Benedict Option: Do We Need A Catholic Bubble in the Universal Church?

Benedict Option: Do We Need A Catholic Bubble in the Universal Church? May 4, 2017


This spring, I’ve been building a greenhouse and thinking about St. Therese’s idea that we are all different types of flowers planted in God’s garden. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about in relationship to the controversy that has grown up surrounding The Benedict Option and Christian isolationism.

As humans we often have a tendency to think that only certain very specific types of personalities deserve to be cultivated and cared for – and that certain types of pastoral care are fundamentally inappropriate because they would be really, really bad for ourselves, personally, and for the kinds of people that we happen to get along with. The fact that something which causes me terrible harm might actually be really good for other people can be bewildering, even enraging. How could something possibly be “good” when in my direct experience it has only ever been a cause of pain?
It’s a problem that you become keenly aware of when you’re gardening and you have to answer questions like “how acid do I want my soil to be?” or “what temperature should I maintain in the greenhouse?” What’s good for one kind of plant can be literally deadly to another type. So you try to create a lot of different conditions using different techniques: cold frames for spinach and lettuce, sod-pots for cucurbates, direct-sow for peas and potatoes. Garlic gets planted in the fall, is expected to survive the winter and then put up sprouts well before the last frost date. Some kinds of peppers will never leave the greenhouse at all.
Therese’s idea of the human world as a garden is powerful because it draws attention to the fact that God actually values all of the very different kinds of people who populate His creation. He doesn’t demand that we conform to a one-size-fits all program for spiritual success, because He didn’t create us to be uniform. Some of us are roses. Some of us are dandelions. Some of us are venus fly traps. And that’s okay.
Now, here’s where it gets sticky. Most Christians who are of a relatively progressive, liberal or sentimental disposition, love this kind of metaphor. The idea of a God who loves the wild diversity of human nature is highly appealing…so long as it applies primarily to the types of people who thrive in a relatively liberal, progressive, sentimental climate. A lot of more conservative, dogmatic, rationalistic folks also like this metaphor (St. Therese is, after all, a doctor of the Church)…provided it applies mainly to folks who thrive well in an environment defined by tradition, dogma and rationalism.
None of us especially likes the idea of human diversity when it encroaches on our assumption that the world would be a better place for everyone if it were better for people like me.
As humans, we all tend towards a certain kind of natural narcissism. Our subjective frame of reference is ultimately the only frame of reference that we have direct experience of, which means that when we look at other people we’re always seeing them, hearing them, understanding them in relation to ourselves.We assume that basically we can understand the hearts of others by scrutinizing our own hearts. And this holds true a lot of the time, because human beings really do have a lot in common.
But it doesn’t always hold true. This is where we run into problems. We have a tremendous amount of difficulty empathizing with people who fundamentally think, feel and desire differently from ourselves. For one thing, the Golden Rule can no longer be simply applied because what I would have others do unto me is not necessarily what others would have me to do unto them.
For example, I prefer communication that is straightforward and direct, where nothing is inferred or implied. I have very little awareness of non-verbal social cues so when people express themselves in subtle “polite” ways it goes over my head and creates misunderstandings. When I encounter people who are behaving this way I can’t tell what they are actually thinking, whether they like me, whether they are interested in what I’m saying, or whether I’m quickly exhausting their social patience and offending them unintentionally.
For a long time I thought of these people as “fake,” “dishonest” or “shallow.” I thought it would be much better for everyone if people just said what they were thinking and talked their disagreements through in a rational way. But I noticed that a lot of people who were more socially competent than I was preferred the precise opposite. They perceived directness as “blunt,” too much honesty as “rudeness,” and they got deeply offended, sometimes even badly hurt, by hearing opinions that contradicted their beliefs or behaviours. To them, being upfront and clear about what you thought and why you thought it was often evidence of callousness, lack of compassion, even arrogance. If I treated them the way that I preferred to be treated, it caused them pain.
They thrived under different conditions.
Which brings us back to the greenhouse, and the Benedict Option. I’ve seen a lot of hate poured out on the idea that Christians should seek out sheltered, intentional communities where they can live together, protected to some degree from the cultural elements that blow through the world. Some people see it is cowardly, others see it as unwelcoming. Surely, we are supposed to go through the world with open arms rather than seeking a sheltered existence inside a little Catholic bubble.
But then I think of the cacti. The eggplants. The Bolivian Rainbow Peppers. Here, in my Canadian garden there are certain plants that cannot thrive outside of the greenhouse. They need to live a sheltered existence because the climate is not right for them. I could stick them out in the ground, and maybe they would eek out a semblance of a life for a season. Some of them would never fruit. Others would produce a poor harvest. But if I create a little artificial environment for them, regulate the temperature and the moisture and keep out the wind, then they can be very happy.
If these plants had minds and personalities, I’m sure that some of them would self-identify as hardy and robust. In New Mexico, a cactus is a truly imposing bit of vegetation. I imagine that it must be difficult, humiliating even, for such a creature to find itself hiding in a little clay pot, sheltered by plastic, wilting at the slightest gust of the Canadian winter. I’m sure that if the cacti of Canada had access to social media and could form communities they would be full of theories about how the world was being destroyed by frost and snow – and they would see greenhouses as a universal necessity until somehow the warmth enjoyed by their ancestors returned.
And so it is with people. What we need to accept is that there is nothing inherently shameful about a Christian needing this kind of shelter. Some need it only for a short time, at the beginning of their faith formation. Others don’t ever need it at all. But for some, it remains necessary throughout life – because that’s just the kind of person that they are. For some reason, God the gardener has decided that He is going to grow a cactus in Canada. Because He can. Because it delights Him to do so. Because He loves a diversity that is really much more radically diverse than even the most liberal among us would prefer.

Image credit: pixabay
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