The Face of the Benedict Option
That’s my son Lucas, 11, spending an hour in church this morning reading the Psalms aloud. As I’ve mentioned, the Orthodox tradition is to read the Psalms straight through in an all-night vigil starting with the first service of Holy Saturday (which takes place on Good Friday night), until the Paschal liturgy at 11:30pm on Saturday. Except for a couple of hours of break for an afternoon service, we will have recited the Psalms aloud at the symbolic tomb of Christ for more than 24 hours straight.
In a parish as small as ours, this is very hard to do. This morning, as I finished my second shift up at five, I was bleary and weary and wondering why on earth I was doing this. But then I thought about how it was a good kind of tired, and how vividly my faith had come alive in me through these long services, prayers, chants, and ascetic labors. When we came into Orthodoxy in 2006, people told us that it would take us about a decade to really become Orthodox. And they told us that the only real way to do it was to show up. You can’t really read your way into Orthodoxy, which is less a set of doctrines (though it is that) than it is a way of life. I’m not talking about Greekness or Russianness; I’m talking about what happens to you when you participate fully in the life of the church, through the long, sensually rich liturgies, the fasting, the prayers, and so on. Getting out of bed at 2:30 in the morning to drive to church and read the Psalms aloud for two hours all alone, in the dark, when you are dead tired — it changes you, and in a good way. This is hard. But this is my life now, and I love it, and am so grateful for it.
This morning, as I stood behind Lucas to help him with archaic words in the Psalter translation, I thought about how my children have been present for almost all of the long services, and how much they’ve absorbed. They’ll surprise us routinely with how much they know about the Bible and the faith, simply from having shown up and listened, and prayed along. Nobody ever told them that this was what adults do, not kids. No children’s church. Just church. Get this: all three of my kids asked to do an hour reading (Matthew did three hours total, actually; I don’t have a photo of him, unfortunately). They wanted to be part of the life of the church too.
Standing briefly with Nora as she sat on the stool and took her turn this morning (see photo below), I thought: this is the Benedict Option, right here. We are building up our little church, and building up ourselves. These kids are learning what it means to be a faithful Christian by showing up, and being part of a family in which we live the Orthodox life, however imperfectly, because our faith and the practice of it is not an add-on to life; it is our life.
It wasn’t always that way for us. In fact, it didn’t really start being that way until the end of 2012, when we started our mission church, and found ourselves in an all-hands-on-deck situation in which there was no place to hang back and make excuses for not getting involved.
Here’s what I mean. We have vespers every Saturday night. Our family has never gone to vespers, though it’s the Orthodox custom. Father Matthew, our incoming priest, won’t commune you unless you’ve been to vespers the night before to prepare. I couldn’t believe that we were going to have to give up an hour every Saturday evening to church. Who does that? Not me. But that was what the church demanded, so I gritted my teeth and did it.
After two and a half years of that, it’s normal, and wonderful. The week doesn’t feel right without vespers. Just showing up made all the difference. I thought of it as a sacrifice, as sort of an ascetic labor, and I guess it is, or seems so to we Americans. But it’s a sacrifice for something greater, and better. It’s not just self-denial.
In an update to a post of mine earlier, I wrote:
Now I’m back from the three-to-five shift, and I’ve thought a bit more on this. It’s holiness. Everything about Orthodox worship points to the majesty and sanctity of God, and the intense drama of participating in His life. I heard myself reading some of those lines in the Psalms and thought, oddly: if you really believe these words, you can’t live an ordinary life. I mean by that that life is not mundane. The world truly is enchanted. It’s not just in the Psalms, but in the beauty of Orthodox worship, and its chants, its rhythms, its pageantry, even in a country mission like ours, which is tiny and poor. The length of the services teaches you something too, though you might not realize it till later. It saturates you in the experience of sanctity, makes it present and visceral. I think it’s this way all the time, but never more intensely than during Holy Week. It is a rich, rich ground in which to grow in steadfast faith and the joy of wonder.
A friend who is a college professor responded to the update:
That’s it exactly. The striving for holiness is what’s been lost across the board. I could go on–this is what my students are lacking, it makes no sense in the culture, etc. Also: the Benedict Option can’t be put in terms of competing visions of the “good” because this looks too much like “I’ll take my ball and go home.” It’s about competing visions of holiness. If you don’t have a positive vision of holiness, you look like you’re just against things.
That’s wise. A positive vision of holiness is joyful children who want to recite the Psalms by themselves in church on Holy Saturday, because they are Orthodox Christians, and this is what Orthodox Christians do. Those three kids of mine — Matthew, Lucas, and Nora — have no idea how happy they make their mother and me with this. For me personally, their happy faces in church is at the core of the Benedict Option. If we are going to hold on to our faith, and pass it down intact to our children in a hostile post-Christian culture, we have to live out this life in common, as a family, and as families together. The professor is right. It’s not enough to seek goodness. We have to seek holiness.