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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. [1] 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 [1] this morning.

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "What Does The Benedict Option Look Like?"

#1 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On December 12, 2013 @ 9:33 am

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?

This is sounds like group polarization and is a real challenge for any community that isolates itself from the greater society. Overtime the absence of people with contrary opinions causes the group to become a more extreme version of itself.

One example would be the old believers Rod wrote about a while back. They eventually could only deal by withdrawing from everyone but their family.

Another example would be online communities (of all sorts) who hit the ban hammer anytime someone voices an opinion that doesn’t fit group norms. They tend to be much more polarized then those that don’t.

#2 Comment By MikeCLT On December 12, 2013 @ 9:37 am

Perhaps Catholic and Orthodox Christians would do better emulating Mormons, and to a lesser extent modern Orthodox Jews. Not so much separate but engaged with the secular world while maintaining parallel institutions that support and reinforce Catholic and Orthodox Christian values.

#3 Comment By mohammad On December 12, 2013 @ 10:31 am

I wish the best for “Benedict option” communities, and I think it is a very worthy and noble effort, but I am pessimist about their success, which I think would be minimal. St.Benedict did not wish to change the world as you have written. He wanted just to live for God and teach others how to live for God. However, he was a saint. I am not sure if without having a saint we can really have this “option”. It is not only the teaching that the saint offers and the framework he envisions, but also, and above all I think, his presence, the continuation of his substance, his Barakah as Muslims would call it, which makes this option a viable one in the world. We are in the need of saints, and badly so!

On the other hand, God’s grace can compensate for anything anywhere anytime. So hopefully I will prove wrong, and the good intention of people who follow such a path
would bring God’s Grace. I very much hope so. At the end, God looks at our intentions and the content of our souls, and not at our success and failure in a specific project.

#4 Comment By collin On December 12, 2013 @ 10:46 am

Reading the various Benedict Options feels like reading modern variations of Animal Farm. Local communities can create a great religous libertarian community as long as there is a strong authoritarian leader controling the community. I would agree the Mormon model works better where the church is playing by the modern rules.

#5 Comment By dominic1955 On December 12, 2013 @ 10:48 am

I think its a bad idea at the current moment. If you want to live apart, do so as a monastic with vows and everything. If not, you should live in the world.

Plus, what did the Desert Fathers say about living the eremitical life? In order to live apart from the World, you have to have mastered living into it. If you are running from the World, it will follow you into the Desert.

The same sort of idea applies to more “intentional” communities, i.e. the TLM parish. On one hand, its great we have the TLM and all the Sacraments and blessing according to the old Ritual. The disadvantage of this is all the oddness that can arise. I go to a TLM parish for the liturgical and spiritual life, I do NOT go because I care to hear your opinion on co-ed swimming or how far a skirt should fall below the knee or that all rock music is of the devil. I don’t think any of these things are that important nor do I think any of this helps us evangelize or reevangelize those around us.

The liturgy is the jewel. We should not put it in a plastic crown of modesty squabbles and other such trivialities.

#6 Comment By The Wet One On December 12, 2013 @ 11:02 am

It’s good that there are a variety of chosen ways to live. This increases the likelihood that some will survive troubled times. It’s highly adaptive in my view.

#7 Comment By Fred On December 12, 2013 @ 11:04 am

SSPX school in Kansas (where it’s pre-Vatican 2!):

#8 Comment By Sam M On December 12, 2013 @ 11:05 am

I guess I am not all that clear what the Benedict Option really means. The Catholic one kind of sounds like it means, “live in a small town with a high percentage of Catholic people in it.”

I do that now. Not a lot of people go to church every day. But some do. I think it’s a good way to live. But it hardly seems all that radical. Maybe it is and I just don’t know it. My town is bigger than theirs, but it’s in a county that’s the same size. Countywide we have 17,000 fewer people.

The place was populated as intentional Catholic community about 160 years ago. Maybe it’s just in our DNA? The main actors? Benedictine nuns. The first in the US:


There are fewer and fewer sisters living and working there. I wonder if some monks have any need for it. That would be awesome.

#9 Comment By Gina On December 12, 2013 @ 11:18 am

I’m not a huge fan of Zmirak’s thought, despite the hugely funny “Bad Catholic” series, but I have to agree wholeheartedly with his statement: “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…“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.”

This is truly the opposite of Catholicism…

#10 Comment By Fred On December 12, 2013 @ 11:30 am

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37).” (49)

– Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium

#11 Comment By Roger H. On December 12, 2013 @ 12:01 pm

Probably the closest analogy most people would have is living in a college dormitory with classmates (assuming that they went to a college that organized residencies by discipline), or enlisted time in the military. (Especially life in the military.)

I have the latter experience as a United States Marine. My company and platoon were all together in the barracks, worked together all day, had battalion family day–aka Forced Fun Saturday–together. We were our brother’s keeper; holding each other accountable and making sure that each of our brethren was squared away.

It seems anathema to a lot of Americans now, but there really is nothing so wonderful as life in a community like this. I’ve not found anything quite like it in the civilian world and miss it very much.

#12 Comment By Roger II On December 12, 2013 @ 1:13 pm

Personally, if people want to do this, more power to them. I don’t care. I always wonder what is the ultimate point. I mean, are your kids going to be allowed to go to college? Get a job somewhere? What happens then? It just seems unlikely to me that you are going to be able to protect your kids from the problems you see in the culture any better by living in a remote community than by living anywhere but doing so by the rules you think are appropriate and making those rules clear to your children. And of course most people can’t make a living in those types of communities — the market for on-line traditionist stuff can’t support all families. I have also wondered about the things Zmirak mentions. If traditionalists teach their kids that they are the only moral members of a culturally-flawed society, how are they ever going to get along with the majority of people and make a living? The Mormons have made it work due to numbers, but even most Mormons send their kids to public schools and work in the general community. Our public school in Maryland had a fairly sizable number of Mormon students, and they hung out with everyone else.

#13 Comment By Uncle Billy On December 12, 2013 @ 2:38 pm

I wonder if children who grow up in these religious communities are prepared for the “real world?” Eventually they will grow up and leave for various reasons, but will they be able to cope with the rough and tumble rest of the world?

The Amish seem to have been able to pull this off, but I don’t want to be Amish. Their little world is not perfect either. I guess that you just have to do the best you can in the real world.

#14 Comment By Alice AN On December 12, 2013 @ 3:25 pm

I thought conservatives are supposed to be immune to Utopian thinking.

Teenagers figure out about masturbation without being taught. I think religious parents will find that isolation is not a solution unless is accompanied with a brutal regime of control that ultimately dooms these communities. It is almost impossible that your children will be your clones in thought.

#15 Comment By RB On December 12, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

I’m LDS, and I’ve lived all over–DC area, Midwest, Marin County/Bay Area, and Salt Lake Valley.

I’d go so far as to say that Mormons do even better as a community in places where they are a minority.

I’ve been part-time fostering some FLDS kids who left their community. It sounds like a Benedictine Option dream–their religious worship at the center of daily economic life. They’re very self-sufficient there in the FLDS towns, and make or grow most things themselves. It sounds like it was pretty wonderful, until the leadership began imploding.

Talking to these kids has sharply defined, for me, what a working Benedictine option requires, or at least, what I’d prefer. No coercion, just attraction. An emphasis on the community’s positives, instead of scaring people away from the outside world by emphasizing negatives. Lots of interaction with the world.

The Mormons I know who form the backbone of the church community are those with the most education, often at non-LDS schools, and those who’ve served missions.

I think that’s the biggest difference I’ve seen so far between my experiences growing up LDS and the FLDS kids in my life–their community has increasingly narrowed their members’ educational opportunities and members are increasingly dependent upon their community financially and socially. Instead of encouraging them to grow wings, they clip their feathers. That only works to maintain a community in the short term, just as locking up a wife only preserves a marriage so long as she can’t find the key.

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 12, 2013 @ 3:34 pm

Beyond monastaries. I think the response resembles my first real foray with fundamentalist christians of the Church of Christ in Germany – local, close knit , rooted in scripture, bold, humble caring, protective, loving, forthright, an amalgam of personalities intimately involved with each other, living as among the lost and deeply in love with sharing Christ, They remain in many respects my first love of fundamentalism —

#17 Comment By Bernie On December 12, 2013 @ 5:17 pm

Concerning the video on the Society of St. Pius X school in Kansas, are those folks in communion with the Pope or in schism? I think it matters when the Benedict Option is being discussed.

#18 Comment By dominic1955 On December 12, 2013 @ 10:13 pm


The SSPX is in a sort of precarious relationship with Rome. I wouldn’t go there or to SSPX chapels in general.

#19 Comment By David J. White On December 12, 2013 @ 10:49 pm

Perhaps Catholic and Orthodox Christians would do better emulating Mormons, and to a lesser extent modern Orthodox Jews. Not so much separate but engaged with the secular world while maintaining parallel institutions that support and reinforce Catholic and Orthodox Christian values.

We Catholics used to have pretty much exactly that. We’ve spent the last half-century gleefully p*ssing it all away.

#20 Comment By Bernie On December 12, 2013 @ 11:16 pm


I agree. I understand that the SSPX is NOT in communion with the Pope, in spite of Benedict’s best efforts to work with it and bring it back in union with Rome. He did everything he could, but the society did not opt to come back into union with the Pope. That’s why I would NEVER gravitate toward the type of *Benedict Option* they seem to be promoting in Kansas. If I’m incorrect, someone please correct me.

#21 Comment By dominic1955 On December 13, 2013 @ 9:40 am

Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos has said that they are not not in communion but its a troubled communion. Either way, I just would not suggest going to their chapels. One can fulfill their Sunday obligation there, but you cannot have your Confession validly heard.

What, and with all the opportunities to go to a TLM that has nothing to do with the SSPX, I do not see how going to an SSPX chapel (except for rare circumstances) would not be a sort of thumbing your nose at the proper channels.

The SSPX, especially in some of their circles (the place in Kansas being a perfect example) see themselves as really and truly being the Remnant Church. They see setting up their own institutions as near imperative because nothing else is free from moral and theological rot. Its very cultlike and toxic.

#22 Comment By ginger On December 13, 2013 @ 10:59 am

I went to one of those colleges John Zmirak is referring to, and I am most definitely not sending my children there for exactly the reasons Mr. Zmirak mentions.

Many of my fellow alumni are indeed “members of an alienated, aggrieved, morally superior minority,”, and I remain astonished at how little gratitude so many of them seem to have for the blessings God has bestowed upon us living in a free country.

These types do nothing but turn off most everybody around them. It is the opposite of evangelization, is completely unCatholic, and certainly does not fit in with the Pope Francis vision for the ways in which we should be living the Gospel.

I would advise those considering sending their children to these types of schools to think long and hard about it. I have friends who have decided to do so despite some serious misgivings, but they are at least very much aware of the dangers and actively work to make sure their children are not being unduly influenced by these noxious ideas and attitudes. Vigilance is necessary.

#23 Comment By stef On December 14, 2013 @ 5:58 pm

Sharing schools, churches, and living in the same town is no big deal. Millions of Americans do it every day. In this sense the people described are not an “intentional community” in the strict sense of the phrase. They’re not doing anything people didn’t do in, say, 1948 when they moved out to Levittown.

The article is also quite weak on what I find the most interesting aspect of (say) families moving to rural OK. How do the parents make money, especially away from a major city? The answers are vague (sells insurance; has a home school business; telecommutes.) Yet it seems to me that the most important thing about how these communities can actually form and sustain themselves involves economics.

#24 Comment By CatherineNY On December 17, 2013 @ 6:14 pm

It is interesting that more than one person has mentioned the Mormon model. I once read on a website run by ex-Regnum Christi members that their organization was supposedly modeled on that of the Mormons. I have to say that I don’t see it. If I knew members of Regnum Christi, I was not aware of it. I know quite a few people who are in Opus Dei, however, and they are certainly active in the community around them.