Symposium In Milan With Rod Dreher:
“The Benedict Option” –
An Ark That Is Needed During the Present Deluge
By Benedetta Frigerio
15 September 2018
The Benedict Option was presented yesterday morning [September 14] in Lombardy. The book written by Rod Dreher, the American journalist who converted first to Catholicism and then to Orthodoxy, was correctly defined by the Vice-President of Lombardy as “a splash in the pond” which, already translated into ten languages, has ignited a big debate in the intellectual and ecclesiastical world. So much so that Dreher’s Italian tour has had several stages before arriving in Milan. Perhaps the reason is that The Benedict Option is a book which has the courage to ask the question which the Church herself is struggling to consider: How can a Christian today live and communicate the faith in a world which refuses, when it does not outright hate, the logic by which the Christian wants to conduct his life?
But The Benedict Option is a “splash” above all because it contests the general mainstream of Christianity, which is more concerned with being accepted by the world and dialoguing according to its logic than with preserving itself (that is, preserving the faith). Dreher’s proposal is not based in ideological reasoning but rather in practical proposals which are profoundly Christian, the same practices which lay at the origin of the vocation of the saint who saved Europe from the ruins of the Roman Empire by pulling away from it.
“Saint Benedict,” explained the author to the audience, “fled from Rome because, when he saw that his friends were losing themselves in immorality,” he was such a realist that “he feared losing his soul. And so he fled to the cave of Subiaco, where he spent three years praying, fasting, and reading Scripture,” until God called him back into the world in order to construct a new world, known to us today as the monastery.
Yet the image of the saint painted by Dreher is quite human and not very angelic, so much so that it leads people today to ask themselves the question, does trying to be like Benedict mean becoming someone who fears the world, a Christian who is afraid of losing his soul, a believer who has little optimism, a young person who flees from reality? These are all objections which Dreher has encountered, and which mean that if Benedict was beginning his journey today he would perhaps be defined as a reactionary, a protester, a polarizer, a pessimist, afraid of looking at evil, a misfit (especially because of the strictness of his judgments and of his rule). But, as Dreher rightly noted, “Benedict did not do what he did to save the world,” or to save the Church according to some kind of strategic-political project for evangelization. No, he did it to save himself, his “relationship with God,” not scandalized by his own humanity but rather having a healthy fear of his own fragility and aware of his need to live in a context where he would not lose his soul. It was only as a result of this that he found himself surrounded by people asking to live like him, according to norms and a logic completely opposed to the world. He even attracted the barbarian peoples, who saw in his radical style of Christian living the possibility of a better life for themselves.
Dreher rightly noted that Christians today need to be concerned with the faith itself before they become concerned with changing the world. In fact, the journalist asked, “How can we offer to the world something which we no longer possess ourselves?” In short, Christian judgment and identity, a communal life rooted in the sacraments, prayer, and the teaching of the Magisterium of the Church are so challenged by the world in which believers find themselves today that they no longer know them or live them. And, even more so, when they do not know them they struggle to hand them on their children.
Dreher illustrated his point by referring to a 2016 survey by Franco Garelli which shows that among young Italians who are nominally Catholic, only 13% regularly participate at Sunday Mass, while among committed Catholic families, only one in five succeeds in transmitting the faith to their children. Why? Because “alone it is impossible to resist the deluge which is coming.”
This deluge however, which is being announced by many signs (“do you not know how to read the signs of the times?”), is often minimized by “our leaders (both lay and ecclesiastical), who tell us that everything is fine and to remain calm.” But the water is rising, and if we do not build the ark, sooner or later we will drown. On the other hand, it was the Lord himself who asked Noah to make the ark and to abandon the world in order to save himself and so save the world.
Also Father Cassian, a Benedictine monk of Norcia, told the future author of the book that “if Christians do not adhere in some way to the Benedict Option,” that is, if they do not concern themselves with building an ark, “they will not be able to resist the darkness which is coming.”
But if this choice is to be not merely a human project but truly something of God (a response to His call), how is it to be realized? Benedict shows the way in his call for begging and prayer, thanks to which he was able to hear “the voice of God” and thus do his will. At the same time, the Benedict Option is not a utopia but a desire, which ought to be conceived first and foremost as a prayer and at the same time as a form of life which is already being lived out: “In my book I describe experiences such as that of the “Tipi Loschi” who live at San Benedetto del Tronto, who pray together, eat together, form their children together at a parent-run school, assist the poor….” This way of living, Dreher makes a point of specifying, cannot be that of a Church which gathers the wounded and gives them “a pill which covers over their evil without healing it: if one truly desires to be healed one must decide to undergo an operation, which implies a painful process.”
Dreher’s own conversion began upon hearing the teaching of John Paul II on sexuality, “which made me understand that I was not living according to the will of God.” When he was converted, he began to pray according to a rule in his house with his children, to reduce the amount of TV they watched, and to prohibit them from the use of social media, because Saint Benedict, in order to live in the world but not be of the world, chose God by renouncing forms of life which would have distracted him from God’s presence.
In summary, Dreher explained, his book gives guidelines which exactly follow the Rule of Saint Benedict as it was conceived for lay people: “We must become small creative communities, living a more monastic life, increasing our prayer and praying during everything we do, recovering a profound relationship with God so that the rule will not be emptied of its contents, living in community because we are not able to survive alone, refusing to serve the dictatorship of relativism and of gender ideology, educating our children according to the tradition of the Church.”
It is clear, Dreher affirmed, that the spiritual battle required of a Christian today is enormous, as he recalled a conversation he had a few days ago with a priest who is an exorcist: “He said to me, ‘I became convinced of the Benedict Option during my ministry. If an exorcist does not live a life of prayer and of profound devotion to God, he will become confused by the power of the devil, he will lose the vision of God and of what is good and evil.’ For this reason, we must spend more time in prayer and formation and in community, otherwise we will not be able to stand.
But there is a quotation, reported by the journalist, which confirms that what he describes is not just his imagining but something which is really happening and which is the future of the Church. It is a quote from the young priest Joseph Ratzinger in a 1969 interview with a German radio station, in which he said prophetically: “To me it seems certain that very difficult times are in store for the Church. Her real crisis is only just beginning….From the crisis of today a Church will emerge which will have lost much. She will become small, and she will have to begin again more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit the buildings she built during times of prosperity. She will rebuild beginning with small groups, with movements and with a minority which will return faith to the center of the experience. She will be a more spiritual Church….The people who will live in a totally programmed world will live in an unspeakable loneliness. If they will have completely lost the sense of God, they will also feel all the horror of their poverty. And they will then discover the small communities of believers as something totally new…as something that gives them hope for themselves.”
But Joseph Ratzinger, recalled Dreher, also added that this hope “will not reside in those who try eagerly to adapt themselves to the fashions of the moment and to coin catchy slogans, but rather in the saints, who are capable of seeing further than others because they are turned towards God.” Not mere optimists, therefore, but people who are full of hope just as Saint Benedict was, “and perhaps some of you are called to do this.”
Translated by Giuseppe Pellegrino
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