Like Saint Benedict we’re not trying to change the whole world. We’re simply doing what we can with what we have where we are…
I first encountered Saint Benedict while I was a student at Oxford. I had enrolled to train as a priest in the Church of England, but a Catholic woman in the United States who had befriended me wrote and suggested I visit a Benedictine monastery.
She didn’t quite understand that for a boy from Bob Jones University, monasteries and convents were one of the big, dark secrets of the Catholic Church. The monks and nuns crept around in long black robes in huge old buildings that looked like something out of the Addams Family, and the alarmists told us that the convents and monasteries were connected by underground tunnels, and that the monks and nuns would meet down there.
Well, I’m not exaggerating that much. Nevertheless, the idea of a monastery was alien, but admitting that I was attempting to get an education, off I went during a cold and dreary English Lent to visit Douai Abbey in Berkshire.
It was an enlightening and delightful visit, and I went back during the summer and many times hence. Then in 1987, I went on a hitchhiking pilgrimage from England to Jerusalem and stayed in Benedictine monasteries all across France and Italy and in the Holy Lands. On becoming a Catholic I also became a Benedictine oblate.
When Rod Dreher published The Benedict Option I was eager to see his thoughts on some conclusions I had already come to: that a renewal of monasticism would plant the seeds for an eventual renewal of the Christian faith and subsequently a renaissance of Christian culture. Mr. Dreher made some excellent observations about our decaying culture and some spot-on ideas for a Benedictine-style renewal.
Mr. Dreher has been criticized for saying that we should opt-out and head for the hills. To make that criticism is to misunderstand both Mr. Dreher and the Benedictine tradition. Benedictines don’t opt out or hunker down waiting for an apocalypse. They are simply realistic and understand that when things reach a particular state of societal breakdown, there is an accompanying breakdown in rational discourse and conscientious dialogue. Where there is social anarchy, there is philosophical anarchy.
Realizing this, Saint Benedict and his followers down the ages have simply gotten down on their knees, rolled up their sleeves, and gotten to work doing what they can, with what they have, where they are. Without grumbling or being paranoid and apocalyptic… they simply get on with it. A friend, observing my attraction to the Benedictine life once observed, “That’s the Mennonite in you. Those monks are just Catholic Mennonites!”
He wasn’t far wrong. The Anabaptist sects of Amish and Mennonite certainly do have a Benedictine spirit. They too see the world around them, and without a trace of desperation— without jeremiads, anger, or fear—they simply get on doing what they can, all the time hoping for the best, and sometimes expecting the worst.
Therefore, as a parish priest in a small parish in the bad part of town, I asked myself how my commitment as a Benedictine oblate might influence our parish life. The pattern for the Benedictine life is structured around three vows and three tools. The three vows are for obedience, stability, and conversion of life. The three tools are a way of life centered on reading, prayer, and work.
The root word of obedience is “obedere”—to listen. In the midst of a busy, hectic world, the parish should be a place where people can stop and listen. They should listen to the priest, but they should also listen to one another, listen to church teachings, and listen to the Lord. Listening and discerning the way forward brings about a style of leadership that responds to the voice of the people and the Lord—not one in which Father imposes his will or continually foists “good ideas” on everyone.
When it comes to stability, we try to emphasize that folks should make a commitment to our parish and stick with it. Saint Benedict talks about a type of monk called a “gyrovague,” who skips from one monastery to another, never staying put in one place. Parish-hopping-and-shopping is a similar plague in parish life.
Conversion of life means not simply an evangelical-style conversion experience, but the conversion of one’s whole life, and in the parish setting a conversion of every aspect of parish life to conform to a spiritual mission of prayer and action.
The Benedictine life is divided into segments of prayer, work, and reading. The three are intertwined like the strands of a braided rope. Prayer is Work. Work is Reading. Reading is Prayer. We are blessed to have a K4-8 parish school, so the three tools of prayer, reading, and work can be integrated in the lives of our families every day.
One of the reasons that we are expanding to a small, classically-inspired upper school of grades 9-12 is so that we can continue the melding of work, prayer, reading with a life of obedience, stability, and conversion of life.
Therefore, within the liturgy, within our school life, within our hard work in serving the poor in a needy parish, we are seeking in our own small way to take the Benedict option. Like Saint Benedict we’re not trying to change the whole world. We’re simply doing what we can with what we have where we are.
The result so far has been the growth of a dynamic and vital parish life. Young families are attracted to this practical blend of worship, prayer, and work and our lives are full, joyful, and active. Whether we are planting seeds that will bear rich fruit in the future remains to be seen, but the fruit of our efforts now is positive and full of hope, and that is a great gift in a society which in so many ways seems on the brink of desperation and despair.
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