St. Vicente & The Benedict Option
I arrived back at my friends’ house in Madrid very late last night from Zaragoza, and fell asleep on my bed without even pulling back the covers. I had hoped to update the comments and catch you up on my adventures here, but as an elderly person who has been to five Spanish cities in five days, I couldn’t pull it off. I’m off shortly to the airport, and from there to Dublin. But I managed to write a post yesterday on the train. Here it is — and, begging your pardon, I’ll get to the comments as soon as I can.
So, after my speech Thursday night in Barcelona, someone in the audience asked me to talk about the differences between the US and Europe in terms of ability to accept and implement the Benedict Option. It was a great question, and I wish I had been quicker on my feet in giving a good answer.
America has an advantage in one big way: we are a more libertarian-minded country, with shallow roots — relative to Europe. Americans hate to think of ourselves as non-rooted, but any American who spends any time in Europe, and pays the least attention, will quickly grasp this fundamental difference between our societies.
For that matter, you can do it without leaving America. Having grown up in the South, the first time I went to Los Angeles, I was a bit overwhelmed. I felt that I might float off the edge of the continent. Everything seemed so new, so insubstantial. Depending on how you see the world, this could be a bug, or it could be a feature.
It is exhilarating to feel at liberty to remake yourself, without restraints – the past, family, custom, tradition – holding you down and holding you back. But it can also be profoundly alienating and dizzying. The realization that everything can be changed, and be remade overnight – well, that can give a man metaphysical vertigo. How can you learn to love a place that might not be there in a few years? Whether you are aware of it or not, that kind of physical place – architecture, urban design, etc – trains you to think that radical impermanence is the normal state of affairs, and that the only reality is the Self, disconnected from anything outside of itself. It trains you to think of everything outside your own head as being mere matter for the sake of your own consumption.
In one sense, it’s true. I was in the city of Barcelona yesterday. It has been there since Roman times, at least, but Barcelona is not eternal. A meteor strike could wipe it off the face of the earth. Not likely, but possible. The fact that the people of Barcelona can count on things looking tomorrow recognizably like they look today, and like they looked yesterday – there is a sense of peace in that continuity.
Barcelona does not look like it did in Roman times, obviously. But last night, as my friend Ricardo was walking me to dinner, he pointed out that the street along which we strolled had been the main road in Roman Barcelona. This is the kind of continuity, the kind of physical manifestation of a link with the past, that you simply cannot get in most of America. This is not because we are bad people; it’s because we are a young people, with all the virtues and all the faults of the young.
For many of us, going to Europe is the first time we have experienced the true realization of our Yankee ephemerality. In 1996, when my dad was 60 years old, I took him and my mom to visit friends in the Netherlands. It was the first and only time my folks had been to Europe. I remember two things about my father’s reaction to that trip: his stunned silence after leaving the Anne Frank House (he was near tears, and ready to shoot Nazis), and his simply being stunned when seeing part of a Roman ruin in Maastricht. There was nothing special about this ruin; in fact, I can’t even recall what it was. A wall or something. But it had been built by the Romans – the Romans! – and that was an incredible thought for an American. This is a thought that never, ever gets old for me, and makes me so very, very grateful for Europe. I feel about it like I felt about my dad: I have a sense of Roman pietas towards the place and its cultures.
Anyway, one big advantage we American Christians have over Europeans in Ben Op terms is an interior orientation towards change and innovation. For us, it is easier to imagine radical change (again, I’m speaking in relative terms.) And, as an Enlightenment nation, we have a First Amendment to our Constitution that protects freedom of speech and religion in ways that aren’t always present in European countries. I am sure that in the years to come, the First Amendment will be a metaphorical monastery wall behind which we Christians take refuge.
Second, we are not burdened by the heavy history between Church and State. The 19th century was a liberal century, but liberalism in the UK and the US was not anti-clerical (anti-Christian). This was exceedingly not the case in continental Europe, where liberalism took its cues from the French Revolution, and became violently anti-clerical. Spain is perhaps the most extreme example of this. In the 1930s, the proclamation of the liberal Republic led to immediate persecution of Christians, including the burning of churches and the murders of priests and nuns. After five years of civil conflict, an actual civil war began, and Nationalists (supporting the Church) committed atrocities against Republicans. The shooting stopped 80 years ago, but the fighting did not. It’s going on today in Spain. Those wounds have scarcely healed.
We Americans don’t have that legacy to live with, and work through. That is an advantage.
Otherwise, though, as far as I can see, Europe is much better prepared to accept and implement the Ben Op. Here’s why.
As I’ve said here many times, Europeans have lived through de-Christianization far more advanced than what we in the US have lived through. They typically don’t have to be convinced of the truth of the Benedict Option diagnosis. If you want to experience the American future, come to Europe and start talking to people about Christianity. Despite all the churches and material symbols of the faith, it has mostly faded away as a social reality.
European Christians – especially those 40 and under – know exactly how bad it can get in terms of Christianity’s disappearance, because this is their reality. They are more ready for radical action. It’s a general principle of human nature that young men are more willing to wage war because they lack investment in stability, emotional and otherwise. But that cuts both ways. It is also the case that the young may be more willing and able to see what’s really happening, and act in the face of new facts than their elders, who may feel that they have too much at stake in what is fundamentally a failing enterprise.
This is what I’ve seen in some of my Ben Op events in France, Italy, and other places on this side of the Atlantic. Christians my age (early 50s) and older tend to be much more cautious about the Ben Op, and appear (to me) to be trying to bargain with the post-Christian mainstream. It’s as if they believe that if only they show patience and friendliness to the post-Christian world, they can still participate fully in the social order. Put unkindly, they have a lot more investment in maintaining bourgeois respectability than the young. Professing orthodox Christianity – especially on issues of sex and sexuality – is offensive and gauche to the contemporary Western bourgeois.
The point is, European Christians are living through the end game. A Spaniard said to me this week, “We are used to looking to you Americans for the future. You are always ten or 20 years ahead of us. But maybe now we are ahead of you.” Exactly. We American Christians need to watch what our European coreligionists do. It’s going to be important for us to learn from them.
Second, insofar as the Benedict Option requires a return to Christian traditions, Europe still has a vast and incomparable treasure trove of material manifestations of tradition. Even if Europeans don’t believe in God, they still observe traditions, many of them Christian. I’ve been in Spain all week, and good grief, the traditions they have around cured ham are a wonder to behold. They are a thing of beauty, because the taste of this ham, and the way it is regarded by Spaniards of all kinds, symbolizes a very old culture. Jamon iberico tells them who they are. It might sound stupid to American ears to hear that (is cured ham really part of a people’s identity?) but it’s the truth. There are so many traditions like that in European culture; the idea of maintaining tradition is not alien to them.
Within 20 minutes of each other, I saw these two sights in Valencia that tell a similar story. The first is hand and wrist of St. Vicente, Martyr, preserved in a reliquary in the Valencia cathedral. He was the first Christian martyr of Spain. He died in Valencia, circa 304, under the persecution of Diocletian. He was tortured to death by the Romans for refusing to throw the Holy Scriptures onto a fire.
The second is a cured ham, sitting behind the counter at a cafe near the cathedral:
Understand: I’m not making a pun or a joke here. I mean what I say: these two artifacts — one sacred, the other profane — symbolize in the flesh what it means to be Spanish. Nothing like that exists for us Americans. Obviously the relic of San Vicente is something of infinitely greater meaning. The point I’m making here is that tradition — religious and cultural — is enfleshed in a place as old as Spain in a way that it is not in the US. Christians here can “touch” the hand of San Vicente Martyr, and feel a connection to the early Church in their own flesh. I find that extraordinarily inspiring to my Christian imagination. St. Vicente was here, worshiping Christ 1,700 years ago, and suffering for him. Christians still are. Here is a portrait from the same Valencia cathedral, in a side chapel near the relic of San Vicente, of some Valencian Christians martyred for the faith in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39):
These were ordinary believers, living in Valencia, who paid the ultimate price for their faith. I spoke last night to an academic who is studying a group of martyrs from the war. He said that one Christian was murdered because the left-wing Republicans said he “smelled too much of wax” — meaning that they could tell by his aroma that he had been in church. For that, they killed him. This is still within living memory of the oldest Spaniards. In Valencia, they remember these martyrs as they remember the martyr Vicente.
In terms of the Christian religion itself, Europeans are surrounded by cultural memories. There are monasteries, still. They’re not all solid ones (in Barcelona, at my talk, one man said, “You need to take a box of your books to that Benedictine monastery at Montserrat, and make all those monks read it.”) But some are. The Tipi Loschi, living on the Adriatic coast, make pilgrimages to Norcia, in the mountains about 90 minutes’ drive away, and have developed a close relationship with the traditionalist Benedictines there. In France, Christians can go to monasteries like Fontgombault for the Real Thing.
To be sure, all this beauty and history and culture has not (so far) saved the faith in Europe. My point is simply that if a European Christian wants to go digging for things that root them in Christian faith and practice, they’re incomparably easier to find here. And that is an advantage when it comes to living the Ben Op. And, by the grace of God, St. Vicente, the Spanish Civil War martyrs, the great cathedrals, and all the Christian things I have seen here on this wonderful week in Spain are here for me, an American, for the making of my own perspective. They’re here for you too. Please come visit them. As Americans, they are part of our spiritual and cultural patrimony as well.
Finally, before I head to the airport, here’s a passage from an e-mail sent by a Canadian reader:
I’ve been reading Jacques Barzun’s 1943 book Classic, Romantic, and Modern, and a passage about the charge of escapism (levelled by some against the Romantics) reminded me of the criticism you have often received about the Benedict Option — viz. that it is “running away”, “hiding”, etc. Barzun’s rebuttal might be encouraging to you:
“…one is led to see that romanticism was far from being an escape from reality on the part of feeble spirits who could not stand it. The truth is that these spirits wanted to change the portions of reality that they did not like, and at least record their ideals when the particular piece of reality would not yield – both these being indispensable steps toward reconstruction. Our modern use of the term “escape” is unfortunately vitiated by smugness and double meanings, and one should refuse to argue its application with anyone who will not first answer this question: “Suppose a primitive man, caught in a rainstorm, who has for the first time the idea of taking shelter in a cave: is he facing reality or escaping it?” The whole history of civilization is wrapped up in this example, and a universal test for distinguishing creation from escape can be deduced from it. The mere fact that a man is seen making a cave or heard declaring his intention to build a hut is not enough; what is he going to do then? What is the relation of that single act to his whole scheme of life? Applying this test to romanticism, we shall see that on the whole it was infinitely more constructive than escapist.” (p.15)
In other words, “escape” can be but the first stage of something else. It’s a point you’ve often made, but it never hurts to hear it again.
Amen. Thank you, reader. I’ll touch base in Dublin — I have more to tell you about Valencia and Zaragoza.