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The Benedict Option Is Not For Me

September 9, AD2017

Full disclosure: I did not actually read the book “The Benedict Option”. Spiritdaily and a NY Times article is where I gleaned information about this movement in the Church. I did, however, have limited exposure to the idea of Covenant Communities in my parish. About years ago, a very holy, sincere parish priest and several parish families were trying to form a Covenant Community in Howell, NJ. I’m not sure how it all turned out, but they were sincere and devout. My understanding of the theory of the Benedict Option is that the Culture War has been lost and that faithful Catholics must retreat to Covenant Communities. While I do agree the Culture War has been lost, I am against retreating. I will not condemn their efforts or fears but I’m more of a fighter, so retreat is not for me. I’m originally from Brooklyn. As the rap song says, “never back up, never back down.” That is a New Yorker’s motto.

The Culture War Is Lost

The book suggests that we are in a post-Christian era. We are. Okay, so what? Years ago, I was exploring different Catholic groups that sparked my interest. It boiled down to Opus Dei and the Franciscans. In response to a promise to St. Anthony of Padua, I chose the Franciscans. During my formation years, we studied a lot about Francis and his movement. He and his brothers were truly living the way every Catholic Christian should live in a medieval world that was not always friendly to the Church. In many ways, the Church and the world were experiencing the same maladies then as today. St. Francis and St. Anthony of Padua did not retreat. They never backed up and they never backed down.  There is too much to unpack about Francis and the early Franciscans in this essay but I will briefly reflect on it here and there. As a nod to Opus Dei, I must say that I was truly impressed with the quality of men I had the privilege to meet. They are a great holy group of men. They too never backed up and never back down. I wish they had a group in Monmouth County; we need them.

Be In The World Not Of It

Franciscans are taught to be in the world, not of it. That means we need to be out there hugging spiritual lepers. It means we have to first reflect on our own personal leprosy in order to embrace others in Christ. Facing our true selves stripped of all pretense, pride and false faces takes courage. Examining ourselves honestly means not backing up and not backing down from seeing the true person behind all our façades. It also means we can not retreat behind the safe walls of a church building or insular exclusive communities.

Go Out Joyfully Into The World But Be Humble

Last week, after I came out of Confession, I took my place at daily Mass. As the priest elevated Our Lord I felt elated at feeling His love. I felt clean, free from sin, in total communion with Christ. I was so joyful. Then I heard in my heart the Lord speak to me. It was almost in a chiding way. I heard these words interiorly as if spoken by Jesus. “Do you think I loved you any less before you went to Confession?” The message was clear. A form of spiritual pride had invaded me and the Lord spoke to my leprosy. I sat there and thought to myself, wow! My joy was still there but my ego had been tempered. I looked at myself at that moment and in the Presence of the Lord, I was humbled. Jesus never backs up and He never backs down either. If we listen carefully, we can hear Him. After Mass. I went joyfully back out into the World. I felt as if I was a shiny new penny, but tempered, looking at everyone I saw as if they too were shiny new pennies. I resolved, once again, to see Jesus in every person I met.

The Benedict Option As Retreat From Church Ministry

When I read the Spiritdaily article on the Benedict Option, I was elated. I interpreted the Benedict Option as a solution to the trials I was experiencing at my home parish. My efforts at ministry to the forgotten seniors at a nursing home and an outreach effort for the sick were thwarted. An unwelcome attitude also disbanded our men’s adoration group that gathered on Thursday nights for the past ten years. All this justified the Benedict Option for me, which meant retreating from Church ministry, not the world.

Retreating From Volunteerism In My Parish

After these series of disappointments, I decided to retreat from any meaningful volunteerism in my home parish. I was advised by family to just minister to those who come my way. I’m active at my work parish in Manhattan, which is exhilarating. There is a vibrant active faith among the people and clergy there. It is a spiritual oasis, a refreshment from the aridity that now permeates my home parish.  I retreated from the actual parish for a while and attended a neighboring parish. It was a good retreat. I found that in this circumstance, backing up, stepping away and taking time to access my own short comings, accessing my feelings in an unbiased way and then weighing the spiritual pros and cons was best. I have reluctantly returned to my home parish for now. It is a true test of my patience. I consider it as doing my purgatory on earth. What I discovered is that many other parishioners feel the same way. Many have left the parish, one family left the Catholic Church altogether. That is never the answer. We can’t like everyone and pastors can’t make everyone happy. The Benedict Option as I interpreted it seemed like the answer. But what would Jesus do?

Jesus Did Not Exercise The Benedict Option

Jesus was out in the world. He ate with sinners. His mission was to sinners. He loves us. Who did He criticize? The religious elites and the Jewish priests. These elites and priests were the same people who would not enter heaven and prevented others from entering. He advised the crowds about the clerical hypocrites saying do as they tell you but don’t follow their example. Jesus stayed in the world and participated in the Temple rites, reading Torah and proclaiming His identity to His people. They thwarted His mission. Jesus didn’t back up and didn’t back down. He confronted them. They crucified Him. The Church sometimes crucifies its own saints through persecution. Several examples come immediately to mind. They are in no particular order, St. Padre Pio, St. Joan of Arc, the Cure d’Ars, St. Anne Catherine Emmerich,  St. Anthony of Padua, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Bernadette, The Fatima children, St. Therese of Lisieux and the list goes on. None of them backed up or backed down. None of them took the Benedict Option. Every one of them was raised to the altar because of their love, sanctity, and patience.

Saint Augustine tells us “The wicked exist in this world either to be converted or through them the good may exercise patience”.  So I guess I will have many years to learn patience ahead of me.

Priests Are People Too

I have many priest friends. Priests are people too. They sin, have bad days, suffer and must deal with the laity. They do not have easy jobs. I do not expect them to be perfect, but I do expect them to prioritize the spiritual well being of the flock. Clericalism was and is the scourge of the Church Militant and the reason the Church collapsed in Europe. The collapse in the Americas is in full force now in large part because of clericalism. They say a leopard doesn’t change his spots and so it is with clerics who forget the mission of the Church. Only serious prayer or a miracle can convert them.  That being said, overall, most of the priests I know I really like and respect. I love priests. I love the Church and that is why am so passionate about her. Zeal for Her consumes me!

Catholic Stand Provides A Platform

After two years of anguish, anger, and prayer, I reflected on the what would Jesus do question. I reflected on St. Francis. I learned from studying the life of St. Francis that he looked on occasions of persecution as opportunities for grace. He was joyful even when he was abused. I learned that I am nowhere like Francis. I think that when clergy abuse their power, take the faithful for granted or prevent them from ministry they need to be called out. Being a cradle Catholic, I also know the Church is not changing her modus operandi for me. I can’t back up and I can’t back down. Retreat from Church ministry via the Benedict Option is not for me.  After much prayer and then reading Spritdaily I found Catholic Stand. I was inspired. Maybe I could write essays about my faith journey? What a great way to evangelize. So I applied and was accepted. That never back up never back down attitude kicked right back in. I am grateful to Catholicstand for allowing me a platform and a way out of the Benedict Option.

The Benedict Option Is Not For Me

Many people in Covenant Communities would disagree with my characterization of the Benedict Option movement. Maybe my understanding of it is incorrect. But, like St. Francis of Assisi I enjoy being in the world. I enjoy interacting with people of differing religious views and practicing Catholic apologetics. The scandals in the Church make it harder than it used to be to defend our positions on high moral ground. The greatest truth in defending our Church that I love so very much is in the lesson of Judas. This man was called by Jesus to be a priest but chose his own way. He stole from the communal purse, he lied, he bore false witness against the Lord and took a bribe to betray Him to the Jewish High Priest. Even though Judas was one of their number, he was really just a wolf in sheep’s clothing out for himself. St. Francis had to deal with corrupt clergy and familial opposition. His ministry was thwarted and at the end of his life, he was cast aside by his own Order. Padre Pio was persecuted by scandalous clergy. St. Joan of Arc was martyred by the Church leaders. So the bottom line is that there have always been Judases in the Church and there always will be. People with good intentions are sometimes injured by the shepherds they rely on to protect them. Saints have been persecuted by men and women of the Church. That is nothing new. It will happen until the coming of the Lord. Retreating from the Church or the world is not the answer for me. Working in active ministry within the confines of my home parish walls has become futile, but will not stop me from serving the Lord. I must approach the challenges of a broken Church and fallen world as Francis did, with resolute patience and holy joy. I’m not there yet, but I  will never back up and never back down. I believe in One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church. Let us pray for our priests and thank God for them.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Ed is a devout Roman Catholic who loves people, animals, nature, cooking and of course all things Catholic. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York of first generation Italian American parents. He is married to a wonderful faith filled woman and they share their lives with a beautiful Great Pyrenees rescue dog named after the Arch Angel Raphael. Ed works on Wall Street and assists at Daily Mass during his lunch hour. He enjoys spending time with the Lord in Eucharistic Adoration, Lectio Divino and praying the Holy Rosary.

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  • BH

    I have read The Benedict Option and followed that author’s blog for some time. Your article fundamentally mischaracterizes his book, his assessment of the problems with the church and modern culture, and the remedies he advocates (taken as a whole under the title “The Benedict Option”).

    First, Dreher does NOT advocate withdrawing from the world, and the Benedict Option is NOT a withdrawal from the world. Instead, it is the intentional devoting of time/resources to building up the Church as Church. The problem is not that conservatives have lost the culture wars, with the result that they should withdraw into insular communities to keep their faith. Instead, the problem that Dreher sees is that, while the Church has been focused on political platforms (both on the right and the left), Christians have largely lost their understanding of what it means to be a Christian at all. Churches are not passing on the faith to young people, and young people “raised” in Christian churches are dropping out. There are many reasons for this, which I won’t go into. Dreher talks about them ad nauseam, and you can read his blog if you’re interested.

    That said, being part of a “Benedict Option” community doesn’t mean retreating from the world – unless “retreating from the world” entails things like turning off the TV and social media in order to devote time to the study of our faith, prayer, and fellowship with other Christians who want the same thing. It simply means being the church in a robust sense, beyond showing up on Sunday, dropping your donation in the offering plate, and disconnecting from your faith until the next week (or longer). I am often amused that many articles have come out with a premise of, “I disagree with the Benedict Option, and I think what we actually need is . . .” Then the author goes on to argue for something that is completely in tune with the Benedict Option (as actually described by Dreher). Your own attempts to learn from St. Francis how to practice your faith in our present circumstances would likely put you on a similar path.

  • ZorroRules

    Well since you did not really read the option thing I did not really read your article but only scanned it. It’s like this, we have lost no war of any kind culturally or otherwise, what we have lost is a practice of the faith open to children and family in real fecund ways and allowed world-class crappy homilies since about 1968. A nice Catholic ghetto is a fabulous wonderful thing whether one wishes to think of it as a redoubt an island of sanity or whatever. I don’t see it as a covenant community thing in form, that’s kind of odd, what is needed is a real parish and real catholic influenced neighborhoods. None of this is very likely without fecundity and lots of it because when enough people live marriage and family this way it forces more affordable housing and safer neighborhoods automatically and reorients people away from materialism and establishes islands where children are safe and can be formed. Where mothers can be mothers and fathers providers. When I was a kid there were 3 kinds of fathers, sick, dead, or busting their hump to feed the family. And unless dad was dead, mom was home. Not a lot of money, not a lot of new cars, humble but adequate housing, children fed, kept clean, and with any luck many neighbors were family, aunts uncles cousins -all very imperfect but all committed to the Faith. It was never totally catholic but there were lots of us. Nobody driving kids around like a chauffer -that would be crazy -children played after school. We must recover our sanity and once again love children and not fret on college and costs and lunacy but trust in God and live right. The educational costs or economic costs are irrelevant to the actual cost of depriving children of siblings. All this demands changes in the way society functions, from jobs and everything but demand and supply will meet, if we can provide real catholic demands due to our mode of living. As it stands today we must endeavor to have real families and see children as a blessing and each husband must do his duty as each wife must also. We must repent from the lies of the secular world. A college education should not be our god, like it was for St. Augustine’s father, that is just pagan, NO our wealth is and should be in people themselves. Let us end our perverse modes of marriage, I can imagine no more disgusting, trivializing, materialistic way of living than using artificial contraception in marriage, you might as well hire a hooker.

  • captcrisis

    I don’t think people who endorse the Benedict Option really take it seriously. Families in these small, separate communities would quickly fall apart because they would frequently be ejecting children who form gay relationships, practice contraception, and consort with non-Catholics.

  • Howard

    What?! Next you’ll be telling us that you’re not into the Prayer of Jabez or that you don’t wear a WWJD bracelet!

    Sadly, the Benedict Option is clearly just another aspect of commercial Christianity, written, I am even more sad to say, by a spiritual butterfly who converted to Catholicism and then abandoned it. Such a person is not really in a good position to be offering spiritual advice to Catholics who remain within the Church.

    If that sounds like an ad hominem attack (which would be a reasonable complaint), just go over to The American Conservative’s web page and read a dozen or so of his writings that you won’t have to pay for. See how many of them are shameless plugs for his book. When half his blog entries are unintentionally bad jokes with the punchline IF YOU DON’T BUY MY BOOK, THE CHURCH IS DOOMED or IF YOU DON’T BUY MY BOOK, YOUR FAMILY IS DOOMED, it becomes apparent that what is really important is not that American society is saved, but that you give him your money.

  • I am halfway through “The Benedict Option” and find it interesting, informative and, so far, agree with what Dreher has written.

    The decline of Christian beliefs and community is also applicable to many other faiths. The rising tide of skepticism and secularism, glorification of the individual, and an endless quest for self-gratification ignore the “kingdom of God” within us which Jesus urged us to discover.

    Since 1959 I have felt that mysticism is the answer. See 120 Quotations of Mystics at https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/8339126.Ron_D_Krumpos/blog

  • Cyndi

    Why on earth would you condemn a book in which you have not read? Though I’m sure you have gleaned the broad points through the articles you have read, perhaps there are nuances that would help you understand (if you are truly seeking understanding). I think this is highly irresponsible, and indeed, uncharitable – the author’s livelihood depends on people buying the book, and you have criticized something you have not even taken the time to read. I will applaud you on one point: at least you were forthright enough to admit you hadn’t read it.

    Catholic Stand, perhaps a policy should be in place: essayists who are commenting on books should read the books they are commenting on.

    • Eddie

      Thank you for your comment. I wasn’t reviewing the book per se but rather the notion of retreating from the world or in my case from the church community. Please understand that I was not doing a book review and if I was reviewing the book I would have read it. I am familiar first hand with covenant communities and so I understand the concept. Please re read the essay again and see if you have the same reaction. God bless.

    • stefoodie

      Except that The Benedict Option, which is what you used in your title, isn’t about retreating. So people clicking are expecting the article to at least be somewhat about TBO. A more accurate title would have been, Covenant Communities Are Not For Me.

    • Eddie

      The way I see it is that The Benedict Option it takes its premise from St. Benedict who as a monk retreated from the world. Here is n excerpt from  Wikipedia;
      Benedict Option[edit ]
      Dreher has written extensively about the “Benedict Option,” the idea that Christians who want to maintain their faith should segregate themselves to some degree from mainstream society and try to live in intentional communities such as Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, the Bruderhof ,[11] or the School for Conversion.[12] [13] [14] [15] (The phrase comes from Alasdair MacIntyre ‘s 1981 book After Virtue , referencing Benedict of Nursia .) His book The Benedict Option was published in March 2017 and was described by David Brooks, in the New York Times , as “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.”[16] The book was widely reviewed, including by Rowan Williams , who said “The book is worth reading because it poses some helpfully tough questions to a socially liberal majority, as well as to believers of a more traditional colour.”[17]

      I respectfully disagree with you but I really appreciate your comments.
      eddie

    • Cyndi

      Except here is the problem, Eddie: the book does NOT recommend retreating from the world, which you would know if you’d actually read the book. Here’s a quote from the book: “I think too many Christians have decided that the world is bad and should be avoided as much as possible. Well, it’s hard to convert people if that’s your stance. If’s a lot easier to help people to see their own goodness and then bring them in that to point out how bad they are and bring them in.” The book does explore the idea of living in spiritual communities, but the purpose is to nourish and sharpen oneself with like-minded believers in order to be effective ministers of the Gospel. Additionally, the “living in community” aspect is a minor point of the book, which, again, you’d know if you had bothered to read it.

      You are splitting hairs when you say that your point was not to “review” the book. The fact remains that you have mischaracterized the book, with the net effect of potentially dissuading people from buying the book, which is a grave disservice to the author – and frankly, a disservice to Christendom since the ideas contained are worth hearing.

      I read your bio, Eddie, and you seem like a sincere Christian. I would ask that you take this issue to Adoration and pray about how the Golden Rule might apply – if you were the author, would you want someone to condemn your book without reading it? I would also respectfully suggest that you ask Catholic Stand to take down the article until you’ve had a chance to read the book to evaluate whether you would still say, “The Benedict Option is Not for Me” as the headliner for your article.

    • stefoodie

      Eddie, I *did* read the book. That’s what Cyndi and I are saying. You can’t write a non-review of a book that you haven’t read. I think you’re intellectually honest enough to understand what I’m saying here. Without you having read the book, your opinion is based on hearsay, and I don’t think that’s fair to the author or his work. Just like if Rod Dreher were to write a rebuttal to your article without actually having read your article. And Wikipedia isn’t even a reliable enough source upon which to base such a strong opinion about the book.

    • Howard

      Please fix your HTML tags.