Nostalgia lurks always in the near corners of the human imagination. It often takes very little to bring it to life; a sunny day, the wind blowing the grass, a taste of food, a smell, a picture. They all bring us back to sweet and sweeter times, childhood, courting, weddings, childbirth.
These are all nostalgic times from our own lives. But sometimes we grow nostalgic for times we have only read about. This comes particularly when the present age disappoints us. And who is not disappointed in the present age? Pornography rampant. Marriages and families disintegrating. Adultery websites with millions of members. The rise of faux and ever fauxier marriage. The persecution of Christians even in Christian countries like our own.
Who doesn’t long for times when the culture was on our side, when religion was respected and had a dominant say in society, when seminaries were bulging and they had processions in the streets? Some long for the 1950s. Others long for the Middle Ages. Some long for the early Church. Rod Dreher is one of those, maybe.
Rod Dreher, whom I knew slightly when we were both in New York City though our nascent friendship faltered badly during the Long Lent of 2002, has a truly remarkable knack for marketing his intellectual ideas.
Crunchy Cons, what we discussed briefly back then as “conservative bohemianism,” became a sensation for a good long while and blends perfectly into his new project—“The Benedict Option”—one of the hottest of topics among religious intellectuals.
Rod believes the speeding cultural collapse that threatens all we hold dear, including and most especially the souls of our children, requires that we withdraw, at least slightly, from the sturm und drang and create intentional communities either near a monastery or with a monastery in mind, there to protect ourselves from the outside world, though still in some ways to engage it, to protect, defend and grow authentic culture, and to bide our time until we or our ancestors can reclaim the wasteland inevitably to come at the hands of the new barbarians.
Dreher’s most trenchant critics went after him for suggesting that orthodox believers should largely drop out of society including a withdrawal from politics. Though he has noodled inchoately on this topic for years, a recent essay from 2013 certainly points in this direction. As examples of the Benedict Option, he featured two communities only, one that has grown up around a traditionalist Benedictine monastery in rural Oklahoma and another created in rural Alaska.
That so many have considered this kind of withdrawal to be his aim, including Damon Linker on the left and John Zmirak on the right, Dreher owes his critics a debt of thanks for sharpening his thinking. Dreher now says that is not what he meant, that such withdrawal is really a kind of gathering together and mutual strengthening of the like-minded that could happen anywhere, including the inner city.
The question becomes: is St. Benedict a proper model for the laity? Whether there is withdrawal to the mountains or not, the implication of the Benedict Option is that laymen can somehow follow a monastic model. Certainly there are third order Benedictines, there are even third order Trappists, though I suspect they are chattier than those behind the walls. But, laymen need not ape the practices of those we may think are spiritual athletes to live out our vocation as laymen.
I am reminded of one of the reasons I do not care for St. Thomas More (heretical, I know). More longed to have been a Carthusian, who are tougher even than the Trappists, and he imposed Carthusian practices on his family including, cruelly I think, interrupting their sleep at 1 a.m. to chant the Night Office. Such a thing is not natural for someone in the lay state.
In one of his many sharp-elbowed columns about Dreher and his Option, writer John Zmirak said something quite insightful. If you want a saint to model for the lay state, why not St. Josemaria?
Something happened to lay spirituality around the time of the rise of monasteries. As important as their work in maintaining Catholic culture, they also tended to create a clericalism that is with us even today. For centuries it came to be known that spiritual perfection was only for the vowed or ordained. Such perfection was not for the laymen. His perfection came almost as scraps from the table of the monks and priests. With the exception of St. Frances de Sales’s “Introduction to the Devout Life,” most of the great classics in spirituality were written not for laymen but for the vowed and ordained.
So little were the laity considered by the hierarchical Church that prior to the Second Vatican Council the laity were defined by what they weren’t, not ordained or vowed, and with no recognized unique vocation.
And even today you see this clericalism whenever an obviously devout young man is told he ought to be a priest.
The ancient Church would not have shared this view. And neither did St. Josemaria. His vision was that laymen were called to the same heights of spiritual perfection as the vowed and ordained and that such a unique lay vocation was on par with the others.
Escriva taught something the earliest Church knew quite well, the universal call to holiness, something that became, under his influence, a key teaching in the Second Vatican Council. At least a part of the Protestant Reformation was related to a rejection of this spiritual elitism.
Escriva said laymen need not remove themselves to monasteries to achieve perfection and that the places they would find Christ were precisely in the home and in the workplace. And it was there they would bring others to the Gospel.
The seeming revolutionary nature of this proposal is recognized by the reception St. Josemaria received when he first took it to Rome. They said he was 100 years too early.
Zmirak points out that Escriva came to this vision in a time and place far worse than what we experience in the United States today. He lived in a time of actual shooting warfare waged against the Church, a time when priests and nuns were hunted and killed by the thousands and Churches burned.
He and a few of his followers lived for months in a small stifling room in the Honduran Embassy to Spain in Madrid. He and a few of his men escaped the persecution by walking through the Pyrenees Mountains and nearly dying in the process.
And all the while, he built what Dreher and others would call an “intentional community” that even and especially today draws individuals and families together in order to learn and teach and gain strength and then to go forth into the market place, the sports arena, the prisons and universities and draw others closer to the Gospel and toward a spiritual perfection equal to the monks and nuns. Escriva said Christ wanted a few men of his own in every human endeavor.
The Escrvia Option calls men and women to become contemplatives in the middle of the world, to live as best they can in the presence of God throughout the day from the moment of waking to turning out the light at night. This is achieved through prayer and study and a vigorous regimen of daily, weekly, monthly and yearly norms of piety.
Though we would never use such a phrase, my family and I live in such an “intentional community” in Northern Virginia where a grade school in a Church has brought dozens of mission oriented families together. Many in the grade school go on to the local Catholic high schools—Oakcrest for the girls and The Heights for the boys. Others have come to this area for the vibrant home-school community. Many live a little further out, gathered in Front Royal, Virginia around Christendom College and the various Catholic apostolates headquartered there.
Some of these families have begun to intermarry. All of them are fully engaged in the culture; banking, politics, teaching, journalism, medicine, even the movie business. They gather strength from each other and wade into the culture with the Gospel example of their lives.
Similar communities have sprung up all around the country.
I suspect this is precisely what Dreher now considers the Benedict Option, which is a clever phrase upon which has been built a vital and interesting conversation and perhaps a movement. And whether Dreher initially intended or not a cultural and political withdrawal, that impulse is alive and well in many Catholic imaginations and must be fiercely resisted.
But there is a better model for the layman than monks and nuns and one need not join Opus Dei to find it in the Escriva Option. It is open to all, even priests.