Saturday, my host family took me to visit the town of Ely, which is near Cambridge where I’m enjoying a short sabbatical. Much of the medieval cathedral and its monastic buildings are still in existence. While I was there, the Worchester Cathedral Chamber Choir offered a short concert of pieces by Elgar, Handel, John Ireland, and others. Afterward, we all had tea. It was a splendid day.
Articles tagged with Benedict Option
I wrote several days ago something to the effect that “things are worse in the Church than people think.” This sentiment is worth qualifying and examining.
Mainly, I’d like to distinguish what I mean from what Rod Dreher means when he writes similar things. As I understand him, he sees Christian institutions under imminent attack from secularizing forces. He fears that Christians are oblivious to the seriousness of the threat. In my experience, Christians are plenty aware that demographics trends and political developments do not bode well for the Church in the immediate future. What he perhaps is responding to is the fact that few Christians make this their first concern. I don’t think that this is necessarily complacency in many cases. To explain this, let me say something about institutions.
Alasdair MacIntyre, whose famous St. Benedict quote is the inspiration for Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” is a man whose comprehensive thinking on modernity, morality, and faith deserves as much attention as one can afford. He spends almost an entire chapter on institutions in his seminal book After Virtue. Institutions are important, but should always be secondary to practices. An institution like a chess club brings together persons interested in playing chess and fostering its proper enjoyment. The club itself is not a substitute for the actual practice of playing chess. We all know that institutions tend to have their own internal logic that can often interfere with the practices they are meant to foster and protect. Therefore institutions can only function well and in proper subordination to practices if the members are virtuous. And, as MacIntyre makes clear elsewhere, virtues are learned in practices, not in the bylaws of institutions.
In my opinion, most Christians are aware that longstanding institutions are endangered. And I would agree that many of us Christians are not spending lots of time worrying about it. Ambivalence in this regard has two sources. The first is a recognition that our current institutional arrangements are often unable to surface the right kinds of virtuous leadership, and so tend to be self-defeating. The response of American bishops to the sexual abuse scandal demonstrated (and continues to demonstrate) that the institutional arrangement (meaning the current structure and operating modes) of the bishops’ conference is faulty. This is to be distinguished from the theological necessity of the episcopacy or even the virtue of individual members. Bishops could choose to organize themselves differently, but this would require hard thinking about the precise practices that the bishops’ conference is meant to foster and protect. The Council documents that encouraged the formation of these institutions are somewhat vague on this point and were, perhaps, slightly naive about how institutions can corrupt practices.
The second source of ambivalence stems from the typical Christian concentration on real practices. This is to say that the average Christian is more concerned about the practice of virtue at ground level than the institutional backing that supposedly is undergirding it. Another way to look at this is to say that Christians are already developing their own local, ad hoc institutions (which is what the Benedict Option is supposed to encourage). The collapse of larger structures that provide tax shelter for a religious soup kitchen may or may not impact the soup kitchen itself. But Christians will, in one way or another, find a way to feed the hungry. It’s what we do. And I see so much of this in my everyday life, even from the relative obscurity of the cloister, that it seems ungrateful to fret about difficulties to come, even while I do see the need to prepare for them. I’d rather point to the exercise of faith around me and encourage the Christians I know to continue the work of virtue than worry about something that hasn’t happened yet, and may or may not in fact happen. This work is being done by the laity, a visible fruit of the teaching of Vatican II.
Last of all, the mention of virtue brings me at last to explain what I mean when I say that things are worse than people might think. What I mean by this is that our Western culture, especially in America, has been somewhat less-than-fully-Christian for many generations now, and that reviving a genuine, thoroughgoing practice of Christian virtue is a lot more difficult than the average person might think. This is something I can vouch for firsthand. I am a cradle Catholic who has mostly practiced by faith all my life. And yet, I am continually amazed at how far I have to go to be genuinely holy. Now, putting it that way illustrates that this is not pessimism or frustrating, or even necessarily cause for great fear. If you read the lives of the saints, you will discover that most saints had this same experience (which does not make me a saint, by the way). Love of a transcendent God means, in the words of Fr. Michael Casey, being perpetually out of one’s depth. Where I think there is some naivete is in our American optimism that “most people are basically good.” This is a nice, generous sentiment. But it does not help us to gain a lot of energy in the spiritual battle, in which we must first notice that in every heart there are large swaths of unevangelized heathendom. These are, of course, open to hearing the Good News! Which makes them, in their way, “good,” if broken and in need of healing. This healing is what we must first be about, and only if this happens will institutional reform follow in any meaningful way. In the short term, this may mean the tottering and elimination of many institutions. Some may be sad to see them go. But the long-term needs of the Faith may require this purification.
My blog isn’t particularly about the Benedict Option, but I have paid attention to the discussion that blogger and journalist Rod Dreher has occasioned by his efforts to unpack the last page of Alasdair MacIntyre’s important book After Virtue. He’s linked to me again (thank you!), and so I need to put out some more product. Years ago, I resisted reading MacIntyre, mostly because I didn’t have a lot of confidence in cultural conservatives to instigate a genuine moral reform of society, much as I felt that we needed it. And I figured that MacIntyre’s book was part of the conservative virtue brigade, a la William Bennett (it’s not). I’ve never been keen to the liberal/conservative divide that is woven into the general fabric of the modern world since the French Revolution. I’ve often felt about conservatism as I do about classical music (much as I like it). Whatever the merits of Mozart–and there are many, many of these–repeating Mozart over and over again will not revive the ancien regime. We may even distort our minds and waste valuable time pining for something totally imaginary, and not all that desirable in the end.
The social world that made Mozart possible is gone, and this is not entirely a bad thing. The social world that made the composition of Gregorian chant possible is almost gone, and this is definitely not a good thing.
How to revive monasteries? This is the question that Benedictines and others have been scrambling to answer since the suppressions of the Reformation and the Revolution. Just as we seemed to have answered it, as vocations were pouring into monasteries in the 1950’s, we discovered that the Western social milieu, that seemed so open to deep religious sentiment and observance, turned out not to have the goods after all. Large proportions of those vocations left the monasteries once the glow wore off and the 70’s got going.
The two options usually held out for religious life parrot the conservative/liberal divide: either return to strong, traditional observances (usually ones from the 1950’s, which were the same ones that failed to win the hearts of the droves who left in the 1970’s), or figure out ways to accommodate to a new cultural situation. Let me examine each option using the tools that Mary Douglas offers us in Natural Symbols.
First, let’s dismiss the accommodation possibility. Accommodate to what? Douglas begins her book with a withering review of the attempts of English bishops after the Second Vatican Council to update Friday abstinence and replace its dense symbolism (participation in the Passion, clear social demarcation from non-Catholics) with something more internal, “moral,”–perhaps we might say “sincere.” I will have a lot more to say about the social conditions that determined the bishops’ preferences for dumbing-down ritual and hyping up “heart religion.” Let me just note here that Dame Mary misses no opportunity gently to chide those who imagine that this heart religion is more advanced and progressive than the magical world of the lower-class “Bog Irish” for whom Friday abstinence was a matter of fidelity to a beleaguered homeland and the grandeur that was Rome. Anthropologists of the 1950’s could provide myriad examples of “primitive” African pygmy societies whose religion played more or less the same tune as the highly educated clerics who imagined themselves on the cutting edge.
What accommodation amounts to, If Prof. Douglas is correct, is the willing, albeit unwitting, suicide of the sacramental cosmic worldview of traditional Catholicism and Orthodoxy. So it’s not a road we can take if we are serious about belonging to a Mystical Body that includes Saint Paul, St. Basil, St. Benedict, St. Gertrude the Great, St. Hildegard of Bingen, Dante, St. Symeon the New Theologian, etc.
But what does non-accommodation look like? Critics of the Benedict Option challenge advocates to demonstrate that communities opting out will not become ingrown and cultish. Dame Mary has advice on this score, too.
In social arrangements that she calls “small group,” we see just these characteristics: strong boundaries separating the group from the external world, and fear of contamination by a world dominated by maleficent forces lurking everywhere outside and threatening to infect the group. She doesn’t spend a lot of time on these groups, but what she has to say contains more than enough information to know how to avoid becoming a cult (or, for that matter, how to become one, if that’s what you’re gunning for).
The small group is one in which the numbers are genuinely low. More importantly, authority is weak, and therefore internal structure is confused. Because authority is weak and structure is confused, the group is in constant danger of disintegrating, and generates for itself a fear of evil influences and a high premium on internal purity (both in terms of the group and the individual). This is a congregation of the saved, and they are saved by their own efforts of purification and prophylactic measures against a corrupted world.
I’ve pointed out to the brothers that the Rule of the Master gives us a perfect description of “small group.” And it is part of Saint Benedict’s great genius and sanctity that he corrects these tendencies of the Master in order to produce a community structure that it clear, articulated by ritual and symbol, discerningly open to the world, flexible and sure of itself (because based in Christ, the Logos, whose ordering principles are seen to inhere in the cosmos daily redeemed in the Holy Eucharist and Divine Office). Here is an example of the counter-intuitive fruits of taking Mary Douglas seriously: when a brother is struggling with thoughts, his first attempts to deal with them often involves an attempt to purify himself inwardly by an effort of will, coupled with a feeling of shame and guilt for having this inward impurity. My advice: definitely work against the thought, but often enough these troubling thoughts are a product of an unwillingness to observe clear roles within community life, to confuse structure and therefore to act inadvertantly as if we were a cult obsessed with internal purity. We desire internal purity, but we achieve it by accepting joyfully the roles that Providence has given us through the medium of the Church. So: keep your place in rank, honor those senior to you, love those junior to you, show up for things on time, follow Benedict’s Rule as literally as you can. This takes the heat off of the spiritual battle and involves the whole structure of the Church in the fight, and it offers the brothers the confidence of having a special place within the Church, a confidence that our spiritual foes really can be overcome by the power of Christ animating His Body.
Mary Douglas offered this advice to millennial movements: learn to organize! She died before she could watch movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street get undermined because of their steadfast refusal to organize. Benedictine Option pioneers should work to avoid the related fate of the irrelevant sectarian movements by learning to organize. There is a direct connection between the kind of social body we live in and the beliefs that we hold and behaviors that we legitimate. The connections between these three levels of 1) mind, 2) body, and 3) society I hope to explore in the next post on Natural Symbols.
I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about George Weigel’s recent post “Catacomb Time?” doesn’t sit right with me. I suspect that it is first of all due to an accumulation of fuzzy complaints with someone-or-other not quite specified. Who inhabit those “Catholic circles” who have “a passion for writing Build-It-Yourself Catacomb manuals”? I honestly have no idea who is meant by this. I suppose that he is referring to the Benedict Option, for which there is no shortage of critics, despite the fact that no one seems to know what it is exactly. The reference to “lukewarm, pick-and-choose” Catholics is always a dangerous one. Who of us doesn’t fall into the “pick-and-choose” category from time to time, even often?
Then there is this larger quote, expressing what seems to me a common enough sentiment, but one I just can’t get behind personally:
This same judgment—Catholicism by osmosis is dead—and this same prescription—the Church must reclaim its missionary nature—are at the root of every living sector of the Catholic Church in the United States: parish, diocese, seminary, religious order, lay renewal movement, new Catholic association.
“Every living sector” of the Church in a country of almost 70 million Catholics? That’s a big claim. I think what troubles me most about this sort of language is the absence of any feint in the direction of the work of the Holy Spirit in animating the Church. Then there is the question of whether my own religious community qualifies as a “living sector” and whether we actually share that judgment and prescription. One reason I balk at that way of phrasing the “judgment” that “Catholicism by osmosis is dead,” is that it privileges what Mary Douglas refers to as “elaborated speech code” (the language of academia, personal commitment and conviction, related to what George Steiner calls out at the beginning of Real Presences) at the expense of “restricted speech code,” the more passive communicative modes of ritual and symbol. Much of what we learn in the Church is at least somewhat osmotic. Yes, we should pay attention at the liturgy, but often times it takes all kinds of exposure at various levels of awareness and engagement before connections are made. Perhaps I sense here, fairly or unfairly, a neglect of the fundamentally receptive nature of faith, prior to any genuine engagement in mission. St. Paul, the greatest missionary of all, spent well over a decade anonymously living the life of a Christian before the Holy Spirit set him apart as the Apostle of the Gentiles. During that time, what was he doing? Praying? Re-reading the Scriptures? I don’t know, but it was certainly a life of withdrawal, maybe not to the catacombs, but a withdrawal nonetheless.
And then let us not forget who is the patroness of the Church’s missions.
I will leave it to reader to think about the connections between the contemplative life and missionary effectiveness.
Let me end with a little more explanation from Mary Douglas. In the first chapter of Natural Symbols, she relates asking her progressive clerical friends (in 1970) why they think it’s a good idea to move away from the Friday abstinence to more personally meaningful acts of charity–like working in a soup kitchen on Friday.
I am answered by a Teilhardist evolutionism which assumes that a rational, verbally explicit, personal commitment to God is self-evidently more evolved and better than its alleged contrary, formal, ritualistic conformity.
I will admit to nitpicking here a bit, but I think that it is worth watching our language very carefully on these points, lest we saw off the branch upon which we sit. The overall tone of the article supports an individualistic and activist mode of Church life that has the potential to undermine the communal, receptive, gratuitous, gracious, and humble life of faith and hope. Surely one of the points of the young Josef Ratzinger’s “Future Church” article is precisely that we are being called away from “edifices…built in prosperity,” as part of an invitation to leave behind triumphalism. Weigel comes uncomfortably close to a triumphalism-minus-edifices. It is striking that after the long quote from the future pope, a quote that ends with an emphasis on “faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world,” Weigel never again mentions faith, Jesus Christ, or even God. Again, I will admit that finding such lacunae in a blog post runs the risk of straining justice. But as a monk, I am inclined to be watchful on these counts.
More than anything, this serves as an introduction to Mary Douglas, whose work I have put off writing about for long enough…
UPDATE: Recall that the relationship between mission and contemplative life is the crux at which our community began. Also, that while it is hard not to agree that practicing one’s faith will require great resolve and strength in the coming years, maybe decades, this must be a practice rooted in repentance and joyful humility, grounded in the sacrifice of Calvary, celebrated daily in the liturgy. Finally, while Fr. Ratzinger did say that the future Church will make “bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members,” [emphasis added] this mention of individual members needs to be read in the context of the future pope’s voluminous writings on the liturgy and the Church. The initiative he is calling for surely must be greater fidelity to the reality of the ongoing Incarnation in the local church (including a high mystical “Ignatian” vision of the bishop as Christ and priests as the bishops’ vicars). Otherwise, Weigel might be heard to be inviting individuals to greater creativity, initiative in a maverick kind of sense, rather than in a sense of responsive answerability toward the gospel. And the first step may well be admitting that I’m part of the problem with the contemporary Church.
In my “first thoughts,” I suggested that Christians interested in upholding the Church’s view of marriage might be better off letting go of a language of rights, since rights divide a coercive power from a class of victims. Turning this around we can also say that appealing to rights is a way of claiming the mantle of a victim and casting the Other as a victimizer. Either way, I think that it is clear that any sense of a genuine common good is undermined, subtly, by naked appeals to rights. Catholic social teaching depends on a clear sense of a common good, and a disciplined determination to live by it.
Here is where quite a bit of “Benedict Option” language also seems counterproductive, probably unintentionally. It sets the Opting party against the world. The language of separation tends toward a language of rejection. Now of course there are many attitudes in today’s dominant culture that a disciple of Jesus Christ must reject, and sometimes this rejection calls for disengagement from particular social structures. Repentance and conversion require new ways of living, and this means that behaviors must change. Conversion might require me to stop going to bars, or to movies, to the Freemason meetings, to my mistress’s apartment, and even to my place of employment. But the point of this is not to say, “Too bad for you, I’m outta here.” Rather, the penitent is aiming at identifying personal behaviors that are harmful and eliminating them.
If we actually believe in a common good, one of the best things that any one of us can do for others is to live a truly penitent and evangelical life. For when any one of us begins to live more vibrantly in Christ, all will benefit. Right?
And the inverse holds as well. When someone lives in contradiction to the truth, all suffer in some way.
Here is where I get to the Supreme Court ruling from three days ago. It is important to understand that what I am going to write needs to be read from a position of weakness (see my last post for an explanation).
This week’s Collect reads, in part:
grant, we pray,
that we may not be wrapped in the darkness of error
but always be seen to stand in the bright light of truth.
The bright light of truth! What a gift to know the Truth Who sets us free.
How deeply do we believe in the truth of the Church’s revelation? One of the dangerous habits of mind generated by our cultural emotivism is the assumption that any supposed statement of truth is in fact a statement of personal preference. From this perspective, all claims to truth are actually strategic claims, manipulating the hearer to feel obliged to accept what’s being stated. In other words, emotivism makes us all nihilists to some extent, perhaps a larger extent than we realize.
This conclusion, that many of us are closet nihilists, seems to me borne out by the fear, anger, and anxiety that I’ve encountered over the years when contemporary mores are discussed among Catholics. When, aided by the Church’s teaching, we identify actions as good or bad and we identify statements as true or false, how we happen to feel about the action or judgment makes no difference. Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and nothing changes about that if I happen to feel overjoyed about it or flatly unemotional. When we communicate the truth of the Faith, there is a tendency to add zest or urgency to our statements of truth by smiling, showing enthusiasm or worry or whatever. We act as if the Truth needs some goosing up, that it doesn’t stand on its own. But if the truth can’t stand on its own, it’s probably not true. [Digression: I personally see this as a weakness in the otherwise entertaining opinions penned by Justice Scalia.]
The other problem with emoting too much in discussions of truth is that the focus tends to be on ourselves and our feelings too much of the time. Thus many conservative responses to Obergefell v. Hodges that I’ve seen have focused on the dangers to Christians in the coming extension of the Culture War. Mind you, I think that these dangers are real, but again this reality isn’t going to be altered by me fulminating about it.
But the curious things about the Supreme Court ruling is this: if the resulting deformation of marriage really is about a false understanding of the nature of marriage, then the Court’s ruling will also harm precisely the persons that it is intended to help. This is just an inference from everything I’ve said so far. How will it hurt them? I have no clear idea at the moment. Nor do I wish to cook up a prophecy about what sort of harm is coming. But if this is true, then my concern should also be for my fellow Americans, providentially given to me by God for our mutual salvation, who embrace this new reality, even when they have the for the best possible intentions. Again, I would not attempt to walk up to a gay couple and baldly assert this and use it as grounds for them to renounce their marriage. I merely raise the issue to point out that it is possible to broaden our thinking about the situation in such a way as to keep from falling into the same adversarial stances that typify American public debates.
And even if it should come about that we suffer in some way for our beliefs, even this is more harmful, from the standpoint of faith, to the aggressor than to the victim. Here’s Saint John Chrysostom, the Golden-Tongued Wonder.
This is more than any one thing the cause of all our evils, that we do not so much as know at all who is the injured, and who the injurious person.
In focusing on the potential harm coming to those who oppose the redefinition of marriage, that is, to one segment of our world, we are liable to lose sight of the harm that we are all suffering together. Thus Pope Francis, “When our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one.” [Laudato si, 92]
One of the ‘great books’ that most University of Chicago undergraduates have to read is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. If you’ve ever used the phrase, “paradigm shift,” you’re trading with Kuhn’s coinage. His notion is that normal science is done under conditions of a dominant paradigm. This contains all of the theories that everyone takes for granted and provides the background for research and further extensions of knowledge. Newton’s physics provided an amazingly powerful paradigm for three centuries. But by the late nineteenth century, researchers were discovering holes in it. The perceived problems in Newton’s paradigm led Albert Einstein and others to propose a paradigm shift, a new set of theories that today (along with the seemingly incompatible particle physics) are mostly taken for granted as the background for current research and practice.
Kuhn’s idea has been subjected to a lot of criticism. But his basic insight is vindicated by the amount of fertile thinking that has ensued in dialog with his book. One of the better refinements of Kuhn’s theory was made by Imre Lakatos, who moved away from general paradigms to more local ‘research programs’.
I begin with this excursus on science because science is, for moderns like ourselves, the dominant practice in life. Science is successful. It sells. It works. More than that, because we are all somewhat familiar with how it works, it provides a good model for other types of human practices and disciplines. In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre’s proposals to reinstate a traditional Aristotelian morality depend heavily on what he calls ‘practices’. I will spare you his difficult definitions. These practices have a lot in common with Lakatos’s research programs (MacIntyre, in a separate essay, indicates his debt to Kuhn and Lakatos).
Yesterday I asked what tools a community needs if it wishes to engage in a kind of recovery of tradition. From the opening of this post, you can see that what is involved is something like a research program into the common good. I offer the following in the context of writing about the Benedict Option, and doing so from the standpoint of genuine Benedictine life, but also from the standpoint of someone who is intimately familiar with MacIntyre’s writings. He’s the inspiration for this project, after all, as I indicated in the first post in this series.
After Virtue doesn’t make clear what concrete qualities such a community will need. So I will use a boiled-down version of some insights from Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, one of his follow-up books. As I read MacIntyre, here is what a community needs, if the members wish to engage in some kind of disciplined pursuit of the common good: 1) a canon; 2) legitimate authority; 3) practical boundaries; and 4) modes of engagement. There are probably plenty of other things that such a community will need, but these are important and easy to overlook.
Canon: This is some kind of record of the best results of the practice so far, usually reference texts. For physicists, this would include Einstein and Heisenberg and the records of experiments of various kinds. For a monk, this includes Scripture, the Rule of Saint Benedict, the writings of the Fathers (Benedict himself names Basil and Cassian), the marytrology, Canon Law, etc. Studying the canon gives the participants common imagery, shared goals and a common vocabulary. It helps to solidify common commitments. Of course, texts, especially theological texts, can issue in disputes about interpretation. Therefore, authority and boundaries are necessary, as are proper modes of engagement. For the Benedict Option, I imagine that the usual Church documents will be in play, as well as the writings, say, of Pope Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the like. I will be offering copious suggestions for supplementing such a canon.
Authority: The role of authority in such a practice is not so much to boss people around. But someone must be responsible enough and well-versed enough in the practice to identify when an interpretation of the canon is out of bounds. Thus in science again, we have peer-reviewed journals (alas, these are becoming less authoritative), and academic hiring committees. In monasteries, we have the abbot. In the Church at large we have the bishops. Authority facilitates the ongoing argument about the common goal of everyone involved. Sometimes this requires authority to correct a participant, even to censure in some way. Sometimes it even requires a participant to get kicked out, which is why we need:
Boundaries: It is important to know who exactly is qualified to engage in the debates about the common good. Scientists usually don’t oversee original research until they have achieved a diploma indicating some level of expertise. In monastic life, only monks in solemn vows are allowed a vote in the community Chapter meetings. Part of the goal of formation is to bring the new monk into the discussion by teaching him the canon and teaching him how properly to respond to and engage with authority. When a scientist is caught faking data, his or her career can quickly come to an end, as institutional funding will dry up, effectively ruling the person out of further research. We don’t excommunicate monks anymore, as far as I know, but the principle is clearly sound (the canonical penalty of excluding a monks from Chapter is still used): monks who cease to base their decisions on the canon and abide by the community authority pose a grave risk to the community’s existence. It is up to authority to make this call. It seems to me that authority and boundaries are potential sticking points for serious efforts at the Benedict Option. Noah Millman has already helpfully issued this challenge: ‘any conscious program to implement a “Benedict Option” would be concerned, first and foremost, with questions of communal organization.’ Yes.
Engagement: I’m not completely satisfied with this word, but here is the basic idea. There has to be some kind of institutional support for serious discussions about how the group is going to act and how it is going to understand itself. There must be ways to alert authority to issues that need careful discernment. Again, in science, this is the publication of study results in accredited journals and the methods of peer review. In a monastery, engagement mainly takes place in Chapter meetings and other stylized settings. What is important about these engagements is that they are above-board and involve everyone in some fashion or other (in a monastery, different monks have different capabilities in terms of being able to engage in practical decision-making, but somehow everyone needs to be included). So Benedict Option pioneers should be wary of any sort of engagement that is too informal, too dependent on personalities, and so on.
Keep in mind that how community membership is defined, how authority is determined and exercised, what rules of engagement are allowed and institutionalized…all of these will probably require regular negotiation at some level, especially among the leadership of the group. Benedictine monasticism has never been static. We’ve constantly debated the role of priors versus abbots, sleeping arrangements (dormitories versus cells), expressions of poverty, which texts novices are to read, how to celebrate the liturgy properly, and on and on. As long as there is a way for legitimate members to be heard, as long as arguments derive from canonical sources in some way, and as long as authority can issue decisions that are binding on everyone, these debates will strengthen the communal project and provide for course correction even when things go awry. Communities break down when authority and authoritative texts become too diffuse, when members are allowed entry but lack the proper formation, and when legitimate members feel excluded from decisions that affect their participation.
Our monastery has been consciously attempting to put these insights into practice. What sort of results have we had? Which texts have become canonical in our work to engage the broad tradition of Catholic and Orthodox monasticism? We will sally next into that fray.
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?
In the preface to After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre makes a curious admission:
Ever since the days when I was privileged to be a contributor to that most remarkable journal The New Reasoner, I had been preoccupied with the question of the basis for the moral rejection of Stalinism.
Wait–what’s there to be preoccupied with here? Rejecting Stalinism should be easy, shouldn’t it? Could there be anything simpler, less risky, than soundly denouncing Stalinism? What could he possibly mean?
Have you heard of the “Benedict Option?” If not, you may hear a lot more about it soon. Rod Dreher is working on a new book that will presumably help to explain the concept that he coined. But even before the book comes out, important blogosphere voices have been engaging in spirited discussion of it.
What is it?