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The Meaning Of The Benedict Option

Purification as a severe mercy, and training for hard times to come

A rock-solid Catholic priest who has spent decades in the trenches for orthodox Christianity, but who has grown very weary of the spinelessness of the episcopacy, writes in about his frustration with “the many ‘good’ bishops”:

They will not act. They just talk and wait. Meanwhile the “New Paradigm” spreads ever further so they move from Communion for a few divorced/remarried folk, to homosexuals, to protestants, to preparing to relativize Humanae Vitae, to these games with the death penalty. At any point had the progressives faced bold apostolic witness and determined resistance, they could have been checked. But no, because bishops are chosen to be passive men when it comes to such things, only acting the way every other one acts and always with deference. That may be fine when all is well in the world, but it is catastrophic when things are under threat.

We beg for help from them. Shoot, we even show them how to do what must be done by doing it ourselves. And still they do not act. Just like the abuse victims asking for help and getting nothing. We ask for bread, they give us stones, accuse us of being impatient or disloyal, or charge us with being rigorist Pharisees nostalgic for a Church we never knew.

[The ‘good’ bishops of the John Paul II era] thought they could finesse the situation, gain control, and move things in the right direction. It was all just a matter of time. They did not realize the nature of the war that was being waged.

They did not realize the nature of the war that was being waged. This is not only true of Catholic clerics, and it is not only true of the clerical class. All of us small-o orthodox Christians have to wake up and understand the nature of this war. As it is, we are not going to survive it if we fight it by the old rules.

Lots of Christians have the false idea that The Benedict Option foresees the greatest challenges to the faith coming from state persecution. Though I do believe that is coming, by far the greater threats to the churches come from the culture in general, and from internal collapse.

Since the Cardinal McCarrick revelations, American Catholics have been subject to a new round of scandal, this one focused on the bishops and their leadership. I’m warning you, my Catholic brothers and sisters, this one is going to be bad. The laity of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, are reeling from what they are now learning about the reality in their own diocese, which has enjoyed a reputation as being one of the best, most orthodox, and most thriving dioceses in America. They are learning now that that was not the whole story.

In a way, the purification underway in Lincoln now is a severe mercy. Those people are having to face the terrible truth, and learn how to hold on to their faith, and even thrive in it, without the false assurance that everything is fine. Earlier this week, Stan Schulte, a 37-year-old son of a big, strong Catholic family in Lincoln, revealed in an interview with me that his uncle, a Lincoln priest, had molested him as a boy. I wish you could have heard him speak. Schulte is tormented by this — he wept through much of our interview — and wants so desperately for the church he loves to be cleaned and healed. He loves the priesthood, he loves his family, he even loves his uncle, who he insists was failed by a clerical system in Lincoln that did not get him the help he needs.

But notice this, from the piece:

Seriously, readers, think about that. Stan Schulte is not the enemy. Peter Mitchell, the laicized priest who started this tumult in Lincoln with this essay, is not the enemy. Wan Wei Hsien, a former Lincoln seminarian who read Mitchell’s essay and came forward with his story about how the late, legendary Lincoln vocations director, Leonard Kalin, molested him — he is not the enemy. The anonymous Nebraska couple who spoke up to warn about Father Charles Townsend are not the enemy — not of the Catholic faith, not of the Catholic people of Lincoln, and certainly not of God, who, as St. Augustine said, has no need of our lies.

The enemy is, in part, a need to believe a false story for the sake of keeping inner peace and a cohesive community. If a bishop, a priest, or a layman tells you to be silent about abuse and corruption “for the good of the Church,” know right there: that is the enemy talking. 

A priest writes tonight, of the people of the Diocese of Lincoln:

Many of the laity are experiencing Stockholm syndrome. Tell them the truth: Vile evil men have sunk the ship known as the reputation of the Church long ago, but with their honest testimonies, they will raise the Barque of Peter.

A lay Catholic in the Diocese of Lincoln writes tonight to say that people are afraid to speak up because to do so there is to risk serious ostracism, even professional loss. That’s how tight the community is. A community of believers that makes people who tell the truth into pariahs — they are their own worst enemy.

Word from multiple sources tonight is that Bishop James Conley of Lincoln will sack the entire chancery leadership tomorrow, in a total house cleaning. If true, that’s huge. From what we know so far, the situation in Lincoln, as terrible as it may be, is small beer compared to the catastrophes that have occurred in many bigger dioceses. Yet I don’t recall hearing about mass firings in those chanceries. Conley This sounds like absolutely the right move — but it is only a start. I hope that Catholic readers by now have come to understand that they cannot sit back and trust the bishops to fix what is wrong with the Church. 

If you, Catholic, want to save your faith, and save it for your children, and your children’s children, then wake up. Do not hear me saying that you should leave Catholicism. I don’t counsel that at all. I don’t tell people to leave Protestantism either. As an Orthodox Christian who loves his faith, and who has found truth and healing there, I would love to see people come to Orthodoxy. But joining the Orthodox Church is nowhere near enough, and you’d be an absolute fool to think so.

This past Sunday, my priest preached a strong sermon about how there is no substitute for the hard work of spiritually disciplined Christian living — especially prayer and fasting. I was so moved by the truth of his message that I came home and wrote a little talk that I gave later that afternoon to the meeting of our parish men’s group. Here’s the talk I gave; my apologies to you regular readers, who have heard some of this before:

I didn’t realize how much I needed to be in church today until I was standing in the liturgy. It’s been a tough week for me. As most of you know, I’m a journalist. What most of you may not know is that I used to be a true-believing Catholic, until my work covering the priest sex abuse scandal broke me spiritually and emotionally. It cost me my Catholic faith. In 2006, unable to believe anymore as a Catholic, I brought my family into Orthodoxy, at St. Seraphim Cathedral in Dallas.

Everybody in this room is a convert to Orthodoxy. I’m pretty sure that the day you embraced the Orthodox faith was a day of joy for you. It wasn’t for me. Don’t get me wrong: I love Orthodoxy, am very grateful for the gift of the Orthodox faith, and have never looked back to Rome. But I came to Orthodoxy as the survivor of a shipwreck washes ashore onto a desert island. The trauma of losing the only home I had ever really known as an adult Christian was the worst thing I’ve ever lived through. Twelve years later, despite having buried my sister and my father, it still is.

For me, it wasn’t only losing a way of being Christian. It was losing a world, and even losing myself. And yet, God granted me a severe mercy. I had been an arrogant, triumphalist, intellectual Catholic. I had made an idol of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church didn’t force me to be that way. That choice was my own, and it came out of my own brokenness.

I came to Catholicism as a man in my mid-twenties. My conversion was primarily intellectual. I received the Catholic faith as a Crusader sword to use against the world. I was proud to be Catholic. I was proud to be a conservative Catholic. That was my tribe. It was us against the world, and against the liberals in the Catholic Church, who weren’t as loyal and patriotic, so to speak, as we were.

And then, over the course of four years of reporting about the scandal, it all fell apart for me. All my illusions, gone. At the end, Julie and I were so angry, fearful, and depressed. We didn’t know who to trust in Church. One day Julie came to me, in tears, saying, “For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m losing Jesus.” The truth was, I did too. By the time we left Catholicism, it was like an animal caught in a trap who chews his leg off to save his life.

All of that is to say that the wound left by my exit from Catholicism is permanent. It is never going to fully heal. I thank God for that wound, because it saved my spiritual life. Here’s what I mean.

I told you that I received Catholicism like a Crusader received his sword. I received Orthodoxy like a ragged street beggar receives a warm coat on a cold winter’s day. I was not strong enough to do anything else. Some angry Catholics said to me, “You think you’re going to a perfect church? You think you’re going to escape sin? Just you wait!”

I never thought that. Never. The Orthodox jurisdiction I joined was at that time mired in a financial scandal with many facets, including clerical rivalry. I stupidly got involved in that, in a deceptive way, and got burned. It takes some dogs more than once to learn not to go back to their vomit.

What I had to do as an Orthodox believer was to learn how to be a Christian. Orthodoxy was good for me in a number of ways. For one, in this country, ours is a relatively poor church, one without any political or cultural power. Nobody becomes Orthodox in America because they want to have influence or cachet. Orthodoxy is weird, and it’s demanding. The only real reason to come is for Christ. One of you told me recently that he overheard Father Joshua telling some inquirers, “If you’ve come to this church for any reason other than to find Jesus, you’re in the wrong place.”

Every church says that about itself, but for me, there were no worldly advantages at all to becoming Orthodox. In fact, there was a part of me that was seeking worldly advantage when I became a Catholic, though I hid it from myself under a veil of sincere piety. Again, that’s not the Catholic Church’s fault. The fault is mine. I would have probably done the same thing no matter which church I had come into as a young know-it-all Washington journalist, eager to set the world straight.

I found that Orthodoxy has within it spiritual resources that restored me. Today in his homily, Father talked about prayer and fasting. I found this to be true, especially the prayer part. I learned the Jesus Prayer, and how to use a prayer rope. It took a long time, but learning how to create inner stillness within myself so that I could hear the voice of God, and give the Holy Spirit a space to work within me, was the greatest gift God gave me in Orthodoxy.

I don’t talk a lot about how great Orthodoxy is, not because I don’t believe it, but because I absolutely don’t want to be the kind of Orthodox Christian that I was as a Catholic Christian. In the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner – well, that’s it, isn’t it? The Lord has shown me how absolutely dependent I am on his mercy. To be proud of my Orthodoxy would be like waking up on third base, battered and bruised and covered with dirt, and thinking that I hit a triple.

I tell you all this because in church today, I was thinking about all the pain that a lot of Catholics are going through today. I spent an exhausting week writing about a situation going on in the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. When I was a Catholic, I looked up to Lincoln, as many conservative Catholics did. It was a very conservative diocese, whose Catholicism was unapologetically and robustly orthodox (small-o orthodox). A lot of us wished our diocese was like Lincoln. This past week, though, I ended up writing about how that spiritual pride that a lot of Lincoln Catholics had, and their eagerness to believe their own press, led to a certain amount of corruption within the clergy being concealed. There’s no point going into it here, but let’s just say that a lot of Catholics in that diocese are hurting now, and struggling to accept what’s happening.

It’s true in other places too. Cardinal Ted McCarrick, who retired as archbishop of Washington, DC, has been revealed to have been a child molester and a molester of seminarians. In fact, the Pope recently took away his cardinal’s rank. Mark my words: there is a lot more to come about sexual corruption among the Catholic hierarchy. Pray for our Catholic brothers and sisters.

I was thinking this morning about Father Arseny, the legendary priest of the Russian gulags. A story is told about him being in prison for his faith, sent there by the Bolsheviks, along with a bunch of political prisoners. One night, the inmates were standing around talking about the Revolution, and whose fault it was. All the men had somebody else to blame. When they asked Father Arseny whose fault it was, he said that the Church had to bear a lot of the blame. Why? Because, he said, the priests and the bishops had grown too arrogant in their privileges, too far from the people and from God. Perhaps the Lord had allowed the Revolution to happen in part as a judgment on the Church.

This was an astonishing thing coming from a man who was in prison for the “crime” of being an Orthodox Christian priest. But it’s a very Orthodox answer, isn’t it? Father Arseny used his own suffering, and the suffering of the Church, as an occasion for repentance.

We know that the Russian Orthodox Church under the yoke of communism was nearly destroyed. Somehow, those who were brave enough to continue to go to Church had to do so knowing that all the bishops were KGB agents, and many of the priests too. They had to know that they were receiving Holy Communion from the hands of priests who might well be Judases. And yet, they persevered.

We Orthodox have absolutely no right to look down on Catholics who are suffering through this crisis. We could be there one day. We have been in the past. But let’s not for a second think that we are safe from this kind of thing in the Orthodox Church, any more than any Christian is safe in any church. Sin will find you anywhere.

I strongly believe that every Christian in this country will be put to the test. The test might look different for us, depending on which church we are a part of. But none will escape it. There is no safe place to be Christian anymore, not in this post-Christian society. A few years ago, a holy Catholic monk in Norcia, the birthplace of St. Benedict, my patron, said that we have entered a time of darkness in the world, and that any Christian who hopes to come through it with his faith intact can no longer live as a go-along-to-get-along believer. Only those who are intentional in the practice of their faith, and who do so in community, will stand a chance of making it.

He wasn’t talking only about Catholics. He was talking about all of us. Just going to church on Sunday, and thinking the “right” Christian thoughts, won’t be enough. Not even close.

We have to live out something I call “the Benedict Option.” It’s a word I use for thinking of ourselves as radically countercultural, and living like monastics in the world. I wrote a book about this in detail, so I won’t go into it here. The “Benedict” is St. Benedict of Nursia, who left the collapsing Roman Empire, went into a cave, sought the Lord’s will, and emerged to start a monastic community. He wrote a famous Rule of monastic life. When he died in the year 547, he had planted twelve monasteries in the vicinity of Rome. From those mustard seeds grew a great monastic movement, one that spread throughout barbarian-ruled Europe, and tended the light of faith through a very dark time.

In The Benedict Option, I talk about why we are living through a time of spiritual and cultural collapse comparable to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. And I talk about how we Christians today — all of us — need to learn from the example of the early Benedictines, and figure out how to live more monastically in the world.

There’s a lot in the book, the main point simply is this: there is no substitute for holy living, in all aspects of our lives. There is no substitute for conversion of life. David [a young man in our fellowship], you received the blessing today of being baptized and confirmed in the Orthodox faith. That’s just the start of the pilgrimage. We are all climbing a mountain together in this life.

I say “climbing a mountain” because the poet Dante, in his Divine Comedy, portrayed the Christian life on this earth as a pilgrimage up a mountain. We move upward only by the power of the Holy Spirit, and by receiving the Lord’s mercy, and by showing that mercy to fellow pilgrims. Nobody else can walk for you, though. You have to walk yourself.

… I received a letter last night from a reader of my blog. He’s an Episcopalian who has been thinking for a long time about becoming a Catholic. He’s put that on pause now amid these scandals. He told me that he had just finished The Benedict Option, and concluded that it’s less important to find the “right church” than it is to get your heart right with God. He wrote:

You want to fix stuff? Fix your own hearts. Start there. The need for healing is always more local than we want to admit, and you can’t run away. I guess that’s part of what the Spirit is saying to the churches in 2018. There’s no salvation in ecclesial or spiritual gyrovaguery (St. Benedict’s term for flitting around from place to place, never planting roots anywhere). Maybe Lot is the exemplar of this lesson: saved even out of the midst of Sodom, but then perishing spiritually, by means of incest, in the supposed safety to which he had fled.

Lot got out of the city to escape destruction, but taking refuge in a cave, he met his doom. This is what I mean by there is no truly safe place to escape the world. We can only guard our own hearts, build up the community we have, and build up our brothers and sisters elsewhere.

There was a bit more, about how inspiring the monks of Norcia are, in their dedication to rebuilding amid the ruins left by the 2016 earthquake. I’ll quote the conclusion of The Benedict Option:

Five days later, more earthquakes shook Norcia. The cross atop the basilica’s facade toppled to the ground. And then, early in the morning of Sunday, October 30, the strongest earthquake to hit Italy in thirty years struck, its epicenter just north of the town. The fourteenth-century Basilica of St. Benedict, the patron saint of Europe, fell violently to the ground. Only its facade remained. Not a single church in Norcia remained standing.

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.

What Catholics in Lincoln are experiencing now is a purification. They were proud and complacent, and too trusting in the diocesan leadership. The Lincoln diocese may be thought of as like Lot’s cave: within it, they were able to escape the destruction (spiritually and morally) that befell the world outside of their little diocese on the prairie, but sin found them anyway — as it will find us all.

In fact, think about St. Benedict in his cave, compared to Lot in his own. Benedict emerged purified by prayer and fasting; Lot and his daughters fell into moral ruin. You can do the Benedict Option, but if you think that there is a totally safe place to go, where you don’t have to struggle with ordinary sin, then you run the risk of turning your Ben Op into Lot’s Cave.

But I digress, as usual. Sorry.

What I really hope readers who have been following the tragic story in Lincoln this past week will take from it is not that the Catholic Church is rotten, and that people should run to other churches. As Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner has said (I quote this in my book),

There is no safe place in the world or in our churches within which to be a Christian. It is a new epoch.

We welcome anybody who wants to taste and see what we have in the Orthodox Church, but if you do that, and your pastor is any good, he is going to warn you again and again that the faith has to be a way of life, and a path of ongoing conversion. If your Protestant pastor understands the nature of the war we are in, he is going to tell you the same thing. And if you want to stay Catholic, you simply can’t rest on the familiar, the comforting, and the “official story” of, say, the Diocese of Lincoln. You cannot trust the bishops to fix this. You cannot wait for a new and holy Pope, or a good pastor, or anything like it. Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Mainline Protestants, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians — the same is true for us, within our own worlds and structures.

There is no substitute for personal conversion, spiritual discipline, and building the structures and habits to sustain that pilgrimage, in small communities. 

I’m so happy to tell you that today, Leah Libresco, whose name will be familiar to readers of The Benedict Option, has today published a new book: Building The Benedict OptionLook:

I’m going to be writing more about it later, but let me assure you, this wonderful little book could not have arrived at a better time. It’s filled with practical, everyday wisdom from a young Christian woman who is living it out, and who writes so warmly and accessibly. If you’ve already read The Benedict Option, but have had trouble understanding what you might do about it, Leah’s on it. And if you haven’t read the Ben Op, please reconsider its thesis. A priest who teaches in a seminary contacted me a couple of weeks ago to thank me for writing so strongly about the McCarrick situation, and for writing the Ben Op book. He said that he warns the young pastors in training in his classroom that they are going to serve in a time of staggering upheaval, and that most of them will live to see the purification that the future Benedict XVI predicted in 1969. We are living it out now.

If we small-o orthodox Christians going to make it, we’re going to have to realize the nature of the war we’re fighting, and not fight the one we want to fight. That is one of the lessons of Lincoln. And that is the lesson of The Benedict Option.

UPDATE: A Catholic priest e-mails:

You wrote about your own experience in the OCA [my Orthodox Church in America parish — RD] that the actual church building and structure was not glorious and that the Church did not have human power.  I believe that this may well be on the horizon for orthodox Roman Catholicism. There might be some survival of universities and cathedrals and the trappings of power in an accepted form of Catholicism, but the Church itself will only survive in small, humble, poor Church. In this way, there will be no economic or social advantage to becoming a priest (although Original Sin will still exist). Hopefully this will lead to a holier priesthood, especially if our priests (as is the case with many Orthodox priests today in the US) have to earn their daily keep with the sweat of their brow and cannot fall back on the diocesan structure.

Currently we are slaves of the paradox that many priests have no financial resources to fall back on, yet they can live a comfortable life in a  parish where nearly everything is provided. The parish and diocese structure can eat a lot of time in meetings and servicing the structure itself (the self-referential problem that Pope Francis speaks of), and they often leave little time for what really matters. The priest is beholden to a structure that is not always fit for purpose, yet if he leaves that structure he has nowhere else to go, nor has he the wherewithal to continue ministering outside the structure (not to mention the canonical and theological issues involved in attempting to do this). Yet if our dioceses continue to go bankrupt due to abuse settlements and the congregations continue to dwindle, the structure of Catholicism in the US and the Western World cannot simply continue as normal. The only future I can see is the one that Ratzinger foresaw. [Note: Readers, I quote this 1969 prophecy from the future Benedict XVI in ‘The Benedict Option’. If you haven’t read the prophecy, follow the link to do so — it’ll will knock you flat. — RD]

On the other hand, I think we need to be careful of becoming a single issue party. Yes the Benedict Option is good, but precisely because it is an option for Christianity.  Even in the midst of the scandals and attempts at reform, we cannot lost sight of Christ.  I know that there is a danger of complacency, and there are sins that cry out to God, and must be addressed as soon as they come to light.

I know that some of your readers are still reeling from the revelations of the McCarrick scandal and you are giving voice to their hurt. But among the clergy many of us have been facing this situation on a daily basis for decades. Personally, shortly after Ordination, I realized by the scandals of 2002, that as a heterosexual priest who actually believes and tries to live by what the Catholic Church teaches, I am in a minority among the clergy.  As many priests have testified on your blog already, there isn’t a whole lot that can be done by a priest within the system (unless you have evidence of lawbreaking that will stand up in a court of law). Oftentimes on a practical level the wheat and the tares can only be left grow together. Yes the tares should be ripped up, but it is sometimes simply impossible to do so without killing the wheat. It must be remembered that the flock still needs to be tended and oftentimes priests need to be involved in the nitty gritty daily work of preaching they Word, celebrating the Sacraments, visiting the sick and burying the dead. This needs to continue and God will take care of the survival of the Church.

Yes we need to strive for a better Church, and each of us ought to do what is in his power to achieve it, using the inspiration, opportunities and courage that the Lord grants him, taking the risks he thinks he needs to take  all of us will have to answer for our decisions before her awesome judgment seat of Christ.   Yet more importantly each of us needs to strive for his own holiness. If we are not holy what use is a perfect Church and it is simply wrong to believe that in this life we can build a perfect Church where no sinners can corrupt it in any way. In the Gospel itself Christ assures us that scandals will always be with us, but he also assures us that he has conquered the world and that the fathers of hell shall not prevail against the Church.



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