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We Are Not Going to the Hills, OK?

A persistent rumor about the Benedict Option, again debunked

Catholic writer T. Renee Kozinski sees some things she likes in the Benedict Option:

This time round, though, it is less like Benedict and more like the Maccabees: lay people, not monks, who aspire to build walls around what is true, good, and beautiful in order to preserve these transcendentals along with themselves and their children. You see this in the micro-educational institutions that create a community of learning and faith, without hope of any largesse or approval-stamp from the culture at large; you see this in small church communities centered around a liturgy that “brings beauty flowing into the realm of the senses.”

In fact, many of these marginalized communities have existed already for more than thirty or forty years. What seems new now is that instead of talk about “the new evangelization” or a movement out to “re-claim the culture,” the discussion in some of these communities seems to be also about “withdrawization,” or an intensified focus on the elements of the monastic life—prayer, contemplation, beautiful liturgy, hierarchical authority, an ordered way of life that has retreated away from a disordered world.

This, to me, is an attractive option. I am a watcher, an observer, I’ve begun to feel as if I am watching the world, our culture, turn into a hallucinogenic baby of the perverse marriage of 1984 and Brave New World, but instead of straightforward flip-flops (“war is peace”) as a means to political control, it is clownish, celebratory warpings of natural law and nature as a means to soul-control. Creating fortresses sounds attractive, because I am frightened—the mask of sanitary individualism and creative moral license is coming off, and the maggot-ridden face of each is becoming clearer and clearer.

We live not in a culture oppressed by one party’s lies; we live in a culture in love with the ability to lie to itself. “Abortion is about me and my body” is just one. “Happiness is what makes me feel satiated” is another. “Tolerance is supporting whatever you want, Caitlyn.” Joseph Pieper could say, “I told you so” because indeed we are seeing abuse of language as abuse of power, but now at a level and ubiquity that is unprecedented, much more fundamental than anything I’ve experienced in reading history or culture-watching prior.

… but she’s opting out of the Benedict Option, because she believes it amounts to a refusal to be “salt and light” in the world:

Should the salt refuse to be shaken out on it? Should the light retreat? This is one possibility, and God may want this, and I may be wrong. But Jesus never congratulated the disciples for hiding out in Jerusalem; He came to them, pitied them, and gave them power to sacrifice themselves, to rise above fear. Most of them died at the hands of a culture, out in that culture that “kept truth imprisoned in its own wickedness.”

I remember a bishop who in 1999 said to a group of middle school students, “Your generation will be martyrs.” Those students are now in their twenties. Another bishop, Francis Eugene George, said, “I will die in my bed. My successor will die in jail. His successor will die a martyr’s death.” In those years I kept those words, but could not see the form this would take. Now I can see the form, the context laid, in just fifteen years.

I want my children to learn courage and how to hang on to the faith in the face of darkness. I want them to be soldiers because I think they will need this. A monastic-retreat or a fortress-community in its best form can give an important, essential element, an embodiment of the faith itself, but that is not enough. That alone can create people who see the world like a jumping fish sees the far-distant shore. We also need to teach our children what they will face, how to live with courage, how to die, and most importantly, how to love those lost in the culture. They need to know that to live in this world means a kind of death, and they need to believe that truth, goodness, and beauty are transcendentals found outside themselves, but also be motivated to walk alongside “those people,” to be challenged by them to love better with more personal understanding. I don’t want my children to become hot-house creatures who cannot survive in the desert of this world, who have nothing to offer, who have taken the life-boats off the Titanic and are rowing away, insensitive to those crying out in the frozen water.

Well, Ms. Kozinski, have I got good news for you: I’m not asking you or anybody else to run off to the woods and build a compound to keep the world out. I think that is neither possible nor desirable for lay Christians. What the Benedict Option asks you to think seriously about is the extent to which all of us need to withdraw strategically, in a limited fashion, into our own communities — churches, schools, and so forth — not to keep ourselves untainted by the world, but so we can deepen our knowledge, practice, and commitment to the faith, and our bonds with each other, precisely so we can be the salt and light that Christ commanded us to be.

I ask you to read this 2004 First Things essay by Robert Louis Wilken, a leading historian of the early church and a Catholic convert. Especially these parts:

In my lifetime we have witnessed the collapse of Christian civilization. At first the process of disintegration was slow, a gradual and persistent attrition, but today it has moved into overdrive, and what is more troubling, it has become deliberate and intentional, not only promoted by the cultured despisers of Christianity but often aided and abetted by Christians themselves.


Material culture and with it art, calendar and with it ritual, grammar and with it language, particularly the language of the Bible—these are only three of many examples (monasticism would be another) that could be brought forth to exemplify the thick texture of Christian culture, the fullness of life in the community that is Christ’s form in the world.

Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture. The unhappy fact is that the society in which we live is no longer neutral about Christianity. The United States would be a much less hospitable environment for the practice of the faith if all the marks of Christian culture were stripped from our public life and Christian behavior were tolerated only in restricted situations.

If Christian culture is to be renewed, habits are more vital than revivals, rituals more edifying than spiritual highs, the creed more penetrating than theological insight, and the celebration of saints’ days more uplifting than the observance of Mother’s Day. There is great wisdom in the maligned phrase ex opere operato, the effect is in the doing.

Or, to put it in the words of my priest in this past Sunday’s sermon, with regard to evangelizing the world, “You can’t give away what you don’t possess.” The Benedict Option is about finding ways to thicken our Christianity and Christian culture, so it doesn’t get blown away by the increasingly hostile post-Christian culture in which we live.

Think of it like this: if it’s raining so much that the whole world appears to be on the verge of flooding, and you worry about saving yourself and your neighbors, do you stand there while the water rises, because you want to share the experience with the others, or do you build a boat so you can climb aboard it and pull into it the others who, seeing that the alternative is death, clamber aboard?



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