The Impractical Ben Op
Two days after my trip to DC and Charlottesville, and I’m still reflecting on how much it helped me clarify some things on the Benedict Option. I don’t want to get too deeply into detail here, because some of these conversations were private. The gist of it, though, were plenty of stories about how many Christians sense that something is seriously wrong with our culture today and the church’s relationship to it, but how deeply reluctant people are to do anything about it that would require them to be countercultural in ways that discomfit them — that is, conflict with the American Way of Life, as they conceive it. That’s a fault.
But it’s also the case, I heard, that the structure of American life today requires so much from families that it is hard for them to do it even if they want to. This is not their fault, and it’s a real problem, and it has to be faced as we collaborate to figure out what the Benedict Option is, and must be.
On this front, I continue to be grateful for my friend Jake Meador’s attention to the Benedict Option. Jake writes as a young Evangelical family man who lives in Nebraska, and who is deeply aware of the necessity for the Ben Op, and the obstacles to it. In his most recent reflection, Jake takes on the Ben Op’s impracticality.
He says that the busy-ness of everyday life means that well-intentioned Ben Oppish works
often fail due to a lack of time, energy, or resources (either physical or mental).
This, I suspect, will continue to be one of the chief practical problems facing the Benedict Option: How can we recover a way of life shaped more like that of the historic church while generally not having access to the sorts of cultural and social capital that have historically nurtured and sustained that way of life?
Put another way—many of us lack the spiritual, social, familial, and economic resources that held church communities together in the past. This is where the felt need for BenOp-type communities comes from. And yet it is precisely the lack of those resources that makes acquiring even a proxy for them so incredibly difficult.
And the problem does not exist on a purely practical or logistical level, although the problems there are considerable. There is also an academic problem here as well. The sort of social critique that the BenOp rests on is reliant upon categories and ways of thinking that are not native to most contemporary Americans and thus require some amount of work to understand.
Jake goes on to say that we probably need to think small about the Ben Op before we can think big:
We need a way of talking about smaller, simpler steps that individual Christians and churches can take to address these problems. In the long run, starting rural communes, new churches, new schools, and the like is the way forward. But in the short-term we need smaller ideas in order to build a bridge between where we are today and where we want to be.
Read the whole thing. You know who’s got the right idea? Leah Libresco, who told me at dinner last weekend, “I’m the person who will tell you, ‘I can’t make the first thing you want happen, but here’s the second-best thing, so let’s do it!'” Or something to that effect. What she’s saying is that we can’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. It’s more important to do something, however insufficient, than to do nothing. As she writes in the post I link to at her name above:
I asked both speakers [Ken Myers and Rod Dreher — RD] what they would recommend that people in the audience do now (either this week, or, if possible, this afternoon) that could be a good first step toward future BenOp projects, but also just good in itself. (To preclude the temptation that I’m vulnerable to, too, I specified the action shouldn’t be “Read [X]“). Between the two of them, they came up with:
- Invite someone/a group to dinner
- Memorize a poem (nourishing through arts)
- Adopt a prayer rule (simple is fine, but let it be rooted in some kind of tradition, rather than purely choose-your-own-adventure)
I liked all of these, and 1 and 3 are ones that I do. They’re nice because they’re the start of a habit, but don’t require an extraordinary effort to begin.
My prayer rule, in case you’re wondering, is Morning and Evening Office, but it’s a little less stable than I’d like at present. I’ve pegged it to commutes before, but my working schedule doesn’t allow it, so there’s more ad hoc fitting it in (or missing it!) than I’d like.
A prayer rule touches on some of the stability/institutional character of the Benedict Option. It doesn’t technically involve others, but it could if it’s the kind of thing you can invite others into. For families, this is a little more straightforward, but people with housemates can see if others are interested, and I’ve asked others to join me for my Evening Prayer practice at the end of alumni debates, on the way home from bars with friends, etc. Having a regular practice helps keep me on track, and also gives me something to be hospitable with.
Choosing a prayer rule is the kind of challenge that can be derailed by the desire to get it right, and therefore put off beginning. In general, I think it makes sense to start with something (maybe even this evening, if you have a candidate in mind) and to revise as you go, if needed. And it’s a good idea to pick something you are pretty sure you can do, even if it means you’re picking something that feels too small (an Anima Christi when you wake up and before bed?)
At a talk the next day, I recommended to the audience that they start fasting regularly, according to some kind of rule. For Orthodox Christians, this means no meat or dairy on most Wednesdays and Fridays. If that’s too much, just do it on Friday. No meat on Friday — how hard is that? It’s not. But it gets you into the habit of denying yourself for the sake of drawing closer to God, and that is the key thing.
One more Ben Op thing before I get off my soapbox for the day. If you have the time, please watch this Robert Louis Wilken lecture on religion and culture today. The talk itself is 33 minutes long, and there’s about another half hour of Q&A. Wilken, as you know, is one of the greatest patristics scholars alive, and he’s also blessed with the gift of being able to talk (and write) like a normal person, not an academic.
The lecture, which was delivered this past summer at a First Things forum, never mentions the Ben Op, but it is filled with wisdom key to its core. Wilken talks about Augustine and Dostoevsky, and quotes the Grand Inquisitor’s line to Jesus: “The mystery of man’s being is not only in living, but in what one lives for.”
What do we live for? That is, to what end are our loves ordered? Are they ordered at all. Freedom from constraint is very different from freedom for virtue. “Paradoxical as it sounds,” says Wilken, “true freedom is only found in obedience.”
Miracle, mystery, and authority bind us to God, says Wilken, referring, of course, to the Grand Inquisitor fable. But these things are not the same as faith. They are, I would say, icons through which we can see God. If they are substitutes for God, they become idols. This is why the Benedict Option will fail if it is taken as nothing more than a technique to keep the disorders of modernity at bay.
In the Q&A part, Wilken tells a questioner that the desire to do what we want to do rather than what we should do — that is, to conceive of liberty as license — has always been with humanity, because it’s fun. We’re human; we’re built that way. We desire. Said Wilken, “The modern dilemma is that we have pitched aside the assumptions that restrain that.”
A high school teacher who asked a question said the kids he teaches are good kids, for the most part, but they’re moral relativists. This is the water they swim in. How can he make them see the truth and care about it? he asks.
“Your own life. Your own life! That’s the most powerful thing,” says Wilken. “There’s no way you’re going to argue somebody into it, especially not a 16 year old boy.”
The kind of truth that moves men’s hearts and changes their lives is not propositional, Wilken continues. “The truth is in the talking and the truth is in the doing. It’s not in some concept that you agree to.”
This, I think, is the core of the Benedict Option. It is important that we find a different and countercultural way to think about our life in a post-Christian age. But that only matters if it is a prelude to entering into a different and countercultural way to live.
You need people like me to find ways of talking about these ideas that allow ordinary Christians to make sense of them. And you need people like the indefatigably cheerful Leah Libresco, the Catherine of Siena of the Yes We Can Catholics, to find ways to implement them, and to encourage us not to give up hope.