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For The Love Of St. Benedict

Dallas turns out to help the Monks of Norcia build a monastery
(L to R) Area Man, Father Martin Bernhard, Father Benedict Nivakoff

I spent the weekend in Dallas, where I spoke on Saturday night about the Benedict Option at a fundraiser for the Monks of Norcia. As you know, their monastery was heavily damaged by last October’s massive earthquake, the one that reduced the medieval basilica to rubble. God spared the monks, and all the people of Norcia (though every church in the ancient town was leveled). All heeded the warnings from the early tremors, and evacuated before the big one hit. As I tell it in The Benedict Option:

With dust still rising from the rubble, Father Basil knelt on the stones of the piazza, facing the ruined basilica, and accompanied by nuns and a few elderly Norcini, including one in a wheelchair, he prayed. Later amateur video posted to YouTube showed Father Basil, Father Benedict, and Father Martin running through the streets of the rubble-strewn town, looking for the dying who needed last rites. By the grace of God, there were none.

Back in America, Father Richard Cipolla, a Catholic priest in Connecticut and an old friend of Father Benedict’s, e-mailed the subprior when he heard the news of the latest quake. “Is there damage? What is going on?” Father Cipolla wrote.

“Yes, damage much worse,” Father Benedict replied. “But we are okay. Much to tell you, but just pray. I am well, and God continues to purify us and bring very good things.”

The next morning, as the sun rose over Norcia, Father Benedict sent a message to the monastery’s friends all over the world. He said that no Norcini had lost their lives in the quake because they had heeded the warnings from the earlier tremors and left town. “[God] spent two months preparing us for the complete destruction of our patron’s church so that when it finally happened we would watch it, in horror but in safety, from atop the town,” the priest-monk wrote.

Father Benedict added, “These are mysteries which will take years—not days or months—to understand.”

Surely that is true. But notice this: the earth moved, and the Basilica of St. Benedict, which had stood firm for many centuries, tumbled to the ground. Only the facade, the mere semblance of a church, remains. Because the monks headed for the hills after the August earthquake, they survived. God preserved them in the holy poverty of their canvas-covered Bethlehem, where they continued to live the Rule in the ancient way, including chanting the Old Mass. Now they can begin rebuilding amid the ruins, their resilient Benedictine faith teaching them to receive this catastrophe as a call to deeper holiness and sacrifice. God willing, new life will one day spring forth from the rubble.

“We pray and watch from the mountainside, thinking of the long three years Saint Benedict spent in the cave before God decided to call him out to become a light to the world,” wrote Father Benedict. “Fiat. Fiat.”

Let it be. Let it be.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

Here is an image from the piazza in Norcia shortly after the basilica collapsed. These people are only yards away from the pile. That is the monk Father Basil:

I wrote at the time:

There is a man driven to his knees, on the piazza, surrounded by nuns, the elderly, and someone in a wheelchair. The weak, the frightened, those without a roof over their heads. What did the priest-monk Basil do? He went to his knees to pray. This is the fruit of the spiritual training, day and night, that Brother Augustine talks about — the training that simply is the Benedictine life. This is the core of the Benedict Option: building up the daily habits of prayer, asceticism, and charity that allow the Holy Spirit to make us resilient. If you think losing their basilica and monastery is going to stop the Monks of Norcia, you badly underestimate them. All the prayer, worship, fasting and brotherhood they’ve been living these last 16 years, this ordering their lives around the service of Christ, has rooted them deeply in the faith. This terrible calamity shows their human weakness, but it also will reveal their inner strength, for as God said to St. Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness.”

The monks have been living in temporary quarters on their property outside the town since last October. With donations of money, supplies, and labor, they built two temporary wooden structures for themselves so they could retire the tents. The quarters are spartan, but … enough. They continue to live out the daily Benedictine life of prayer, fasting, work, worship, and Scripture study — just as Benedictine monks have been doing in this land for 1,500 years.

Some of their friends and supporters in Dallas held a benefit dinner for them this past weekend. People came in from all over the country for it — and not everybody there was Catholic. There were a couple of us Orthodox, some Episcopalians (including the Bishop of North Dakota), at least two Anglicans (ACNA), a Lutheran, and no doubt others — all there out of love and respect for the mission of the Monks of Norcia. Father Cassian Folsom, the founder of the monastery, also came.

The monks are trying to raise $5 million to build a new monastery on their hillside property, upon which lie the ruins of a much older monastery. The Diocese of Spoleto actually owns their old, badly damaged monastery inside the Norcia walls, and says it needs the space. But this is a blessing in disguise, the monks now believe. Cloistered, traditional Benedictines do not usually live in urban spaces. Though their property is only a short distance from the town itself, it’s far enough away to be tranquil, and to give the monks the kind of solitude they need. Here’s a short video showing what they’re doing now:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IOkgnpi6KO0]

I had the opportunity to speak privately with all three monks present in Dallas — coffee with Father Cassian, and a meeting in their hotel with Fathers Benedict and Martin. I reminded the younger monks that one of their number told me in Norcia in February 2016 that they could not be for the pilgrims who come who they (the monks) are supposed to be without spending so many hours behind their monastery walls, living out the Rule in prayer, contemplation, Scripture study, and the rest. They reaffirmed it in our meeting, and agreed that we lay Christians living in the world need to do something like this as well.

This came up in a Sirius XM radio interview I did with the terrific Catholic channel host Jen Fulwiler as I was driving to Dallas on Friday. Jen began the interview by saying that she has never seen a book that so many commentators have mischaracterized so wildly as this one. She asked me for my guess as to why that is.

Of course it’s true that some critics have genuine and perfectly legitimate criticisms of the book and the concept. I honor them, and have learned from their comments. But a huge number of critics rail against straw men — and these are the people Jen’s talking about. I told her that my sense is that they are afraid that my diagnosis of this culture’s crisis is true , and that frightens them. So they distort what I say in the book, or construct straw men that they knock down as a way of telling themselves that they’ve dealt with the Benedict Option, and now don’t have to take it seriously.

As you know, the main straw man these dishonest critics bring up is “Dreher Is Saying We All Have To Head For The Hills And Build Compounds!” I was very pleased, then, to hear Father Cassian himself knocking this falsehood down in the comments he made introducing me.

It was a great evening, and it was a special treat to meet a couple of folks who read this blog and comment here from time to time. Sandra Embry from the Dallas area introduced herself. Dr. Thomas Tucker and his wife Melanie came down from Washington state for the event. Thomas and I have been e-mailing each other and conversing in the comments section here for at least a decade. At long last we met. I had a wonderful time sipping Manhattans and talking with the Tuckers, as well as Baylor philosopher Tom Hibbs and his son Dan, until past midnight.

The next morning I went to liturgy at St. Seraphim cathedral, my old Orthodox parish in Dallas. What a joy and a blessing to be with old friends in that beautiful church. After coffee hour, I joined my friend and Orthodox godfather Vladimir Grigorenko and his daughter Masha for a messy, glorious lunch at Torchy’s Tacos:

In Waco, Alan Jacobs first introduced me to Torchy’s, a small Texas-based chain. Since then, I eat every possible meal at a Torchy’s, if there is one locally. I don’t think that I’ve had better tacos anywhere, ever. Normally I’m indifferent to queso, but Masha ordered some for the table on Sunday, and holy cow, Torchy’s is transcendent.

Vladimir, who is Ukrainian, challenged me on this post of mine from the other day, and warned me against any kind of romanticization of Russia and its culture. He strongly rejects the idea that the West, despite its spiritual malaise, should take advice from contemporary Russia. Vladimir counsels the “Dmitri Option,” named after the late Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas, whom Vladimir loved and served. The Dmitri Option is basically this: love and welcome all, go to church, say your prayers, live out the Gospel, bear one another’s burdens, confess, repent, and rejoice.

I’d say that that’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be. But then, I say that about the Benedict Option too. It’s nothing more than the church returning to traditional Christian spiritual and moral discipline, inspired by the monastic life.

After lunch, I got on the road for the eight-hour drive home. I found myself praying that some rich Catholic would take an interest in the Monks of Norcia, and give them what they need to build the permanent monastery. I’m not even Catholic, but I’m passionate about these monks’ mission, and consider their monastery to be a spiritual lighthouse to all of us in the Western world in a very dark time. I wish I had $5 million to give them, because I believe that the future of the Western world that my descendants will inhabit depends in part on what will happen now and in the decades to come inside the spiritual stronghold those monks intend to build on the side of that mountain in Umbria, a short walk from the very spot from which, in the year 480, came the blessed spark that God used to help save Western civilization in its last existential crisis.

If you know any rich Catholics (or anyone else) who wants to invest in the future of Western civilization, ask them to get in touch with the Monks of Norcia. It is one of the great privileges of my life to be able to tell others about them, through The Benedict Option, this blog, media interviews, and otherwise. I don’t have $5 million to give, but I can give the gift of my words, which, by the grace of God, may reach someone who can see the beauty and worth of these lean men scratching out a prayerful, ascetic existence on an Umbrian mountainside, and who has the means to fulfill their dreams of a permanent home as a place of prayer, pilgrimage, and witness to all who seek God.

Over the weekend in Dallas, so many people introduced themselves to me and told me that their churches are doing congregational or Sunday School class studies of The Benedict Option, with the idea of discerning together what they could do, in their own church, to live out the Ben Op. Two people — one Catholic, one Evangelical — told me this past week that their pastors preached sermons based on the book. This is so gratifying. It’s exactly what I hope for the book: that it gets all Christians thinking and talking with each other about how to meet this crisis upon us. We’re not just lamenting the darkness, but we’re actually doing something constructive and hopeful!

As important as it is to dig into the chapters about Politics, Technology, Sex and Sexuality, Education, and so forth, nothing in the book is more important than Chapter Three, the one in which I introduce the monks, and they talk about the actual spiritual practices that they do day in and day out — all of which keep them oriented to God, and deepens their conversion. That’s the heart of it. Without that, nothing we do matters.



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