What Does The Benedict Option Look Like?
Your Working Boy looks at a couple of examples of intentional (more or less) communities that are separate without being separatist. One is Catholic and in Oklahoma; the other is Orthodox, and in Alaska. Excerpt:
Like the Catholics of Clear Creek, the Eagle River Orthodox don’t live in a community with a formal structure. Its members mostly work around the Anchorage area and see each other at worship, at the parish school, or at social events. Sharing the church, a school, and the neighborhood, though, gives the community a sense of cohesion and camaraderie.
Over the years, some believers have parted ways, leaving in search of a stricter Orthodox communal experience. This is a perennial challenge to communities organized around ideas, religious or otherwise. What do you do when some members believe others are falling away from right belief or right practice? There are no simple answers. A certain flexibility is necessary.
“I think the cure for any community to avoid these sad troubles is to be open and generous, and to resist the urges to build walls and isolate itself,” Dunaway says.
As newcomers to Orthodoxy, the communal part of St. John’s life seemed off-putting to Shelley and Jerry Finkler, who converted with their children in 2007. The Finklers lived in an exurb a 20-minute drive from the cathedral, which made full participation in services throughout the week difficult and hindered the family’s spiritual life. They loved the liturgies and vespers but thought living among the people you went to church with was strange.
A brief experiment in living within walking distance of the cathedral changed their view. “Even though we were way poor that year, the quality of our life was so rich because of being able to make it to the services, and also because of the relationships we had with the people there,” Shelley Finkler says.
When the Finklers moved back to their exurban house, they were surprised by how much they missed Eagle River.
“In our old neighborhood, everybody was of similar economic status, and we all knew each other, but there wasn’t the sense of the common good that you have when you’re living around people who share your faith,” she says. “That made a big difference when it came to reaching out to help each other.”
This past summer, the Finklers sold their house and moved back to the St. John’s community—this time, as the host family for the St. James House, a cathedral ministry in which single young adults come to live for a year of prayer, work, and discernment.
“We think it is healthier for our children, ourselves, and everybody who lives around us to know that if you have a problem, there are 150 helping hands and hearts around you,” Shelley says. “There are no rules here, and we’re not closed off. There’s no weirdness. It just exists, and the center of it is the church.”
Of course there are dangers to Benedict Option thinking. John Zmirak points to them here:
Experience suggests that in the modern world, Benedict Option settlements have to be both relatively open to the world and vigilant about respecting personal liberty.
“I think trying to understand that freedom is pretty important,” says Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, who leads a pioneering New Monastic community in Durham, North Carolina. “Part of the grace of stability is knowing that everything’s a gift. You have to hold gifts loosely.”
This is a special challenge when your community’s very existence depends on renewing a calling to stand apart. That awareness of difference can turn toxic.
“Students at some small Catholic colleges are being taught to feel that as Catholics living in America they are members of an alienated, aggrieved, morally superior minority,” says John Zmirak, who was writer-in-residence at Thomas More College in Merrimack, New Hampshire until resigning in 2012. “They are learning that they owe no loyalty to our institutions, but should be working to replace them with an aggressive, intolerant Catholic regime. In other words, they are being taught to think and act like radical Muslims living in France.”
Zmirak, a traditionalist Catholic, concedes the appeal of Benedict Option communities to beleaguered Christians. Staying true to your values in a world that aggressively challenges them at every turn is exhausting. But withdrawal rarely works, he insists. “It’s looking for a bushel where your light will be safe from the wind.”
The story appears in the latest issue of TAC, but is available online this morning.