One of the criticisms of the so-called Benedict Option that comes up regularly in discussions is the fear that those who take it will turn their backs on society, drop out of political engagement and so on. And this at a time when our current Pontiff is urging Catholics to go out, not to remain, much less make a deliberate choice to be, narcissistic and inward-turning.
Our monastery would seem to be a contradiction in this case. We discerned a call to live the Benedictine life, but in the heart of the modern city. We can hardly avoid all sorts of interaction with the world. And indeed, we’ve heard mutters from the other side on this point. Some years ago a young man made a retreat with us while we was preparing for vows in another contemplative-leaning religious order. As he was leaving, rather than saying, “Thank you,” he told us that contemplation was not possible in the city.
This would have been news for Basil the Great, one of the primary influences on Benedictine monasticism. He generally wanted his monasteries in cities, connected to important parishes, in places where the bishop could keep an eye on things. Moreover, the idea that monks turn their backs on the world is completely refuted by any knowledge of the first evangelization of Europe. If you’d like your worldview altered (I think in the best possible way) by great historical writing, I can recommend to you The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, by Richard Fletcher, a book that demonstrates just how important monastic evangelization was in establishing the Church in mission areas from the fourth through the thirteenth centuries. Not bad work for a bunch of guys and gals turning their back on everybody.
So why have we decided to come to the city? The short answer is already indicated above: this was a discernment by our three founders, who were greatly assisted by Bishop Victor Balke and Joseph Cardinal Bernadin, who, as representatives of the Apostles, could help to clarify this call through their listening and prudent action. We thought we knew then why God called us to the city. The city was the great urban desert, a place of alienation, crime, and so on. Well, this sounded alright until we moved into an actual city and lived with real people in a real neighborhood and so on. We couldn’t really know what sort of mission we would encounter until we put down roots here. And part of our ongoing work is listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to discern what His mission is for us.
So we’ve been discerning the community’s goal all along. In conclusion, let me make a connection with Alasdair MacIntyre’s ideas about traditions. One of his key insights is that tradition is not, as commonly held, a fixed, immobile set of practices and formulas. Rather, it is an extended inquiry by a group of persons committed to one another, and it is carried out in arguments, disputations, corrections, abridgments, extensions, and whatever other means available in rational debate. This doesn’t mean that everything is up for grabs all the time, either. There do have to be common commitments to certain base-level principles. So let me apply this now to our discernment about the monastic life lived in a giant modern city.
As I wrote above, we thought we knew what it would mean to plant ourselves in a city. We had a fairly good idea of what a good urban monastery might look like and might do. Then we encountered reality, and our vision began slowly to change. It changed because of intense community discussions prompted by new information: homeless persons at the door, invitations by local universities to give talks, benefactors wanting to buy us things, and so on. Every time we made a response to these circumstances, our vision was clarified or muddied, and so altered in some nearly imperceptible way. Sometimes the stimuli were more bracing. The single biggest decision we made was to become Benedictines in 1997. To do this, we needed to enter into a relationship with the Abbey of Christ in the Desert. And to do that meant to accept their authority, especially that of Abbot Philip Lawrence. When he would come to visit, he might say something like, “You should end such-and-such a practice,” and we would do it. And with the adoption of new practices and the end of old ones, our sense of mission again was slightly changed.
All that said, this kind of change was possible only because we had the more stable foundation of Church teaching and discipline. The Benedictine Rule added another layer of authoritative agreement. Not that we can’t make prudential decisions about how to interpret the Rule–but in discussions, whatever the Rule does say tends to carry greater weight than someone’s opinion, or a minority practice in, say, the Eastern monastic tradition.
The good news for the Benedict Option: if you are quite sure what the goal is at this point, that might well be just fine. But in order to discern the goal, certain things will be necessary. Tomorrow: what is required of a community that wishes to engage in a tradition?