Of course, the real term is “The Benedict Option,” and it does not refer to our retired Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, but rather to St. Benedict of Nursia, who in the collapse of the Roman Empire fathered a way of living that kept Christian civilization alive: the monastic order. Oddly enough, like Benedict XVI, it is a kind of retirement, an abdication of sorts from the world stage, but not because of frailty. It is because the world has become a place where the majority “though having ears, cannot hear and though having eyes, cannot see.”
The monastic life has always been ever since the heart-muscle of the Church, through the sacrifice of a name, of that individualism that is the building of mine. Through a turn towards complete sacrifice and a new order built on prayer and simple work, the monks become a kind of powerhouse of grace for the rest of the Church. In fact, though yet sinners, they are like the witnesses in heaven who, though apart from us in a sense, pray for the rest of us who must walk through the world with the dust of it on our faces.
The Benedict Option is a new idea blowing around Catholic circles, becoming a cyclone in the wake of Obergefell. Undergirding it seems to be the growing conviction among Catholics that we have lost influence in the culture to the extent that we are now facing a cultural tsunami, to use yet another meteorological image, that threatens to drown us all. Driving it is the memory, long distant, of other Catholics separated from us by 1500 years who had the same conviction (hard to miss German barbarians in the streets), and who withdrew themselves, not primarily to abandon a dying civilization, but to replant the seed in safe soil, so that one day it could grow again into the mustard tree, sheltering many creatures in its branches.
A caveat, or two, here. I am not talking about a political option of withdrawal; in fact, I think our political system is too large, too corporate-funded, too a-lot-of-stuff to have any hope of changing things on a large scale. So starting over, in a sense, in small communities and fighting for rights where we can makes sense (whilst knowing that the trash compactor will most likely get to Luke and Leia and Han eventually). I am talking more about a new locus of identity, an attitude, I sense among Catholics. 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.
Thomas Dubay, S.M., in his book on beauty, says the following
Moral depravity explains why men cast aside ‘perfectly plain’ evidences. They reject these eloquent testimonies to the divine Artist because by their ‘impiety’ and ‘depravity’ they ‘keep truth imprisoned in their own wickedness’… even the ordinary works of grace and divine providence cannot be grasped by worldly people; to them it is all foolishness.
And, Von Balthasar:
It is not the object’s [something true, good, beautiful] invisibility which creates uncertainty and finally results in a failure to see on the part of the subject. It is, rather the prior judgment we make that the thing in question cannot be what it claims to be which is responsible. The true scandal is the arrogant attitude that opposes one’s subjective opinion to the objective evidence.
And Henri de Lubac:
Everybody has his filter which he takes about with him, through which from the indefinite mass of facts, he gathers in those suited to conform to his prejudices…. Rare, very rare are those who check their filter.
These three quotations seem to sum up the underlying, frightening, and rather new fact, that on almost a global scale, people are in love with the lie to themselves, with their own pet conception of the universe and the moral life, and if their conceptions of the good are challenged, they suddenly become like predatory beasts who will eat you alive and relish in the prospect, killing the weakest among us with party hats on.
Perhaps neo-monastic life is the thing to do.
But a doubt lingers in my mind, or rather, in my heart: I do not think that at least I, for one, am called to this. I also, but less certainly, wonder deep inside whether or not ‘Benedict 2.0” will be possible, or allowed by God this time around. Perhaps there need to be small places of refuge, and some are called to build these. The problem for myself, and for, I think, a lay-monastic movement is that we laity are called to be salt and light in a fundamentally different way from monks and nuns. Salt does not do any good for the food when it is clumped together in a mass; it becomes poison, and hidden light is absurd. I think that the laity are meant to be small particles of light or salt which, as the food rots and the world darkens, become more and more important.
Yet, what about a culture that likes rotten food and darkness? 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.
The other doubt I have about the Benedict Option is the fact that every human being has the light and dark within them, as de Lubac said, “Rare, very rare are those who check their filters.” And Von Balthasar: “The true scandal is the arrogant attitude that opposes one’s subjective opinion to the objective evidence.” Are we really such simpletons to think that arrogance and subjective opinion-worship only exist outside Christian communities? Do we think that proper liturgy and correct Thomism will save us, without fail, and without reference to our pride or lack of love, from the lie to ourselves, from the desire to see the universe made in our own image? Is being thoroughly educated in the right ideas and having the best of culture enough to create a true refuge rather than a self-satisfied, Pharisaical outfit?
Von Balthasar says in Glory of the Lord, “Love—indeed, love that partakes in God’s love—is the warrant of objective knowledge in the realm of trinitarian revelation.” Charity, that selfless love that lays down its life for the other, is the writ or authorization of truth. The eyes that can see are those that are eyes of love. And—God so loved the world—He loved us while we were yet sinners. Are we called to do the same? To follow in His footsteps? To love in action the person with same-sex attraction who crosses our path, to know him or her? How do we do this if we live in retreat-centers?
Where does the love of God take us? Where is it calling us? This is the framing device we should look at for any option we choose. The love of God, a charity which includes and baptizes all the forms of love (eros, family love, the love of friends, etc), cannot be lived out based only on theological and philosophical principles. It must also be lived poetically, in experience, because one cannot love a fellow creature with only abstract ideals; he or she or it must be loved as an individual with individual experiences and wounds and needs and gifts. And yet one cannot love only by personal experience with an individual creature because nature and metaphysical nature are all one, a whole, coming from one God. In other words, each creature also has a purpose or end determined in part by the part he or she or it plays in the whole, and that creature cannot fulfill its end and thus be truly happy if it has no sense of the whole or what it is made for.
If love, in its highest form, is to want and work for the good of another, because achieving that good will mean his or her happiness at the deepest level, then to love is to wish another’s good. And this good is both achieved through understanding what, say, a human being is made for, how a human being best lives (to love and know God, ultimately), and also through the individual’s ability to be free for what he or she has been created to be, specifically (based on personality, and his or her uniqueness). So, to love, we must live within a balance of understanding something of principle—“Our hearts are restless until they rest in God”; “To love Me is to obey My commandments”—and yet also the often rather messy and confusing and challenging personal experiences of another and ourselves.
The laity, I believe, have a calling and the opportunity to live this out in the world and yet also be well-formed in terms of how to think, and to have the experience of a community built, as much as possible, on natural and supernatural laws. This is “to be in the world but not of the world,” and creating lay-monastic communities and refuges may provide the tension between the ideal and the experiential on some level. But I wonder if experience of other creatures, for the laity, must on some level include the Other—a person who challenges us by the very fact that they have a very different experience. This kind of interaction, I have found, helps us see not only the gaps in our own empathy and sensitivity to what any issue includes, but also helps us deepen our ability to think abstractly, with principles becoming living things and not dry museum pieces to worship. We can, in being confronted by real people who think very differently from us, become deeper and of more real value to others.
For myself, therefore, I see both the value in a place of refuge and in staying on the city streets with those I love, though they may wish to kill me. For me, both have already, and have been for many years, a personal reality. I live in a kind of refuge, a small Catholic educational community, and I am blessed by it as have been my children, but I also live on the culture-street with those I have known and loved, and I cannot forget them or un-see them. The place of refuge must be a place where the filters are regularly checked, and the image of a laity retreating into monastic mode makes me a little wary that perhaps it will be rather a place to grow immensely thick filters, where it becomes “those homosexuals and other depraved people,” or “those fundamentalists,” or “those neo-Catholics,” and the blindness, and the darkness, will be worse than what is outside, because it is built on the very things that should be open to being crucified. Who can save a person from a lie that calls itself truth, and is eerily close to the real thing?
Finally, the idea that we can actually survive culturally, economically, and politically as lay communities withdrawn enough from the world to become Benedictine (unless you go a more extreme Amish route and become curiosities) seems a tenuous idea, and not because it is necessarily just a bad idea, but because of the overwhelming inter-connected wiring that is the world now. Besides, it really isn’t the ideal for lay people. We need a larger culture to live out our vocation as salt and light. The real question, I think Aristotle might ask, is how to maintain a balance between necessary places of refuge, formation, and support, and the larger culture, which still possesses a great amount of good. For Aristotle, it is all about balance—and I tend to agree.
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