Yesterday I was talking with a friend, a well-known professor who has done a lot of thinking about Christianity in modernity. I told him I was preparing to speak on the Benedict Option this weekend at Georgetown (about which, come see Ken Myers and me talk Ben Op, 10am-12:30pm, 3700 O St, NW, this Saturday Oct 10), and was curious about his thoughts on the matter. I was taking notes. Here’s one thing he said that really stayed with me:
It’s painfully obvious to me how fragile things are. How fragile — we’ve spent so much time, a millennium, building our institutions, and it turns out that they are very fragile. Things can change in an instant. We are going to have to come to grips with the question of whether or not our faith is prepared to endure suffering and loss. Because we are going to face a lot of that in the years to come.
Whatever Benedict Option communities end up being as we pass through all this, they are going to have to bear witness to suffering and loss, in a way we [in the West] have not had to do for a great long time. As you talk about the Ben Op, I think you might draw on what you have learned from Dante about how to bear suffering in a Christian way. We are going to have to be patient for a restoration of justice, and develop the kind of faith and understanding required for that.
The Benedict Option has to be about what discipleship looks like and must contain in this present reality. It can’t be simply about Christian survival within the liberal order. That in itself concedes too much. Has to come from a renewed quest for God and the nature of man in the ruins of this civilization – and that that quest is going to require specific forms and practices.
That was extraordinarily helpful to me. Among the many things Dante taught me in my own difficult, unfixable situation here was how to bear it like a Christian, and how to turn that suffering into an occasion of grace and conversion. The key was not simply that Dante taught me the skills for enduring the situation, but more than that, he taught me how to embrace it as an opportunity to become more Christ-like. It was hard road to walk, and required a lot of dying to self and self-righteousness, and meant that I had to reconcile myself to the fact that things were never going to be just in this world. But in the end, on the day my father died, I thanked God for all the pain He allowed me to endure over the last four years, because it really was for my salvation. Had He not taken me through it, I never would have been able to be present holding my father’s hand as he breathed his last, and I never would have been able to thank him, and thank God, for all things.
I see now what my professor friend meant about the Benedict Option. It has to be about building a Christianity — and Christians — who can not only endure, but embrace the trials to come as the will of God, for our purification and salvation. Stoics can endure, but it takes a Christian to rejoice amid suffering.
This morning, a Catholic friend sent me this interview from a Russian Orthodox website, with an Orthodox bishop in Tajikistan. In it, he criticizes what he calls “pink Christianity,” which sounds a lot like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Here’s how it starts:
Your Eminence, what are the “comfortable Christianity” and “pink Christianity” you talk about in your sermons that we publish on our site [Pravoslavie.ru]? Could it be said that comfortable Christianity is the spiritual illness of our times?
What did the Lord say? Take up your cross and follow Me. This is the meaning of Christianity. Comfortable Christianity is, first of all, not wanting to carry your cross.
This illness is endemic not only of our times, but began immediately. As soon as Christianity came to be, there were both zealous Christians and lazy Christians.
The first centuries of Christianity were by nature very uncomfortable—there were persecutions, and only the most zealous remained Christians. But those who were among the Christians simply by chance either renounced Christ, or, as many philosophers or scholars, did not want to change themselves to conform to Christian teaching. They instead wanted to change Christian teaching to suit themselves.
That is how the first heresies arose among the Gnostics. This was also a form of comfort—they wanted the convenience of thinking however they liked, without denying themselves anything.
And when Christianity became a permitted religion, from the time of St. Constantine the Great, this phenomenon of “comfortable Christianity” began. Why did monasteries become so widespread then? Because zealous Christians left the cities, where it had become impossible to preserve zeal.
Comfortable Christianity has always been around. But what I was talking about in my sermon was “pink Christianity”. This term appeared in the nineteenth century among the Slavophiles—thinking people who roused an interest in Christianity in an already quite secular society (similar to they way it was here in Russia at the end of the Soviet era), and there were people who wanted to live however they liked, denying themselves nothing, but nevertheless calling themselves Christians.
“Pink Christianity” is a kind of diluted Christianity. At the beginning of the twentieth century it led to renovationism, but fell under the grindstone of atheistic ideology. Not finding any response from the people it withered on the boundless spaces of the Soviet empire.
At the end of the twentieth century—in the late ‘80’s, early ‘90’s—many intellectuals again ran to the Church. But why did they run? Not to follow Christ, but because it was fashionable. The Church was regarded as an opponent to the government—although the soviet government had always been an opponent of the Church, and not the other way around.
So this huge number of people from the intelligentsia poured into the Church, not coming for Christ but for something else. Now these people are leaving the Church.
A similar situation can be seen in the monasteries. In the 1990’s, many people came to the monasteries. They lived there for ten to fifteen years, some even became priests, but now they are leaving. This is because they came not for Christ but rather to escape difficult lives, because they had nowhere else to go. Many people came from impoverished republics to join Russian monasteries. Their spiritual directors blessed them to join the monasteries. So a person having no monastic calling ended up in a monastery, suffered through it for ten to fifteen years, and then left.
People are now leaving who came to the Church for something else, and not for the sake of salvation. And of course, sooner or later they are disappointed. If they don’t come to the Church for Christ, temptations begin immediately.
Some don’t even make it in the door—they come and some granny leaps at them, and they walk away. These grannies are a crude filter in the church. They are often scorned and criticized, but they filter out those who came to Church not for Christ but for something else.
Many today want the Church to be a “Church of good people.” But the Church is a hospital. Here all the masks, all the curtains fall away, and a person is seen for what he is. And of course what he is rather unsightly.
People who don’t come to Church for Christ are looking for some kind of comfort, a peaceful state of being. There will be a peaceful state, and comfort—but a different kind. However, we have to grow into that state.
But the tragedy of our times is that we are incapable of being disciples.
Fr. Raphael (Karelin) said it well: The last Glinsk elders were dying—those spiritual giants with enormous experience and priceless treasures that they wanted to pass on to us. But we, he says, were not able to receive it; because of our feebleness we couldn’t take it on.2
People have become weaker, they can’t receive this rich spiritual experience, because it is a cross—a very heavy cross.
This break between elders and novices can be seen now: Why are there practically no elders left? Because there are no obedient disciples, no people who are capable of receiving this wealth of experience.
Everyone has become very feeble. This whole aggressive informational milieu, modern technology, computers—all makes us very feeble. Young people never put down their telephones, they are constantly looking at something or playing computer games, and this paralyzes the will.
This is all aimed at entangling people in cunningly placed nets, so that they can’t break out of them.
Specifically the will for asceticism is paralyzed. Everyone knows and understands all this very well but they can hardly do anything about it. It is because this web has ensnared all of us, and only the Lord can somehow interfere and change it all. Thus have we gotten stuck in these nets—and this includes you and me.
That definitely includes me. This bishop, +Pitirim, goes on to say that the young people of Tajikistan are Islamizing very quickly, becoming zealous in their practice of Islam because it is so demanding of them:
In Tadjikistan, I have seen people who lived through the civil war. This is a terrible thing; they are scarred for life. But the youth who have never seen war have gone mad over ISIS!
Just today I heard information that some teenagers in Tadjikistan hung out an ISIS flag. They don’t understand, and it’s useless to explain anything to them. They now have a goal, a reason to exist.
They now have a goal, a reason to exist.
One more thing Bishop Pitirim says, one that ought to speak to us in our situation:
You see, you have to take one thing into consideration—something mysterious, metaphorical, if you will. The situation now is very much like what we had on the eve of the 1917 revolution.
Before the revolution, it was also as if people did not understand what they were doing. They couldn’t imagine at all what lay ahead for them—that hideous catastrophe—how it would all end. They were like madmen, fighting for freedom. Everyone was fighting, every social class, including many of the clergy. They were fighting against autocracy. The best ones became new martyrs, and others only began to understand—in the prison camps—just what sort of freedom they were fighting for.
And there is one aspect that has never been specially researched: it would be very interesting to follow the fates of these people—what those who were against the autocracy said, and what turns their lives took after the revolution. It is as if each one who participated in the revolution was preparing a horrible tragedy for himself in the future.
Read the whole thing. Many of you are not going to like it.
This exiling of Christianity from public life that we are now undertaking in the West, and this hollowing-out of Christianity from within via MTD — it is preparing a horrible tragedy for the future in what St. John Paul II called a Culture of Death, and Pope Benedict XVI called a “dictatorship of relativism.” I believe this, and I believe it cannot be stopped at this point, only endured. God will give us modern people what we want, but I think of Teresa of Avila’s line about more tears being shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.
The Benedict Option must be about not only enduring what is to come, but finding the blessing in it, and the means of deepening our conversion. The only way the Ben Op can do what it is supposed to do is if it makes unity with Christ our absolute telos, and orders everything else to that goal, guiding us in the practices necessary to keep ourselves on the straight path into the light despite the growing chaos and darkness around us.
“All these people who weep while they are singing
followed their appetites beyond all measure,
and here regain, in thirst and hunger, holiness.
“The fragrance coming from the fruit
and from the water sprinkled on green boughs
kindles our craving to eat and drink,
“and not once only, circling in this space,
is our pain renewed.
I speak of pain but should say solace,
“for the same desire leads us to the trees
that led Christ to utter Eli with such bliss
when with the blood from His own veins He made us free.”