I swear to you I have not spent all my time in Parisian oyster bars. But yes, I have spent time and treasure in those dens of, um, iquity, and non, je ne regrette rien.
Here’s a shot from the same night, of Your Working Boy and my young friend Léon, after the waiter brought a platter of huîtres to our table:
So yeah, I’m having fun. I’m also working hard. Thing is, it’s hard to tell the difference. Let me explain.
I have a great publisher in France, Artège, and the staff has done a masterful job in setting up interviews and public forums in which to discuss the Benedict Option (called here in France le pari bénédictin; the full title of the French version of the book is: “How To Be Christian In A World That No Longer Is: The Benedictine Gamble”). The problem with these folks is that they’re so much fun to hang out with that I can’t tell the difference between business and pleasure. And not just “fun” in the social sense. For me, as someone who tends strongly towards pessimism, it has been a real joy to meet so many committed young Catholics who take the book seriously and who are working hard toward living out the faith in a country where that is not easy to do.
On Sunday, I participated in a round table at a Catholic mission congress — that is, a big meeting of Christians from all over France, who gathered over the weekend in Paris to talk about evangelization. Before my event, I met lots of folks outside the church of Notre-Dame-des-Champs, including my new friends Julien and Cecile:
We were only able to speak for a short time, but I was impressed by their seriousness and their optimism. I have yet to meet a French Catholic who has what strikes me as a false sense of optimism about the hard road Christians in this country face. But I have yet to meet one (at least one under the age of 40) who is not visibly hopeful, despite it all. That’s a powerful thing. People like Julien and Cecile are the Church’s future in France.
The round table took place inside the church:
On the panel was, from left to right, François Bagnolet, an Orthodox Christian poet; Jean-Luc Merion, a Catholic philosopher; Fabrice Hadjadj, a Catholic philosopher; Area Man; and translator Nicolas Trewby-Thibault. I was at a disadvantage, unfortunately, because my French is not good enough to follow the debate, except in Nicolas’s real time translation. That said, Prof. Merion seemed to be the only one who definitively rejected the Benedict Option, though he spoke so abstractly it was hard for me to understand his point.
Discovering this article on him later, from the French Christian journal La Croix, helped. I am quoting from the Google Translate version:
With a lively style to the point of being sharp, he who was close to Cardinal Lustiger addressed our contemporaries, whom he still considered timid and suspicious of Catholics. “Do not be afraid of us, keep your fear for the real threats, which are not lacking,” he told them in substance, not without some annoyance about the recent controversies about the political influence of Catholics in La France.
If Catholics persist in the landscape, one should consider their good reasons to believe, proposes Jean-Luc Marion. He summarizes them in a personal creed in which each word has been weighed: “They believe hard as to give better than to receive; that to preserve oneself at all costs leads one to lose oneself and, reciprocally, that to lose allows one to save and to save oneself; that death can lead to life in fullness. They believe it because they already see it in their own experience and especially because they have seen it in a certain way in the figure of Christ. “
Is all this perilous for French society? Obviously not for Jean-Luc Marion, who would like us to consider “serenely” what the Catholics can bring, ” what they do not cease to bring to the national community as a whole. And in all areas: solidarity, education, civic responsibility, sense of responsibility, fidelity to private and public commitments, etc. “
The philosopher does not merely recall that society needs the Catholics, as with all its vital forces, to face the challenges of the moment. He sees it as going through a “Catholic moment”. “This is not a time when everyone would be summoned to become a Catholic (neither a serious nor a desirable hypothesis),” he says at the outset, “but at a moment when at stake for French society “the possibility of a community that implements the universal”.
I have been repeatedly told by the Catholics I’ve met here that the Benedict Option idea draws strong negative response from some because of the fear of communitarianism. That word is not a precise translation of what the French mean by it. I think the better word is “sectarianism” — the idea that Christians who embrace the Ben Op will come to think of themselves as separate from and hostile to the broader culture. Clearly Merion wants the non-religious mainstream in France to see Catholics not as threats to the social order, but as supporters of it. The unspoken by strongly felt context here is of the threat unassimilated Muslims pose to social stability. The concern is that at the very moment when France needs to work towards holding together the whole, the Ben Op is telling French Catholics (and Protestants) to think of themselves as a people apart.
(This is an interesting twist on the strongest anti-Ben Op sentiment in the US, which comes from Evangelical Christians afraid that it’s arguing for a retreat into fundamentalist separatism.)
I’ve been telling my French interlocutors that “communitarianism” is not a bad word in the US, which suffers from an excess of individualism. But that explanation only goes so far, because it doesn’t fully take into account the particular circumstances of France. I hesitate to say too much definitively on this point, because I am learning more about those particulars. But let me offer these thoughts, which I will be saying for the rest of the week to audiences here.
I agree that societies in the West receive a lot from Christians, whether nonbelievers want to recognize it or not. I agree with Merion that Christians bring to the public square distinct gifts that can benefit the whole.
But what is the cost to Christians of participating in the public square on non-believers’ terms? Yesterday I gave a short presentation to an Orthodox congregation. After the talk, a middle-aged woman approached me, identified herself as a lawyer, and said that I could not imagine how many obstacles her profession puts in front of her as a Christian. She described being boxed in more and more, not so much by the social atmosphere at her office, but by the nature of the work she has to do. Though we did not have time to get into details, she was visibly grieved by what she’s going through. I can see that the day will come when she might have to abandon her profession. The tension between what she believes as an Orthodox Christian is true, and what she has to do as a lawyer working within the French system, may break her. It was clear to me that she was suffering a crisis of conscience.
I heard other stories yesterday of Christian academics who are marginalized within their universities, and who are either living more or less in the closet, or who have accepted a reduced professional status as the price of following Jesus Christ. This is reality for Christians in France — not in every profession, surely, but in more than a few. It is hard for me to square Jean-Luc Merion’s plea for acceptance with the real-life stories of disdain and spite Christians here face. Again, I am only a visitor to this country, so I hesitate to pass judgment, but it seems to me that the price of admission into a public square controlled by illiberal liberals may be the de facto abandonment of Christian conviction.
Now, it is certainly the case that one can do one’s job in good conscience, even if one has to keep one’s beliefs to oneself. Nobody wants to put up with the office proselytizer. Nevertheless, there is a great risk of allowing this dhimmitude to corrupt one’s faith. One may come to believe that there is something wrong with one for holding Christian convictions. That Christianity is something to be ashamed of. That one would be better off not getting too involved with one’s professed faith. This, I think, is the danger of Merion’s proposal. His “Catholic moment” sounds a lot like a qualified surrender, and an offer to collaborate with a social and cultural regime that desires our destruction via assimilation to its values.
I want to draw your attention to this recent interview in Le Figaro with Michel Onfray, a popular atheist philosopher who is absolutely no friend of Christianity. He’s talking about how he changed his mind about the work of Michel Houellebecq, who he now regards as a prophet. Again, I’m using Google Translate for this excerpt:
It is also a book on the loss of meaning in our Western civilization. Christianism and ideology have given way to market religion and conquering Islam.As an atheist and materialist, what does it inspire you? Why has reason failed to be the cement of a new civilization?
A civilization is possible only with a spirituality which sustains it and which itself derives from a religion. Since the world is world, it is so. History testifies.
It also testifies that there was no civilization built on atheism and materialism, both of which are signs and even symptoms of the decomposition of a civilization – I know it in the first place, since I am an atheist and a materialistic. … Men are not bound without the help of the sacred.
I take this opportunity to oppose this musical saw sung by a certain number of philosophers for whom religion would be what would connect men with each other – on the principle of religare, to connect … It is a narrow vision of … materialistic, even … atheist!
For if religion does indeed connect, it does not connect men to each other on the ground of immanence, but with the sacred, on the ground of transcendence. It is not a bond between men, but of men with what goes beyond them. Now we are in a civilization that has dismissed all transcendence.
I think Onfray is correct. Seeing Christianity in instrumental terms — as “good for society” — may be true, in a strict sense, but it is also powerless. No man believes in God because it is good for him, or sacrifices for a God because it may result in material benefits. If I understand Prof. Merion correctly (and it is possible that I do not!), he is trying to convince post-Christian France that it should not be mean to Christians, because we can serve the social good. Is there not a serious risk that Christians who live according to that vision would come to conduct themselves so as to achieve approval in the eyes of a society that will never accept them as real Christians, only neutered servants?
If Christians are truly to serve the common good, it will be as whole Christians, not a socially useful minority who has this odd habit of praying on Sundays. In a civilization that has dismissed all transcendence, we Christians must live transcendentally. That is, we must practice the presence of God in all times and places. Even as we live and move in the post-Christian world — as we must; I do not advocate for physical retreat — we must never lose the conviction that God is everywhere present, and fills all things. That everything around us is “enchanted,” is an icon through which we perceive the divine. This is why the monastic example is so valuable for we lay Christians who live in the world. Benedictine monks construct their lives to always remind them of God’s presence, and to incarnate the reality of Him into the routines of their lives. Through the disciplines of prayer, Scripture study, and fasting in community, they gradually, over time, sediment the faith into their bones.
It has to be that way with us too. How can we do this without embedding ourselves in a distinct community — a community of formation? Here are two relevant passages from The Benedict Option:
Here is the end point of modernity: the autonomous, freely choosing individual, finding meaning in no one but himself.
Philosopher Charles Taylor describes the cultural mindset that has captured us all:
Everyone has a right to develop their own form of life, grounded on their own sense of what is really important or of value. People are called upon to be true to themselves and to seek their own self- fulfillment. What this consists of, each must, in the last instance, determine for him- or herself. No one else can or should try to dictate its content.
Of course every age has had its morally lax people, and people who have forsaken ideals and commitments to pursue their heart’s desire. In fact, every one of us Christians is like that at times; it’s called sin. What’s distinct about the present age, says Taylor, is that “today many people feel called to do this, feel they ought to do this, feel their lives would be somehow wasted or unfulfilled if they didn’t do it.”
What is “it”? Following your own heart, no matter what society says, or the church, or anybody else. This kind of thinking is devastating to every kind of social stability but especially to the church. The church, a community that authoritatively teaches and disciples its members, cannot withstand a revolution in which each member becomes, in effect, his own pope. Churches—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox—that are nothing more than a loosely bound assembly of individuals committed to finding their own “truth,” are no longer the church in any meaningful sense, because there is no shared belief.
In this sense, Christians today may think we stand in opposition to secular culture, but in truth we are as much creatures of our own time as secular people are. As Charles Taylor puts it, “The entire ethical stance of moderns supposes and follows on from the death of God (and of course, of the meaningful cosmos).” We may deny that God is dead, but to accept religious individualism and its theological support structure, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, is to declare that God may not be dead, but he is in hospice care and confined to the bed.
Life in Christian community, whether in monastic or ordinary congregations, is about building the kind of fellowship that every one of us needs to complete our individual pilgrimage. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in Life Together, his own rule, of sorts, for living in faithful community:
A Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.
Community life not a dreamy ideal, said Bonhoeffer, but an often difficult initiation into the “divine reality” that is the church. That is, the church exists as a brotherhood established by Christ, even if it doesn’t feel like it in a given moment. The martyred Lutheran pastor taught that struggles within the community are a gift of God’s grace, because they force its members to reckon with the reality of their kinship, despite their brokenness. A community that cannot face its faults and love each other through to healing is not truly Christian.
“It’s not easy,” conceded Father Martin [Bernhard, a priest-monk of Norcia]. “It’s really doable only by grace, and this is the beauty of Christianity: that it can bring people of different blood relations, languages, and ethnicities together and give us a common culture.”
The Norcia monastic community contains brothers from the United States, Indonesia, Brazil, Germany, and Canada. Life in common can be very difficult, the monks say, but it is essential to living out the Benedictine “conversion of life” vow.
And it teaches the individual monk more about himself. “When a man first comes to the monastery, the first thing he notices is everybody else’s quirks—that is, what’s wrong with everybody else,” said Father Martin. “But the longer you’re here, the more you begin to think: what’s wrong with me? You go deeper into yourself to learn your own strengths and weaknesses. And that leads you to acceptance of others.”
We learn how to love the world by first learning how to love our own families, and then our own local communities. Our distinctly Christian communities, when they are working properly, form us in love and service to others. Christians formed by such communities will naturally want to serve all, even those beyond the bounds of the religiously bound community. I told the audience at both churches yesterday that one great mistake I made as a Catholic was keeping my faith too intellectual, too individualistic, and too abstracted from community. I didn’t realize what I was doing until it was too late, and my faith was not strong enough to withstand the test. It is hard for me to overcome these tendencies within myself even today, but I know that these are the deadly enemies of Christian faith. We need each other. But we can only understand who we are, and who we must be to each other, in light of who God is, and what He demands of us.
Therefore, in the post-Christian age, Christians have to either get radical or get lost. There is no other realistic choice. If society looks down on us as narrow sectarians simply for being faithful Catholics (Orthodox, Protestants), that is a price we will have to pay. I want the United States to survive. I want France to survive. But I do not want either of these things more than I want to be a faithful servant of Jesus Christ. I do not believe these things are inevitably in conflict. But when they are, I hope and pray I have the vision to see the right thing to do, and the moral courage to do it. There is no way that I will unless I will have been formed by a disciplined regimen of prayer, Scripture reading, spiritual disciplines (e.g., fasting), and learning to live in community.
Remember that in the early church, the Romans hated Christians because they knew, deep down, that however docile Christians may have been, what they believed undermined the unjust social order. Tacitus said that Christians of that time were regarded as “haters of the human race.” Winsomeness didn’t save Christians then, and it won’t save us today from an enemy determined to demonize us for some of our beliefs. This is no justification for sustaining anger or violence, but it ought to be a warning to Christians who believe that if we only behave nicely and ask the world to think well of us, then we will get along fine in the post-Christian, atheist materialist order. As things continue to fall apart in the West, they will be looking for scapegoats. We should prepare for this. It is a big deal to lose your power, your status, your position in society. But losing your faith is the worst thing.
A young woman approached me after one of my talks yesterday and said, “It is great to have an American here. You Americans are so enthusiastic. It’s encouraging to us, living here.” I’m not used to thinking of myself as enthusiastic, but I did speak from my heart about my faith, and what it means to me. Part of living the faith is enjoying life in the company of others. I spent the afternoon with my old friend Fred Gion, the longtime Paris bureau chief of this blog, and my new pal Yrieix Denis, a 26-year-old Catholic journalist who has been an advocate of the Ben Op for a while, and who is one of the French Catholics chiefly responsible for the book’s publication in French. I knew that Fred and I are devotees of A Confederacy of Dunces, but imagine my shock and delight to learn that Yrieix is also a man who values proper theology and geometry! Here’s a photo of us practicing Ignatian spirituality (in the Reilly sense, not the Loyola one) yesterday in front of a cafe outside St. Sulpice church. You’ve heard of the Three Musketeers? We call ourselves the Three Mongoloids (Ignatius: “Is my paranoia getting completely out of hand, or are you mongoloids really talking about me?”), and here is visual proof that we were busy cultivating a Rich Inner Life:
One more thing before I run off to start another day of interviews: The three of us talked outside the cafe about all kinds of initiatives that young orthodox Catholics are doing that are compatible with the Ben Op, or even inspired by it. This past weekend, Giovanni Zennaro, a young Catholic husband and father in Milan, organized a three-day Ben Op retreat for his family and two others. They met in the Benedictine abbey in Praglia. The abbot led the retreat:
Sitting at the cafe in Paris, we three thought about how important it is right now to form a Ben Op network of Catholics and other Christians who want to be “creative minorities,” and do concrete things to strengthen our faith and our ties to each other. We thought: why not a conference, where we can meet each other, exchange ideas, and form friendships across borders and even oceans? Christian philanthropists who are used to giving money to political causes would do well to help people like Yrieix, Giovanni, and others plant and cultivate seeds of a faith that will endure through the coming trials, and to bear fruit in the future. This is a time for vision and daring.