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Catholics, Orthodox, & The Benedict Option

Do the ancient churches have what it takes to make it through what's coming?

Last week, I had a fascinating conversation with Dr. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in a podcast that has just been released today. In it, he asked me if I thought that Evangelicals had what it takes to do the Benedict Option. I told him I didn’t know. He said the answer is no, they don’t — but that historical Reformation Protestantism does. He goes on to say why Evangelicals need to draw much closer to their roots in the thought and practices of Reformation Christians.

Well, what about Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians? Do they have what it takes to do the Benedict Option — that is, to live in a strongly countercultural way, building  families, schools, and communities that serve as a contradiction to the post-Christian age?

My answer, as someone who has been both a Roman Catholic and an Orthodox believer for nearly a quarter-century, is, Yes, but — and it’s a big ‘but’.

We have a rich treasury of prayers and devotions in our traditions that have stood the test of time for over a millennia or longer. We retain a robustly incarnational worldview, which is important to the Benedict Option because it counters the gnosticism that has corrupted Christianity since the Enlightenment. As Ken Myers says:

Christians have the only account of human and natural origins that can give cultural life meaning. But even after 2,000 years of opportunity to reflect on the Incarnation, many contemporary Christians persist in believing in a Gnostic salvation, a salvation that has no cultural consequences. In such a dualistic understanding, our souls are saved, the essential immaterial aspect of our being is made right with God, but the actions of our bodies — what we actually do in space and time — are a matter of indifference if not futility. Salvation is an inward matter only. It affects our attitudes and some of our ideas. But insofar as our cultural activities have any Christian significance it is as mere marketing efforts — things we do to attract others to our essentially Gnostic salvation.

In the East, we have retained a beautiful and all-consuming liturgy. The Byzantine Catholic professor Adam DeVille, encourages Latin Catholics to learn from the East:

The first kataphatic or positive way the East might enrich the West is by helping it answer anew the question: what is liturgy for? If a Western liturgist observes Eastern liturgy, he will not have to wait long for the answer: it is for the glorification of God in the most beautiful manner possible. In the East, the Divine Liturgy is called that for a reason: it is about worshipping God in the beauty of holiness.

To learn from the elaborate, complex beauty of Byzantine liturgy, you must first stop believing all the fantasies foisted on people in the 1960s, when it was put about that the liturgies of Christian antiquity were supposedly pristine examples of  simplicity, accessibility, and transparency (a “community meal”) until they were cluttered up with “medieval accretions” that Vatican II had to remove. Read Catherine Pickstock’s magisterial reversal (in After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy) of this romantic guff.

In this spirit, stop assuming that young people today want “simple” liturgy using “relevant” or “modern” music patterned on concerts or Protestant mega-churches. They don’t. For almost a decade now, I have been sending hundreds of students a year to Byzantine liturgy as part of a class assignment. Every single time they come back staggered by what they see. Time and time again they confess, almost in a stammer, “these people are serious about worshipping God!”

And it is worship they are seeing—not a Bible study or community rally or lecture imparting “information.” In this light, the West must stop assuming that liturgy is primarily pedagogical and that pedagogy involves propositional learning in discrete, non-repeated phases and phrases. Once more, pay careful heed to Pickstock’s unrivaled critique of the modern Mass’s problematic assumptions of linear time. The human mind does not work that way, nor especially the human heart.

All Eastern liturgical traditions understand this wisdom of loving repetition. We repeat because we love. Byzantine liturgy is replete with its repetitions, usually in groups of three, both because love demands repetition (the child flung into the air by Daddy screams what? “Do it again!”), and because threefold repetition is of course a mnemonic device bearing a Trinitarian imprint.

It is hard to express to someone who has not experienced Eastern Orthodox (or Byzantine Catholic) worship how much richer it is than whatever they are used to. I’ve been doing it for ten years, and it has shaped my spirituality profoundly, in ways I could not have anticipated when I entered Orthodoxy. Eastern liturgy is an occasion of awe, of true wonder. And liturgy is important. Among Protestants, James K.A. Smith has been writing about this for some time, including discussing how things we do with our bodies forms our hearts. And, from The Benedict Option:

Even secular sociologists recognize the power of these physical acts to maintain cultural memory. In his book How Societies Remember, the social anthropologist Paul Connerton studies practices that various peoples have undertaken to hold fast to their stories in the face of forgetfulness. He says that when a community wants to remember its sacred story, the one that gives it meaning, it must make the story a matter of “habit-memory.” That is, it must absorb the story as something “sedimented into the body.”

The most powerful rituals involve the body, says Connerton. They make use of all the senses to impress the sacred story upon the individuals gathered. For example, when worshippers kneel or prostrate themselves at a certain point in a ritual, they learn in their very muscles the awe-filled meaning of that sacred moment—and it helps them remember.

Connerton’s study found that the most effective rituals do not vary and stand distinctly apart from daily life in their songs and language. And if a ritual is to be effective in training the hearts and shaping the imaginations of its participants, it has to be something that they are habituated to in their bodies.

Christianity is much more than an effective liturgy, of course. A rich liturgy that is not accompanied by sound teaching and strong practices would be little more than an aesthetic experience for a congregant. But if corporeality is how God created us to function, and if our tradition provides us with biblically based liturgies that cement the cultural memory of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection in our bones, why would we not implement them?

Similarly, Orthodoxy retains a robust sense of asceticism among the laity, by observing the ancient fasts of the church, which have been all but forgotten in the West. Orthodoxy also offers a sense of stability (liturgical and otherwise) that has not been so present in contemporary Catholicism. And both traditions are vastly more stable than Evangelicalism, which is protean.

Catholicism, however, has a particular gift to offer the universal church: a matchless history of deep and complex philosophical and social thought. An Evangelical joked with me recently, “We outsourced all our thinking to the Catholics.” Plus, while Orthodox Christians are very thin on the ground in the West, Catholicism has the infrastructure and the population to support all kinds of local Ben Op efforts.

The problem is this: most of us don’t care. 

That is, far too many of us treat our patrimony like it’s no big deal. We are ignorant of what we have, and don’t care. The people who are supposed to be teaching it to us failed. And we fail ourselves. Mediocrity is rampant. Unlike many of our Evangelical brethren, we lack zeal. We lack zeal for our own Christian lives, we lack zeal for the Bible, and we lack zeal for teaching the faith to others. We don’t have a sense of community, not like Evangelicals do. Our parishes become little more than sacrament factories or meeting halls for the tribe to plan its ethnic festival. All those sacraments, all that beautiful liturgy, all those profound prayers and deep thought — it means nothing if it does not draw us to a life-transforming relationship with Christ.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In The Benedict Option, my friend Marco Sermarini talks about his Catholic community in Italy:

In my travels in search of the Benedict Option, I found no more complete embodiment of it than the Tipi Loschi, the vigorously orthodox, joyfully countercultural Catholic community in Italy recommended to me by Father Cassian of Norcia. Motoring with Tipi Loschi leader Marco Sermarini through the hills above his city, I asked him how the rest of us could have what his community has discovered.

Start by getting serious about living as Christians, he said. Accept that there can be no middle ground. The Tipi Loschi began as a group of young Catholic men who wanted more out of their faith life than Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

“That used to be my life,” said Marco. “I didn’t know the teaching of Jesus Christ was for all my life, not just the ‘religious’ part of it. If you recognize that He is the Lord of all, you will order your life in a radically different way.”

What Marco and his friends found, to their great surprise, was that everything they needed to live as faithfully together had been right in front of them all along. “We invented nothing,” he said. “We discovered nothing. We are only rediscovering a tradition that was locked away inside an old box. We had forgotten.”

 We are only rediscovering a tradition that was locked away inside an old box. We had forgotten. Yes. This.

These are my initial thoughts. I actually have a lot more to say about Catholics, Orthodox, and our strengths and weaknesses on the Benedict Option, but I’m eager to hear from you. Make your comments constructive, please. Remember, we’re all in this together.



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