Rod Dreher

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A Benedictine on the Benedict Option

Graffiti on a wall in Italy
Graffiti on a wall in Italy

 

One day in Norcia, Casella and I had lunch with Father Cassian, the prior of the Benedictine monastic community, the hometown of St. Benedict. Father Cassian is an American who founded the community in 1998, and moved them to this monastery in 2000. It had been emptied out in 1810 by the Napoleonic laws, but now, there are once again monks living in it.

Over the course of our lunch, I had the opportunity to mention the Benedict Option to Father Cassian. I told him it had to do with the final paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which he indicated he understood. I said that I’m not talking about everybody running for the hills and living in an armed compound, but I am talking about forming communities within which we can make meaningful withdrawals from an increasingly hostile, increasingly chaotic society. The idea, I told him, is to be able to hold on to our knowledge and tradition in a dark time.

I was surprised, and gratified, by his answer.

He said: of course, that makes perfect sense. People have to start doing that in their own lives and families. There must be prayer and ascetic discipline, and we must find ways to do that in community. Those who sit around waiting for the institutional churches to get their acts together will wait in vain. The only way Christians are going to come through the present and future days with their Christianity intact is if they have been formed through small communities of faith and practice.

I mentioned the community of Catholics who have gathered around Clear Creek Monastery in Oklahoma (I wrote about them for TAC here, in my cover story on the Benedict Option). Father Cassian said yes, he had heard about them, and he believes communities like that are important. “There are Italian families who live not far from our monastery, who are doing the same thing with us,” he said.

I told him that it frustrated me that so many people reject the idea of the Benedict Option out of hand because they think it requires running off to the wilderness and living in a kind of survivalist compound, or in some other way cutting yourself off completely from the world. In fact, I said, I’m advocating a partial withdrawal for the sake of forming oneself and one’s children in Christian faith and morals in the face of a powerful mainstream culture opposed to those values.

“I’m not talking about hiding your light,” I said. “I’m talking about not walking out into a hurricane and expecting your candle to stay lit.”

“That’s why they make hurricane lamps,” the prior said. “Here at the monastery, we withdraw in an institutional way, but you’re right — the laity has to understand that these are not normal times. If they want their descendants to be around for the rebuilding, families can’t live as if these were normal times. St. Benedict faced the same thing.”

Father Cassian had to return to the monastery for prayers, so our lunch was cut short. He did say before he left that without prayer and the sacraments, we are going to be in trouble if we try to live the Benedict Option. There must be real, and constant, spiritual nourishment to build the presence of God within our hearts and communities, or our efforts will be in vain.

I don’t want to give the impression that Father Cassian is a gloomy man. He gives the impression of being a man of deep prayer and serenity, as you would expect in a monk, which made it all the more impressive that he has such stillness within him even though he believes the world is headed into a dark age, at least as far as the Christian faith is concerned.

“Where do you find your hope?” I asked.

“In the Lord,” he said, firmly. “And only in the Lord. Nothing else lasts. He is the only one who will not disappoint.”

Later, Casella and I were reflecting on our lunch with the prior, and marveled that such a place as this wonderful Norcia monastery exists in the world. When the Norcia monks arrived here to re-open the monastery in St. Benedict’s birthplace after two centuries of abandonment, there were only three of them. The community is now almost twenty monks strong. And seeing them in church singing the hours, I can tell you that they are all young. They come mostly from America, but there are men from other parts of the world.

They come here, I see, because the Monastery of San Benedetto is a spiritual lighthouse and a spiritual stronghold. They chant in Latin, and celebrate the old mass. If I were a young Catholic man who thought I might have a vocation to the monastic life, I would be on the next plane to Italy and make my way to Norcia for a retreat. By the way, they welcome pilgrims here too.

Casella and I left Norcia today thinking of ourselves as friends of this monastery. This small community of monks are keeping the faith alive in the birthplace of the saint who did more than any single man to preserve it in western Europe through a time of chaos and fragmentation. And he didn’t do it by coming up with a Grand Plan To Save Civilization. He did it by becoming a man of prayer, and of prayer in community. A man who believed that one’s life should be about work and prayer. He gathered like-minded men around him, and over time, they taught the people of Europe how to pray and how to live. Because of the mustard seed of faith St. Benedict had, he gave birth to modern Europe.

He faced very hard times, harder than we face today. But he didn’t surrender to them, nor did he deny their seriousness. He responded instead with faith, hope, and determination. If an avalanche is coming, you don’t surrender to it and slide down the hill with the rocks, and you don’t get yourself killed by standing in front of it hoping that God will stop it before it hits you, or that someone will show up at the last minute to rescue you. You get out of the way, and take shelter where you can until it passes you by.

This is the Benedict Option, as I see it. It inspires me to know that the prior of the monastery built over the birthplace of St. Benedict shares my vision of our cultural crisis, and the response it requires from serious Christians. I’m going back to America with a new sense of hope and discipline, and a sense that I and people like me need to get busy. I’m not a Catholic, but I’m going to keep this monastery in my prayers, and support their presence and work in Norcia however I can. Please you do the same, especially if you’re Catholic. And if you think you might have a vocation to Catholic monastic life, come to Norcia to see what their life is like here. Just do it.

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The Impoverished Catholic Conversation

 

Catholic blogger Robert Delahunty says Pope Francis has blown the opportunity he had for turning the global Catholic Church’s conversation away from the culture war of the West, toward the struggles that Third World Christians face with poverty and oppression. Excerpt:

The new Pope would speak for the populations of the emerging world – for their suffering, their desperation, their resilience, their energy, their sense of hope. The “North/South” polarity would supplant the “Left/Right” one. The Church would make the pivot to poverty. In making that turn, it would address the West too – but by awakening it from the deadly self-absorption of the affluent.

So when one learns that the Synod of Catholic cardinals and bishops summoned by the same Pope has returned the conversation to the culture wars of the West – though with unmistakable overtones of capitulation on many of the bishops’ part — it is, to say no more, a disappointment. Try as it may, the Church under Francis seems to be unable to resist scratching the sores of Western sexuality. The consuming obsessions of the West, now in the terminal phases of the sexual and cultural revolutions that have swept over it for more than half a century, are dominating the Church’s agenda once again. At the Pope’s insistence, the bishops did a reset, plunging the Church into renewed debate over divorce and homosexuality and cutting short the conversation that the Pope had earlier invited over famine, persecution and want. With Islamist terrorist groups like Boko Haram recently murdering 2500 Catholics in one Nigerian diocese alone, and with Christian children being crucified or cut in half by ISIS, you might think that the world’s bishops would have more pressing things on their mind than the compatibility of same-sex unions with Church teaching. You would, of course, be wrong.

Delahunty points out that the pope’s point man at the Synod, Cardinal Walter Kasper, let the cat out of the bag when he disdained the Africans. Could it be, Delahunty asks, that the Africans don’t only disagree with the West on homosexuality, but also see the kind of decline in religious faith that they don’t want to import to their own nations? More:

Pope Francis was right (at first): it really is time to change the conversation. The global Church is not the parochial Western Church; the Church of the poor and the marginal is not the affluent, greying Church of Western Europe and North America. The Church should not be shadowing the West’s cultural trajectory all the way downwards. The future of the Church lies elsewhere. Ex oriente, lux.

Read the whole thing.

[H/T: Mark Movsesian]

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Russian Orthodox Fox News

St. Basil Cathedral, Moscow Xevi V/Flickr
St. Basil Cathedral, Moscow Xevi V/Flickr

This is interesting news from Russia. Konstantin Malofeev, a devout Orthodox Christian, tsarist, and rich guy, has ideas about media, religion, and the culture war. Slate reports:

Malofeev, whose St. Basil the Great Foundation is the country’s largest Orthodox charity, says that these cultural issues don’t stop at Russia’s borders. His mission is larger than just restoring Orthodoxy in Russia. Rather, it’s a global struggle.

“Just as Christians in the West in Ronald Reagan’s time helped us against the evil of communism, we now have to return our debt to Christians who are suffering under totalitarianism in the West,” he says. “This so-called liberalism, tolerance, and freedom, these are just words, but behind them you can see the totalitarianism.”

Asked for examples of this totalitarianism, he cites legal battles over U.S. businesses not providing flowers or cakes for gay weddings and the use of tear gas againstanti-gay-marriage protesters in France. “We saw all of this in the 1920s in the Soviet Union. We know how it starts when the protection of minorities becomes the policy of the state,” he says.

More:

He’s also developing Tsargrad TV, a cable network—for now it’s just a YouTube channel—that will provide a conservative Orthodox perspective on the news. “We want to build up [a network based on] Orthodox principles the way Fox News was built,” he says. “We want to show the news in the way that Orthodox people, who are 70 to 80 percent of the population, see it.” (Jack Hanick, a former Fox News employee, will be a producer for the network.) I ask if Russia’s existing TV networks aren’t conservative enough. “Aren’t Orthodox enough,” he counters.

Seriously, this guy bears watching. I’m sure he’s giving Masha Gessen fits, but I’m interested to see where he’s going with this. There are a thousand ways it could go wrong, but what if it goes right?

I think one of the big culture and religion stories of the next 20 years is going to be the relationship between small-o orthodox Christians in the West, and Russian Orthodoxy — if Russia develops a robust anti-liberal response to Western secularism.

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A Religious Test

Longtime TAC readers will recognize the name John Schwenkler, who used to write the Upturned Earth blog for this website. John is now a philosophy professor at Florida State, and is working on a study about religious doctrine and popular belief. He asked me if I would post this request on the blog, inviting readers from all over the world to participate in the study, which he’s conducting in collaboration with an Oxford University cognitive scientist/philosopher. It doesn’t matter what your denomination or church is. I took the survey; it’s quick and easy. Here’s what you need to know:

You are invited to participate in a survey organized by Helen De Cruz and John Schwenkler. The purpose of this study is to explore to what extent you agree with a series of religious (theological) teachings.

The survey takes approximately 10 minutes and, if you wish, you can be entered into a prize draw for an Amazon voucher of 50 GBP or 75 USD.

Please follow this link to complete the survey: http://www.religion-survey.net/

UPDATE: Readers, if you plan to take the survey, please do so BEFORE reading the comments. It could skew results otherwise.

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Writing About Religion

The eyes of TMatt are upon us!
The eyes of TMatt are upon us!

Hey Boston area readers, I’ll be at the Boisi Center at Boston College on Thursday evening for a panel discussion on writing about religion in a polarized age. I will be joined by actual smart people, including my longtime correspondent Mark Oppenheimer of The New York Times; I’m the comic relief, I think. Come if you can, or watch us livestreamed. Follow the link and it will give you the info.

As I’m thinking about the remarks I’ll make, I’d like to throw open the comments box to ask you readers what you think about religion writing in a polarized age. What qualities does the best religion writing you see nowadays have? What’s wrong with religion writing today? How could we who write about religion do a better job?

I’ll say a couple of brief things, but hold the substance of my comments for the meeting. First, I think that the Internet has been terrific for religion writing, because it makes available far more perspectives.

I think that the tremendous job the media did on the Catholic abuse scandal wouldn’t have been possible without the Internet. Nor would it have been possible for Catholics, both conservative and liberal, to offer their own analyses that either contradicted or amplified what we were seeing in the mainstream media.

Plus, I think it is a good thing that it’s harder for authorities within a religion, church, or tradition to control the narrative. I’m a conservative, as you know, but I treasure the fact that I can read both a conservative and liberal take on certain issues. Though an ex-Catholic, I am still rather unlikely to agree with the National Catholic Reporter on any Catholic issue, but I still value its perspective as a reality check on what my preferred sources are saying.

So that’s one good thing about religion writing in a polarized age: if you care to find alternative perspectives to inform your own, it’s not hard.

The hardest thing, I think, is trying to see the world through the eyes of someone whose religious perspective is different from your own. An example: a constant complaint in my own comments threads from pro-gay rights readers is that Christians have learned to ignore Levitical teachings, so why can’t they ignore New Testament writing against homosexuality? This is simply ignorant. It’s ignorant of how Christians reason, and the historical relationship between Scripture and interpretation. No Christian reads the Bible as a how-to book in the sense these critics mean. To be sure, there are many variations of authoritative interpretation, but virtually no Christian reads the Bible as these readers think we do.

I don’t say that these readers are arguing in bad faith (though they might be). What I say is that they typically don’t take the time or expend the effort to understand Christians, or traditional Christians, the way Christians (or traditional Christians) understand themselves. The fundamental divide between religious liberals and religious conservatives, I think, is over the way we relate to religious truth. Is it something we can change to fit our own needs and culture, or must we change ourselves, despite our needs and culture, to fit it? There’s not a simple answer for this (in fact, I think most people do both things at different times), but the way one answers this question has a lot to do with the task one faces in trying to understand how the other side thinks.

Here’s a variation on that point: Prior to the 1960s, liberal and conservative Catholics could dispute each other, but they used the same authoritative texts and teachings on which to build their cases. That’s not really true anymore. It’s far more difficult for both sides to understand each other, because they understand the faith according to different paradigms. I think this is generally true of all people nowadays.

Finally, one challenge we who write about religion (and who read about religion) face is that we downplay religious difference. Sometimes, religions really cannot be reconciled at the doctrinal level. There is a strong tendency, and not always a bad tendency, to try to find common ground to reduce conflict. But this is a bad thing when we fail to recognize that some things are not possible to agree on. When I was a Catholic, I thought that Catholicism and Orthodoxy were pretty close, doctrinally. Now that I’m Orthodox, I see that I was wrong. My error came in part because I wanted to see the similarities, not the differences, but also because I simply wasn’t as familiar with the differences as I am now that I am Orthodox. I would still love for the Catholic and Orthodox churches to cooperate more, but I don’t hold out much hope for any re-establishment of communion, simply because the differences between the churches are more profound than many Western Christians see.

So, look, that’s enough for now. What do you think about my original questions?

(The image above are the ever-critical eyes of my pal Terry Mattingly, who is constantly thinking about these questions, and writing about them at the website Get Religion. Check it out.)

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From Catholic to Orthodox?

The conservative Catholic writer John Zmirak says that Pope Francis and his allies in Rome are playing with fire in their attempts to liberalize Catholic practice on divorced Catholics receiving communion. What they could end up doing is inadvertently making the ecclesiological case for Orthodoxy. Excerpt:

If the pope permits divorced couples who now live in extramarital relationships to receive Holy Communion without repenting and promising celibacy, he will be sanctioning one of two things: adultery or polygamy. Marriage is, by Christ’s command, indissoluble. That was taught infallibly by the Council of Trent. If the pope denies that doctrine, if he re-shapes one of the seven sacraments so radically, he will be proving something that the Orthodox have been saying since 1870: That he is not infallible on matters of faith and morals.

That might not sound like such an enormous sacrifice; the Church got along quite well without that doctrine right up until Vatican I. But by flouting the Council of Trent, and proving that Vatican I was in fact mistaken, the pope would be doing much more. He would be demonstrating that such Councils themselves lacked divine authority — that they were not like Nicaea or Chalcedon, the early Councils that built up Christian doctrine. Instead Councils such as the Lateran, Trent, and Vaticans I and II, would be merely local Western synods, exactly as the Orthodox have been insisting since 1054. In other words, the pope would be proving that Roman Catholic assertions of papal authority are grossly exaggerated, and that the Eastern Orthodox have the better claim as the heirs of the twelve apostles.

There’s an irony here, since the Orthodox have permitted the quasi-polygamous “Kasper option” for more than 1,000 years. But the Orthodox make no pretense of wielding infallible authority. They accept the early Councils of the Church (which took place well before 1054) and argue among themselves over how to apply them. They could be wrong.

And on marriage, the Orthodox are wrong. But Rome has no such wiggle room. The claims of the papacy are brave, expansive — and empirically falsifiable. If Rome adopts the Orthodox practice of marriage, that will falsify them. The mouse will have died in the maze.

If this happens, it would not prove that Luther or Calvin were right. Instead it would show that papal claims are false, that God has not left the Church with a central authority for the interpretation of doctrine, and that the Orthodox model is the only viable choice for sacramental Christians.

Read the whole thing. I’m curious to know what theologically informed Catholic and Orthodox readers think of Zmirak’s claims. Note that he is not saying that Orthodox Christianity is right and Catholic Christianity is wrong. He is claiming that if the Pope changes pastoral practice on marriage and communion, he will be in effect denying previous authoritative teachings of the Roman church, and thus will put Rome on the same level as Orthodoxy.

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Denmark’s Suicidal Tolerance

This is not from The Onion. This is a Washington Post dispatch from an actual Western country – specifically, from the Danish city of Aarhus. This is how liberalism becomes a suicide pact:

The rush of morning shoppers parted to make way for Talha, a lanky 21-year-old in desert camouflage and a long, religious beard. He strode through the local mall with a fighter’s gait picked up on the battlefields of Syria. Streams of young Muslim men greeted him like a returning king.

As-salamu alaykum.

Wa alaikum assalaam.

In other countries, Talha — one of hundreds of young jihadists from the West who has fought in Syria and Iraq — might be barred from return or thrown in jail. But in Denmark, a country that has spawned more foreign fighters per capita than almost anywhere else, the port city of Aarhus is taking a novel approach by rolling out a welcome mat.

In Denmark, not one returned fighter has been locked up. Instead, taking the view that discrimination at home is as criminal as Islamic State recruiting, officials here are providing free psychological counseling while finding returnees jobs and spots in schools and universities. Officials credit a new effort to reach out to a radical mosque with stanching the flow of recruits.

Read the whole thing. Bruce Bawer weeps. If European governments had any sense, they would withdraw citizenship for citizens who go abroad to fight for ISIS. Let them stay in the head-chopping Islamic State to which they pledged allegiance. Repatriating Islamist fanatics as a sign of mercy is insane. This Talha thug is now seen among young Danish Muslims as a hero. Denmark will regret its surrender to the mentality of dhimmitude. This is a country in which an old man who drew a cartoon of Mohammed was attacked by an axe-wielding Muslim fanatic in his own home. Oh, and this:

Immigrant gangs often operate or seek refuge in so-called no-go zones that are effectively off limits to Danish authorities. These “no-go zones” involve suburbs of Copenhagen and other Danish cities that function as autonomous enclaves ruled by Muslim immigrants, areas where Danish police fear to tread.

Muslim gangs in Denmark have been highly adept at leveraging the fear that Danish authorities have of Islam and of Muslim immigrants. They replicated the model that Muslim gangs in Britain have successfully used to wrest control over the criminal underworld in that country.

In an interview with a British newspaper, an Asian Muslim gang member named Amir put it this way: “The reality is that Asian gangs don’t give much of toss about religion, but with Islam comes fear, and with fear comes power. Religion is important to us only as a way of defining who we can trust and who we can work with. Young Muslim gangs aren’t worried about what Allah makes of their criminal ways — they don’t believe in it to that extent.”

Amir added: “Through religion we speak the same language, live in the same areas, go to the same schools and can even use mosques as a safe place away from the police or other gangs. If you f*** with a Muslim gang you’d better be able to run fast or hide well, because they will come back at you in numbers.”

The Danish authorities are scared of Talha and his ilk. And you had better believe Team Talha knows it.

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Hitch Gays — or Else

You knew this was coming. The state (in the form of the Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, city government) has ordered the Hitching Post, a for-hire wedding chapel run by Donald and Evelyn Knapp, who are ordained Pentecostal ministers, to perform gay weddings. If they refuse, the city attorney says the Knapps would be in violation of the city’s non-discrimination law regarding public accommodation. Law professor Eugene Volokh picks up the story:

Friday, the Knapps moved for a temporary restraining order, arguing that applying the antidiscrimination ordinance to them would be unconstitutional and would also violate Idaho’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I think that has to be right: compelling them to speak words in ceremonies that they think are immoral is an unconstitutional speech compulsion. Given that the Free Speech Clause bars the government from requiring public school students to say the pledge of allegiance, or even from requiring drivers to display a slogan on their license plates (Wooley v. Maynard (1977)), the government can’t require ministers — or other private citizens — to speak the words in a ceremony, on pain of either having to close their business or face fines and jail time. (If the minister is required to conduct a ceremony that contains religious language, that would violate the Establishment Clause as well.)

I think the Knapps are also entitled to an exemption under the Idaho RFRA. The Knapps allege that “sincerely held religious beliefs prohibit them from performing, officiating, or solemnizing a wedding ceremony between anyone other than one man and one woman”; I know of no reason to think they’re lying about their beliefs. Requiring them to violate their beliefs (or close their business) is a substantial burden on their religious practice.

Besides, says Volokh, it’s hard to think of a compelling state interest that would justify forcing the Knapps to knuckle under to the state. If the Knapps lose, though, any minister who accepts payment for his or her services could in theory be compelled to marry gay couples, or face legal sanction.

Naturally I agree, but I have every confidence that the social and cultural liberalism that dominates American legal culture will find stamping out any opposition to SSM to be a “compelling” state interest. We’ll see.

Inevitably churches are going to have to get out of the business of serving as agents of the state when it comes to performing weddings, but it still doesn’t seem that doing so would free pastors from these laws, as long as they accepted payment for their services.

This is, of course, another case of the Law of Merited Impossibility (which is, “It’s never going to happen, and when it does, you people will deserve it”). Remember when pro-SSM folks kept saying, “What does a gay couple’s marriage have to do with yours?” People like me pointed out that marriage is so entwined with our legal system that redefining it to include gay couples will have wide-ranging legal implications, especially regarding the First Amendment. And here we are. Such is tolerance.

UPDATE: Robert Tracinski, at The Federalist, says we are entering the Secular Inquisition:

Personally, I have no problem with gay people getting hitched, having weddings, and saying that they are “married.” I don’t have any religious objection, on account of not being religious, nor do I think gay marriages, given their very small numbers, will have any particular impact on the state of marriage as an important social institution. (Which, alas, has all sorts of problems of its own.)

But the test of liberty isn’t what happens to people who agree with the intent of a particular edict. The test is what happens to people who disagree.

He adds that he doesn’t want his secular, pro-SSM views sullied by association with the Secular Inquisition.

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How To Be Saved, by David Brooks

 

A friend passes along this transcript of a recent speech David Brooks gave to a Christian gathering. It’s really something. It’s so wide-ranging that I can’t decide where to begin with it. Brooks, a Times columnist who also teaches at Yale, speaks to them as an ambassador from the secular culture. Excerpt:

And so this is an achievement culture. A culture of people striving and trying to win success. The way I express this contrast, this hunger for success is by two sets of virtues, which you could call the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. And the résumé virtues are the things you bring to the marketplace which you put on a résumé. And the eulogy virtues are the things you get expressed in your eulogy. And these are non-overlapping categories. So the eulogy virtues are to give courage, to give honor, what kind of relationships do you build, did you love.

And in my secular culture, we all know the eulogy virtues are more important, but we spend more time on the résumé virtues. Another way to think about this is the book Joseph Soloveitchik, the great rabbi, wrote in 1965 called “Lonely Man of Faith.” He said we have two sides to nurture, which he called Adam One and Adam Two, which correlate to the versions of creation in Genesis.

Adam One is the external résumé. Career-oriented. Ambitious. External.

Adam Two is the internal Adam. Adam Two wants to embody certain moral qualities to have a serene, inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong, not only to do good but to be good, to sacrifice to others, to be obedient to a transcendent truth, to have an inner soul that honors God, creation and our possibilities.

Adam One wants to conquer the world. Adam Two wants to obey a calling and serve the world. Adam One asks. “How things work?” Adam Two asks, “Why things exist and what we’re her for?”

Adam One wants to venture forth. Adam Two wants to return to roots.

Adam One’s motto is “Success.”

Adam Two’s motto is “Charity. Love. Redemption.”

So the secular world is a world that nurtures Adam One, and leaves Adam Two inarticulate.

The competition to succeed in the Adam One world is so intense, there’s often very little time for anything else. Noise and fast, shallow communication makes it harder to hear the quieter sounds that emanate from our depths.

We live in a culture that teaches us to be assertive, to brand ourselves to get likes on Facebook, and it’s hard to have that humility and inner confrontation which is necessary for a healthy Adam Two life.

And the problem is that I have learned over the course of my life that if you’re only Adam One, you turn into a shrewd animal whose adept at playing games and begins to treat life as a game.

You live with an unconscious boredom, not really loving, not really attached to a moral purpose that gives life worth. You settle into a sort-of  self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You follow your desires wherever they take you. You approve of yourself as long as people seem to like you. And you end up slowly turning the core piece of yourself into something less desirable than what you wanted. And you notice this humiliating gap between your actual self and your desired self.

So this secular world may look like Kim Kardashian and vulgarity, but I am telling you it is a river of spiritual longing. Of people who are aware of their shortcomings and lack of direction and in this realm.

They don’t have categories, they don’t have vocabularies, but they know the gap.

They know the gap because none of us gets through life very long without being knocked to our knees either in joy or in pain. And a bunch of activities expose the inadequacies of an Adam One life.

Brooks says that Christians have a lot to offer to people adrift in this river of spiritual longing. But then he offers a critique highlighting the ways they fail to offer a lifeline to these lost seculars. Excerpt:

Everyone’s on a walk to Chartres. On a walk toward something transcendent, even if they don’t know what it is. Are you building ramps on the way to Chartres or are you building walls?

Now I spend a lot of time in the Christian world, and I am going to try to describe things I have observed, both walls and ramps. The first part, I‘m going to try and describe some walls that I think the Christian culture has erected for the secular culture. This part is going to be a little harsh. I’m trying to live up to Susan’s words this morning in trying to be a “holy friend,’ which involves some criticism.

I want you to know I am for you and I love you.

So the first wall is the wall of withdrawal. Many of my Christian friends perceive a growing difference between the secular world and the Christian world, the difference between Jay-Z and Hillsong and the Jesus culture. The difference between Quentin Tarantino and Eugene Peterson, Richard Dawkins and Henri Nouwen, Columbia College and Calvin College. Many of my friends fear they are being written out of polite society because they believe in the Gospel. With that comes a psychology of an embattled minority. With that comes a defensiveness and a withdrawal, a fear, and a withdrawal into sub-culture. I certainly have friends how live in a sub-culture, work in a sub-culture, Christian in the sub-culture, socialize in the sub-culture, and if you live in a broader society, that is governed by the spiritual longing that doesn’t know how to express itself, is withdrawing into your own separate sub-culture really the right thing to do.

I think that’s being governed by fear and not love.

More on this in a second. One more wall Christians put up, despite themselves:

The third wall is the wall of bad listening. In my experience, I have had amazing diversity of quality of listening among my friends who are in the Christian community. Some are amazing. Ask great questions. Allow each individual experience to express itself and be known.

But I have certainly known others who have come to each conversation armed with a set of maxims, teaching and truths and may apply off-the-shelf truths and maxims without learning the uniqueness of each situation. Emerson said that souls are not saved in bundles and yet sometimes there is great haste to apply these ready-made  maxims regardless of circumstances.

Then Brooks talks about the “ramps” that Christians offer to the secular culture. For example:

And so when I’m talking about ramps, what I am really talking about is ways of seeing, ways of perceiving vantage points. It seems to me the secular world has one vantage point, which is an economic profit-and-loss vantage point.  Built around happiness.

The Christian world, the Jewish world, the Muslim world has a different vantage point, a totally different mentality, a counter-culture  that compliments and completes the shallower one.

Humility is the core of it. Humility is a form of awareness. It’s not really a virtue, it’s a form of awareness. My favorite definition…some people think humility is thinking lowly of yourself. My favorite definition is “Humility is self-awareness from the context of other-centeredness.”

Humility is having an accurate assessment of your own nature. It’s having an accurate assessment of your own place in the cosmos. It’s an awareness that you’re an underdog in the struggle against your own sins. It’s an awareness that individual talents are inadequate to the tasks that have been assigned to you. It’s understanding yourself in the context of a greater divine order. Knowing you’re not the center of the universe and you need redemptive assistance to complete your tasks.

That all runs counter to Facebook by the way.

Read the whole thing. I promise you that you will not be sorry you did.

About the withdrawal thing, I know many of you will understandably want to know what I think of that in light of the Benedict Option. The answer is that I’m not sure that Brooks and I would disagree as much as you might think. I could be wrong. My idea of the Benedict Option is not a head-for-the-hills kind of withdrawal. Rather, it is a general stepping-back from the mainstream for the sake of fortifying one’s faith and identity in community. A Christian individual, family, church, or school that doesn’t have a strong sense of roots is going to be swept away by the same fast-moving cultural river that produces so much spiritual longing within those adrift in it.

I think about the community around the Orthodox cathedral in Eagle River, Alaska. All those people work in the secular world. But they have a strong church community, and many of them live on the same long street. These are not separatists. But they have a rock to stand firm on in the middle of the raging rapids. There are Catholic versions of the same thing (I heard about one while I was in Italy, by the way), and I am certain there are Protestant forms too. I agree that this idea needs to be much better developed, to identify “good” engagement with the world, and “bad” engagement with the world. For example, is homeschooling a form of the Benedict Option? Yes, I’d say so. But if you are doing it solely to keep your children from being polluted by the outside world, I’d say that could be a problem. If you are doing it to protect your kids from the toxic mainstream culture (teen sexting, for example), and to give them the moral, spiritual, and intellectual formation that will help them succeed as men and women of faith and virtue in the world, well, that is a positive example of the Benedict Option.

I hope that once my Dante book is behind me, I can start working on a book about the Benedict Option — what it can be, what it should be, and what it should not be.

Anyway, I agree with almost everything David Brooks says in that remarkable address, and I really hope you’ll read it. He gave me a lot to think about, actually. Especially this:

There’s something just awesome about seeing somebody stand up and imitate and live the non-negotiable truth of Jesus Christ. People who just live that life are just awesome, and I don’t care what you believe.

I thought the same thing as I was leaving Norcia, having spent only a small amount of time with some of the Benedictine monks there, but having been profoundly impressed by them. I thought, “What if I lived like this, for Jesus Christ, just not caring what people thought, and not thinking so much about myself?” I’m not a monk, of course, but I can think of ways I could be living more like those men. If I did, I would have more light in my face, like they do, and more peace in my heart.

Too much fear, not enough love, maybe? Maybe. But then, when I explained the Benedict Option concept to one of the monks, he said that it made sense to him, and that he believed that Christians who didn’t work out some form of that kind of countercultural commitment and live it in their families and communities were going to be carried away by the secularist tide. So our love, it seems, must be guided by prudence to some degree, and that means the establishment of habits and forms that give that love stability and grounding.

That said, read the Brooks speech. You’ll be glad you did. Except you, Uncle Chuckie.

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The Noise in Your Head

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Artur Rosman praises A Sunlit Absence, a book about contemplation and contemplative prayer, written by Father Martin Laird. From Rosman’s blog:

This deceptively small book hits right at all the darkly chattering recesses in my life. Its foci are the gnawing repetitive thoughts that put a veil between us and God–making him seem almost inaccessible, even non-existent.

Here’s a quote from Fr. Laird’s book, cited by Rosman:

If inner noise sustains this perceived alienation from our inmost selves, we shall feel perforce alienated from God. But this sense of alienation or separation is generated by blind and noisy ignorance that insinuates itself in the surface regions of our awareness. Our culture for the most part trains us to keep our attention riveted to this surface noise, which in turn maintains the illusion of God as a distant object for which we must seek as for something we are convinced we lack. One of the great mysteries of contemplative path is the discovery that, when the veils of separation drop, we see that the God we have been seeking has already found us, knows us, and sustains us in being from all eternity. Indeed, “God is your being,” as the author of the Cloud of Unknowing says (though we are not God’s being).

We should not underestimate just how pervasive the noise in our heads can be.

 

Boy, did this passage and Rosman’s comment speak to me. For over a year now, I’ve been committed to a fairly demanding daily rule of contemplative prayer.  It has helped me tremendously. I am the sort of person whose minds races all the time with the sort of thoughts that insomniacs have a 3 a.m., lying in their beds, wide awake. The time I say the prayer rule may be one of the only times in the entire day that I’m recollected and my mind is silent. But this is only a relative term; I keep my mind clear during prayer about as well as a driver stays in his lane on the highway motoring home after a night of drinking at the bar. It’s a constant challenge. I can see progress over the last year, but it’s still hard.

Fr. Laird is exactly right, I think, about how the daily noise conceals God from us, in particular his nearness. He speaks in a still, small voice, but if we try to hear Him in the mental equivalent of a rambunctious crowd at a Mardi Gras parade, we almost never will. When Casella and I were in Norcia, my prayer was pure there, and God seemed so very, very close. Why? In part, I think, because the place is hallowed by St. Benedict’s birth. In part because the monks are so prayerful. But for me, it was the quiet. When I stood at the side altar in the crypt church, saying my daily rule on my prayer rope, I felt that I wanted to bring a sleeping bag there and stay there all night. God felt so close.

In fact, I know He is just that close all the time. But it’s hard to see Him and hear Him when we are so caught up in the busy-ness of the everyday. Hours after leaving Norcia, Casella and I were walking on the cacophonous streets of Rome. At one point we just looked at each other, helpless; no words were necessary: we were saying to each other, “We’re losing Norcia already.”

The greatest spiritual challenge I personally face on any day is withdrawing from the noise, especially the “noise” that comes through the computer, long enough and completely enough to pray. We have to live in the world, though. The trick is to find a way of being in Norcia, so to speak, no matter where we are.

St. Benedict Square, Norcia

St. Benedict Square, Norcia

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