I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Suburbia (where I’ve lived my whole life ) and Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option. I haven’t read Rod’s book, but I’ve read a ton of what he’s written about the BenOp over the past several years. The argument from this White Kid who’s never lived in the ‘hood, who hasn’t traveled widely, who was not educated in the classics, who had a very average career, among very average people, in average homes, with mostly average kids and families, is not that the BenOp isn’t necessary (it is), but that it’s not new.
Rod often casts people into categories of those for or opposed to the BenOp. I wish he wouldn’t, but that’s the tack he’s adopted. For the record, I have always been an enormous champion of what he’s written about, including this, “…Catholicism has the infrastructure and the population to support all kinds of local Ben Op efforts.” Nothing could be more accurate, and I became Catholic largely because of that reality. (More on this later.) For those of us who champion the BenOp but don’t intend to radically alter our lives, perhaps the challenging reality for Rod will be to come to terms with Suburbia and its lack of discontents.
I Love Suburbia
You ain’t gonna believe this. I love Suburbia. I was raised in Suburbia. I’ll never move from Suburbia. I don’t take Suburbia for granted and never have. Well, okay, I was a kid once, sure, and thought this was how people lived. But that bubble burst relatively early on. Why? Because Suburbia has its problems. We’ve got poverty, street people, and tent cities. We’ve got some drugs and crime. Nothing like elsewhere on the planet, or even an hour up the road in parts of LA. But we’ve got some. And it’s enough. Don’t need more.
We measure distance in time. My folks are 15 minutes away, in the same home where I was raised; one adult daughter is half an hour away; the other adult daughter and husband, about 45 minutes. Most friends, six to eight minutes. Parishes—we attend two—a half hour and eight minutes, respectively. (More on that later). Work? Well, I’m retired, but when I worked it was 45 in and an hour out. That took a toll. Target and Walmart, 3 minutes. Trader Joe’s 4 minutes. The doctor and hospital, maybe eight. Opportunities for exercise, right out our front door, with a low-cost gym 4 minutes down the road (and plenty of free parking).
Our neighborhood is tranquil and quiet. We have greenbelts that we don’t pay for but are privileged to walk through nearly every evening when it’s not too cold or hot (which is most of the time). Even though our kids are well beyond grade school, we have a highly rated one across the street, with a large park attached. Even our air quality is decent. We don’t eat out much but when we want a good restaurant we have several less than a mile away. Even really good sushi.
Twenty years ago I went through a divorce. I was beyond devastated. My best friend said I looked like a war survivor, the walking dead. It was serious and I didn’t know if I’d make it. Everything I knew and cared about ended in an instant.
How did I survive? Family and friends. They all played a part. And each of them was critical in their own way. But one dimension of that criticality was this: My local Catholic parish and the good friends there that I’d known for years. They came to my rescue. Maybe that’s not so unique. I don’t know. But to this day, it remains a unique monument constructed in my soul. That monument cannot be moved and I defend it, which means I defend them. In defending them, I defend where they came from. Where did they come from? The very places that Rod decries as deficient. A basic, run-of-the-mill, average, influenced-by-modernity, liturgically “compromised,” mega-Catholic parish comprised of some four or five thousand families. Regular. Not special. Not unique. Mundane. Middle class. Some had a Catholic education, most didn’t. The homilies are rarely memorable. Lots of people race out of Mass and go home right away. The music leaves much to be desired (with committed folks who show up, year after year, to try their best anyway). Small group efforts come and go. Saint Vincent de Paul serves the needy every week. Bags of groceries show up each Advent from parishioners. Few mention Jesus or know their Bibles very well. Really average. Really stable.
Suburban People- Rock Solid
And they rescued me. Special people who started some community elsewhere or retreated. The people who thought they had a particular insight on how postmodernity, politics, and the loss of philosophical erudition and a classics education was leading us down the path to perdition, didn’t.
Regular people did. Suburban people. Normal. Regular. Average.
And rock solid.
Even the physical plant stood by, watching and waiting. The church building is poorly architectured, boxy, with an electronic bell tower and the unoffending earth-toned color. It remained solid, unmoved, while my life went nonlinear, feeling untethered. It was an anchor. I wasn’t. I was Jesusy. It was just plain Catholic. I don’t complain about “bad architecture,” I defend it. Fancy didn’t save my life. Regular did.
And I defend the people who came out of that regular building. Take this in the spirit it’s meant: I didn’t want to be Jesusy anymore, I wanted to be Catholic. I wanted to be the kind of person who would love other people like they loved me. I wanted to rescue those in need because of the poorly catechized, unspecial, modern-liturgy-accepting Catholics showed me how. They taught by doing.
What they did was the Benedict Option, and they’ve never heard of it, and aren’t interested. They’re just Suburban People, the Catholics of Suburbia.
That’s the kind of person I want to be, the kind of Christian I want to be.
This church, these people, this experience, shot through with all that Rod decries, led me through crisis, picked me up and healed me, put me back on my feet, and then, then, after my life was reoriented by regular and average, I was able to co-found a new parish in the Anglican Ordinariate. An antiquarian, smells and bells, beauty-infused, orthodox-up-the-yin-yang parish that plans to establish a classics school to accompany its radically beautiful liturgical life. And where? In Suburbia. How? By the good graces of the local bishops (we’ve had two), local clergy, and a community pulling it together.
The BenOp Incarnate
Who came to celebrate the founding of this new venture? The folks from our “regular” parish. They didn’t understand it and were just fine with their regular parish, but came because it was important to us (my wife was Anglican, now Catholic). I couldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them there. This me now couldn’t be without them then. They are the BenOp Incarnate.
Can you believe it? Suburbia. How immensely wonderful is that? Could you ask for more? Would you leave this for the BenOp somewhere else? I wouldn’t. Not for all the first class relics of Benedict.
When I first stumbled into that average parish in the late 1970s as a raving anti-Catholic fundamentalist Christian (joke’s on me), one of the first things I noticed was that it looked like the world was there. Right here in lily white Orange County. And that diversity has only expanded with the passing of years. Among us are Latino, East Asian, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, African-American, Polynesian, and likely other ethnicities I don’t know well. Admittedly, most of my friends over the years have been white, but not all. One can’t be entirely insulated in a multi-ethnic parish. And ours is not unique. Most of the parishes in The OC are significantly influenced by other-than-white ethnicities, cultures, and languages. Our newly formed parish in the Anglican Ordinariate is just as diverse, and we only have 150 parishioners.
Catholic Churches in Suburbia
When I observed this early in my exposure to suburban Catholic churches (and our diocese in The OC), I was smitten. The Benedict Option, before it was an option, was infrastructurally here. It was here! I was smitten. In time, I would learn that The OC has 1.3 million Catholics, from every shade, nation, and culture. I would learn that I could be spiritually formed by learned, wise, and measured priests, friends, bricks, and mortar. And that this formation could, in turn, generate in me both the desire and responsibility to make this stable presence available to the next person who stumbled into my suburban parish. I could do my part in the BenOp to make it real and tangible, regular and normal for someone else. It could just be Catholic. It could be plain, trustworthy, and reliable. Not special. Not unique. Just good, and Catholic.
So that’s what I do.
Right here in Suburbia. Orange County, California.
By Gregory Martha Herr, Obl.S.B.