A friend who returned from a visit to France last week was enlivened by his experience of the new ecclesial communities there. He met members of the Community of the Beatitudes — a mixed community of men and women, married and celibate, who live a life with apostolic work and evangelization, Carmelite spirituality, and beautiful liturgy.
He met members of Communion and Liberation, visited with monks from the Community of St. John, and heard about the work of the Emmanuel Community — another Catholic community that lives a radical discipleship, working to renew the Catholic Church in France.
When I lived in England I got to meet the members of these new communities, plus many more, through my network in the Catholic Church and by traveling in Europe. In many ways, what is going on in the Catholic Church in Europe is reminiscent of events in Italy in the fifth century.
At that time, the great Roman Empire was crumbling under its own moral, financial, and cultural decay. The barbarians were invading unchecked, the infrastructure had broken down, the armies could not be paid, and the mighty glory of Rome was in tatters.
In the midst of this social decay, the young St. Benedict was sent from his patrician home to study in Rome. Within a year he was disgusted by the laziness, immorality, and despair of his fellow students. He dropped out of college and went to live as a hermit in Subiaco. Eventually he founded small communities of men and women living a simple life of prayer, work, and study. From those base communities the great monastic institutions grew, and from these centers of prayer, work, and learning there flowered the great civilization of medieval Christendom.
In our own time of societal decay, it is important to try to get into Benedict’s mindset, first remembering several vital facts: First of all, Benedict was a layman. He saw a need and took the initiative to start his communities. While he did nothing contrary to the teachings of the Church, and did not rebel against the rightful authority, he also did not sit around waiting for a priest or bishop to give him a job. With the grace of his baptism he simply got on and did what he was called to do. Details in his famous rule suggest that Benedict was somewhat cautious in his relationship with priests and regarded them as necessary, but not necessarily trustworthy.
It is also important to understand the monastic relationship to culture. A monk sees the decaying culture and believes the only possible response is withdrawal. He despises any Christianity that compromises with the decadent society, and he does not think “dialogue” is either desirable or possible. He does not believe that prophetic imprecations and predictions of God’s judgment on the immoral culture are useful. Like St. Anthony of the Desert and the first monks in Egypt, the traditional monk believes that withdrawal from the world is the only way to save the world.
The third thing to remember about Benedict is that he probably never anticipated the great resurrection of learning, culture, and spirituality that would flow from his decision to live simply in the Italian hills following a life of prayer, work, and study. In other words, he was faithful where he was with what he could do. Whether it came to something or not wasn’t his to decide. The fact that his movement eventually produced phenomenal accomplishments in virtually every area of human achievement, was the foundation for a new civilization, and changed the world forever was not something he either anticipated or predicted.
As our own society drifts into the swamp of despair, decadence, and the dictatorship of relativism, we should be prepared to develop Benedict’s mentality, even if we do not emulate his example. It is no coincidence that our present pope has taken the name of this important saint. He sees the future for the Church, and that future is already here in many parts of Europe. The new religious communities in France may be some of the few hot spots left there. Like the early communities of St. Benedict, they are oases in a desert of despair.
These basic Christian communities have grown up in the very midst of widespread apostasy, agnosticism, and aggressive atheism. They fill a real void, and as they grow they fulfill the essential gospel vision by being a lamp on a lamp stand, yeast in the dough, salt in the dish, and a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden.
As things continue to decay in the American culture of the 21st century, we must be on the alert for similar developments in the Church. The communities of faith are grassroots movements. They very often grow up through the vision of committed laypeople. They develop with zeal and courage, faith and hope. They often develop on a parallel course to the established church, and not infrequently they develop on a collision course with the establishment. These tensions are all part of the Spirit’s work in the Church, and the struggles that ensue are part of the providential plan to strengthen the new communities and to renew the Church.
As we remember the great St. Benedict, clergy and laypeople alike would do well to keep in mind these principles, to get on with what God calls us to do in a heroic way; to realize that, increasingly, complicity and even dialogue with the decaying culture will be a waste of time; and to be faithful to the vision God gives us and not worry about the future. If we do this, the future may, by God’s providence, be a far more glorious resurgence and triumph of Christendom than we ever could have imagined.