NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER - R. Jared Staudt - SEP 10, 2015
I am astonished, and also somewhat heartened, by the buzz generated by Rod Dreher’s writing on the Benedict Option. Dreher truly struck a chord with many of us as we try to conceive the way forward out of the devastating position of cultural decline in which we find ourselves. How do we begin the renewal? What is the right balance between withdraw from and engagement with society?
Dreher’s focus on the Benedict Option springs originally from the conclusion of Alasdair MacIntyre’s monumental work, After Virtue. This passage has been commented on widely and I would encourage everyone to read it. MacIntyre also, however, emphatically reaffirmed this passage in a new preface written in 2007:
In the last sentence of After Virtue I spoke of us as waiting for another St. Benedict. Benedict’s greatness lay in making possible a quite new kind of institution, that of the monastery of prayer, learning, and labor, in which and around which communities could not only survive, but flourish in a period of social and cultural darkness. The effects of Benedict’s founding insights and of their institutional embodiment by those who learned from them were from the standpoint of his own age quite unpredictable. And it was my intention to suggest, when I wrote that last sentence in 1980, that ours too is a time of waiting for new and unpredictable possibilities of renewal. It is also a time for resisting as prudently and courageously and justly and temperately as possible the dominant social, economic, and political order of advanced modernity. So it was twenty-six years ago, so it is still.
I have weighed in on this once already, proposing that the Benedict Option can be found simply in living according to the wisdom of St. Benedict in a way adapted to lay life. At the end of the earlier reflection, I noted the contribution of Pope Benedict XVI in this regard as he explained his choice in taking St. Benedict as the patron of his Pontificate.
I would like to add to this earlier reflection with concrete points through which Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI points us toward the path of renewal of the Church and society. As we have reached the point of needing another Benedict, God has raised up precisely that – another Benedict who has prophetically led the Church at a crucial time. That Benedict chose the former Benedict as the patron of his Pontificate only strengthens this claim and provides a helpful context for many of the key characteristics of Pope Benedict’s legacy.
1. Centrality of Liturgy
In the preface to the first volume of collected works, Pope Benedict points to the centrality of the liturgy in his thought, but more importantly in the life of the Church. In doing so, he coincidentally draws upon St. Benedict:
When the focus is not on God, everything else loses its orientation. The words of the Benedictine rule "Ergo nihil Operi Dei praeponatur" (43,3; "So let nothing be put before the Work of God") apply specifically to monasticism, but as a statement of priority they are also true for the life of the Church, and of each of its members, each in his own way.
When we turn our focus off of the liturgy and on to our own efforts, especially as we attempt to combat cultural decline, we will end in discouragement and failure. Renewal must remain the work of God in which we cooperate.
2. Dynamic Continuity with the Past
The issue of liturgy points to another central aspect of Benedict’s thought, the hermeneutic of continuity. Renewing the culture, must have a forward focus, because we are building something new, but like the good steward of Jesus’ parable, we must draw out both the new and the old. We see the clearest expression of Benedict’s hermeneutic in his Christmas address to the Curia in 2005, but the application of this principle occurred most forcefully in Summorum Pontificum:
Eminent among the Popes who showed such proper concern was Saint Gregory the Great, who sought to hand on to the new peoples of Europe both the Catholic faith and the treasures of worship and culture amassed by the Romans in preceding centuries. . . . He greatly encouraged those monks and nuns who, following the Rule of Saint Benedict, everywhere proclaimed the Gospel and illustrated by their lives the salutary provision of the Rule that “nothing is to be preferred to the work of God.” In this way the sacred liturgy, celebrated according to the Roman usage, enriched the faith and piety, as well as the culture, of numerous peoples.
Benedict’s dynamic vision of renewal points to the way forward: “For that matter, the two Forms of the usage of the Roman Rite can be mutually enriching.” Renewal cannot simply return to the past, but must move forward in continuity with the past, allowing it to shape culture again.
3. A New Ecumenism of Catholicity
The principle of mutual enrichment found a surprising expression in the recognition of an “Anglican patrimony,” which could be fostered within the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict’s creation of Ordinariates for groups of Anglicans entering communion with the Church, in his constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, was truly a bold and controversial move. Benedict created a new expression by which ecumenism could find a genuine fulfillment in robust catholicity, incorporating a Protestant patrimony directly into the life of the Church for the first time. In my opinion, this is only the first of many steps, which will radically transform the future landscape of Christianity. Another small indication of this broad catholicity came with the proclamation of an Armenian doctor of the Church, St. Gregory of Narek, who was not in communion with Rome during his life, a move begun under the Pontificate of Benedict.
4. Bold Leadership in the Proclamation of the Gospel
Benedict indicated early on his Pontificate that the appointment of bishops would be one of his main priorities. Thomas Peters has described Benedict’s appointment of 100 bishops within the United States as the Benedict Bishop Bump that will influence the Church well into the future. Not long after the election of Benedict, Sandro Magister described the keen, personal interest that Benedict took in the appointment of bishops:
Ratzinger wants to take charge personally of the nomination of new bishops. He has a first-rate knowledge of the worldwide body of bishops, which he has obtained thanks to the fact that any bishop visiting the Vatican also came to see him when he was the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And he maintains that a rebirth of the Church, and its purification, must come from a new generation of more motivated and energetic bishops.
In my opinion, the appointment of strongly orthodox, liturgically reverent, and evangelically bold bishops will be remembered as a highlight of Benedict’s Pontificate. It also serves a symbol of the way in which all of us need to move forward in the renewal we have to undertake. There is no way forward without effective leadership.
5. Beauty and Imitation of the Saints
In addition to the necessary relationship of truth and charity, Benedict has pointed us numerous times toward the centrality of beauty, a point closely related to the liturgy. The place where we find beauty, in particular, comes not only from art, but even more so from the lives of the saints, who embody the faith in the world:
To admire the icons and the great masterpieces of Christian art in general, leads us on an inner way, a way of overcoming ourselves; thus in this purification of vision that is a purification of the heart, it reveals the beautiful to us, or at least a ray of it. In this way we are brought into contact with the power of the truth. I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful (“The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty”).
In our age, beauty has become a necessary means of renewal, reaching where truth cannot because of secularism and relativism:
If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence, the Mystery of which we are part; from this Mystery we can draw fullness, happiness, the passion to engage with it every day (“Meeting with Artists”).
6. Prayer and the Formation of Culture
The renewal of the world will come from a spiritual renewal, founded in an encounter with God. Benedict points us toward the way in which he sees this renewal happening through prayer:
In this context, I would like in particular to recall and recommend the ancient tradition of Lectio divina: the diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God who is speaking, and in praying, responds to him with trusting openness of heart (cf. Dei Verbum, n. 25). If it is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the Church - I am convinced of it - a new spiritual springtime (On the fortieth anniversary of Dei Verbum).
He returns to lectio divina, a key Benedictine practice, throughout Verbum Domini, including giving it its own section in the document. In his Paris Lecture to UNESCO, Benedict points even more directly to Benedictine spirituality, as he relates that monasticism’s role in shaping culture came not from intending to do so, but in seeking God before all else.
Monasticism involves not only a culture of the word, but also a culture of work, without which the emergence of Europe, its ethos and its influence on the world would be unthinkable. Naturally, this ethos had to include the idea that human work and shaping of history is understood as sharing in the work of the Creator, and must be evaluated in those terms. Where such evaluation is lacking, where man arrogates to himself the status of god-like creator, his shaping of the world can quickly turn into destruction of the world (See also Spe Salvi where Benedict speaks of the relation of agriculture to the soul through St. Bernard):
Although St. John Paul II is known more widely for his confidence in a new springtime, we see here Benedict’s vision for a new spiritual springtime. By allowing God to shape the soul in prayer, by seeking him before all else, we can then proceed to reshape our culture, understood as sharing in the work of God.
The renewal of the new Benedict did not proceed in the concrete realization of a new community (this is our task), but in clearly pointing to the ways in which this renewal must occur. Benedict’s bold vision of the liturgy, continuity with tradition, catholicity, leadership, beauty, and prayer are crucial in providing the groundwork for any authentic renewal. The work we have to undertake in living out and expressing this vision will be difficult. We need careful discernment in this work, as we form new apostolates, renew older ones, and carry out the work of the New Evangelization. In the midst of these undertakings, the vision of Pope Emeritus Benedict will serve as an enormous and even crucial asset. Like the Rule of St. Benedict, the writing of this new Benedict has left us with a body of teaching to inspire and guide us in the creation of a new Christian culture. Waiting for another Benedict? We found him!