A Time Of Donkeys
I’m going to Italy early next month to give a series of talks about The Benedict Option, which has been published in Italian. This weekend, I was working on my speech, and re-read Pope St. Gregory the Great’s biography of the saint, which is the only source of information we have about his life. This is the prologue:
There was a man of venerable life, blessed by grace, and blessed in name, for he was called “Benedictus” or Benedict. From his younger years, he always had the mind of an old man; for his age was inferior to his virtue. All vain pleasure he despised, and though he was in the world, and might freely have enjoyed such commodities as it yields, yet he esteemed it and its vanities as nothing.
He was born in the province of Nursia, of honorable parentage, and brought up at Rome in the study of humanity. As much as he saw many by reason of such learning fall to dissolute and lewd life, he drew back his foot, which he had as it were now set forth into the world, lest, entering too far in acquaintance with it, he likewise might have fallen into that dangerous and godless gulf.
Therefore, giving over his book, and forsaking his father’s house and wealth, with a resolute mind only to serve God, he sought for some place, where he might attain to the desire of his holy purpose. In this way he departed, instructed with learned ignorance, and furnished with unlearned wisdom.
All the notable things and acts of his life I could not learn; but those few, which I mind now to report, I had by the relation of four of his disciples; namely, Constantinus, a most rare and reverent man, who was next Abbot after him; Valentinianus, who for many years had the charge of the Lateran Abbey; Simplicius, who was the third superior of his order; and lastly of Honoratus, who is now Abbot of that monastery in which he first began his holy life.
You can read the entire biography here. Note that Gregory, who was born circa 540, not long before Benedict died, got this information from those who almost certainly knew Benedict personally. They were witnesses.
In the Prologue, we learn that St. Benedict decided to leave the city of Rome, and the world, because of its corruption. As we learn in Chapter 1, Benedict and his nurse went to Enfide, but he then left the nurse behind, and went to live secretly in a narrow cave in Subiaco, where he fasted and prayed. He was cared for by a monk named Romanus, who would bring him bread from time to time. After three years of prayer, fasting, and Scripture study, this:
About the same time likewise, certain shepherds found him in that same cave: and at the first, when they spied him through the bushes, and saw his apparel made of skins, they thought that it had been some beast. After they were acquainted with the servant of God, however, many of them were by his means converted from their beastly life to grace, piety, and devotion. Thus his name in the country there about became famous, and many after this went to visit him, and in exchange for corporal meat which they brought him, they carried away spiritual food for their souls.
Eventually, Benedict was persuaded to leave the cave:
When this great temptation was thus overcome, the man of God, like to a piece of ground well tilled and weeded, of the seed of virtue brought forth plentiful store of fruit: and by reason of the great report of his wonderful holy life, his name became very famous. Not far from the place where he remained there was a monastery, the Abbot whereof was dead: whereupon the whole Convent came to the venerable man Benedict, entreating him very earnestly that he would vouchsafe to take on him the charge and government of their Abbey: long time he denied them, saying that their manners were divers from his, and therefore that they should never agree together: yet at length, overcome with their entreaty, he gave his consent.
It did not go well for him. But God had other things in mind for Benedict. In Dom Georg Holzherr’s rich commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict, he observes that
Benedict himself stood in the midst of forces of the time, in the monastery to be sure, but not withdrawn from the world. According to Gregory he participated in the evangelization of the country people and met with important people in Rome, Cassinum, and elsewhere.
When I talk about modern lay Christians taking the “Benedict Option,” I’m talking about withdrawing from the ordinary life of the chaotic and dissolute world, retreating into a deeper encounter with God (prayer, fasting, Scripture study, etc.), and then returning in a limited way to the world to share the fruits of our spiritual labors. We do not live in a monastery, so will unavoidably be more engaged with the world than Benedictine monks are. That said, if we accept that the condition of the world today is like that of Rome under barbarian rule, as it was in Benedict’s time, then we must also accept that our own homes and lives must be in some sense “monastic” — intentionally set apart from the world in meaningful ways.
The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre frames it like this:
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. None the less certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope.
Longtime readers of this blog, and of my book The Benedict Option, know this. But because this blog has a number of new readers who are Catholics (and Catholic sympathizers) anxious over the new scandals, I wanted to repeat the Benedict Option basic narrative, and to encourage Catholics and others discouraged by the scandal to consider strongly what it has to offer in this time of crisis.
Many of us Christians think that the greatest challenge to the churches will come from a hostile state. That day is coming, for sure, but at this time, the greatest challenge comes from internal weakness — both active corruption, and the passive corruption that comes with indifference to the faith. When I first started writing about the abuse scandal in 2002, my Catholic faith was put to trial in ways I could not have imagined. Many of the things that are greatly scandalizing Catholics today, I knew as early as 2002. I even had a prominent friend of Cardinal McCarrick’s calling my editor back then to try to kill the story I was working on about his forcing seminarians to sleep with him. This and so much more was with me from the very beginning.
As you know, I eventually lost my Catholic faith. I have reflected for years now on that event, and what I might have done differently to have held on under trial. I do that because as an Orthodox Christian, I don’t want to take anything for granted, as I did as a Catholic. If my own spiritual life had been stronger, maybe I would have found the strength to hold on. If my family and I had had a good parish, or failing that, a good Christian fellowship for the sake of formation and sustenance in the Christian life, maybe things would have been different for us.
I want you readers — all of you, not just Catholics — to learn from my experience. It is not enough to blame the institutional Church, and to sit back and wait for the parish pastor for fix things, or for the bishop to act, or for Rome to send directives that will sort things out. None of that is likely to happen. After the Vigano statement, the idea that the Vatican is even capable of dealing effectively with corruption in the hierarchy, much less at the local level, is off the table. Vigano paints a picture of dissent at the highest levels of the Catholic hierarchy, such that a sexually corrupt retired cardinal, McCarrick, disobeyed a papal directive to restrict his ministry, and various powerful figures in the Roman curia kept information from the Pope. These are lawless men, and they stand at the summit of the Roman Catholic Church.
This is a time of great peril for the Catholic Church — and, I believe, for the world. Though I am no longer a Roman Catholic, I am a man of the West. If the moral authority of the Roman church collapses here, we all lose the greatest institutional bulwark we have against what John Paul II called the “culture of death.” No serious traditional Christian can afford to be indifferent to this war within the Catholic Church. I do not believe that Catholics have the liberty to pretend this isn’t happening.
Cardinal Burke called on “all good Catholics” to “insist upon knowing the truth” and added that they “must pray and sacrifice for the Church at this tumultous time.”
My fear is that many Catholics will prefer the false peace of having an untroubled mind, and retreat into a “just-pretend” world, when they need to be active in defense of the truth. But being actively engaged in the battle means much more than writing letters to the bishop, redirecting tithes, and suchlike. It requires digging in for a long struggle that will take decades, probably longer. It requires building up resilience, and the capacity to endure without losing one’s faith. It requires the Benedict Option.
Second, it inclines us to forget that the greatest of social changes tend to happen, as Edward Gibbon put it, insensibly. Even when they seem sudden, it is almost always case that the suddenness is merely a very long gradual transformation finally bearing fruit. There’s a famous moment in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises when one character asks another how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” the man replies. “Gradually and then suddenly.” But the “suddenly” happened because he was previously insensible to the “gradually.” Likewise, events are always appearing to us with extreme suddenness — but only because we are so amnesiac that we have failed to discern the long slow gradual forces that made this moment inevitable.
And so we float on, boats with the current, borne forward ceaselessly into an ever-surprising future.
This crisis engulfing the Catholic Church did not happen suddenly. It has been gradually building for a long time. A traditionalist Catholic friend of mine is actually relieved by the Vigano statement, because it marks the first time that the squalid truth has been told at that level of the Church, and therefore it’s a sign of hope.
More Alan Jacobs, from the same post:
All of which leads me to a thought, and a question. Several decades after McCain’s torture a man who had taken great care to avoid serving in the military, and who indeed had never done an hour’s work of public service, denied that McCain was a hero, mocked him for having been captured, cited McCain’s experience as proof that torture “works” — and in spite of such monstrous perversion of spirit was elected President of the United States with the overwhelming support of the very people most likely to say that they “support our troops.” How did this become possible?
The answer is: Gradually and then suddenly. We all saw the “suddenly.” But we have not thought nearly as carefully, as rigorously, as we should about the “gradually.” It’s too late to avert Trump, of course. But we damn well better be asking ourselves what else is happening gradually that will spring upon us with shocking suddenness if we don’t develop more temporal bandwidth and personal density. And do it now.
If you are a Trump supporter, hold your fire in the comments section, because I won’t print it. We’re talking about the Church here. Jacobs’s point is that Trump came from somewhere — that he didn’t just descend out of the blue. We can say the same thing about the current scandal in the Catholic Church. Cardinal McCarrick did not come from nowhere. How did a man as wicked as he rise to the heights of power in the Catholic Church? Why was he protected by so many powerful cardinals for so long?
For that matter, why did 1.25 million Irish Catholics come out to hear a pope say mass in Dublin in 1979, but only 130,000 do so in 2018? This didn’t happen overnight, you know. The long collapse of the Catholic Church in the West has been underway for at least 50 years, for those with eyes to see.
My point is this: if ordinary Catholics expect to endure this long collapse with their faith intact, and their children’s faith intact, they have no choice but to do something like what St. Benedict did. That’s not just me saying that; it’s what the then-prior of the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, the saint’s hometown, told me three years ago. It was a prophetic warning.
Rome is a wreck. St. Benedict did not leave the Church, but he did leave the city of Rome, and retreated to a place where he could focus intensely on the search for God. As we know, after three years, God brought him forth from the cave into the world, where he founded a monastic movement that rebuilt civilization from the ruins.
I truly believe God will do the same for us, in time. None of us alive today will live to see it, but nobody will ever see it if we don’t act now.
Here is a passage from the final chapter of The Benedict Option. It highlights my friend Marco Sermarini, an ordinary Catholic husband and father living in a town on the Adriatic sea, and helping lead a community of resilient Catholics who are going to make it through this time of testing:
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.”
Driving through the achingly beautiful towns and fields overlooking the Adriatic, Marco pulled his SUV over on the side of a narrow country road and led me to a steeply plunging hillside. It was covered with olive trees. This was the Sermarini family olive grove. As a boy, Marco’s ninety-one-year-old father helped his own father harvest olives from these trees. Marco was raised doing the same, and now he and his own children collect olives yearly and press their oil for the family’s use.
This, I said to Marco, is stability.
He shrugged, then looked out pensively over his trees.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen next in life, but in the meantime, we have to fight for the good,” he told me. “The possibility of saving the good things in the world is only that: a possibility. We have to take the chances we have to set a rock in the earth and to keep this rock steady.”
We walked back to the SUV, climbed in, and drove on. My friend continued to wax philosophical about stability in a world of change.
“Nothing we make in this life will be eternal, but we have to build them as if they will be eternal,” Marco continued. “That’s what God wants. If you promise yourself to a woman for a lifetime, that is a way of making the eternal present here in time.”
We have to go forward in confidence that the little things we do might, in time, grow into mighty works, he explained. It’s all up to God. All we can do is our very best to serve him.
Sometimes Marco lies in bed at night, worrying that his efforts, and the efforts of his little Christian community, won’t amount to much in the face of so much opposition. He is anxious that the current will be too strong to resist and will tear them apart.
“I know from the olive trees that some years we will have a big harvest, and other years we will take few,” he said. “The monks, when they brought agriculture to this place a thousand years ago, they taught our ancestors that there are times when we have to save seed. That’s why I think we have to walk on this road of Saint Benedict, in this Benedict Option. This is a season for saving the seed. If we don’t save the seed now, we won’t have a harvest in the years to come.”
It was getting late in the afternoon. I was afraid I would miss my bus to the Rome airport. Shouldn’t we be going? I asked.
“Grande Rod, don’t worry, my friend!” he said. “You worry too much. You will make it!” And off we sped, down the winding road toward the sea.
As the sun went down in the western sky, we spoke once more about the challenge facing orthodox Christians in the West and how daunting it seems. Marco left me with these unforgettable lines.
“In Italy, we have a saying: ‘When there is no horse, a donkey can do good work.’ I consider myself a little donkey,” he said. “There are so many purebred horses that run nowhere, but this old donkey is getting the job done. You and me, let’s go on doing this job like little donkeys. Don’t forget, it was a donkey that brought Jesus Christ into Jerusalem.”
Make no mistake: If you sit quietly here in this dark wood waiting to be rescued, you’re going to die spiritually. The purebred horses in their fancy vestments and red hats are exhausted, and cannot be relied on. It is time for the little donkeys of the faithful laity to show their stuff.
UPDATE: Reader SPM:
You touch on a very important point. A common response of traditional Catholics (and perhaps those in other denominations) is to blame the current state of the Church on Vatican II. However, to the extent that Vatican II played a role, it is important to view it as an effect, not as a cause.
It is important to note that McCarrick was taught the faith with the Baltimore Catechism. He was almost certainly educated by nuns, went to confession every week, and worshiped with the Traditional liturgy… and despite all of that he ended up the way he did. There are maybe a handful of Bishops in the world today who are my age and were educated in the post-Vatican II era. The hierarchy we have today (and have had for the last 500 years) and the priests who gave us the “clown Mass” and “do whatever makes you happy” were educated in a traditional environment. If the 60’s caused them to fail so spectacularly, then their faith was very shallow indeed.
Something was going wrong in the Church and/or the United States for at least 100 years. Vatican II is far too simple of a solution; as I said it was an effect, not a cause. It is our duty – and particularly the duty of orthodox scholars – to figure out what went wrong and take the action necessary to cure it. It is like a computer virus: if you don’t eliminate the corrupt file deep in the operating system, it will keep popping up and regenerating itself.
Yes, exactly. Why was the world of 1950s Catholicism so brittle? Why was it so unable to sustain itself? Those who simply want to find a scapegoat will blame Vatican II and be done with it. But those who genuinely want to understand what happened so as to protect themselves, their families, and their communities from the same fate will inquire more deeply.
Similarly, the cardinals who protected McCarrick rose under John Paul II and Benedict. This tells us at least that having good popes who say the right things is not enough.
UPDATE.2: Let’s get more specific here. In his 2014 book about the crisis facing young Catholic America, Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith made what I consider to be a strong case for the Benedict Option. He found that the Church is collapsing among young Catholics, in that they either don’t go anymore, or if they still identify as Catholic, it’s for social reasons, not out of real commitment to Catholic teachings. He says:
- Parents — especially fathers — are key to transmitting the faith. Mom may be the one most interested in religion, but if Dad doesn’t buy in, it’s not likely to take.
- Catholic schools and parishes don’t really matter that much. If you’re outsourcing the religious formation of your kids, you’re fooling yourself.
- “Emerging adults must also regularly engage in religious behaviors and practices, and emerging adults must internalize the beliefs and make them their own. While parents are practically necessary, they are not sufficient on their own. Emerging adults need to choose the faith and practice it themselves.”
These core issues do not depend on the Pope, or the result of curial politics. They depend on what happens in the home, and in the local community.