December 5, 2020

Fridays with Damaris: Another Look – Integrity of Life

Integrity of Life
by Damaris Zehner

For, with the old order destroyed, a universe cast down is renewed, and integrity of life is restored to us in Christ.

Prayer offered during Mass: May 3, 2015

• • •

The phrase “integrity of life” reached out and grabbed me when I heard it a few months ago.  Those three words express what I’ve always been trying to work toward:  why I’ve several times given up my old life and gone to live in primitive circumstances; why I’ve worked, raised my family, and ordered my daily tasks the way I have.  I have been trying to find integrity of life.  I’ve never achieved it, and sometimes I feel I’m farther from it now than I’ve ever been.  But it is what I’m seeking.  I understand it to be life at peace with myself, the world, and God, a life that integrates work and play, necessity and joy, one that works with nature and not in opposition to it.

[Disclaimer:  This essay is not about going back to the good old days of caves, tooth decay, whooping cough, and raw meat.  I love antibiotics and effective food storage.  Please believe me.]

There are other people seeking integrity of life, in their own ways.  Daniel mentioned the Benedict Option recently; apparently Daniel and I read many of the same blogs and news sources.  I don’t really want to discuss Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option itself or argue for or against it, especially since it is a work in progress.  However, I do want to think more about Dreher’s list of Benedictine imperatives and about culture.  I may sound as if I am talking about the “culture wars” that we all hate:  the strident political, legal, and commercial attempts to make other people agree with us and act as we want them to.  But I’m not.  These “culture wars” are not worth spending time on, because they are ineffective, unkind, unchristian, and show profound ignorance of history and of the real sources of human behavior and change.  Their deepest flaw is assuming that the shape and boundaries of our current culture are universal and that the Christian response must be to dress that culture in Christian clothes.

I prefer the term “countercultural,” but even that is a limited concept.  It exists only in reaction to something and is still shaped by the thing it rejects.  For example, our modern society believes in the religion of progress – I think it is a false religion, wrong both morally and thermodynamically.  The countercultural response to the religion of progress is “degrowth,” or “the limits to growth,” or Herman Daly’s “steady state.”  I find these ideas more congenial and more accurate.  But what if there is another way of seeing human life that doesn’t even think in terms of progress, regress, or a refusal to move?  I can’t say what it would be, because I’m also conditioned by my time and place – although I imagine that permaculture comes close.  However, just accepting that there could be other forms of human culture than the ones we’re familiar with makes the culture wars and even counter-culturalism too limiting as a means of cultural renewal.

So how do Christians find integrity of life in a post-Christian society?  [Disclaimer Number Two:  I don’t think we ever will find it in this fallen world; when it arrives, it will be a gift of grace breaking through and not a result of our own efforts.  Still, like Cornelius in the book of Acts, we would do well to work toward integrity as best we can while waiting for grace to arrive.]

The first thing we should do is give thanks for a post-Christian society – that we are now spared the damnable temptation to conflate our American way of life with the Kingdom of God.  That temptation beset recent generations but is no longer open to us.

Second, we should always place before us, not what we object to in society, but what God has given us as timeless guidelines—not what we’re against, but what we’re for.  You know these:

  • And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.  (Micah 6:8)
  • Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.  (Matthew 22: 37-40)
  • Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.  (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12)

Third, we should live out our convictions and not just philosophize on the internet.  Dreher lists the following as the foundations of Benedictine thought:  order, stability, discipline, community, and hospitality.  I mentioned that the culture wars were wrong in how they went about trying to change culture.  Benedict was wiser:  his five elements form both the content of culture and the means of perpetuating it.  Culture is a direct result of the order, stability, discipline, community, and hospitality with which a person is raised and formed.
To be specific:  in a post-Christian world, Christians should strive to achieve order, stability, discipline, community, and hospitality, not just because they are good things but because they are the building blocks of true human culture and always have been.  You can read the rule of Saint Benedict and visit current monasteries to see what they look like in monasticism.  Here are some ideas of how these five things might look in our everyday lives.

  • Eat real food prepared by real people, all sitting together, young and old at the same table, with no distractions.  Make this a priority every day.  Do not allow anything – even work, even church programs – to interfere with communal mealtimes, but feel free to choose the best time for your family – breakfast or afternoon tea works as well as dinner.  Train children to stay seated, listen, and partake.  Discuss heatedly but don’t fight.  Stay at the table slightly longer than it takes to eat the food.  Clean up together.  Invite guests.  If you live alone, still have sit-down meals of real food, and try to have others join you frequently.
  • Visit your food before it gets to your house.  If you can’t, your food’s probably coming too far.   Grow some yourself.
  • Read aloud, to children especially, but to all ages as well.  Several insightful commenters on iMonk have mentioned that the technology we use plays a huge role in shaping who we think we are and what we think the world is – in forming culture, in other words.  Reading a book, more than partaking in modern forms of electronic media, is by its nature an ordered, stable activity, that requires discipline; reading aloud builds community and can contribute to hospitality.  Some of you may wisely point out that reading itself is a relatively new skill and one that historically has only involved a tiny minority of people; you may point out that Socrates didn’t trust it, and that I, in objecting to Twitter, Google, etc., am fighting the same useless reactionary, rearguard battle that Socrates was.  Well, that’s good company to be in, but let me concede two extremes if you like.    First, if you don’t want to read books, go primitive – tell stories to your family and friends.  Real stories, not just gossip or anecdotes.  These stories are the foundation of our personal identity, just as the common stories of literature, art, and music are the foundation of our cultural identity.  Or second, be advanced and try reading aloud from Twitter and Google to your friends, families, and housemates.  At least then your reading will be a communal activity, not just a solitary one, and you will be protected from the dangers of the echo chamber by the questions and reactions of those you’re reading to.  I suspect you’ll find, however, that your children would rather be on your lap listening to Make Way for Ducklings or the story about how Grandpa got arrested for driving with a pig in the front seat than watching the back of your head while you read aloud from some website.
  • Go outside and get dirty.  Get wet when it rains.  Get chilled when it’s cold.  Sweat.  Walk places.  Notice where the sun rises and sets.  Remind yourself of your size and your place in the natural world.
  • Make your own music.  Draw a picture.  Write someone a letter on real paper.
  • Throw stuff out. One of the most troubling symptoms of our cultural poverty is the proliferation of self-storage facilities.  Where I live, even towns of 800 people have self-storage buildings.  Buying and hoarding stuff does not create a living culture; rather it drags it down to its death.  Think deeply and honestly about what you buy and use and why you buy it and use it.  How many outfits do you need?  How many kitchen implements do you need?  How much time do you spend dealing with things – dusting, taking out, putting in, organizing and reorganizing – instead of people?  We have fallen into the belief that culture consists of the stuff we own and consume.  If that’s true, then it makes sense for Christians to try to own and consume different stuff, stuff that is distinctively Christian.  But is that what culture is?  No.  Culture is not stuff but the shared experience of order, stability, discipline, community, and hospitality provided by our families and our society as a whole.
  • Sleep when it gets dark and get up when it gets light.  Try instituting an electricity-free day every now and again.
  • Pray always, even when it doesn’t seem to be “doing anything.”  Pray while doing all the other things on the list.

(That’s interesting.  I had no intention of replicating the Benedictine lifestyle of ora et labora, or prayer and work, when I started typing the previous thoughts, but it seems to have happened – much of what I suggest is what I gather Benedictines do as part of their daily disciplines.)

There are many other aspects of integrity of life that occur to me – free time, personal appearance, holidays, rituals, social structures, and others – but I don’t want to cram too much into a short post.  This is just a start, and a deceptive one to boot.  A truly integrated life can’t be lived from a checklist like the one above.  But still, we can find it helpful to begin there in examining why we live as we do – in examining the culture we have received and the one we want to pass down to others.  I’ve started a book about integrity of life, consisting ideally of the words and experiences of people farther along than I am.  In the process of writing it, I am having to remind myself not to spend all day alone at the computer, to get outside even though it’s raining, to play a game with my family, to bag up some junk for Goodwill, and several times a day to throw the spit-caked tennis ball for the dog to fetch.  I’ll go do that now.

• • •

Originally posted in July 2015


  1. Christiane says

    ” . . . . and several times a day to throw the spit-caked tennis ball for the dog to fetch. I’ll go do that now.”

    That made me smile. I used to do this when our pup could still see. Now, for exercise, I bought a ‘life vest dog swim suit’ for him and he comes into the pool with me and swims. I think he enjoys it a lot ….. major tail-wag!

    Days go by and we stay so busy, but it’s the times when we threw a ball to the puppy that I think will be remembered after all the ‘important’ things are fading from our memories. Just the joy of it may be all that sometimes remains when the weight of years has robbed our minds of words and images. 🙂

  2. Good thoughts and insights Damaris.

    I think that a crucial experience many in our culture lack is the need to struggle for life against nature who is quite capable of destroying us. Your counter-cultural practices would certainly put a person much closer to that struggle.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Interesting, my thought is almost the opposite – although you are correct.

      Modern Western life is so flattening [ironically, also fattening]. The line between discomfort and agony blurs, and the range of comfortable collapses to 70+/-5 degrees @ 45% humidity. This, when there is no struggle, drives us to struggle for ever increasing levels of comfort. But there is no struggle – it is just that we so readily ruin ourselves. Human beings are supremely adapted to the variable climate of our world.

      This: “””Go outside and get dirty. Get wet when it rains. Get chilled when it’s cold. Sweat. Walk places. “””

      If you do you will laugh out loud at people’s Weather-Drama, or how **very far** away everything is [no… actually I can see it from here, with my sad 40 year old eyes].

      I am no luddite, but we do use technology, especially the technologies of comfort, to delude ourselves that there is a great problem to solve, and then we impoverish ourselves attempting to solve it. But, nah, it’s fine.

  3. Adam Tauno Williams says

    > Sleep when it gets dark and get up when it gets light.

    Or sleep when it gets hot – and go outside when its dark, and listen.

    I love the sounds of the neighborhood at night.
    The same sounds I would listen to ~40 years ago.
    The day sounds change, but the night sounds are old.
    The sounds of preparing a city for the next day. There is comfort in them.

    > Try instituting an electricity-free day every now and again

    At least have Data-Free outings.

  4. Damaris, I wish you were my neighbor, or better yet, my sister I could visit. Your insights are life and fresh air.
    Thanks. If I’m ever passing by your way, I’ll help weed.

    • Damaris Zehner says

      Please do, Greg r. I just had shoulder surgery and could use the help!

      • I have a right shoulder worn out from painting/drywall work; won’t be good till I get the new one with the glorified everything else….. I can still weed, though….
        Blessings to the Zehner clan, especially the four legged tail wagging ones.

  5. Susan Dumbrell says

    ‘Eat real food with real people’, at the Table of our Lord I think.

    I am this week loosing two very dear friends who I have known since forever, one is Jenny who I have been friends with for 67 years. She is moving too, too far away. I may never see her again in this life.
    My other dear friend and I have shared the bread and wine each week at the Church she introduced me to some time ago. have known her for 20 years. Bev is moving overseas.
    My husband is sick again this week, more antibiotics.
    I am too old to make close friends again. I can only hold fast to the Saviour who knew me before I was born and loves me with my faults . He is with me waking, eating, sleeping. A friend I will not ever loose.
    Sit by the fire, cuddle my cats and watch Jupiter rise each night with Saturn chasing him. Simple pleasures.
    That is how I get by this week.
    The night outside is quiet, I will go my prayers.

  6. The sole benefit of my new work schedule is that I’m up so early that traffic is almost non-existent. I am by nature a night person, and I miss the cool calm that night brings. Going to bed just as the light disappears is just wrong, lol.

  7. Ronald Avra says

    ‘So how do Christians find integrity of life in a post-Christian society? [Disclaimer Number Two: I don’t think we ever will find it in this fallen world; when it arrives, it will be a gift of grace breaking through and not a result of our own efforts. Still, like Cornelius in the book of Acts, we would do well to work toward integrity as best we can while waiting for grace to arrive.]’ I would choose this as the leaf spring on the cart that must carry the load for my time here. Pray daily for the grace to arrive. Enjoyed the post; very timely, Damaris.

  8. Visit your food? Including my coffee and pineapples?

  9. Christiane says

    “So how do Christians find integrity of life in a post-Christian society? [Disclaimer Number Two: I don’t think we ever will find it in this fallen world; when it arrives, it will be a gift of grace breaking through and not a result of our own efforts”

    Integrity is a word I associate with pulling it all together in a way that is productive.

    Just these last days, we have seen something happen that is, well, the strangest conflation of issues we could imagine in the US:
    on a baseball field in Alexandria, a Republican law maker was grievously wounded by a deranged man with a gun that hated all things ‘Trump’. Steve Scalese was hit and fell but his protection officer continued to fire at the perpetrator. The protection officer was hit but continued to pursue the would-be murderer. Just ‘by chance’ (?) the protection offficer was a WOMAN, an African American, a lesbian, in a same-sex marriage, whose mission to confront the would-be killer likely saved the lives of many Republican law-makers.

    So much comes together there: gun issues, mental-health of gun owners, Republican political operatives, a woman professional protection officer, lesbian, in a same-sex marriage …….. and she takes a bullet for the men and keeps on firing to protect them.

    Will they remember her someday when legislation comes before them that has to do with the ‘place of women’ who serve our country?

    Integrity. That what makes a warrior against evil does not reside in the reproductive system of that warrior, but within the human heart.

    Was it ‘coincidence’ that so much came together on the ball field. Just in that way. And we can see it like a microcosm of our country in action. And at the heart of this terrible event, we see healing come ….. not by focusing on the many differences of those involved, but on their humanity. I hope the healing continues. I hope Crystal is remembered by those she defended when the bullets came that morning.

  10. What a thoughtful post, Damaris. Integrity of life may just about sum up what I’m after, and what I look for in others. It certainly is not something confined to the Christian life, but I wouldn’t want to be making this effort without the help of God’s Spirit, it’s hard enough as it is. You are quite right that any success is a gift of grace, but also quite right that we need to cooperate by giving it our best shot alongside. I understand that many people need to do this in an urban setting while in the first half of life, making a living, raising a family, tho I cannot imagine spending the second half of life there. Different strokes, but your appreciation of life with nature is much appreciated. If I were to sum up your whole message in one word, perhaps it would be balance.

    Yes, the cultural wars, which we look down our noses at while warring with the Evangelical culture, the conservative culture, any culture that does not meet our requirements for modern, educated, middle-class, sophisticated, white-bread progressive ideology, the very thing that our current more-progressive-than-thou college snowflakes are warring against. Totally agree with you that all these are “ineffective, unkind, unchristian, and show profound ignorance of history and of the real sources of human behavior and change.” They don’t have a lot of meaning while trying to get the winter’s firewood cut and split in time to season or fixing the driveway that washed out again or mowing your neighbor’s lawn because he worked a 70 hour week.

    Damaris, your voice is like having our own Wendell Berry next door. There is a sense of reality that comes up thru the dirt that can’t quite make it thru a concrete sidewalk or a blacktop parking lot, and participating with life as it flies and buzzes and croaks and sings and runs and crawls and grows all around is a much different experience than the one that comes thru the television screen. Thanks for keeping us reminded.

  11. Dana Ames says


    just got home from visiting family in AZ, so catching up at IM.

    Love this piece, again. Yes, Integrity. I didn’t have a name for it when I was young, but discovered it in my middle age, and it means more to me now than ever. In the NT it is sophrosyne – wholeness and watchfulness and discernment all optimally connected as the Holy Spirit keeps working in/on us.


  12. My thinking along these lines is slightly different, but I think there is a relationship between the two.

    I believe that for us Christians in the Western world the thing we really need to question profoundly about our acceptance of the surrounding culture (or our blindness to it) is our relationship to time.

    We don’t have any.

    Or rather, we organise ourselves into not having any.

    The Western way is to be busy. Doing something, anything, in order to not be …. we don’t know, but whatever that horrible thing is where you’re not doing something.

    Lots of the things in your list boil down to taking the time.

    I inherited the Oasis album “Be Here Now” a few years ago, and eventually fell to musing on those three words.

    I’ve taken to repeating them to my impatient/anxious/what-are-we-doing-tomorrow children.

    Be (not do)
    Here (not wherever the latest world disaster just happened)
    Now (not tomorrow, next year, last year, on holiday)

    It is an enormous challenge to empty our agendas of all the (perfectly honorable and useful) activities we stuff them with, and to carve out space just to be.

    Lord have mercy.