On Austria and Real Culture
This post was originally published on the Integrity Blog.
Most people are super confused when I tell them I studied Humanities, Catholic Culture, and Philosophy in college. Like, what does that even mean. People don’t even hear those words anymore.
What studying, living, and experiencing the humanities did for me is something that I can’t quite put into words. I started out wanting to be a philosophical person who understood history and culture. I listened, read, studied, and wrote. It fed my mind and took my thoughts to high, lofty places. Emphasis on my mind. Because it stayed in my mind, until I saw it fleshed out and breathing and living in a little town in Austria where I lived for four months.
When I arrived in the town of Gaming, Austria, it felt surreal. Like magic. A medieval monastery glistening with snow. Little homes dotted up and down the mountains. Families who greeted us with outstretched arms, cozy fires, and hot tea. Classrooms filled with beautiful old paintings and libraries weighted down with not-so-dusty classical books.
Traveling to Paris, Rome, Assisi, Krakow and Vienna? Those were all exhilarating experiences, and I would recommend it to anyone and everyone. Europe has everything to offer an adventurous heart and curious mind. But the most valuable lesson I learned while studying abroad was not given to me on some excursion in a big city. It was gradually melded onto my heart and ensconced in my mind during plain old, day to day life.
The ordinary days I spent in that monastery taught me how culture is supposed to work.
Historian Christopher Dawson wrote that Christian culture is Incarnational. The Christian faith holds the Incarnational act as the center of all history; “Word made flesh.” The immaterial and the divine incarnating itself into the material, gritty, messy human world. This is the person of Christ. What most fail to comprehend, I think, is that the Incarnation is the way of life which takes us back to our true selves.
Culture is how we do life. Culture reveals what we think life is all about. A culture that teaches us to live unnaturally busy, bored, tired, blah lives is not a real culture. This is the culture of Netflix binging and twelve hour work days and consumerism, and it snuffs out creativity, reflection, and spiritual truth. And it’s boring. It’s mentally draining.
Real, incarnational culture rejects the idea that we are meant for just work, productivity, and worldly success. Incarnational culture says that life is about coming into a living relationship with truth, beauty, and real goodness.
But, the thing is, we can’t just think and believe in these things. The structure of our life has to match up. Because the material reveals the transcendent. Because the everyday stuff is what leads us to encounter what is sacred. That’s how it works.
In Gaming, there was a steady rhythm of life. Professors and students alike put great effort into class. These classes weren’t about cramming random facts for a test or getting that “easy A”. These classes were about wrestling with the wonder we all shared for the deepest questions of life, philosophy, theology, and history. We actually talked about class outside of class, in dark hallways late at night. We connected conversations in class with the beautiful cathedrals, city streets and concentration camps in which we walked. Learning was transformative. Learning wasn’t a drag. It served a purpose.
We worshipped together in community, at the same time and place every day. In a church. Everything stopped when Mass was going on. We all got into the rhythm of carving time for God and it wasn’t a chore. It didn’t feel counterintuitive. We just did it. Sacramental prayer fueled us.
We had bonfires and late night excursions to the bar next door that fostered the best conversations I’ve ever had. We had drawing and music sessions in the tea kitchens. We ate copious amounts of Nutella-drenched waffles in the cafeteria every Sunday. We had dance parties. We hiked mountains, explored caves, jumped in creeks. We laughed until we cried and our sides ached. We slept on trains together, had no money together, ate together. Friendship took on a whole new meaning. We talked about divine realities and stupid inside jokes in the same conversation. We weren’t on our phones. We weren’t binging Netflix. We studied, worked, laughed and did real things.
This way of life was simple, ordered, and fulfilling.
Material objects, daily schedules, sacraments, community, laughter, studies, and leisure make up the rhythm of life. These things matter. Ideas are behind them and are communicated through them. In Gaming, Austria, the ordinary things of everyday life fueled an ideal true living. Living became intentional, meaningful, and transcendent. Most importantly, this idea of truth, beauty, and goodness was shared among the hundred-something people that lived in that monastery. Our commonly shared vision of truth and beauty structured the way our life together worked.
When good people hold a beautiful truth in common and strive for goodness together, it makes for a good culture. It makes for a culture that is a hell of a good time. It was more real than the avalanche of boring, meaningless crap that I deal with in the adult world. Because we live in a culture that is disconnected from a structure that sustains an intellectual, joyful life.
The biggest lesson I learned from Austria? That fostering a dynamic, human, and philosophically beautiful culture really matters. We must intentionally surround ourselves with good things as well as good ideas. Incarnational living is ideas and stuff working together. It takes work, but what do all good things ultimately do? They make us happy.
Living in Austria made my life more beautiful, more sacred, and more deeply real than any book I have read or paper I have written. Living in real culture took my paper Humanities degree and breathed life into it. Living in a real culture showed me “Word made flesh.” Living in a real culture transformed me.