, in the lives of her men and women, in her prose and poetry, etc. - sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker.  But it is crucial in the perilous times of moral confusion in which we live to be as clear- and sober-minded about Dixie’s Christian agrarian heritage as possible, to improve our understanding of every facet of it, and, most importantly, to live what we have discovered.  Studying what the Holy Fathers have to say about God, man, and the creation will help us a great deal in that endeavor.  In doing so, we will strengthen the Faith here in the South and hopefully serve also as a good example to other nations of how a proper appreciation and use of human labor, in agriculture first and foremost, but also in handcrafts, book illumination, manufacturing, mining, etc. (rather than its denigration through too much machine automation), can benefit mankind.

Works Cited

Rose, Father Seraphim.  Genesis, Creation, and Early Man: The Orthodox Christian Vision.  2nd ed.  Ed., Hieromonk Damascene.  Platina, Ca.: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2011.

Saint Symeon the New Theologian.  The First-Created Man.  4th ed.  Trans., Father Seraphim Rose.  Platina, Ca.: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2013.

Author: Walt Garlington