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1457824233_6db4d4219dOf 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.

mustard-treeThe 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.

Benedictine-007But 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.

Hans Urs von Balthasar

Hans Urs von Balthasar

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.

Christian-Drug-Rehab-CentersFor 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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27 replies to this post
  1. The weakness of much of church life is that it has become focused on the worship element to the exclusion of meaningful community life. As a result relationships within the ‘fellowship’ are as superficial as those experienced between the participants of a hobby. As a result we are ill equipped to address the pressures that pick us off one by one. Providing an antidote to this poison is the challenge which is being heard as a call for Benedictine communities.

    • Catholicism at the end of the day is about everybody’s salvation. It doesn’t matter whether your part of the modern church community which has adopted the heresy of Americanism.

  2. ‘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.” ‘

    This sounds more like the idea Conventicles in early Protestantism. In fact, ‘New Evangelists’ are beginning to behave more like Protestants altogether: those superior to all those going off the rails around them, so they create their own coteries of righteousness.

  3. One must wonder, how much of this angst is due to the sudden recognition the majority culture no longer pays a vague Christian culture the honorarium of hypocrisy? How much of it is a, “I shall take my toys and go home,” attitude because people no longer get their way, are no longer seen as folks to be admired?

    My current pastor is not from the Americas, did not grow up in a majority Christian culture, and knows little of the “Triumphalism” which stained the souls of Catholics in the last century. He is from Ghana, where many voices compete for attention, and wherein the Christians are no wealthier than anyone else. Indeed, one of his personal apostolates is sending money to drill wells, to build schools and clinics for those who would otherwise have to go to very great lengths. Yet, the Church in Ghana is vibrant and alive and well.

    Rather than operating from a position of cultural power and imperialism, the Church in Ghana gains and keeps adherents by being attractive. “See how they love each other.” The US could learn some lessons from Ghana.

    And, again, we should not allow our natural Americo-centric vision from blinding us to the reality. In the US and Europe, Christianity may be ailing, but in the rest of the world, it is on a growth trend. (In my diocese, I see many “missionary” priests who come here from Africa, to serve in a pagan land, and all I can think is, “turnabout is fair play”.

  4. While I recognize and agree with Ms. Kozinski’s admonition that Roman Catholics must be salt and light to the world, we can only do so if we continue to survive culturally. The heresies of Americanism, progress, materialism, and modernism have almost destroyed the faith in North America, and unless we embark on some relatively radical course designed to save the Church here soon, it will be too late. I understand and applaud Ms. Kozinski’s suggestion that we need balance, but that balance needs to include something like places of refuge from the corrosive effects of modern culture before we are co-opted completely by that culture. I don’t think this needs to involve necessarily a wholesale withdrawal from the dominant culture, but it will require that our focus be on faith and matters related to the Church rather than on being “good Americans,” a pastime that seems to have obsessed Roman Catholics for the last generation or two. We have now thrown away our patrimony for a mess of potage, and we desperately need to do something to reacquire it before it ceases to exist.

  5. It’s funny. Vatican 2 specifically looked to change the “fortress mentality” specifically in place since the counter reformation. Looks like the doomsayers of the time were right, the heresy of modernism required the church to remain in the fortress to slow modernists advance, especially into the church.

    And here we are 50 years later talking about a culture so wounded and depraved we’re considering the fact that it cannot be saved.

  6. I think the issue is that society doesn’t think that Natural Law applies anymore especially in the field of Biology. The list of options that man can control is large and getting larger: oral contraception, abortion, the morning after pill, genetic engineering, cloning, etc. The answer is to try to be Holy by trying to be Christ Like. As Von Balthasar might say to take on the kenosis of Jesus. To live as lovingly, charitably, and unselfishly as possible. This is the un-natural law but the law we must live by. By living by the law of kenosis we set the example thereby becoming salt and light.

  7. I think much of the confusion is due to the modern view that opposes laity vs. monasticism. There have always been laity that incorporate “monastic” elements in living out their vocations.

    Remember that the monastic movement was originally a lay movement. It was so much a lay movement that in the early days clerics were discouraged from joining, or not even accepted.

  8. I think if you (or your husband) are involved in Wyoming Catholic, you already partially subscribe to the Benedict Option.

    Also, I think you could easily marshall the thought of Balthasar to the side of the Benedict Option. In fact, I think he exemplified it with his life in Basel.

    Mo Woltering

    • Yes–it is the place of ‘refuge’ in a sense–but also it is that due almost purely to geography and weather. We are isolated–and that itself can become a temptation to take it further (into isolation). Thus, I know enough about living in small, more isolated communities to know also the danger; I also know about living in cities (NY, SF, Sydney) to know the pros and cons in these situations. I am wary of both extremes. That’s the point. 🙂

  9. How can so many Catholics ignore the Church’s teachings on monogamous sex within marriage, and the equivalence of voluntary abortion to murder?
    Are these practices NOT really lying to ourselves?
    We need to pray for our nation.

  10. I think that it is wrong to consider this as an either or option. There needs to be a core of believers who makes sure that the depository of faith is safely maintained. They will be selected by the Holy Spirit and providence will ensure they are successful, because the “gates of Hell shall not prevail.”
    However there is also a place for those who will be called on the provide salt to the world and will season the effort with their blood. After all not everyone went to the monastery in St. Benedict’s time. This was the beginning of the period of the conversion of the Germanic peoples.
    Also it’s best not to forget the end of Cardinal Georges quote, which is not in the article: “His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” This is because ignoring Natural Law has consequences. Not so much because God punishes civilizations, but because the reason God places limits is because bad things happen when individuals or civilizations behave a certain way.

    • Great points, Terry. Yes-the either/or is exactly what I am arguing against–that’s the attitude that makes me wary.

  11. By chance I happened to be thinking of Cardinal George on the very day that (unbeknownst to me) he had died. At that time his successor was already in office, and I thought “Does anyone really expect Archbishop Cupich to die in prison?” And I don’t mean because Cupich is a squish who will give in at the first sign of trouble, although he probably is – I would feel that way even if his successor were Cardinal Burke.

    The countdown has begun, and despite all the bad things that have happened lately, I don’t think matters will accelerate that quickly. My estimate would be c. 2040 at the latest for predicted date of the execution of Cupich’s successor – is that really probable? (The original quotation specified a public execution, which seems especially unlikely.)

    • Given the speed at which gay ‘marriage’ has moved from being a wildly optimistic aspiration within the gay community to being a means of persecution, any guesses about timescale are likely to be very wrong. Nobody could have conceived of this 25 years ago, so looking that far into the future with much confidence is fairly hopeless.

  12. I prefer the the Kolbe Option. Love as hard as you can and do as much good as you can until your time runs out. The victory isn’t ours and our preservation belongs to the Lord.

    • I’m with you!! I like that term “The Kolbe Option.” I do believe, though, that places of refuge and/or formation (like water stops on a marathon, or the training centres–gyms) are also eseential. Wyoming Catholic College is attempting this as are others…but I certainly would not want our alumni to stay here and not run the race, unless they are called to it through God’s love.

  13. The author’s mention of lay monastic communities reminded me of the Plain Catholics in the USA….
    Also don’t know how organized they are, but they do seem interesting, and perhaps Mrs Kozinski has some knowledge of them because they also seem to be located mainly in the USA mid-west.

  14. Balance is for folks who are afraid of commitment;) Having experienced both, I’ll take the worker house over the monastery any day. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that being rich he became poor, for your sakes; that through his poverty you might be rich…. Now therefore perform ye it also in deed…”

    • “Balance” can certainly become a cover for mediocrity; however, if you look at it in an Aristotelian/Thomistic sense, balance becomes a courageous search for truth…the balance between cowardice and rashness is courage, for example. That is the kind of balance I am referring to. If you don’t understand this, then I think you can end up running into radicalism as another kind of ‘cover’–a kind of self-righteousness–
      or a cowardly passivity.

  15. A key question here is whether we are living in unprecedented times, where for Catholicism to hold it has to separate radically from the surrounding society. A reason to think ‘yes, it is unprecedented’ is the power and extent of modern media. I think ‘retreat’ from the surrounding secular society (actually, an advance towards Catholic or Christian society) currently in the important sense is almost entirely ‘virtual’ or having to do with consuming media, schooling, and so on. The geography doesn’t really matter, and in that sense a Catholic can be ‘Benedictine’ while still being the salt and the light to those around him. This is why the term ‘Benedictine’ is misleading.

    • Ajb, great point, but you’re missing something: you go too far to say that geography doesn’t matter. Physical proximity to a faithful parish, and physical proximity to faithful social/family support is vital to any multi-generational thriving of Christianity. We need to be able to circle the wagons in time of need, an maybe more importantly: if you’re 20 or more minutes away from daily Mass, it’s too easy to just stay home. Liturgical immersion is the key to the “Benedict Option” (even a number of protestants are talking about this – James K.A. Smith, for example) so it’s important to have the home parish within a 15 minute walk or less, with (ideally) a geographical community of the faithful within the geographical parish itself. That’s why the term “Benedictine” is apt.

      Modern life (including, but not limited to, media) destroys the human capacity for worship, and can’t be reconciled with the rhythms of the liturgy.

      • Good point – I agree geographical proximity to a community is important. I was referring to the idea of retreating to, say, a rural place as opposed to an urban place, or being geographically separated in toto from secular society. Since media, for example, can be beamed to an island in the middle of the Pacific almost as well as an apartment in a city, geography doesn’t matter as much in this sense.

        • I hear a lot of “flee to the fields” rhetoric from BenOp folks too, but I’ve found the inner city to be ideal for my own family’s pursuit of liturgical rhythm. The diocese tends to keep the more gifted and orthodox young priests close in, and the parish truly becomes the center of living. Library, grocery, and parish, and work are all in walking distance. Also, the hollowed out towns and parishes of the rust belt are perfect for a renewal of Catholic village life. The big, cheap housing (plus a plenitude of double lots for gardening thanks to the abundance of condemned houses) and what’s remaining of solid urban infrastructure make up for the low-paying jobs. It’s just hard to find other families to walk the same road rather than die the slow spiritual death of suburban comfort and distraction.

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