In some wings of the internet, a lot of talk has been going on in recent years about the Benedict Option. The idea comes from a famous book on moral philosophy by Alasdair MacIntyre called After Virtue. After spending a couple hundred pages talking about the disintegration of moral and ethical dialogue in the West, MacIntyre notes that the only hope for a savior who can restore some kind of sense to moral discourse would be a new and different Saint Benedict.
If you know anything about either Saint Benedict or the so-called Benedict Option, you probably think mostly of the idea of a retreat. Benedict, after all, wasn’t super concerned with hanging around Roman elites or trying to coexist. He fled to the woods for the sake of his soul. Then again, Benedict lived centuries ago, and the possibility of living off of the land and being reasonably self-sustaining was a lot easier in his context. For Catholics today, it’s not usually a live option for us to pack it up and move to the middle of nowhere. Not everyone can move to Clear Creek and join the monks for prayers or, if you’re from New Orleans, not everyone can retire and hang out at St. Ben’s for all of their admittedly awesome liturgies. Heck, a lot of us can’t even make it to a monastery once a year, let alone live near one. For a great majority of Catholics, that type of retreat is nearly impossible.
But is this really a problem? I don’t particularly think so. What I mean is, living a monastic or quasi-monastic life seems to me to be a requirement only for those called to that type of life. If you aren’t called to be a monastic, then retreating from the world might even be dangerous for your spiritual life. Kind of like those times people decide they’re going to go super hard core for Lent, and wind up crashing and burning. It’s not for everyone.
In fact, it seems that Vatican II really has a strong notion that most people are called to live in and among the world, and to be a light to the world in the places where the Church can’t normally reach. For instance, take this statement from Lumen Gentium:
They [the laity] live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven…Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer. (LG #31)
Given, then, both the practical reality and also the Church’s vision of the laity’s role in living among the world “as a leaven,” I want to suggest what may be a more helpful and also practical “option” than the Benedict Option. I call it the Liturgical Option.
One of the most undeniably powerful ways to deeply form a Catholic identity comes through living a life which is tied to the liturgical calendar. The Church’s calendar, if it becomes an important part of our life, makes us put our faith as a high priority. Sunday becomes the focus of the week rather than, say, Friday night. Even more, the feast days and solemnities which crop up throughout the year offer us an opportunity to really dive into the heart of the Church.
We don’t perhaps do the best job at my house of celebrating our children’s baptismal feast days (although Facebook’s “on this day” feature is making that more reliable for us as time goes on). But we try to celebrate the day our children were baptized, as well as their patron saint’s feast days. What we definitely have done a solid job with in the last several years, though, is celebrating the liturgical seasons. Especially Advent and Lent. We try our mightiest to put the emphasis on Jesus Christ during all the build-up to Christmas, and relegate Santa to a secondary role. In fact, we give our children small, humble gifts, on the feast day of St. Nicholas. Of course, we also go to Mass on Christmas Eve, make Jesus a birthday cake, etc. And we sing Christmas carols all the way through Christmas (the season of Christmas, that is). For Lent, suffice it to say, we go all out.
Of course, teaching the liturgical seasons and feast days is only part of a real Liturgical Option. After all, the liturgy is not just about going to Mass or knowing whose feast it is. It’s about prayer. So forming ourselves as people who pray with the Church, using the Liturgy of the Hours and the Rosary and other devotions, is key. We don’t knock out a full Rosary here every night, and sometimes it’s a while between Divine Mercy Chaplets. But my 2.5 year old can follow along with all of the prayers of both the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and that to me is pretty sweet. It’s also wildly, radically counter-cultural.
But there’s another example I want to share that gives a sense of what I think this Liturgical Option looks like. We recently went on a cruise for my father’s retirement and my kids were running around, being goofy and wild. My brother picked up my youngest daughter to play with her and she spontaneously burst into the Gloria. Not because she’s overly pious or thought it was time for Mass. Just because, in our family, the Gloria is kind of a part of our bones. It’s in the air. It’s just there.
Advocates of the Benedict Option note that the world around is in moral decay, and they worry that by remaining within the world, we put our children at risk, and the future of the Church at risk as well. I can see a lot of reason why those concerns are legitimate. But to me, it seems that running away is, in the final analysis, not the answer. I’m not sure if this Liturgical Option is really the answer, but it certainly seems like at least one answer, and perhaps a better one than retreat.
God Love You!