Is the “Benedict Option” the only option left?

Faced with an increasingly hostile secular culture, some Catholics are choosing to form small communities of believers set apart—in different ways—from “the world.”

Image: us.fotolia.com / bongiozzo

When Josh and Laura Martin, both converts to the faith, moved their growing family of six from the city of Dallas, Texas to the hills of Oklahoma, they didn’t necessarily know that they were participating in the “Benedict Option.”

“We initially just wanted to get out of the city and raise our family in a more protected, slower-paced environment,” Josh told CNA.

“With all the families out here searching for the same thing, we gravitated towards it and made the leap.”

They moved to be close to the Benedictine Abbey at Clear Creek, Oklahoma, where dozens of other families from around the country have congregated over the course of the past 15 years or so.

Dubious of the direction in which the morals of modern society seem to be heading, they came in search of a slower pace and a more liturgical life with a community of other like-minded Catholics. Many villagers attend daily morning Mass with the monks before 7 a.m., and the traditional Latin Mass on Sundays. The monastery serves as the center of the community, the monks as a real-life example of religious life to the youngsters.

Journalist Rod Dreher is credited with dubbing this phenomenon “The Benedict Option,” a term inspired by the last paragraph of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, After Virtue, in which he wrote about waiting “for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” This new Benedict would help construct “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages.”

Just as Benedict was looking to escape the crumbling and increasingly anti-Christian culture of Rome, families like the Martins are looking to the hills of Oklahoma to escape today’s secular society, where Christian values are seen as increasingly foreign or even hostile to the status quo. They are disturbed by trends such as the legalization of gay marriage, the increasing popularity of gender ideology, or the shrinking of religious freedom.

In his new book, The Benedict Option, Dreher calls the new societal trends and values “The Flood,” and argues that Christians can no longer fight the flood—they must figure out a way to ride it out and preserve their faith for generations to come.

“…American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture, one in which our beliefs make increasingly little sense. We speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears,” he writes.

“The idea is that serious Christian conservatives could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America, that we have to develop creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them.”

Communities like the one surrounding Clear Creek Abbey seem to be the most obvious examples of the Benedict Option, their lifestyles most resembling the villages that grew up around the Benedictine monasteries in Europe centuries ago. However, Dreher does expand the definition to include other forms of Christian communities, like those that form around classical schools, such as St. Jerome’s school in Hyattsville, Maryland. The phenomenon is also occurring not just among Catholics, but among Protestant and Orthodox Christians as well.

Mike Lawless, his wife Kathy, and their children first learned about the community surrounding Clear Creek when they were living in San Diego. They were part of a homeschool group, and lived on the edge of town, as far away from the city hustle and bustle as possible.

But when a friend told them about the families moving near Clear Creek Abbey, the whole family of six (going on seven) loved the idea of the novelty and adventure of moving to the hills of Oklahoma, so they packed up and made the leap.

“What we were looking for was a healthier culture,” Mike told CNA. He wanted to raise his children in an environment that wasn’t heavily influenced by the prevailing secular culture.

When Josh and Laura Martin moved in 2007, they were expecting their fifth child. They too were looking for a better place to raise their family.

It was rough going at first. The land by Clear Creek Abbey is not great for farming. Josh tried to make the leap from management positions to manual labor, but it ultimately didn’t work.

“I just fell flat on my face, burned up all my money, learned a lot of good valuable lessons I wouldn’t trade for anything,” Josh said. “After 4-5 years we realized that you have to do something that you know how to do.”

He’s now in a management position for a medical device company in the area, and things have been a lot better. Similarly, Mike Lawless tried to make living off the land a priority. But after his attempts at farming and cattle were heading in a “direction that wasn’t positive,” he had to scale back his agricultural projects and return to the work he knew, which was mechanical engineering.

“That romantic vision was shattered there pretty quick when we moved,” Mike said.

Most families in the area do not subsist off the land alone, but there are few options for work in town. The Institute for Excellence in Writing, directed by Clear Creek villager Andrew Pudewa, employs some people in the area. Others, like Mike, do much of their work remotely. Still others make the hour commute to and from Tulsa for work.

Despite the sacrifices, the geographic retreat is an important aspect of the Benedict Option for many of its adherents.

“Being in a rural area, where you’re not maybe as distracted by the noise and goings on of the city, there’s a little bit more quiet, and that silence gives you the opportunity to appreciate (the liturgical season) more,” Laura Martin told CNA.

“There’s fewer distractions, and that is helpful I think in focusing on trying to regain some of the culture that we’ve lost or the connections that we’ve missed in our busy lives, so that element has been really helpful for us to grow in our faith.”

But one of the main critiques of the Benedict Option has stemmed from this idea of separation—both culturally and geographically. How can the faithful evangelize, as they are called to do, if they embed in communities of likeminded people in remote countryside hills?

“It’s not an insular community,” Josh insists, “but it is a sort of retreat because the cultural forces are so overwhelming that it’s difficult for me to imagine…trying to raise my family in that environment, so somewhere in that mix is the Benedict Option.”

The Martins are aware of the dangers of becoming too insular. They send two of their kids to public school, and they let their kids play soccer on a local league, which has made them a lot of local, non-Catholic friends. But not everyone in the village agrees on this, or other subjects. The use of T.V. and Internet varies widely among families, as do opinions about whether women should wear anything other than skirts (and of what length those skirts should be), or how much contact is maintained with the outside world.

The Martins were careful to specify they spoke only for themselves.

“Out here it’s very dangerous to speak for the community, because…there’s not one unified approach, there are many dissimilarities,” Josh said.

But what there is, is a strong sense of community and a desire to live out the Catholic faith. Whether it’s for funerals, weddings, baby showers, dances, parties—almost everyone is involved, he said.

“Weddings are just a complete madhouse,” Josh said, laughing. Baby showers can sometimes include 60-70 women. When a new family arrives, everyone pitches in to help them move furniture and get settled.

“There’s a huge sense of cohesion,” he said. “Your life is so intertwined with the community. There’s a strong identity of being definitely Catholic that would be very difficult to leave.”

What about parish life?

For many Catholics, uprooting their lives and moving to Oklahoma (or near other monasteries) simply isn’t an option. The most basic building block of Catholic community and society available to them is their local parish.

Dreher writes of the importance of living in proximity to one’s parish, so that it can all the more easily become the center of one’s life. But Christians must still be discerning about whether their local parish is teaching the true faith, or whether it has been too compromised by the secular culture.

“The changes that have overtaken the West in our modern times have revolutionized everything, even the church, which no longer forms souls but caters to selves,” Dreher writes.

“As conservative Anglican theologian Ephriam Radner has said, ‘There is no safe place in the world or in our churches within which to be a Christian. It is a new epoch.’”

To be sure, parish life has seen significant shifts in the United States. When waves of Catholic immigrants arrived in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they found stability and community in the New World at their local, often ethnically segregated, parish. Often ostracized for their faith in other areas of society, they looked to their parish not only as a source for the sacraments, but as a place to meet friends, host meetings and dances, to rely on as a second family.

Society has since shifted. As Catholics became more accepted into mainstream society, they no longer looked to their parish as their only source of community. And as ethnic ties became looser, the need for Polish Catholics to go to the Polish parish, for example, dwindled. The hub of Catholicism, once the East Coast, shifted west as people moved out of the city.

But while things have changed, that doesn’t mean that flourishing parishes can’t be found today, said Claire Henning, executive director of Parish Catalyst, a group that studies what makes parishes thrive.

“I’ve become more aware of how I’ve always perceived a parish as a building—but it really isn’t that, it’s a living, breathing ecosystem that expands and contracts depending on who’s there.”

For their recent book Great Catholic Parishes, William Simon, founder of Parish Catalyst, identified four characteristics of thriving parishes: shared leadership among clergy and laity, a variety of formation programs, an emphasis on Sunday and the liturgy, and evangelizing to people both in and out of the pews.

One of the main questions these thriving parishes are constantly asking of themselves is: “How do we speak the language of the Gospel to the people of today?” Henning said. “So you need people who are thought leaders to be thinking of that.”

St. Mary’s parish in Littleton, Colorado, is one such parish, with around 1,800 registered families, an orthodox Roman Catholic faith and a thriving community life.

“The goal is to be a family of families,” said Linda Sherman, director of family life and service for the parish.

“What we’re looking for is to support families in all their various nuances and ages, to support them in their Catholic faith, and as they are growing in their faith and growing closer to God.”

It can be difficult to create a sense of community in such a large parish, Sherman admits, but the key is getting families involved in ministry.

Perhaps one of the most important ministries that St. Mary’s offers is called Mother of Mercy ministry, the purpose of which is “to fill in the gaps of people who don’t have an existing support system of families in town,” Sherman told CNA.

How it works: anyone can sign up for Mother of Mercy, either offering or asking for services ranging from lawn-mowing to rides to the doctor to babysitting. It connects volunteers with folks who need them, and helps people feel like they have a local support system, she said.

There are also youth groups, young adult groups, family groups and bible studies that allow people to grow in their faith in smaller settings, which then strengthens both their faith and their connection to the parish.

It’s become increasingly important for parishioners to find a community of others who share their faith and values, Sherman said.

“It allows you to be stronger in your faith if you have people around you who support you in your values. And that’s whether you’re newly married or you’re 50 years old and you’re working in a job with people who don’t have the same faith life as you, or any faith life,” she said. “You don’t want to feel like the odd man out.”

And while Dreher expresses concerns about the orthodoxy of many parishes and churches, Henning said it is the churches that focus on liturgy and discipleship that prove to be the best parishes.

“They actually are strategic about planning for discipleship, they challenge and engage the spiritual maturity of their people,” she said.

“And they really excel on Sundays. There’s an intense interest on preparing good homilies, they get the best music they can get, they’re very hospitable. And they really do have a plan for evangelization, they enter into mission, and they have a vision and structure for moving beyond the doors of the church.”

Prayer and the Eucharist are also central to thriving parishes, as Simon points out in his book. St. Mary’s parish has a 24-hour adoration chapel, accessible by code.

“The Eucharist is the source of unity for the parish; it is the supreme action that unites all who experience it to Christ and to the prayer and tradition of the universal Catholic community,” Simon wrote.

Catholicism in the city: Ecclesial movements

Another popular form of community within the Catholic Church, particularly in the post-Vatican II years of the 20th and 21st Centuries, has been ecclesial movements. These include groups such as Opus Dei, Focolare, or the Neocatechumenal Way.

In e-mail comments to CNA, Dreher said that he did not know enough about ecclesial movements to say whether or not they could constitute a “Benedict Option.” But they seem to have markedly different philosophies when it comes to living the Christian life in the world.

Ecclesial movements seek to re-engage the laity in their faith and to evangelize the world. They include a variety of charisms, educational methods and apostolic forms and goals, and while they have local bases, they are not geographically bound to one location. Many have a presence in countries throughout the world.

Holly Peterson is the director of communications for Communion and Liberation, one such ecclesial movement that was founded by Italian priest Fr. Luigi Giussani.

As a young priest in 1950s Italy, where basically everyone went to Mass and Catholic school, Fr. Giussani began to realize that the faith didn’t actually mean anything to the real, lived experiences of the young students he was teaching. They went through the motions of the faith, but they didn’t seem to know what it meant to really live a Christian life.

“He later defined it by saying that he had this question in him—have the people left the church? Or has the church left the people?” Peterson told CNA.

Fr. Giussani started taking his students on retreats and excursions in the mountains so that he could teach them how to live an authentically integrated life of faith—much in the style of Pope John Paul II, a close friend of Giussani and the movement.

“He understood that…he needed to introduce them to life, because through their experience of life they would begin to understand who God was, who Christ was,” Peterson said.

As his students grew up and continued following his teachings, a movement was born. Membership in Communion and Liberation is freely given—there’s no registration or membership requirements, and there are many different levels of association, but a standard commitment is attendance at the weekly meetings, called School of Community.

School of Community is more than just a meeting, Peterson said. It’s a chance for catechesis, for members to be spiritually fed, but also for them to develop Christian friendships that grow outside of the official meetings. Members form strong friendships and communities that carry on outside of the weekly meetings. They go out to dinner, help each other with babysitting, have parties, and just live life together.

The movement also has consecrated lay men and women—called Memores Domini—who live in community but work in the secular world. There are doctors, rocket scientists, secretaries, teachers, and many other kinds of professions found amongst the members.

But regardless of the level of association, CL members have a markedly different way of viewing the world than the Ben-Oppers.

“We’re not afraid of doom and gloom around the corner, not to say that that’s wrong, but that’s not our style,” Peterson said.

“Instead we desire to dive into the deep end of the pool. We want to be present where people are suffering, we want to do what Pope Francis has called us to do, which is to go to the periphery.”

“And the periphery isn’t necessarily skid row of L.A., though that is the periphery as well,” she added. “My periphery could be my workplace, where everyone might live a pessimism that’s so thick and so sad, where they have absolutely zero hope in front of the reality that we live.”

The Community of the Beatitudes, founded in France, is another active ecclesial movement. Like the name implies, they strive to live the teachings of the Beatitudes within their community. Their charism is Eucharistic and Marian, and in the Carmelite tradition.

The community has consecrated brothers and sisters, as well as several hundred lay members and friends at various levels of association, that are active throughout the world. In the beginning, lay members lived in community with the consecrated members in huge monasteries in Europe that allowed each vocation to have its own separate wing. But more recently, the Vatican told the community that the lay members must not live directly with consecrated members.

“Rome said lay must be real lay, you don’t stay set apart,” Sr. Mary of the Visitation, a member of the community in Denver, told CNA.

“So obviously they are lay people, they receive the spirit and the charism of the community, they are full members of the community, they’re fully part of the liturgy, but they live in the world.”

The Community of the Beatitudes, much like Communion and Liberation, quickly spread all over the world. Their apostolates serve the immediate needs of their surrounding communities in various ways—schools, hospitals, catechesis—rather than focusing on one particular type of ministry. Members and friends of the movement regularly come together for meals, liturgy, faith formation and service.

Sr. Mary of the Visitation said that while her community anchors her, she desires to invite more people to live a life following the Beatitudes.

Although rooted in prayer, “we live in the world,” she said. “So if I’m going for a walk in the neighborhood, I will meet people, obviously when they see my habit they will think about God, but then we can have a conversation and go deeper.”

Sr. Mary said that on the one hand, she understands the Benedict Option desire to preserve the good, and to separate oneself from evil. Preserving oneself from too much T.V., or other inappropriate media, is a good thing, she said.

But she also worries that the Benedict Option may look at those in the world as “other,” rather than as brothers and sisters.

“What I dislike in this idea, is that it would mean that the world is bad, and the Benedictine Option is good. But we’re not in a movie with the bad and the good. We are in the reality of life, where the world is within me, and this is the most difficult part is to convert myself,” she said.

“And I really think that my brothers and sisters from the world, I cannot judge them, I cannot be separate from them, because I don’t want to go to heaven without them.”

There have been concerns among some that ecclesial movements are taking the place of the parish in members’ lives. But lived properly, Peterson said, that’s not the case – movements should serve to strengthen parish communities.

“We try to be very engaged in the parish for that reason,” she said, “doing charitable work, teaching in parish schools, a lot of musicians in the movement are active in their parishes.”

Ultimately, she said, “I think these movements are the way that God is rejuvenating the Church…movements are called to give people life so that they can live in this crazy world here.”

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