Somehow, all of my friends are reading Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. I’m not. I was homeschooled on the Planet Charismatic, and later on the Planet Random-Stodgy-Traditional, for many years and then moved to Steubenville; talk of people taking their families and retreating from the world into community with other Christians gives me spasms. Reading the Amazon book description alone is making me shudder. This is no reflection on The Benedict Option.
I confess that, until my friend Father Stephanos explained in his excellent guest post a few weeks ago, I thought “the Benedict Option” referred to conspiracy-prone people who hate Pope Francis and want to only accept Pope Benedict and go to the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Mass all the time. It turns out I was living in a fool’s paradise. Dreher apparently wants laymen to live with their wives and children in little communities of fellow Christians in retreat from the world, kind of as if they were behind the walls of a Benedictine monastery in the Middle Ages, in order to prevent themselves from being contaminated by the influences of “modernity” and “individualism.” I hope I’ve got that right. You can read Father Stephanos’s opinion on why this isn’t a good or a very Benedictine idea in the embedded link.
Upon finding out what the Benedict Option actually was, I was struck that perhaps what the Church needs right now is more options. Not every person is a Benedict Option person; some people just don’t have a Benedictine state of mind. Maybe some of us need to retreat from the world by stripping our clothes off in public and going to wash lepers (the Francis option). Some people will find our hearts restless until they rest on the top of a pillar in the middle of their church and never come down again (the Simeon the Stylite Option). Some people need to take advantage of their position as a queen who recently scalded all of her enemies to death and have the Holy Roman Emperor send missionaries to the people (the Olha of Kiev Option). There are those who will get into a coracle and row around the coast of England, saying Mass for flocks of talking birds (the Brendan Option). Some people need to knock iconoclasts off of ladders and get killed by a ram’s horn (the Theodosia option). Some of us really need to organize the notes of Edmund Husserl and get a PhD (the Edith Stein Option).
For this afternoon, on her feast day, and for tomorrow for her special Sunday (in the Byzantine Catholic Church at least), I present you with another option: the Mary of Egypt Option. Mary of Egypt found no peace until she crossed the Jordan to do penance in the desert.
Some people become saints by running around the wilderness stark raving naked, receiving Holy Communion once a year, and eventually being buried by a lion.
Maybe I should raise my family according to the Mary of Egypt Option. We should all run around the wilderness naked, doing penance. We’d get lots of sunshine and Vitamin D. It would certainly reduce my carbon footprint– to say nothing of the time I’d save on folding laundry. It would make working tricky, even for a writer like me who’s accustomed to working from home in pajamas, but I could support myself by the money I’d make with my bestselling book on the Mary of Egypt Option. I could supplement my income by being a guest speaker at Traditionalist Catholic events– you can’t get more traditional than the desert fathers and Mary of Egypt, after all. They’d need a nice high podium for me to stand behind while I preached to them in my penitential birthday suit, but they couldn’t tell me I wasn’t behaving like a chaste Catholic woman ought.
Or maybe we don’t need all these options. Perhaps in the real Christian life, there are too many options to count. Because we’re all just supposed to be ourselves, only wholly for Christ instead of the things the world values. Yes, that sounds close to the dreaded “individualism” but I’m convinced it’s right anyway. And if I am right, the paths to sanctity are at the same time essentially one (because it all boils down to being one with the same Person, Christ); and impossibly varied– because each of us is bizarrely unique, because that’s the way Christ likes us. None of us is of the fallen world, but we do live in it. We can’t escape it by walling ourselves off in special little communities because we ourselves are fallen. The challenge is trying to be a light for the world we’re in. For some people, this apparently involves playing Medieval Monastery. For others it’s a literal monastery, or a style, a desert, a soap box, an artists’ studio, a university or a slum apartment or a suburban ranch house.
You repent of your own sins, you cross the Jordan where it appears in your life, you run around the desert of your own soul, stripped naked of the idols of the world, and you find peace.
Through the intercession of Mary of Egypt, may we all find peace.
(image via Wikimedia Commons)