Benedict Option Conclusion: Places in the Heart

Benedict Option Conclusion: Places in the Heart May 30, 2015

This is the final part of my series on Leah Libresco‘s discussion group on “The Benedict Option” aka living a more communal or “thicker” Christian life. Parts one, two, three, four.

This is gonna be a pretty rambling conclusion loosely linked by the theme of “place.” I’ve found it most helpful to view the discussion of “the Benedict Option” as a way of raising fruitful questions, not an attempt to provide a One Best Model. (It’s about having more-Christian problems, not finding solutions–or at least I hope it is.) That said, I don’t personally conceive anything I’m doing or seeking in my own life in BenOp terms. I got a lot out of the gathering at Leah’s place and made a couple quite specific plans re: Adoration and childcare, but overall when I think about my spiritual life “the Benedict Option” seems a bit less illuminating for me than terms like homemaking. I do think a lot about homemaking these days, since I do not want to be sharing a bathroom with undergraduate strangers when I’m forty–and, on a more serious note, I think despite/because of my strong preference for catlike independence, I do better in my life when I live with people I know. Anyway, here are three places I think about when I think about the questions raised at Leah’s gathering.

* DC. I’m thinking a lot lately about how to live in DC as it is, not in my fantasy 1987 of the heart. I am by nature a homebody and by conviction a localist; plus my family and my work are both here. But it’s strange to live in a city which has undergone such a dramatic transformation: My hometown unsuffered itself. At least in a lot of places. Petworth is beautiful–today the air is scented with roses and the birds are singing, and my neighbors are pushing their strollers past the porch–but I would no longer say that it’s merely gentrifying. That yoga mat has sailed.

One of my favorite Don Colacho aphorisms is, “In every age a minority lives today’s problems and a majority yesterday’s.” And I think the people who have yesterday’s problems are mostly poorer; rich people live in the future. So if you are a nostalgic by temperament and a conservative by affiliation you could do worse than living somewhere poorer. (Especially if you’re not actually making enough money to live where you are. Remember when people had jobs in journalism?)

Years ago most of this city seemed given up to sleaze and suffering (and therefore laid open to God) but now you have to look harder for that. I’m thinking about ways to look harder.

* St Matthew’s. Since my affection is for the city itself more than for any specific neighborhood (I really have loved everywhere I’ve lived here) it makes sense that my home parish is the cathedral. I thought about doing a post just defending big churches but I wasn’t sure I could make a theological point rather than a purely personal defense of my own psychological mess. I very much see the point that what a friend of mine called “need-noticing” churches are desperately needed: places where you will be personally welcomed and people will give you both practical aid and spiritual succor before you have the confidence to ask for it. Those churches are more often going to be small.

St Matt’s, by contrast–you can slink into a back pew and keep to yourself (and God) and then slink back out again. There are real communities around the ministries, but the church itself is not going to bother you, even when you need or want to be bothered.

This is me, though, this is what I needed for a really long time, the anonymous slink-in church. If somebody had actually noticed my needs I think I would have gone and not come back. Maybe not–I mean, Lila stayed at the church in Gilead, despite the nosy-beakness of their approach to her–and like I said, I don’t think I can make a theological argument for lurker-friendly churches. But on a personal level I love going to a church which is beautiful–but not exactly shaped to my own liturgical and artistic preferences; and a church where I often run into friends–but most people don’t know all my business.

* The Gay Christian Network Conference. I’ve only been to this once, but when I asked myself about, in Libresco’s phrasing, “spaces where your Catholicism doesn’t feel like an act of resistance,” GCN leapt to mind. I opened my post about the conference with the painful stuff–the ways in which GCN is a haven for people who have had awful experiences in Christian communities–but my deepest impression from the conference was not the pain but the faith. There was such a vital, almost palpable atmosphere of mercy and Christ-centered love.

That’s true even though I was divided from most of the people there on really important questions. Catholics are a minority there; people who accept the Christian sexual ethic on homosexuality were a minority. I couldn’t take Communion there, obviously. But in terms of providing a retreat, a wellspring, GCN was pretty amazing. I don’t think it would be amazing for every gay Christian, or that it needs to be–lots of people will need more unity in order to experience the “BenOp” lessening of friction and tension in their Christian practice, and that is totally fine. But my experience does suggest that some of the places where you find BenOp community may not be places of communion, let alone places of full agreement.

Now that I think about it, the crisis pregnancy center where I volunteer is another example of the same thing: Most of the volunteers and staff are Protestant, most of our clients I think are either Protestant or “nones,” and yet it is a place where being Christian isn’t “easy” in the sense of comfortable, but “easy” in the sense that it comes naturally. There’s an intensity to my work at the center which makes me think of all those Scriptural wine metaphors: sometimes the dark thick wine that’s so much like blood, sometimes a sparkling champagne exuberance, always flowing between us rather than something one person carefully ladles out to another.

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