Yesterday I had a long, fruitful conversation with a priest who is also an exorcist. I agreed to keep his identity private, and our conversation — though he granted me permission to tell you this.
He told me that he hasn’t yet read The Benedict Option, but from what he knows about it, and from his work as an exorcist, he believes that it is necessary for all Christians today.
“All of us have to have a monastic aspect to our spirituality,” he said. “We have to have order, a structure that enables us to be pruned and become fruitful. It’s not about running away. We have to go to that place where the voice of the Lord is clear, it’s pure, and it’s true. That’s why we have to have monasticism in our lives.”
The exorcist went on to say that if it weren’t for the spiritual discipline, especially in his prayer life, that he imposes on himself, he couldn’t do the work he does. When you are in a “heavily demonic” place, e.g, in an exorcism, but not exclusively there, the spirit of confusion can be overwhelming. If you have not learned how to hear the voice of God, and have not developed the spiritual discipline to hold on to the truth no matter what people around you are saying, you’re going to be lost. We have to be especially careful not to fall for sentimental rhetoric, he said, which is how so many today lose contact with the truth.
This is what Father Cassian, the prior of Norcia, meant when he told me there in 2015 that any Christian family who hopes to endure the darkness coming with their faith intact has to do some form of the Benedict Option. It’s no guarantee of success, but what is the alternative? Merely cultural Christianity is unlikely to survive sustained encounter with the forces of anti-culture.
Even hard-core Christian families face a daunting trial. In my research for this Italy trip, I found 2015 research showing that of the minority of Italian families that describe themselves as convinced and active believers, only 22 percent of them manage to pass their faith on to their children. If it’s so difficult for the most committed Christian families to do, how much more difficult is it for those Christians who are less than all-in? The researcher found that atheist nominally Christian families, by contrast, don’t have much trouble transmitting their beliefs to their children. The reason is obvious: because the larger culture supports those who don’t take religious belief and religious life seriously.
The Benedict Option is not a guarantee of success, but it’s the best shot we have. In studying Catholic religious belief and practice, sociologist Christian Smith found that the single most important factor in whether or not a young person practices the faith as an adult is whether or not his parents did. And the father’s piety is more important to that end than the mother’s. Smith writes:
Committed Catholic fathers are not a sufficient condition for producing children who will be committed Catholics down the road. However, in most cases, having a committed Catholic father seems to be a necessary condition. Having a doubting and uncommitted Catholic father appears in many cases to be a sufficient condition for a Catholic child to be an uncommitted and even an alienated Catholic as an adult.
My conversation with the exorcist — and by the way, St. Benedict was an exorcist — gave me new insights into why the Benedict Option is so important. There is no Christian figure more plunged into the adversarial encounter with intelligent evil than the exorcist, who faces it directly. Yet this is a battle that all of us have to fight one way or the other, in our daily lives in a post-Christian culture. The broader culture knows what it believes, and actually believes it. What about contemporary Christians? The satirical Christian news site The Babylon Bee sums up one basic theme of The Benedict Option in this story under this headline:
As Christians called to live in the world, we have to reach out to that world to share our faith. But if we look like the world, and think like the world, and live like the world, what do we have to offer them, beyond Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? Behind a God-lite form of superstition and psychological comfort?
In our conversation, the exorcist told me personally that I had better not take my prayer life lightly, especially when doing the kind of work that I’ve been doing lately, on the abuse scandal. He said that as dark and as confusing as it is now, it’s going to be much worse before it gets better, and believers must strengthen themselves spiritually to hold firm to the faith through this trial. Nevertheless, he said he finds “joy” — his word, not mine — in the release of the Vigano letter, and everything that has followed, because it means that a great evil that had lodged itself in the Church is being exposed, which is the first and necessary stage to being cast out.
I offer you Catholic readers these words from a front-line fighter as a sign of hope. But also as a warning: it’s going to get much worse. Late last night I received some news from a particular diocese about an unmasking that’s happening there. I’m going to try to get the people there to talk about it when I return from Italy (I’m leaving this morning), but I can tell you that the civil authorities were just told about it — and when it goes public, as it will, it’s going to have explosive consequences beyond that diocese. When my source told me the news, I reflected on the long conversation with the exorcist about the bond of secrecy that these pitch-black sins created and depend on to thrive. All that was hidden is now being revealed. It hurts one’s eyes to be exposed to the light if one is accustomed to living in darkness, and takes that darkness as normal. But light is a good and glorious thing.
There are four general stages of an exorcism:
- Pretense, in which the demon hides its identity
- Breakpoint, in which the demon reveals itself
- Clash, in which the exorcist and the demon fight for the soul of the possessed
- Expulsion, in which God, working through the exorcist, casts out the evil spirit
In the Catholic Church, the pretense has been broken and is being broken daily. The Church is at the breakpoint; the clash has already begun in some places, and will both spread and intensify.
To be clear, I believe that this is literally what’s going on, but if you prefer to see this as metaphor, the fact remains that the spiritual battle cannot be avoided. There is no neutral position here. You are going to be drawn into it whether you want to or not.
This is why all Christians need a monastic spirituality in the sense the exorcist means: a disciplined life of prayer, fasting, and Scripture, one that orients the entirety of one’s life around the active presence of God. The Benedict Option is not running away from the world entirely. It’s about stepping back far enough to create a place from which to prepare in a serious and authentically Christian way for engaging the necessary and unavoidable battle. It’s about creating a space within which one can see the clear blue sky through the heavy black smoke from the battlefield, hear the voice of truth amid the din, and learn how to stand firm when all around you are losing their footing.
Are you ready? This is life during spiritual wartime. You may not be interested in the war, but the war is most definitely interested in you.
Readers, I’m off later this morning for The Benedict Option book tour in Italy. I’ll post something later today, from the airport, listing my public schedule in Castelsardo (Sardinia), Rome, Milan, Bologna, and Genoa. If you’re an Italian reader and can make it out to one of my talks, I would love to meet you. Please be patient today. I should have some down time in the various airports, and will approve comments, and make new posts, as I can. I’ll keep everybody updated about what I see, hear, and learn in Italy over the coming days.
UPDATE: A moving exchange between two readers. First, Alice (with a Note From Rod added):
I can finally articulate my major objection to your BenOp. I do not see a community that can pull together for it.
I’m Catholic, in a doctrinally and liturgically solid parish, I homeschool our kids, and I belong to a women’s prayer group. And even with all of this, I feel utterly alone in my sense of what’s coming. My parish seems to have no sense of love for the spiritually poor or reaching out to anyone in pain or hurt; the parishioners don’t even reach out to each other. The pastor has said that since evil has been in the Church since the beginning, he doesn’t see what the big deal is, it shouldn’t cause a crisis of faith. It didn’t happen here, anyway. The homeschool community has some families aware of this fight, particularly the war for our kids’ souls, but many families are aghast at anyone who suggests that the seminaries their sons attend might not be perfect bastions of holiness. They don’t want to hear it. Others have said “I don’t think in terms of spiritual battles or the devil”. The prayer group leader has said we need not concern ourselves with these stories/issues/problems in the Church, they’re just a passing gossip, we just need to practice our prayer discipline.
In each case, my community can’t name what the problem is–so how can we create a community to resist it? These are all “good Catholics” and many are already removing their kids from secularist influences, but…I am a problem to them. Like you on a tiny scale, I am hit with being unsupportive of priests, unfair to our Church, not “collegial” in my parish. No one wants me to be part of a community if I am going to be a troublemaker.
I love the Lord. I need him, and I need the sacramental life. But I cannot raise my kids to look to the church as having moral authority when it allows the collapse of civilization.
Maybe you on your book tour can speak to this: how can community be formed with people who are outcast for telling the Truth? How does such a community reconcile the needs to bring together the Truth teller who needs the Church flushed of filth, and the souls who continues to assume the best?
[NFR: What a story. I’m so sorry. My point is not that there is already a community where we can take refuge, but that *we have to figure out how to build them*. Your story presents the hardest situation of all to deal with, I think, because the people who ought to be building this community don’t recognize how much they need it. I wish I had a clear and easy answer for you. I too see a lot of Christians — Catholics and otherwise — who think of themselves as countercultural, but who are heavily assimilated into the world and its structures, and who don’t want to hear facts and assessments that trouble their settled minds. These are not bad people, but they are sitting in their own Maginot Line pillboxes, expecting to fight the war they prefer to fight, instead of the war that’s actually upon them. — RD]
You’re not alone in being alone in a community that fails to understand the situation and times.
Same thing for my wife and I. Our conservative Protestant congregation has no clue, and doesn’t want to have a clue. To paraphrase Francis Schaeffer, their overarching priorities are personal peace and material prosperity.
I believe what’s going to happen is that we believers will have to find each other. By “believer” I mean anyone who can make an unqualified affirmation of the absolute minimal essentials of Christianity (what I have in mind is the Apostle’s Creed). I believe in God’s providence that He will put us in contact with each other.
It will be like being thrown together in a lifeboat. There will be a lot of differences of opinion, practice, personality, culture. But we will all have to pull together to get through it alive.