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Talking Benedict Option

In DC, young Catholics talk about what they want out of the BenOp

Did you hear that Leah Libresco and friends had a get-together in DC last week to talk about the Benedict Option? Eve Tushnet did some great blogging about it. This lengthy post of mine is in response to hers.

In her first entry, Eve writes:

“Benedict Option” is a term coined by Rod Dreher and meaning Rod-knows-what, but in our discussion I think it covered three different approaches: three points on a spectrum, or three frameworks for articulating what we’re looking for. Do all these things need names, and if so, do they need the same name? Maybe not; but all three things are about creating thicker Christian community life, and getting out of our own heads. (Out of our heads, and into the streets!)

Yes, thicker Christian community life, as a way to keep the faith alive and thriving during a time of disintegration and what you might call a metaphysical drought. Achieving this thick community life is a good in and of itself, but in this post-Christian time and place, it is an absolute necessity. Eve cites Leah’s earlier post talking about what she was hoping to get from the gathering. Here’s Leah:

People don’t just need oxygen or community in a crisis — they need these things simply to live.  An environment of “unnatural negations” is stunting. There are people like hermits or stylites (people living on top of poles or promontories) who live without the kind of community, shared events, and support centered on Christian faith that the Benedict Option is meant to help supply. but those people aren’t amateurs.

Living a Christian life on your own is something people had to discern and prepare for.  Often, monks needed the permission of a superior if they wanted to go off into the desert alone. Unfortunately, it’s easy for Christian laypeople to wind up as accidental stylites — living their faith alone, without the guidance, affection, rhythms, or shared enthusiasm that would result from living in community.  As I see the Benedict Option, it’s a way to prevent that from happening, to make sure that Christians clear space for some distinctly Christian communal spaces, so that your faith isn’t confined to your pew, your room, and the inside of your own head.

That’s really true. Eve characterizes this take on the BenOp (thank you, Eve, for this coinage; much better than “B.O.”) as the most individualistic: it’s portable, and you can take it with you if you move. It sounds to me something like what Communion and Liberation does.

The other two forms, in Eve’s view, are more embedded. One is a “domestic church” model — building up family and friends — and the other is a more MacIntyrean approach:

So the third way of looking at the “Benedict Option” is that it’s about creating actual communities, in actual places, which make a Christian way of life not only plausible but vivid: more real than the Internet, you know? Havens where your Christian life isn’t about what you do on Sundays with strangers, but about what you do every day with neighbors.

Eve says that the group that night spent a fair amount of time discussing the ways BenOp communities can go wrong — this, in part because some of them came out of  “Fortress Catholicism”-type backgrounds, which they found damaging. As I’ve said, I’ve never experienced anything like that. I think it’s important that people who did undergo that kind of trauma make room for the idea that religious community doesn’t have to be that way. But it is also important for people like me to listen closely to those who have seen the worst of life in religious community, and to think hard about ways we can minimize the risks. (I don’t think it’s possible to remove the risk entirely. No community can exist without authority, and all authority is subject to overreach.) Eve:

Anyway I think the specifics of the group made the conversation feel fearless and exuberant, rather than fearful of either Decadent America or the culty little weaponized churches formed in opposition to decadence. Which means you, the reader, don’t need to be motivated by fear of either of those things as you explore “the Benedict Option.”

As someone who is somewhat fearful about the long-term consequences of “Decadent America,” but who is violently allergic to the concept of “culty little weaponized churches” (great phrase!), I am very pleased to read this graf of Eve’s. Me, I’m far too undisciplined, and far too hobbity in my love of food and drink and conviviality, to give myself over to the grimness and anxiety of weaponized church. It’s important for religious people to have a healthy fear (= respect for the dangers) of our secularized and fast-secularizing culture, but you cannot live off of that anxiety and anger. It will eat you alive. A more specific version of this devoured my capacity to believe in Catholicism. The experience of church life became about nothing more than anxiety and anger. I realized at last that if my children judged the faith by the way their father lived it day in and day out, they would come to see Christianity as life-killing — which, if done right, it absolutely is not!

In her second post of the series, Eve says:

Libresco suggested we ask ourselves, “What am I doing by myself that I could be doing with other people? And can I do it in public?” So like praying the Divine Office, that’s a thing you don’t have to do on your own. Or eating food.

Boy, that’s really great. I understand they’re a lot younger than I am, and living the single life in a major city, so their interests and possibilities are not the same as someone like me: middle-aged and married with children. But are those still not good questions for all kinds of Christians to ask themselves? My neighbors are practicing Christians. We could pray together sometime, my family and theirs; it would be good for our kids to see us doing this, and to participate. I hadn’t thought of something as simple as that until I read Eve’s blog post. See, this is the kind of thing I’m thrilled to see happening. The Benedict Option, as I’m formulating it in my mind, is not a formula, or a one size fits all thing. It’s something that we are going to have to pioneer together, through conversation and practice. More Eve:

All three kinds of Benedict Options are (or should be, imo) open to the world, but in different ways. The first, individualistic BenOp (this is better than B.O., y’all) is often about finding wells: water sources, where you can draw water and bring it back to your village, back to your daily life and the people you interact with all the time, Christian and otherwise.

The second thing, homemaking, will often include some form of hospitality. What that looks like will be different for everyone. It might be opening your home to people who have no secure housing; but there are lots of reasons you might not do that, and there are many other ways to make your home a haven for others. Sharing a meal with someone in need–or listening to her while you do your laundry–often means more than you realize.

Some discussions of the third BenOp, the ethos-shaping community, make it sound like the whole point of the BenOp is to shelter yourself and your kids from outsiders. But as you’ll see when I do the next post, on an actual nascent Catholic community, that doesn’t need to be how it works. You can weave a Catholic community into a secular one; you can be neighbors with all your neighbors. (I suspect doing things this way will also make it so much easier for everyone to stay loving and gentle when your kids, as some of them inevitably will, decide to follow a different path from the one you tried to guide them toward.)

Yes, yes, yes! And in her next post, Eve profiles the St. Jerome School in Hyattsville, Maryland — an institution that I’ve previously identified as a model for one kind of the Benedict Option.  Eve calls it “an attempt to build a community where Catholic life is visible, normal, and beautiful.” From a Fare Forward post on the St. Jerome community:

The thought of forming remote Christian enclaves far from the scorn and rot of contemporary American society may be tempting, but Chris Currie doesn’t have much interest in that interpretation of what’s called the “Benedict Option.” “Christianity started as an urban religion—not that you can’t be Catholic and rural,” he says, “That’s always been the missionary dynamic of the Church.”

Currie believes that Hyattsville’s intentional community has chipped away at straw man caricatures of what it means to be Catholic: “I think it was probably a lot like that in ancient Rome, even when Christianity was overtly persecuted. Folks looked at their Christian neighbors and said, ‘This is attractive.’ And honestly, unless we form these communities, how are we going to evangelize society? It’s not going to be based on intellectual propositions abhorrent to most Americans today. They’ve got to experience people living a Catholic faith in their everyday life. Where better to do that than an urban community developed around the common life?”

I love this. I have never considered the Benedict Option to be a matter of forming agrarian enclaves exclusively. I mean, if Christians feel called to that, more power to them, but that will not be achievable for the vast majority of us, and I don’t think it would be desirable even if we could do it. This excerpt from the Fare Forward piece ties in to this excerpt from Eve’s third and final post:


There’s a lot to love about the Hyattsville approach. It’s parish-centered. It’s interwoven with the preexisting non-Catholic community, and considers itself a part of that community rather than a bunch of people come in to fix, replace, or save it. Its institutions, as one of the “Hyattsvillains” noted at Libresco’s thing, will serve everybody, not just Catholics.

I said here the other day that if the Church (= all Christian churches) are really going to be a light to the rest of the world, then they (we) are going to have to more deeply inhabit our own story, and be the Church. But let’s observe what the Hyattsville Catholics are doing: they are thickly bound to a distinctively Catholic institution, one that was revitalized with an explicitly retro vision. From the Fare Forward piece:

Michael Hanby, former Associate Director of Baylor University’s Institute for Faith and Learning, had recently moved into the parish after becoming a professor at the nearby Pontifical John Paul II Institute. “St. Jerome’s model seemed to be that of a public school curriculum plus religion class,” he says. “There wasn’t anything particularly distinctive about the school, academically or religiously speaking, and not much to compel you to send your kids there.” Hanby sent an essay he had written on the philosophy of education to St. Jerome’s Principal Mary Pat Donoghue. “I told her that I would love for the school to survive, but that frankly, I wasn’t sure it was worth saving in its current state. I asked her if she would be willing to consider something a little bolder,” he says. Donoghue and St. Jerome’s Pastor, Father James Stack, were already thinking of re- forms for the school, and they invited Hanby to join the school’s curriculum committee.

“We weren’t exactly given a mandate,” Hanby says, “Nor did we really intend to create what was essentially a philosophy of education for a new school. We just set out to do what we thought was intrinsically good. We all believed that there is a great deal of contemporary confusion about what education is. We knew that we wanted children to read well, write well, speak well, and think well. We knew that we wanted them to ask and think about the great human questions. We were convinced that you can’t educate as if God doesn’t exist—or as if the Church weren’t integral to the meaning of humanity and the West—without falsifying history and cultivating illiteracy. We knew we wanted to make our children heirs to the great tradition of Christian humanism.”

You cannot do that by making your Catholic school just like everybody else’s school, except with a slightly pious glaze. You will be assimilated out of existence — which is exactly what was happening to St. Jerome parish school until it changed direction, embraced the classical education model, and experienced a renaissance. (Check out the school’s webpage for links to several stories about what they’ve accomplished there.) What they’re doing at St. Jerome Academy is radical. I’ve never visited there, but from everything I read, it is a Benedict Option community, one that is a form of withdrawal from the world and its values to gather around an authentically Catholic vision — and to form its community members in such a way that they can be a light to everyone else in their neighborhood.

Finally, I want to quote from an earlier Leah Libresco post that, for me, really hits the Benedict Option sweet spot. She writes about how the Dominican community in Washington, DC, intersects with her life as a Catholic. I think all of us Christians can feel the attractiveness of this:

Living supported by the Dominicans does more for me than cultivating piety on my own or even being involved in my church.  The brothers (and the sisters studying at their school) offer infusions both of knowledge and of joy for us.  They open up the faith so we can study in in greater detail, not just in order to amass more knowledge, but so that we can delight in beauty.  They also clear out space for us to experience this delight.  And they serve as a Schelling Point where we can find people we can share philia bonds with (“You, too? I thought I was the only one!”).  I even went so far as to recommend to one Catholic friend (currently in law school) that he might want to prioritize finding a summer job in DC, so he could have the experience of being in such a rich and lively Catholic community, so he could decide if he wanted to prioritize living here, or someplace like it, when he did longer-term career planning.

The Benedict Option I wanted my eventually-esquired friend to try out was the experience of having some places in his life where Catholicism was an assumption, a community where asking if people wanted to pray Night Office on the way back from a bar wasn’t an unusual request, and there were ready helpers to lead us “further up and further in!” [Emphasis mine — RD]

If I were giving a very short answer to PEG’s question, I would say the Benedict Option isn’t about just working on being more pious (whether alone or in community) but about rearranging your life and community so there are spaces where joyful piety happens to you more often; a few spaces where your Catholicism doesn’t feel like an act of resistance, any more than eating does. [Emphasis mine — RD]

Twenty years ago, I was where Leah and Eve are now: single, Catholic, living and working in Washington, and starved for a few spaces where my Catholicism didn’t feel like an act of resistance. Here’s something that I suspect is particular to Catholic parishes in America: life in most parishes, at least the ones I’ve been a part of, one’s Catholicism often feels like … well, if not an act of resistance, exactly, then at least a state of alienation and disorientation. In my 2006 book Crunchy Cons, Hugh O’Beirne, a conservative Catholic who converted to Orthodoxy, said the first thing an intellectually engaged convert from Catholicism notices about life in an Orthodox parish is that he no longer has to be on “war footing.” That is, the kinds of questions that often divide Catholic parish life just aren’t much of an issue in Orthodoxy. I almost always had the feeling that pastors in Catholic parishes were afraid to encourage a robust, engaged Catholicism because they were afraid that they would cause division. And to be fair to them, they probably would have. I rarely had the idea that the life of the parish was missional — that is, that there was a reason for this parish to exist beyond maintaining itself. The thing is, in my experience, you cannot assume much of anything about the Catholicism within your community.

This is not every parish, of course, but far too many of them are like this. This is what happens when there is no unity of belief, and no real expectation that there is anything uniting the community other than that everyone chooses to identify as Catholic, no matter what they believe. I don’t have nearly as much experience with the diversity of Orthodox parish life to make an adequate comparison, but having been Orthodox for nine years now, I can say that Hugh’s observation was spot-on. However, it’s also true that Orthodox parishes can suffer from the same lack of missional orientation.

I get the feeling that Evangelicals struggle with this kind of thing far less than Catholics and Orthodox do, and that this is for related ecclesiological and sociological reasons. Still, I can tell you from personal experience, especially when I was living in DC as a single man in the 1990s, that it is incredibly difficult to grow in your faith without being embedded in a strong community of men and women committed to the same vision — and to growing and deepening into that vision, together, on the pilgrim’s journey of our life.

You might wonder: Isn’t this just being church? Why do you have to link it to Alasdair MacIntyre and St. Benedict of Nursia? The answer is that yeah, it is “just being church,” but the currents of the popular culture today are so strong, and so opposed to orthodox Christianity, that, broadly speaking, in order to hold your own, you have to ground yourself strongly in an adversarial stance to the broader culture. To live as an ordinary orthodox Christian will increasingly be seen by mainstream culture as an act of intolerable aggression. If you’re going to withstand the pressure to conform, you need to be rooted in a community that knows what it believes and why it believes it, and that is prepared to resist joyfully.

Questions to the room: What would you like to see in the Benedict Option? What do you, where you are right now, need from it? What do you need to give to it? What is possible given the limits of your own situation (e.g., personal, employment, etc.)? If someone in your city or town had a meeting like Leah Libresco did, would you go? If you did, what do you think you would say?



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