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The Accidental Benedict Option

A surprising revelation about an Orthodox mission in Louisiana

Later this week, I’m speaking at the Q Conference in Boston — from what I can tell, it’s TED for Evangelicals, but focusing on religion and culture  — about the Benedict Option: what it is, and why it’s needed right now. As longtime readers know, I’ve been talking about this for years, but I’ve been more or less vague about it, mostly because I haven’t felt the urgent need to focus on it. That has changed, and in preparation for this talk, and the book I am soon to undertake, I’ve been doing a lot more reading.

Today at Notre Dame, I’ve had a few casual conversations with students, professors, and even tonight at vespers, with a friar, and I’m really taken aback by how much the Indiana blow-up has shaken people. There is real fear for religious liberty now, and they are right to be afraid. The feeling seems to be that the Left has all the momentum now, and they’re not going to stop at anything. I’m hearing conversations now — serious conversations by serious people — about the need to prepare for job losses, the pulling of professional licenses, the closing of institutions, capitulations, and personal attacks on oneself and ones family and friends.

One person I talked to brought up an idea that seemed fanciful, and I said, “Do you really think something like that would happen?”

“I don’t think anything is off the table anymore,” he said. And I had to agree.

Anyway, I’m not going to give too much away from my Boston talk here, but I did want to make note of something really interesting I discovered in the past few days from my reading, thinking, and writing the speech.

What I call the Benedict Option is this: a limited, strategic withdrawal of Christians from the mainstream of American popular culture, for the sake of shoring up our understanding of what the church is, and what me must do to be the church. We must do this because the strongly anti-Christian nature of contemporary popular culture occludes the meaning of the Gospel, and hides from us the kinds of habits and practices we need to engage in to be truly faithful to what we have been given. As Jonathan Wilson has pointed out about the New Monasticism movement (a form of the Benedict Option), the church must do this not to hide away as a pure remnant — the church would be unfaithful to Christ if it did so — but to strengthen itself to be the church for the world.

From reading James K.A. Smith, Jonathan Wilson, Alasdair MacIntyre and others, I made a list of the kinds of things a Benedict Option community — a church or a parachurch group, that sort of thing — would need to do.

First, it should have worship that is heavily embodied — gotten out of one’s head. That means ritualistic. It needs to be worship that gets into the bones of the worshipers. It needs to be liturgical, because liturgies build in practices, habits of prayer that train the heart in ways of loving. If we want to thicken our commitment to our community and its way of life, we have to train our hearts through worship. (Read Jamie Smith on the meaning and power of cultural liturgies.)

Second, it should be disciplined, and ascetically oriented, because asceticism trains the passions.

Third, it should have a strong pastor, a strong creed, and enforce it. Communities with weak pastor, weak creeds or weak corporate commitments to creeds will be too feeble to stand up.

Fourth, it should demand serious, steady involvement. The community is going to have to be the center of your life, not just something you do on Sunday.

The ethos of the community is going to have to be one of pilgrimage, of constant moving forward in discipleship. It’s not going to work if church is only a place to go to feel good without having to be challenged to change your life. The pastor is going to have to be engaged as a leader committed to guiding his flock toward deeper conversion, not just gladhanding them and given winsome sermons about nothing much.

And the Benedict Option church, school, or community is going to have to be open to outsiders who are interested, but must not change its practices to be “seeker friendly”.

Finally, it needs to be mission-minded, and that mission has to be the search for holiness, which is to say, to find unity with God. All the evangelizing and good works done by the congregations must be subordinate to the prime love, which is of God.

The other day, in a Dante Q&A, I told the questioner that even though the dream of perfect reconciliation I had with my family when I moved back to south Louisiana did not work out, I was not going to leave Louisiana. The main reason for this, I said, was one that I never anticipated: I found a church, and a church family.

Tonight, putting together this speech, I realized hey, we have a Benedict Option church, and didn’t even mean to. We’re small, we’re poor, but we’re faithfully Orthodox, and we’re going to make it. Man, we’re lucky. We work hard to keep the St. John the Theologian mission going, but it is a stronghold.

I’m taking my stand there. I have made more progress towards healing and wholeness in the past two years at that mission than at any time in my life. St. John the Theologian Mission really is a “school for conversion,” to use St. Benedict’s phrase from his Rule. Without even knowing what we were doing, and by following standard Orthodox liturgical and spiritual practices, we have built a community institution that, in my view, keeps its members focused on what the church is for.

UPDATE: There’s a reason why I said that you should read that James K.A. Smith link about his ideas of “liturgy.” James is a Reformed Protestant who is strong in that church (I’ve talked to him personally; he’s interested in learning from Catholicism and Orthodoxy, but he’s committed to the Reformed tradition). He does not advocate that everybody must convert to a more liturgically committed tradition; rather, his point is that liturgical practices — and he uses the term broadly — are part of what it means to be human, and that the broader culture has its own “liturgies” that form our hearts. The churches must recognize that life is essentially liturgical, and respond by changing the way it worships to inculcate practices that form our souls, not just train our minds. I am not telling you readers to convert to Orthodoxy; I’m saying that I was startled as I started reading and preparing for this talk to discover that my own little parish has been doing exactly what it was supposed to be doing on this front. There’s no reason why people in other churches cannot adapt at least some of these practices to their own congregations.

More Jamie Smith here:



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