No need to drop “Benedict” from the “Benedict Option”

Over at Crisis Magazine, Austin Ruse has written a nice piece about the “Escriva Option.”  I get Ruse’s weekly Letter from the UN Front, but their tone is so hyper that I usually ignore them.  This article, however, is worth a read:  he urges that one way to pursue Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is by following St. Josemaria Escriva.  The more ways we can get of describing and approaching what is needful in our times, the better.

But there is one point where I want to take issue with the article.  He makes a big deal of saying that laypeople should not look to religious orders for the way to live the lay state:

The question becomes: is St. Benedict a proper model for the laity? Whether there is withdrawal to the mountains or not, the implication of the Benedict Option is that laymen can somehow follow a monastic model. Certainly there are third order Benedictines, there are even third order Trappists, though I suspect they are chattier than those behind the walls. But, laymen need not ape the practices of those we may think are spiritual athletes to live out our vocation as laymen.

Ruse goes on to say that the rise of monasticism led to a decline in the belief that lay people can be holy, a belief only fully recovered at Vatican II.  He argues that looking to religious orders for our inspiration is not only unnecessary but even harmful, because it promotes clericalism.  The final line of his article:

But there is a better model for the layman than monks and nuns and one need not join Opus Dei to find it in the Escriva Option. It is open to all, even priests.

In his claim that it is bad for lay people to look to the religious life as a model, I think Ruse runs afoul of the Church’s guidance.  Although Vatican II in Lumen Gentium did assert the lay vocation as a positive way of life in its own right, it also asserted that the religious life is intended to inspire others to fulfill their own vocations better.  Here’s a bit from Lumen Gentium 44:

The profession of the evangelical counsels, then, appears as a sign which can and ought to attract all the members of the Church to an effective and prompt fulfillment of the duties of their Christian vocation. The people of God have no lasting city here below, but look forward to one that is to come. Since this is so, the religious state, whose purpose is to free its members from earthly cares, more fully manifests to all believers the presence of heavenly goods already possessed here below.

St. John Paul II picks up this notion, that the religious actually inspire the laity to live the lay life better.  Here’s the beginning of paragraph 33 of his apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata:

A particular duty of the consecrated life is to remind the baptized of the fundamental values of the Gospel, by bearing “splendid and striking testimony that the world cannot be transfigured and offered to God without the spirit of the Beatitudes”. The consecrated life thus continually fosters in the People of God an awareness of the need to respond with holiness of life to the love of God poured into their hearts by the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 5:5), by reflecting in their conduct the sacramental consecration which is brought about by God’s power in Baptism, Confirmation or Holy Orders. In fact it is necessary to pass from the holiness communicated in the sacraments to the holiness of daily life. The consecrated life, by its very existence in the Church, seeks to serve the consecration of the lives of all the faithful, clergy and laity alike.

Let me offer a gloss on these magisterial texts.  Because Christ came once but is going to come again, the Christian life is caught between the fact that Christ has already conquered and the fact that his victory is yet to be fully manifest.  This is why, for example, in the course of Romans 8 St. Paul can say both that we have received the Spirit of adoption and that we are still awaiting our adoption as sons.  To be a Christian is to be in an already-but-not-yet situation.

The lay life retains the basic Christian already-but-not-yet dynamic to its full, with no relief.  We the laity are supposed to be “in the world while not of it,” but the more you understand what “in the world” means, the more it can sound like we are asked to be “of the world but not of it.”  It is a genuine difficulty—and it should be.  Any lay person who feels no difficulty here has missed something fundamental about Christianity.  The risk that one will simply melt into the world, be absorbed by it, is inherent in the lay vocation and cannot be avoided.

However, the religious life tilts things toward the “already” side of the equation:  already there is no marrying or being given in marriage; already worldly possessions drop away before our true inheritance; already life is centered entirely around worship.  The result is that that the religious act as a constant pull on the laity, reminding them that Christianity is not only about serving the world here and now but also about another world to come.  The religious state helps the lay state to maintain the tension inherent within it.

Dom Gregory Dix tells an interesting story in this regard.  During the 4th Century, the Church was finally allowed to become the public thing she is by nature:  after centuries of persecution, she was not only made legal but even supported by the worldly power.  The danger, of course, was that the Church would be swallowed by the worldly power so enthusiastically supporting her, because men would pursue the priesthood as a means of worldly advancement and the populace in general would receive Baptism as a means of currying favor with the government.

But in this same period, monasticism really took hold in the Church, and Dix argues that this supplied the needed counterweight.  Both laity and clergy alike took inspiration from the monastics, taking from it the view that the whole of life must be consecrated to God.  For example, the Liturgy of the Hours originated in the monasteries as a way of consecrating all of time to God, and it was then adopted by the secular clergy—and now, of course, the Church has urged the laity to pray the hours as well.  Anyone who prays the Breviary is imitating a practice from the religious state.

I like this story for two reasons.  First, it manifests that the Church must be, in a sense, a worldly thing:  she was not supposed to remain in the catacombs but to take her place as a figure and a force in the world.  But second, it brings out that this very fact about the Church constitutes a danger to her, a danger that needs counterbalancing by the presence of the religious state within the Church.

Ruse is right that the presence of the religious state immediately presents a second danger to the laity.  Because our state as the laity requires that we live in tension between world and otherworld, the moment we try to avoid worldliness we risk losing our position in the world; the moment we look to the religious state for inspiration, we risk collapsing into that state instead of living our own.  And yet given the nature of the two states, it would be strange and even unfortunate if the laity did not feel an attraction to the religious model, feel it as a source of energy, a source of clarity.  That, I take it, is the thrust of the magisterial texts cited above.

So while we pursue the vital conversation about how we the laity should live in a world ever more hostile to faith, let’s keep true to the lay state, by all means.  But let’s not take that as excluding the inspiration of Benedict or other religious founders.  We’re going to need all the inspiration we can get.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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Austin Ruse
Austin Ruse
8 years ago

If you get our Letter from the UN Front, I can see your point about over the top, but that is largely a fundraising piece.

If you are talking about our weekly email report, the Friday Fax, i contest your characterization. It is a model of straight ahead journalism.

Which one do you refer to above?


Austin Ruse

8 years ago

As an oblate I think I can answer some of the questions here, but I will have to write on it at a later time on my blog. There can indeed be traps as it were for the layperson. But in following the rule of Saint Benedict as an oblate these can be remedied. I will see if I can write a post about it some time soonish, or so… 🙂

8 years ago
Reply to  Dr. Holmes

Will do 🙂