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Benedict Option In Covidtide

Father Daniel French, Anglican vicar in Salcombe (YouTube)

Last night I was on the phone with an old friend, an Orthodox priest, and we were talking about Covidtide. He said to me that this year has been a dry run for all Christians on how we would be able to keep the faith under conditions of persecution, when we couldn’t get to the church. He told me that he sees it as a time of preparation — a time when God allowed us a glimpse of what is to come, and revealed to us our own shortcomings. We talked for a bit about how the churches have, and have not, used this time wisely, and how we individual Christians have and have not done so. In my own case, I have not used it to deepen my prayer life — something I now see was a big mistake, one that I am going to rectify.

A few hours after that conversation, I came across something unexpected: a Spectator piece by Daniel French, an Anglican vicar, on how the Covid emergency has awakened faithful Christians to the need for the Benedict Option. Excerpts:

Coronavirus and the fallout from it could have been a chance for the Church of England to talk about the grand vision of Christian hope and mortality. The Bible warns us of plagues and pestilence. It tells us that we live in a broken world. It makes it clear this pandemic is far from unprecedented. Yet it also has a message of good news. Instead, too many of the Church’s senior figures have ditched this vision, choosing rather to scare us or play politics when it comes to coronavirus.

This missed opportunity, sadly predictable, uncovers a deeper Anglican crisis than push button issues like gay bishops, transgender liturgies, or declining congregations. Ultimately it stems from a lack of confidence among bishops and theologians when it comes to the supernatural. This is little surprise given how dominant secular progressive theology is in the Church. But the result is depressing: at a time when so many were reevaluating their lives – and realising how easily the things they took for granted might not always be there – too many senior figures in the Church were absent.

Father French — more information on him and his parish here — writes about how during this time, a group of orthodox Anglican clergy have banded together, realizing that they really are on their own. More:

For this group, three thinkers are shaping post-Covid orthodoxy; C S Lewis, Jordan Peterson and Rod Dreher. … If this post-Covid orthodoxy is becoming a reality, it was one predicted by the journalist Rod Dreher in his bestseller ‘The Benedict Option’. Dreher argued that Christians opposed to progressivism may end up driven to form ‘under the radar’ moral communities and networks. He bases this observation on Soviet countries where underground churches paralleled the official state-run churches. A lot of us (not just ministers) feel vulnerable to the so-called ‘Cancel Culture’ and cannot see that the Anglican establishment will be able to shield us from the rising politically correct barbarians at the gates. To support people in troubled times, orthodox clergy need overseers, mentors and a support network of spiritual combatants. This new network – unlike the C of E establishment – could plausibly offer just that. Could an underground, online church emerge from the lockdown? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Read it all. 

I reached out to Father French and told him that Live Not By Lies takes that idea even further. I told him about Father Tomislav Kolakovic, who escaped the Gestapo and lived in Bratislava under his mother’s last name. About how, in 1943, he saw that communist totalitarianism was coming for the Slovak people, and at times in the face of the institutional church’s disapproval, he prepared the “Family,” a network of faithful Catholic students around the country who prepared themselves spiritually and otherwise for the coming persecution. Father Kolakovic knew that the faithful had to take advantage of their liberty to lay the groundwork to continue the life of the church under persecution. From Live Not By Lies:

The Family groups came together at first for Bible study and prayer, but soon began listening to Father Kolaković lecture on philosophy, sociology, and intellectual topics. Father Kolaković also trained his young followers in how to work secretly, and to withstand the interrogation that he said would surely come.

The Family expanded its small groups quickly across the nation. “By the end of the school year 1944,” Vaško said, “it would have been difficult to find a faculty or secondary school in Bratislava or larger cities where our circles did not operate.”

In 1946, Czech authorities deported the activist priest. Two years later, communists seized total power, just as Father Kolaković had predicted. Within several years, almost all of the Family had been imprisoned and the Czechoslovak institutional church brutalized into submission. But when the Family members emerged from prison in the 1960s, they began to do as their spiritual father had taught them. Father Kolaković’s top two lieutenants—physician Silvester Krčméry and priest Vladimír Jukl—quietly set up Christian circles around the country and began to build the underground church.

The underground church, led by the visionary cleric’s spiritual children and grandchildren, became the principle means of anti-communist dissent for the next forty years. It was they who organized a mass 1988 public demonstration in Bratislava, the Slovak capital, demanding religious liberty. The Candle Demonstration was the first major protest against the state. It kicked off the Velvet Revolution, which brought down the communist regime a year later. Though Slovak Christians were among the most persecuted in the Soviet Bloc, the Catholic Church there thrived in resistance because one man saw what was coming and prepared his people.

After events of the last two months in this country and in Britain, I have no doubt in my mind that this is coming. I have spent Covidtide finishing this book to ready it for its September 29 publication, but I have not prepared myself spiritually. That ends today. The writing is on the wall, for those with eyes to see.

If I could, I would have the publisher issue Live Not By Lies today, so Christians could busy themselves now figuring out how to establish these cells and these networks. It’s not possible to move the publication up, though. Until that day, please be thinking about what a Father Kolakovic would say to us today — Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, and so forth — and what he would do. What would “the Family” look like in our time and place?

The time to see clearly, to think hard about what we see, and then to act in the face of this knowledge, is now. One sign of hope that I’ve seen in all my Benedict Option travels abroad: faithful Christians really do have allies everywhere. Those with vision look beyond the ecclesial and denominational divisions, and recognize that in the eyes of the persecutors, there is no meaningful differences among us. From Live Not By Lies:

Along with other prisoners, [Kolakovic follower Silvester] Krčméry would sing hymns, and would pray litanies for everyday needs, including for a spirit of humility and willingness to endure all for the sake of Christ. This brotherhood was an integral part of the spirituality of Christian resistance. Father Kolaković had taught the Family the virtue of reaching across church lines to establish brotherhood with other Christians. Captivity and torture turned this into a practical reality.

“In prison, nobody recognized any confessional differences,” writes Krčméry.

This same principle echoes in the testimony of the Lutheran pastor Richard Wurmbrand and other former captives of the communists. It is not a false ecumenism that claims all religions are essentially the same. It is rather a mutual recognition that within the context of persecution, embracing Jan Patočka’s “solidarity of the shattered,” becomes vital to spiritual survival.

Jan Patočka was a Czech philosopher and the godfather of the Charter 77 dissidents. We Christians who stand to be shattered by what is here and what is coming need to start living differently right now. We need to find each other. We need to build these networks, while there is time. I’m champing at the bit for this book to come out so we can all talk openly about all this, in light of the advice I received, and report in the book, from the Christians who endured hard totalitarianism.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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