Image: us.fotolia.com / bongiozzo
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.”
just wanted to get out of the city and raise our family in a more protected,
slower-paced environment,” Josh told CNA.
the families out here searching for the same thing, we gravitated towards it
and made the leap.”
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.
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.
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 anotherdoubtless very differentSt. 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.”
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 floodthey must figure out a way to ride it
out and preserve their faith for generations to come.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
and Laura Martin moved in 2007, they were expecting their fifth child. They too
were looking for a better place to raise their family.
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.
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.”
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.
romantic vision was shattered there pretty quick when we moved,” Mike said.
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.
the sacrifices, the geographic retreat is an important aspect of the Benedict
Option for many of its adherents.
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.
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
But one of
the main critiques of the Benedict Option has stemmed from this idea of
separationboth 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?
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
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.
Martins were careful to specify they spoke only for themselves.
it’s very dangerous to speak for the community, because…there’s not one unified
approach, there are many dissimilarities,” Josh said.
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, partiesalmost
everyone is involved, he said.
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.
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
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.
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.
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,”
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
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.
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.
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.
become more aware of how I’ve always perceived a parish as a buildingbut it
really isn’t that, it’s a living, breathing ecosystem that expands and
contracts depending on who’s there.”
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.”
parish in Littleton, Colorado, is one such parish, with around 1,800 registered
families, an orthodox Roman Catholic faith and a thriving community life.
is to be a family of families,” said Linda Sherman, director of family life and
service for the parish.
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.
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.
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.
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.
become increasingly important for parishioners to find a community of others
who share their faith and values, Sherman said.
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
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.
actually are strategic about planning for discipleship, they challenge and
engage the spiritual maturity of their people,” she said.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
defined it by saying that he had this question in himhave the people left the
church? Or has the church left the people?” Peterson told CNA.
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 faithmuch in the style of Pope John Paul II, a close friend of
Giussani and the movement.
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,”
students grew up and continued following his teachings, a movement was born.
Membership in Communion and Liberation is freely giventhere’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
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.
movement also has consecrated lay men and womencalled Memores Dominiwho 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.
regardless of the level of association, CL members have a markedly different
way of viewing the world than the Ben-Oppers.
afraid of doom and gloom around the corner, not to say that that’s wrong, but
that’s not our style,” Peterson said.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 waysschools, hospitals, catechesisrather
than focusing on one particular type of ministry. Members and friends of the
movement regularly come together for meals, liturgy, faith formation and
of the Visitation said that while her community anchors her, she desires to
invite more people to live a life following the Beatitudes.
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.”
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.
also worries that the Benedict Option may look at those in the world as
“other,” rather than as brothers and sisters.
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.
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
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.”
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.”