I’ve always said that I intend The Benedict Option book to be more of a catalyst for critical discussion than a manual to settle disputes. I was talking to a journalist about the Benedict Option project yesterday, and told him that there is no formula in the book, because the Ben Op is going to look somewhat different on the local level, owing to people’s religious traditions and their local circumstances.
For example, the Ben Op looks different for the Catholics living it out in the countryside near Clear Creek Abbey in rural eastern Oklahoma than it does for the Catholics of Hyattsville, Md., living it out in their neighborhood and parish classical school, St. Jerome’s. Yet the goal of both is to live out traditional, orthodox Catholicism together. This, of course, is true for Protestants and Orthodox Christians too. As you may recall, Julie and I reluctantly left our home in Starhill, in the country about 45 minutes north of Baton Rouge, to move to BR to be much closer to our parish church and the classical school our kids had started to attend. In other words, we came to the city for Benedict Option reasons.
Anyway, I’m really grateful to the Jesuit father Patrick Gilger for advancing the conversation about the Benedict Option in the pages of America. This is exactly the kind of talks I hope the book inspires among churches and small communities around the country. Father Gilger begins by referring to a Commonweal essay that progressive Catholic Gerald Schlabach wrote critical of the Benedict Option, and to my response. Father Gilger:
[Dreher’s] counter-argument is built around another key Benedictine concept: discipline. While Mr. Schlabach thinks that belonging to a religious community “is the ultimate goal of the Christian life,” Mr. Dreher argues that it is not belonging, but holiness that ought to remain the goal. The accompanying problem, then, is knowing when the community to which one currently belongs “no longer promotes holiness, but something else.” And the challenge consists in knowing when the “gap between holiness and what is taught and practiced [has grown] so great that one has to break communion.”
It is a fair point that Mr. Dreher makes. Essential even. We absolutely must talk about the gaps between teaching and practice that exist in our ecclesial communities. But there are two things, two priorities, that I want to add to the conversation.
Here is the first: We do have to talk about discipline, but we also have to talk about how disciplines are received and incorporated into a life. In my own, it took me real time—a couple of years even—after having entered the Society of Jesus to learn how to not let resistance or critique be my first reaction to church teaching. Those years were filled with dozens of conversations with a dedicated spiritual director, hundreds of liturgies, scores of hours learning to be quiet before the Lord. They were filled with practices, with dozens of them that, gentle warmths that they were, slowly melted away my resistance to being taught—a resistance that could well have hardened into a cold cynicism. It was only after years of learning to inhabit these practices of assent that I learned to ask myself: Am I willing to let myself be taught? Am I willing to inhabit a discipline of assent?
This is so true, and so important. On the day I was chrismated into the Orthodox Church, a fellow convert of many years told my wife and me that it would take us ten years to learn how to be Orthodox. That made no sense to me at all. Ten years on, it makes perfect sense, and for the reason that Father Gilger raises in the passage above. You don’t learn what it means to be a Christian by study alone. You learn by practice, or to be precise, practices that form the heart. These practices, as readers of my book will learn from my interviews with the Norcia monks, often have to be ascetic in nature — meaning that they will be hard. But they’re hard in the same way training the body is hard: they build up spiritual endurance, and make achieving spiritual excellence (that is, holiness) easier.
At first you submit to these disciplines out of obedience. Then, once you’ve been doing them for a while, they start to make sense to you. You see changes within yourself that couldn’t have happened any other way. You may recognize why these disciplines have been part of the Christian tradition for so long: because they work. For our Protestant friends, let me make clear that it’s not about earning your way to heaven, not at all. It is about submitting your entire self — Soul, Mind, and Body — the authority of Jesus Christ. The formative practices of which Father Gilger and the monks speak are not meritorious in and of themselves. They only have merit insofar as they break down our own selfish tendencies, which make it harder for us to receive God’s freely given grace. It is about teaching ourselves to want to be taught.
You can “take the Benedict Option” in the sense of moving to a certain place, or to a certain parish church, or putting your kids in a certain school, but none of it will make much difference if you don’t bolster your orthodoxy (right belief) with orthopraxy (right practices).
Father Gilger highlights what he calls the weakest part of my response, in which I anonymously cite the e-mail of one of my readers. Father Gilger sets it up like this:
In this story, the author [of the e-mail] details the lack of discipline in her/his parish—the slow leaking away of the communal practices that sustained a sense of identity. “After Mass,” the author concludes, “the older people hang around and shake hands with the pastor. Everyone else drives away. I know only a small handful of my fellow parishioners, and I hesitate to bring any of this up with them. It doesn’t seem worth it.”
Mr. Dreher cites this story a prime example of the kind of person he sees himself serving in proposing the Benedict Option. And—let me be clear—there are real needs here, and those needs require a pastoral response. But for me what is so revelatory about this story is the closing line: “I hesitate to bring any of this up with them.”
To which Father Gilger has a good response, which is basically this: How are you going to be able to live out the Benedict Option when you can’t even bring yourself to talk to people at coffee hour at church? He says:
If we think the Benedict Option is going to be easier or more elegant than the messy reality of modern parish life, we have not yet seen it clearly.
He’s right about that, at least from what I’ve seen in my travels and research. There is no such place as utopia. The advantage of a Ben Op community is that it avoids the situation Father Gilger raises in this memorable line: “There are no conversations to be had with those who refuse the discipline of speaking the same language.” Someone once told me that before the late 1960s and 1970s, the divisions between conservative and liberal Catholics were such that they shared the same moral and conceptual language with which to talk about the Church and its people.
Today that’s gone. Even when they use the same words, they aren’t always talking about the same thing. Small-o orthodox Catholics consider themselves bound by tradition, doctrine, and canon law. Progressives generally do not. What real conversations are there to be had with those who refuse the discipline of that common language? I couldn’t possibly count the number of conversations I’ve had over the years with Catholics who profess that whatever they believe is just as Catholic as what anybody other Catholic believes, and that there’s not a thing wrong with that, because of the primacy of their consciences.
A parish community in which everything is up for grabs is not one likely to form strong Catholics (or other Christians). It’s like trying to undertake a pilgrimage with people who think they’ve already arrived, or at least that there’s no particular goal for this journey, other than to make our aimless wanderings in the desert as comfortable as we can, ignoring the wisdom on how to complete a successful journey left behind by those who have made it before, because hey, why should we let other people tell us where to go and how to get there?
You will find it very hard to be a pilgrim in a community of people satisfied with being nothing more than tourists. And you will find it very hard to be a pilgrim by yourself. You need a community of fellow pilgrims, not tourists.
Thoughts? Read Father Gilger’s entire piece, which, again, I thank him for.