Traditional religious life: The real “Benedict Option”

Ancient forms of religious life—centered around contemplation and the Divine Office—remain appealing to young people looking to devote their lives to God.

At first blush, with today’s crises in the world and the Church, one might not think that this would be a time for a flowering of religious vocations. In the world, we are watching the Middle Eastern situation escalating daily, and in the Church we struggle to keep our cool as bishops and cardinals line up against each other on either side of crucial doctrines.

In both crises, no one has any idea what will happen next. So it may seem funny to think that a solution is to go live in a monastery in the middle of nowhere and pray in Latin eight times a day.

We have a view of religious life—perhaps gleaned from its spiritual writers and the movies—of it being a matter of serenity: quiet cloisters and beautiful Gregorian chant, sandaled feet padding along flagstones, monks or nuns laboring in fields and copying manuscripts. Of course, this idealized, iconic picture is now found only extremely rarely in a Church that has deliberately abandoned most of these traditional artefacts of monasticism. But there are still places where they can be found, if you look hard enough.

Perhaps more surprising is that there are still serious-minded young people eager to give their entire lives to the vowed religious life.

But the idea that contemplative religious life is one of quiet retirement, a retreat from the ups and downs of the world punctuated by nothing more exciting than a spot of light gardening in between a bit of singing and a daily Rosary, is one rooted in a fundamental error. If it were, as Protestant critics have often said, nothing more than this, it would be a supreme act of selfishness, and thoroughly unappealing both to potential nuns and monks and to the regular run of folks.

I live in a small town in the Umbrian mountains that is a favorite place of pilgrimage by serious Catholics from around the world. These are people who have come to see the birthplace of St. Benedict, the founder of western monasticism and patron of Europe, and his sister, the mysterious hermitess and mystic St. Scholastica. Their monastic ideal is being lived by a small group of younger monks who came to this town at the urgent wishes of the townspeople.

The year of Benedict and Scholastica’s birth, 480 AD, was a year of terrifying upheaval in the dying days of the Roman Empire. One emperor had been murdered by his own troops in Dalmatia. A Romanized German barbarian general and nominal Arian, Odoacer, ruled as “king of Italy,” including all the Adriatic coast of modern Croatia, after intimidating the Roman Senate into supporting him. His reign is usually accepted as marking the end of the Western Roman Empire. While all this was going on, the Visigoths were stirring ominously in the far north.

Rome itself was enough of a moral cesspit that a young, aristocratic, and devoutly Christian Benedict fled before he had finished his education at the no doubt expensive school his parents had sent him to. So revolted was he at the low moral standards of the “civilized” late Empire, that he fled to the countryside to live in a cave, like the hermits he would have known near his home town. From there he went on to found 12 houses of monks and ultimately to write his Rule.  

Given the news that we hear daily from the formerly Christian Middle East, and from the corrupt remnants of our western world, it is hardly surprising that St. Benedict and his salvage operation would have an immediate appeal to the people of his time, as they do to at least a few of the young people of ours.  

Jessica Kidwell is one of these young people. She is 23, a “cradle Catholic” and a highly articulate graduate of a reputable college. I asked her why she wants to join the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles in Missouri so badly that she has launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to pay down her remaining $30,000 in student loans. (Perhaps the most common problem facing young people in North America who want to join religious orders is their student debt, which can be in six digits.)

Kidwell said it was the “beauty of the evangelical counsels”—the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—that attracted her, even early in childhood. A school project on St. Clare started the ball rolling: she was “struck by the fact that St. Francis sent St. Clare off to stay with some Benedictines to learn how to be a nun before she could start her own order. So I guess you could say ever since I hit the age of reason, I’ve had the desire to be a nun, and I’ve seen Benedictines as the gold standard of monasticism.”

The Benedictines of Mary, who have recently gained national attention in the US with their recordings of Gregorian Chant and traditional Catholic hymns in Latin, are notable also for their use of the full traditional monastic Divine Office that was once the mainstay of Benedictine life, and enjoy the benefits of the Extraordinary Form Mass in Latin. The sisters pray in Latin eight times a day, in a cycle that has remained unbroken since the earliest ages of the universal Church.

Liturgical experts point to the unifying power—both temporal and aesthetic—of the ancient rites of the Church. Those who are able to use them speak of the feeling of connection they have with their spiritual forebears and the coherence and meaning they bring to the cycle of liturgical life, a unity that was mostly ignored in the creation of the new rubrics and cycle of readings.

With this great Catholic liturgical patrimony being revived in some few pockets around the world, Jessica Kidwell’s story is more common than one might imagine. Gregory di Pippo, the editor of the New Liturgical Movement website, told me that the Church’s treasure house of art, music, and spiritual patrimony is being discovered more and more by younger people with no “baggage” about the pre-conciliar Church.

“History, philosophy, theology, even fiction,” he said, can lead to the discovery “that the Catholic Faith, its content and practice did not spring into being a half-century ago, and in fact used to involve something nobler than spaceship-esque church buildings, more rigorous than coloring-book catechetics, more demanding than two days of fasting a year, more beautiful than polyester and velcro vestments, more godly than politics, and more true than moral or cultural relativism.”

People are still looking for the Summum Bonum, the Greatest Good, di Pippo added. “It’s not just an issue of an aesthetic preference. It’s far more serious than that.”

Jessica Kidwell said that once she discovered the beauty and transcendence of the traditional Mass and Divine Office, quite different from the pared-down and modernized English language revisions of the 1960s, she was “hooked.”

She counts herself lucky to be born in a time well after the great tearing-down in the Church of her parents’ generation. In the 1970s and 80s, thousands of nuns abandoned their convents as the religious orders “modernized” according to the trends that burst onto the scene after Vatican II and in response to the secular “social revolution.”

“My generation’s mothers and fathers,” Kidwell said, “were discerning their vocations in an environment wherein the religious life was largely either dead, or a mockery of the evangelical counsels.

“By the grace of God, there are more options out there now for sincere young Catholics who want to give their lives to God in religious vows.”

She said, however, that the public image of religious has been hurt by the kind of sisters who reject the Church’s teaching and tradition and aggressively campaign for anti-Catholic causes. She said she has received pushback from family members based on this problem.

Families, she said, are often unaware that there is a revival in the Church of more traditionally minded religious. “So when one says, ‘Hey, I think I’m supposed to be a nun,’ they think you mean, ‘I want to be a pantsuit-clad dissident with a spiky crew cut and a chip on my shoulder,’ and that’s simply not the case.”

Gregory di Pippo confirms that this continues to be a source of tension in the Church, saying that younger candidates to religious life do not share the same fears as the current leadership of some orders over returning to “pre-Vatican II” styles of life.

“Anyone who is interested in religious life today,” he said, “be it monastic or some other type, has none of the baggage about life in the ‘bad old days.’ For such people, the idea of a solid liturgical life in general, one which is beautiful, disciplined, and obedient to mind and law of the Church, is something which they mostly take for granted [as] part of religious life.”

Jessica Kidwell says that it is precisely this older liturgical discipline that is attractive about the Benedictines of Mary.

“They live a very primitive form of Benedictine life, and so the lynchpin of that is the traditional Mass and Office. As someone with very traditional sensibilities, that’s important to me.” She called what they do “religious life distilled down to its purest form.”

“Throughout history, there have been a number of great movements of renewal within the Benedictine family, like the Cluniacs, the Cistercians, the Carthusians, and so on,” Kidwell said. “These movements all centered around a return to the two pillars of the Rule of St. Benedict; prayer and work. I see what the Benedictines of Mary are doing as being in that same vein, and I want to be a part of it.” 

Far from being an exercise in self-absorption, she says contemplation is an absolute necessity for apostolic work as well. Quoting the French Trappist and spiritual writer, Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, Kidwell said, “Contemplation, union with God, fortifies the soul to do what needs to be done in the world, and to direct all that doing to its proper end.”

This is the classical understanding of the Church for the religious life, one that many observers of the active orders before the collapse of the 1960s said was missing. Records of the time commonly complain that the sisters’ prayer life was rote and routine, a matter of external forms. And even where this minimum was maintained, the active life of teaching and nursing would either push out the life of prayer or cause unendurable mental and physical stress. Most of the communities who are returning consciously to the traditions of Catholic religious life have taken this problem into account and more care is taken now in authentic spiritual formation.

But some young people are still called to an exclusive focus on contemplation. “There’s a real deficit in contemplation these days,” Kidwell said, “and God, in his Mercy, is calling people to step into the breach. We’re not going to see a renewal in the priesthood or the missions, or likely anywhere else in the Church, until we have a renewal in the contemplative life.”

Asked whether she thought it was incongruous to want to pursue cloistered contemplative life in the face of unprecedented crises in the Church and the world, Kidwell was undaunted, saying that authentic religious life, no matter how tranquil it looks from the outside, is always about “spiritual warfare,” an internal struggle with prayer and striving for perfection.

“When God wills something, one has to fight for it, and if one is injured in battle, or never lives to see the victory, this doesn’t invalidate the sacrifice or the attempt to please God. Nobody ever said this was easy or that we’d never be misunderstood or temporarily thwarted,” she said.

Gregory di Pippo, who lives in Rome and is, through his work, in touch with dozens of religious, concurs. He said that the older idea, that the Church’s liturgical and spiritual traditions are a hindrance to evangelization, is dying out. 

“It seems very clear to me that now, this attitude is much rarer among young Catholics who are interested in monastic life, and in religious life generally. There is indeed a broad interest in the Church’s traditional liturgy, as also in traditional practices which are not specifically liturgical.”

He says he is “cautiously optimistic that this interest is grounded in an understanding that the Church can only be authentically Catholic when its liturgical life is an expression of her belief, and that we cannot really preach what we believe if our liturgical practice contradicts it.”

He recounts the case of one religious order, not  monastic and very much in line with the “reforms” of the post-conciliar period, whose new postulants asked to be allowed to make their profession of vows wearing cassocks, which had not been done in decades.

“Not only were they allowed to do this, but their request raised no controversy, as it certainly would have even 10 years ago. It wasn’t even considered a matter that required much discussion.”

“There are seminaries,” he added, “whose students 20 years ago had to be very careful to conceal their interest in the traditional liturgy from their superiors, and which now have it in-house on a regular basis.”

Asked why she feels such an urgency, at such a young age, to enter the monastery as soon as possible, Kidwell said she puts it down to God’s insistent calling. “It is a rather hurried deadline. My current anticipated entry date is this winter.”

She had been considering graduate school and possibly a few years of teaching.

“I had visited the monastery before, and I kept putting off a second visit, but I finally went back over the break between semesters, and I knew I couldn’t go back to school.

“And then, one day, I was in their chapel for Holy Hour, and that was when I knew. It was this gentle, yet persistent, ‘Now!’ It was very clear.”

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About Hilary White 0 Articles
Hilary White writes from Norcia, Italy.