(By Franciscan I’m referring to Franciscan University of Steubenville and not the venerable religious order, about which I know less.)
It looks a little like the Benedict Option, actually. Could also probably be called “The FOCUS option” or “The Christendom Option” or “The TAC option.”
But, in reading the endless criticisms and assessments of Rod Dreher’s book, I’ve had a nagging thought just at the back of my brain that only came to the forefront last night while reading Fr. Dwight Longnecker’s astute take on the matter.
And the thought suddenly crystalized in a laughably obvious realization: we’re already living this.
While I’m not participating in any kind of urban gardening or cow sharing scheme (though one can never predict the future. Okay yes, in this case, one can: I will never raise chickens.) we’ve already made a lot of the choices he outlines, very organically and with little fanfare.
We have a vibrant community of other Catholic families with whom we regularly celebrate the liturgical year, feasting and fasting as the season proscribes. We support each other spiritually, rejoicing over baptisms and new births, and we grieve over losses and illnesses. There is financial support when a job is lost or a medical bill is insurmountable. Childcare offered and received in times of need. There is fellowship and community united not by geographic proximity but by common love and shared belief. So we drive from all over the city and from our vastly different places of employment and we share our lives together, and it looks less like withdrawing form the world and more like building a solid, enduring edifice against worldliness and loneliness and faithlessness.
And it is not insular. This community, organic and widely spread as it is, is constantly welcoming in new members. New families moving in from out of state, singles and just marrieds and those with kids starting college. The common thread is a desire to grow in holiness, to present our children with an attractive and living Catholicism to fall in love with, and a desire to transform the culture from the inside out.
And the other common thread? Many of us, at least in this community of several dozens of families, went to FUS. Most of us are also tied into the life of a religious order founded there and now thriving here in Denver, and are able to partake in the beauty of the liturgical year as lived out by an active/contemplative religious community.
I know of many more communities like ours, sprinkled across the city and the state and around the country. Some are gathered in actual proximity to Catholic colleges; others are bulwarked by a strong alumni presence from one of those schools in cities nationwide. Some are centered around a thriving parish or school, and others are built around places of employment, whether a parish or an apostolate, where a healthy integration of work and faith are encouraged and nourished.
But what none of these communities have in common, at least in my experience, is withdrawal from society.
Not, at least, in the sense that most BenOp critics seem to mean. In our own community there are those of us who work for the Church or various Catholic apostolates, but there are probably 4 times as many who work in IT. Who are school teachers and physical therapists, nurses and physicians assistants, CPAs and engineers and stay at home moms and photographers and every other occupation in between.
In short, there are families who are living and making a living very much in the world, but who are striving to raise their families and foster their marriages in a way that is not of the world.
My husband and I are a hybrid product of FOCUS, FUS, and the Augustine Institute, a veritable trifecta of Catholic culture shapers in the New Evangelization. And our work and studies in all three cultures was shot through with a common thread: be salt and light. Carry this out into the world. Form and protect and inspire your families to become witnesses to the Gospel.
Be not afraid, but also be not stupid.
This means we don’t send our kids to schools where our values are going to be confounded or our parental authority dismantled by what they hear in the classroom. We don’t accept media carte blanche as a benign or neutral presence in our home. We don’t adhere to the broader culture’s standards for what constitutes appropriate technology use or sexual ethics.
And that’s where Fr. Longnecker’s assessment comes in. That the conversation has already ceased, to a certain extent, and that no further dialogue is possible in terms of changing minds with logic, reasoning, or sound arguments. The only compelling argument we have left is a lived example.
So in that sense there is a “withdrawal,” an opting out even while continuing to live in the midst of. There is no self sustaining monastery and WiFi free zone where we hoe rows of non GMO corn, but neither is there an unchallenged going with the flow of the larger culture of which we are a part.
And if that looks radical, it’s only because the larger culture is deteriorating at a rapid clip and too many parents are ceding their God-given responsibilities to be disciple makers and to become disciples themselves.
And I happen to think that discipleship is at the heart of the message of the Benedict Option.
A call for Christians to arise from our worldly slumber, take a look at the surrounding culture, and have a literal come to Jesus as we realize that we are living in a post Christian era and under an increasingly aggressive threat of secularization, and our response can only and always be love.
We can’t live out that love if we are not first being nourished by His love.
We can’t answer the culture’s questions about the meaning of life without discovering it first for ourselves, and deeply.
And we can’t hope to become effective witnesses for joy if we are not deeply rooted in a faith that is living and active and sustained and, yes, removed from the world around us.
But not for the sake of escape. For the sake of helping others escape.
Not for the sake of insular rejection, but for joyful inclusion.
Not for the sake of fear, but for the great hope we have in Christ.
As Christians we have always been asked by our God to be fools for His sake, to live in the world but not of it. And to let our lives – broken and complicated and imperfect as they are – reflect the beauty of His redemptive love to a broken and weary world.
We don’t reject the culture because it is broken, we beckon the culture into the effervescent freshness of the Gospel.
And we can’t live what we do not first posses.
That is the heart of the Benedict Option, from what I can tell. That the goodness and beauty of the faith is worth persevering precisely so that the doors can be flung open wide, so that something worth possessing can be offered to a world in desperate need.
Find your community. Build your community. And let’s help each other get to Heaven. It’s not enough to ride along on autopilot any more, hoping the ambient culture or the parochial school you’re shelling out for will do the trick. It won’t. It can’t.
We have to fight for our families, for our marriages, and for our own identities in Christ. We have to be willing to do radical, inconvenient and perhaps incomprehensible things, to the outside observer.
It’s time to stop criticizing and and intellectually dissecting the thing and to start living it. Call up a family you know and invite them over for a bbq this weekend. Pray a rosary after dinner and then let the kids play in the backyard while the grownups drink beer around the fire pit and talk theology and philosophy. Find a parent in your circle of friends with a background in sacred music and ask if they’d be willing to give an informal presentation or a performance at a party you organize for your kids and their group of friends. Find a few couples who you trust to discuss the finer points of living out the Church’s teachings on sex and marriage. Agree to meet every other month with wine and dessert, and split up by sexes once in a while to enable more frank discussion. Ask your priest to go hiking with you and group of kids this summer ala Karol Wojtyla, if he can spare a couple hours on a Tuesday. Ask a local seminarian if he can’t.
The time is now. Whether or not the Lord returns during our lifetimes or a thousand years from now, we have one job as Christians, and it is to live out the gospel in the circumstances of our actual lives.
We have various options. Failure is not one of them.