The Benedict Option?
In a recent article I responded briefly and partially to the following question from a reader:
What vision in your view could the Orthodox Church offer to people who are seeking life? …Many parish churches that are filled with pious families with the best of intentions occupy such a small fragment of parishioners’ lives that they stand little chance against the array of forces pulling us downwards. At what point would it be wise for those of us who have the means to seek to disengage from modern society and reconstitute a community along more traditional lines, where church, work, and family are more integrated?
This question is absolutely vital for all Orthodox Christians to ask, especially those of us living in modern America, and it deserves a much fuller answer than the one which I hinted at rather than gave directly in the course of my previous article.
In essence, I take the question to be about the “Benedict Option,” advocated principally by Rod Dreher. If I understand him correctly (I sometimes read his blog but have only partially read his book), the general idea is that we Christians need to stop trying so hard to win the culture wars and instead turn our focus inward, investing our efforts primarily in deepening our own faith and recovering and strengthening our Christian identity. Dreher frequently takes pains to emphasize that what he advocates is a strategic retreat, not a wholesale abandonment of the Great Commission as his detractors sometimes allege. He is calling us to actively seek out the Church, rather than busy ourselves with deck chairs on the cultural Titanic.
On a broad scale, I agree with Dreher wholeheartedly. We cannot win the culture wars. If St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) could write: “Apostasy is permitted by God; do not be tempted to stop it with your feeble hand” while living in Holy Russia, then we are in serious delusion if we think we stand any better chance in contemporary America. The waters of the apostasy are steadily rising, and there is nothing that we can possibly do to hold them back. But what we can do, what we absolutely must to do with every ounce of our strength, is to run toward the Ark of the Church.
Much of Dreher’s writing is dedicated to raising awareness of just how dire the situation has already become for Christians in the West, and in this he is doing an invaluable service. It is all too easy for us to believe the comfortable lie that friendship with the world is not really enmity with God. So much the more since, for many centuries, that enmity has been very carefully and deliberately hidden. But now it is finally beginning to show its teeth. Dreher is trying to awaken Christians from the slumber of complacency, to force us to face up to the crisis at hand, and to finally decide what to do about it.
But that precisely is the question: what ought we to do about it? How are we, as Orthodox Christians, to respond to the realities of a post-Christian and increasingly anti-Christian world? I think that Dreher’s general answer is absolutely correct: “the church can’t just be the place you go on Sundays—it must become the center of your life.” Where I begin to differ with Dreher, however, is when he immediately follows this by saying: “That is, you may visit your house of worship only once a week, but what happens there in worship, and the community and the culture it creates, must be the things around which you order the rest of the week.”
Many have accused Dreher of unwarranted extremism. I don’t think he goes nearly far enough. It is precisely this modern attitude that communal worship belongs almost exclusively to Sunday mornings that is principally responsible for the near-total withering of the faith which we are witnessing all around us.
This status quo of contemporary Christianity — including, unfortunately, most of Orthodoxy — is grossly inadequate. We live our entire lives immersed in a culture predicated upon a comfortable and all-embracing nihilism, and we are inundated twenty-four hours a day by a constant barrage of temptations literally unimaginable in any prior era of human history. I am not exaggerating: a middle school student need only take out his smartphone to easily access pornography so sickening that it makes Sodom and Gomorrah look positively tame by comparison. And this is not something which society even considers to be shameful; rather, it is celebrated as a triumph of liberty, healthy personal development, openness, tolerance, and love.
And this same spirit is beginning to enter the Orthodox world as well. Recently, an extremely well-known Orthodox nun advised a mother to allow her gay teenage son to openly date other gay men, and even went so far as to say that if he was denied communion for doing so then it would mean that he was following in the footsteps of St. Mary of Egypt. This kind of blasphemy — not just encouraging but even glorifying surrender to carnal temptation, in the name of the saint most famous for conquering carnal temptation — is tragically mistaken for compassion and understanding, even by those who are earnestly seeking to live the life in Christ.
So can we honestly believe that an hour or two of church on Sunday mornings will be enough to enable our children even to keep the faith, much less give them the spiritual strength and fortitude needed to weather the coming storm of the Antichrist?
Please don’t misunderstand me: to establish and order our personal lives, our families, our friendships and our communities around Christ and His Church is absolutely essential, and indeed is sorely needed in today’s fragmented, atomized, and deeply lonely world. But we must always keep in mind the words of St. Anthony of Optina: “Prayers during church services have so much power and significance that just the words, ‘Lord, have mercy’ surpass all the spiritual exercises performed on your own.”
The churches and cathedrals are not empty because the world abandoned Christianity. The world abandoned Christianity because its Christians had already abandoned the churches and cathedrals. Our faith is irrevocably incarnate and intrinsically communal. If we do not physically stand together in the presence of God, and stand there often, then there is nothing in this world that can prevent us from each being scattered to the winds.
If you think I am exaggerating, I can give you a warning from my own bitter experience: even living in a monastery, with the divine services every morning, every evening, and throughout the day, with cell rules and spiritual reading and the lives of the saints being read during our meals taken in silence, with communal labor undertaken together for the sake of Christ and His Vineyard, surrounded all the time by icons and holy relics, it is still so incredibly easy to frequently find oneself utterly insensible to spiritual things, totally consumed by the thoughts, attitudes, and values of this world.
In the early days of Christianity, the Church survived horrific persecution and bloody martyrdom by gathering every single day to partake together of the Holy Mysteries of Christ. And for many centuries, even into relatively modern times, the typical parish practice was to hold the complete cycle of divine services every single day. Mothers and fathers would rise before dawn to bring their children to Matins in the village church, before beginning a long day of such toil and labor as few of us have ever known. Meanwhile, we ourselves keep hitting the snooze button until the last possible moment before rolling out of bed. Nobody ever said that saving your soul would be easy.
But you know what? I’d be willing to bet anything that at the end of the day, after countless hours of back-breaking work, those peasant families came home after Compline and stood before their icon corner, quietly reciting their evening prayers together, and knew a peace of which the rest of us can scarcely dream.
The Holy Fathers tell us that the angels are a light to monastics, and the monastics are a light to the laity. The angels liturgize unceasingly in the Kingdom of Heaven, and we monks try as best we can to order our day around the divine services, which in very truth are Heaven on earth. So if you want to take the option of St. Benedict, come and experience with us the life that he founded, and then, to the best of your ability, recreate that life in your parish at home.
I can absolutely guarantee you there is nothing else that you can possibly do to strengthen your spiritual life, to establish yourself and your family in the faith, and to save your souls, that will even come close to the power and the grace of increased participation in the beautiful and transcendent services of the Church. The divine services are divine life itself. In them we meet ourselves, we meet one another, and we meet God. In what else than this does Heaven itself consist?
I’m not saying that you should call your priest and demand that he start following the Typikon to the last jot and tittle, starting tomorrow. But it is always possible to make a beginning. Most priests would be absolutely overjoyed to increase the number of services offered at their parishes, and many priests with whom I have spoken have tried extremely hard to do so. But nobody comes. They cannot do it alone: they need chanters, they need choir members, they need altar servers. They need the faithful. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
We don’t need to found a new and exciting form of Christian community, custom made for the modern world. We simply need to go to Church! By the grace of God, in America we have both monasteries and parishes — weak and poor excuses for such, as a rule, but nevertheless they are here. The Holy Spirit is here. Christ stands at the door and knocks. Will we answer?
Behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest. And he that reapeth receiveth wages, and gathereth fruit unto life eternal: that both he that soweth and he that reapeth may rejoice together.