I want to note at the outset that many of Rod Dreher’s suggestions (The Benedict Option) are quite laudable and worth thinking about. This article concentrates on one particular aspect: the acquisition of virtue in the context of American suburban life. Dreher himself mentions the need for proximity and stability. These matters are even more vital than he suggests. Also, it must be said that conservative American Christianity (which seems to be Dreher’s chosen audience) is not the same thing as Christian civilization. American Christianity was itself already a form of barbarism of long standing – not productive of a “civilization.” Indeed, Charles Taylor makes it clear that secular modernity (Dreher’s and MacIntyre’s true “barbarians”) is the product of secularized Protestantism. If every secular liberal bogeyman disappeared tomorrow and left a pristine conservative America, it would soon reproduce them. They are its natural-born children. In an interview with Dreher, Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Seminary, stated: “I do not believe evangelicalism has sufficient resources for a thick enough Christianity to survive either this epoch or much beyond.” My observations should be taken by Orthodox Christians as a call to “thicken up.” For a full account of that interview use this link.
There has been a bit of a sensation surrounding Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. I can think of no book by an Orthodox writer that has had more discussion before it was published! Publishing has only altered the discussion in minor ways, since many reviewers and commenters seem to have plenty of thoughts without the bother of reading the book. It takes little more than a synopsis of his thesis to provoke a response, and the responses generally tell you more about the responders than about the book itself. I have read the book, as well as the major background books on which Dreher bases his thesis. These thoughts should be read with that in mind.
The origin of the Benedict Option (Rod’s creative title for all of this) comes from the final paragraph in Alasdair MacIntyre’s classic, After Virtue (1981). Having analyzed and detailed the collapse of modern society in terms of its ability to produce virtuous people, MacIntyre likens our time to that of post-Roman Western Europe. With the end of empire and the dominance of barbarity, small enclaves of monastics (primarily Benedictines) began what would become the seeds of civilization’s return to virtue. MacIntyre opined:
This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict.
It is equally important to hear what MacIntyre now says about his famous paragraph. In an interview with a publication by the Bruderhof community, Stanley Hauerwas (perhaps one of MacIntyre’s strongest philosophical allies) said:
Alasdair once told me that this is the line he most regrets ever having written! He wasn’t advocating some kind of withdrawal strategy – he was only pointing out that we can’t be compromised by the world in which we find ourselves.
The myth of fallen Rome has overshadowed modern thought almost from the beginning. It is the story of civilizational collapse, an image that seems to haunt our imagination. It “rhymes” with the world we live in, whether you favor the Left or the Right. For conservative thinkers (such as Dreher) the lesson seems clear. The barbarians have indeed been governing us for quite a while, and unless we get on with some sort of recovery plan, we will be lost in a sea of barbarians. Dreher proposes many practical intentionalities by which the Church might do the work of a new St. Benedict. But there are problems.
MacIntyre’s work that followed After Virtue, was called Whose Justice? Which Rationality? in which he discussed the phenomenon of modern fragmentation. He noted that even within a single Supreme Court decision, there are frequently multiple, mutually-contradictory models of rationality and justice. We do not (and cannot) agree with one another, for we do not even agree with ourselves. Were I writing the ecclesiological version of that book, it might be titled, Whose Theology? Which Christianity? Christianity in the contemporary world is easily as fragmented as the culture in which it lives. And were someone to suggest that we stick to just Orthodoxy, I might observe that we are far from fragmentation-free ourselves.
However, my major observation about the Benedict Option is much less theological. It is grounded in how virtue is acquired, which is why St. Benedict’s communities actually succeeded. Virtue, well presented in both MacIntyre and Hauerwas’ work, is acquired through practice, or, more precisely, through practices. Hauerwas uses the example of brick-laying. A brick mason acquires the virtue of laying brick correctly and well through his apprenticeship with a master. He learns by doing and with the patient endurance of correction and repetition. The virtues of the Christian life are similar. They may indeed be aided by the working of grace, but the manner of their acquisition remains grounded in our humanity and its practical engagement in daily life.
To a certain extent, all civilizations have virtues. No matter where you live (or how you live), you learn things that enable you to survive. If you live in a ghetto dominated by organized crime, you will likely acquire abilities to cope (or you die). They may include lying, murder, theft, etc. In a culture of ruthlessness, to be ruthless is a “virtue” of sorts. The meanest flourish.
Our modern culture requires its own version of virtues for success. We are a consumer economy, highly individualistic with a deep regard for sentiment. The landscape of our world has evolved in response to these fundamental realities. Values and practices that fall outside of that model are difficult to nurture and sustain. Human beings are largely creatures of habit. If the structures of our world support a certain form of virtue, then that is the most likely path we will follow. We do so because it is the most natural way to live.
It is here that most aspects of a modern “Benedict Option” flounder. An American suburb is not a European village of Late Antiquity. Every aspect of a suburb’s existence is designed to serve and nurture consumers. Hauerwas once described the modern family as a “group of people who agree to cohabit for the purpose of watching television.” That, of course, dates the quote. It would be more accurate today to say that it is a group of people who agree to cohabit for the purpose of sharing bandwidth.
I live on a street that includes nine homes. I know about half my neighbors by sight. We speak very seldom, though everyone is quite friendly. None of us attend the same Church, and not all attend any Church. We are Church of Christ, Lutheran, Mormon, Orthodox, Episcopal, nothing, nothing, nothing and nothing. I have only been inside three of the homes. I do not know what they eat or how they live. I am as likely to see them in a store as in their yards. We speak in passing. Two families have lived here for over 50 years; two for about 30; the rest for less than 10. I do not know what most of them do for work.
My most immediate community is structured to nurture the virtues of individualism. People learn to structure their lives to withstand loneliness. A good medical plan helps. A reliable automobile is a necessity. Those who want to flourish must be willing to relocate. The economy cares very little for geography. To be able to relocate means that children must be prepared to adapt to new schools. Extended family must be sacrificed (on my street, only three families have more than one generation in town).
Religious institutions that thrive have adapted themselves to these (and other) suburban virtues. The evangelical mega-church is, by far, the fastest growing religious phenomenon in our area (I think my Episcopal neighbor is now attending a mega-church). It is said that such Churches are popular because they require so little commitment. They flourish for the same reason as the big-box stores. Their gospel is tailored for quick consumption. “Holy Days” are generally designed to mimic cultural holidays without the dissonance of an ancient calendar.
Traditional Churches (such as the Orthodox) are also strongly marked by a suburban mentality. Sundays are well-attended, and the major feasts, with the exception of Christmas and Pascha, much less so. There is constant pressure to create “program” and various strategies to nurture piety. The integration between hearth, home and Church is quite minimal. Of course, the very structure of suburban life is constantly at war with the traditional notion of parish. I have families who travel over an hour-and-a-half to attend Church. It is only natural that their attendance is sporadic. My own family is probably the only one who lives in comfortable walking distance to the Church. I once calculated that the parish uses over 100-200 gallons of gasoline on any given Sunday.
All of this brings us to the problem of “intentional” communities, or “intentional” strategies in the Benedict Option. Americans are no stranger to intentional communities, particularly religious Americans. Our history has been replete with such communities from Plymouth to Jamestown to the Shakers, the Amana Folk, and any number of communards of the 60’s (of whom I am one). They are, on the whole, an unnatural effort to do a very natural thing. We already live in intentional communities: they are called “suburbs,” and they nurture us in the suburban “virtues.”
St. Benedict’s communities “worked,” because what grew up around them were very natural, villages and towns, integrated in the life of parish and monastery. Of necessity, the economies were small, as though E.F. Schumacher himself had served as economic advisor to St. Benedict.1 Benedict’s entire work presumes poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability. The villages of Benedictine Europe embodied these virtues in large measure in accordance with their circumstances.
We must understand that you cannot have a suburban version of the Benedictine Option. Place, habit, economy and a host of “unintentional” things will overwhelm every counter-intention, no matter how well-grounded in Christian teaching. Practices always do their work. The practices of suburban life are not productive of Christian virtue. They were designed to serve a different God.
Are there Christian options for healthier communities more suited to the nurture of virtue? Dreher offers a number of suggestions that are worth considering. But we will make little headway unless and until we recognize that the modern American suburban life (in its many aspects) is a moral choice. Living a half-hour away from a parish, isolated from fellow believers, may very well be the most serious moral choice we make after Holy Baptism, despite how innocuous it may seem.
Virtue is a very natural thing. It is acquired slowly, frequently without great intention, through repeated practices and habits. Those who worry about the collapse of civilization have become too lofty in their thoughts. It is the collapse of the parish that matters just now. For only in the parish will a new St. Benedict get anything done. The origin of the word, “parish,” says a lot. It is derived ultimately from paroikia (“near the house”). That pretty much says everything Benedict needs to say. I will add that Benedict never had it in mind to save or restore the Roman imperium. The American imperium should hold no particular value for Christians today. The outcome of history is the work of God, not of the Church. It is the task of the Church simply to be the Church. The consequences of that reality belong to God, not us.
Hauerwas adds this:
My hunch is that you don’t just make a community up. You discover that you need one another because you’re in danger. We need to figure out how to reclaim the disciplines that are necessary for building a communal life in a manner that indicates that we are a people who need help. We need to pray to God to help us, because we’re not quite sure anymore where we are – we’re not quite sure what the dangers are. We need all the help we can get from one another, and we need God in order to know how to be accountable to one another.
The Orthodox believe that we “cannot be saved alone.” So why do we live as though we could? Or do we imagine salvation to be a Christian living the American Dream?
Thank you Fr. Stephen for this perspective and view!
Please forgive, Father, but your introductory note isn’t quite intelligible: beginning with, “It was itself…” (unclear antecedent) and including, “Indeed, Charles Taylor…”. Can you clarify?
Many thanks for addressing this.
I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to go back more than 3 generations in your town as it is a creation of the American imperium from World War 2.
Yes. But a stable family here in our area would have a minimum of 3 generations, perhaps 4. I have 3 living here, and I’ve only been here since ’89. But my point still stands. My city is not unlike lots of suburbs…many of them haven’t been in existence as long as my town.
Thanks for the head’s up.
Got it now, thank you Father.
I love the Rule of St Benedict and tried to follow it for many years. It was very difficult for me to abide by the rule while leading a middle class, suburban life in the company of my wife and children.
I have also been going on an annual retreat at the Benedictine Abbey of Gethsemani for many, many years and I know a number of the brothers there. Even they are occasionally challenged in their efforts to comply with the Rule! And they live within a few hundred feet of their church in an intentional community that shares their spiritual values. All of which is to say that it is extremely hard to follow any rule of life. It often seems to be impossible in this culture.
Fortunately, I am, by God’s love and grace, an alcoholic. Some years ago, my alcoholism led me to become a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. The 12 Steps are now my rule of life. I fail to faithfully follow the steps on a daily basis, but that’s ok. (I do not mean that I drink. I mean that I fail to completely turn my life and will over to the care of God.)
Just after our Big Book introduces the 12 Steps, it says:
[i]Many of us exclaimed, “What an order! I can’t go through with it.” Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.[/i]
Amen. Spiritual perfection I will never attain. Spiritual progress is something I can do.
Thank you for your blog, Father. I have been a follower for many years and it continues to be a wonderful companion to me on my spiritual journey.
Oh, dear. There is another David! I do not know if he is an alcoholic, but I am. I’ll start using the name David W. to make it less confusing.
Suburbanization was a very intentional development in US history. The dispersal the population , the decentralization of the economy ( at the same time that the upper echelons of the economy were being increasingly centralized) all worked to make the America of the late 20th Century what it is. I doubt that there is any “magic bullet” that can save us> We need to look honestly at our communities; examine the losses of believers; study communities that have actually grown; study communities that have lost membership and make decisions based upon the findings and re-disign our way of life to conform to what actually works. McIntyre was not totally correct. Even Benedictine communities were min decadence.What saved Europe was the Irish missionary effort. Without it, Europe would have descended into a truly Dark Age.
My wife and I were blessed, now looking back over the last 6-8 years, actually the trail is seen throughout our entire 41 years of marriage and our development of our faith. We have had many failures and setbacks medically and financially. How is that a blessing you may ask? Because we were introduced to and dropped in to Orthodoxy completely through Gods orchestration. ” I stand at the door and knock…” to be succinct we lost 2 houses, our health, both had cancer, (survived) 6-9 major surgeries, heart, hips X 4, and my wife finally in remission was hit by a car after Vespers in front of our Parish church last Sept. 7 . Not quite the American Dream. Yet incredibly blessed by the conversion to Orthodoxy and a Parish that is and has been PRACTICING the aforementioned attainment of virtues for quite some time. Can it be done in modernity and our crazed misguided culture? “Be in the world, not of the world….” Yes it can
It’s a choice. Ulysses knew to bind his sailors from the Sirens. In my opinion Protestantism has let good get in the way of the best. Orthodoxy is the gold mine with wealth for all that ails us, both individually and hopefully on a larger scale. Seek God, not Babel. Follow Jesus, not the Beast. Not easy but so right….
I too thank you for your insights and commentary.
There is never a magic bullet. There are adaptations the Church could make (but won’t). The Church in America is married to a suburban professionalized version of ministry etc. It’s institutions largely presume this to be the case. Our living space in America was designed by and for the economy (consumption) and is back and supported by tax policy, etc. It has only had this in mind. It’s not just Churches that are failing in their primary mission. America is increasingly becoming the poster boy of failed institutions. Consumerism does not work. Most of the “fixes” that are applied to it only make it worse and yet more wasteful.
What I’m describing, viz. the virtues, is not a plan for rescuing this civilization. I’m simply describing something that’s about as inexorable and reliable as gravity. You can’t design around gravity for too long. We are already in collapse, but the pieces are falling in slow motion and will continue for some generations to come. Huge segments of the population are now without 2 parents. As that continues to spread (and it is spreading) the social consequences from that one thing alone will be enough to bring about collapse. The incarceration rate in certain segments of our culture are beyond comprehension. This is what collapse looks like…and it’s eating into the suburbs.
“Benedict” is simply a cypher for monasticism. The Irish monks were as much “Benedict” as Benedict himself in terms of what MacIntyre was saying.
The question that comes to mind is: Can America even be “saved” through the Benedict Option or anything else? Or do we have to wait for the inevitable collapse of infrastructure and economy and rebuild a virtue-driven civilization on the ashes?
It seems the missing ingredient is necessity. Rome had to utterly fail before St. Benedict’s work could take root. As long as the Roman infrastructure maintained any power, any influence over the lives of its citizens, it seems its citizens would prefer the status quo. Once they had been freed from the Roman system, however, and entirely unmoored from their dependence on it, a new civilization could be built on a Christian model.
America is collapsing morally and in other ways, but its infrastructure has not entirely collapsed yet. Living in community and close to your parish is, like nearly all modern things, an option. We do not need to depend on one another for survival, and so we do not form integrated villages. As long as we have an option, it seems human nature will always choose the easy path, which is not conducive to culture making. Necessity, it seems, is the mother of civilizations.
Outstanding. Thank you Father!
I was struck by Hauerwas’ statement in the interview that community was built out of need. In a consumer culture, we fail to see that we need each other (and die lonely deaths). How any of this works out in history is anybody’s guess. There are things the Church should be about for the sake of its obedience to Christ. Life in a consumer culture is not conducive to salvation. It’s not impossible (obviously) – it’s just far from optimal.
I am currently reading Dreher’s book. His analysis in Ch. 2 of how we got here is truly depressing in its inescapability.
Consumerism has roots in a severe individualism, I suppose. I do not know how to counter that. It is so American. I am so American.
I live in a semi rural type of suburb, where people go to raise livestock, chickens, garden, to live ‘out and away’ yet within striking distance of gainful employment. That said, the few Orthodox churches here are a minimum of 40 minutes away in built up areas, the closest churches are evangelical. I don’t know how to be part of a faith community that lives life together in such a fragmented place.
Thank you for your analysis. I am curious about your introductory comments identifying American Christianity as barbarism, and what Al Mohler sees as an answer to dying evangelicalism.
I suppose, like Mohler, I can diagnose better than I can cure. But propping up or rescuing civilizations has never been the job of the Church. It could be argued that Western European high civilization (Late Middle Ages) carried deep flaws that were not manifest until events unfolded otherwise. Europe remains arranged in villages and more reasonable cities, at least in certain areas. It probably saves them to a degree, just civilizationally. The movement of populations in Britain with the rise of the industrial revolution also brought crushing problems for the parish system that the Anglican Church never, ever adjusted to.
America is an experiment, created by the massive engine of the modern economy. Here’s a deal. Someone asked me about buying our church supplies (paper towels, garbage bags, etc. about $200 a month) through one of the Amazon sites. I already get it through Costco (which is bad enough), but at least it hires local people. There is currently a collapse going on among big box stores (Sears and KMart are simply the most visible at the moment). Many chains are closing hundreds of stores. This is a direct result of electronic shopping. E shopping will change the face of the country in ways few are imagining. Will we like it?
When visiting Essex England a few years ago (the Monastery of St. John) a number of the nuns were grumbling at tea one afternoon about a store called Tesco that had opened in the village. It sounded like our complaints about Walmart. I went in the Tesco when I was in the village. It was, to my surprise, nothing more than a modest grocery store by American standards. But in Britain, the village norm had been to go to separate stores on High Street (butchers, grocer, etc.) and do one’s shopping. They saw this as a threat to village life. And they were probably right. It’s about 70 years behind the US.
EF Schumacher is probably the most reasonable person to read on economic matters. The economy that really matters is local. We only live locally. Sanctity is local, etc. Our shopping habits form and shape us. We’re used to them. We bring them to Church with us. When I was an Anglican pastor, we had 3 services each Sunday. I called it “Burger King Church,” because “You can have it your way.” And believe you me, everyone not only wanted it their own way, they were only to happy to tell the priest what that way was!
Orthodoxy presumes a village. We can only do one Divine Liturgy a day. Two liturgies would divide the village (and the Church). The Eucharist is a sacrament of union, but it has become a sacrament of private piety (“I made my communion”), in some denominational Churches. And those habits are so pervasive that they infect the Orthodox mind here as well. We have to work at correcting them.
I preached a sermon this last year on the liturgy not being a show, you do not come to watch, the congregation is not an audience. Children cannot “distract” adults, because their very actions are themselves part of the liturgy. But those audience habits are formed and shaped by a consumer culture. I am grateful for the substantial number of Europeans (Romanian, Russian, etc.) in my parish. They were not formed and shaped in a consumerized village. Their Church attitudes are healthy – and I hope infectious!
There is a Serbian parish near Orlando FL (St. Petka) http://www.svetapetka.org/english/ Their website documents the building of their Church. It was done by the parishioners. Suburbanite Americans would never be able to do this, or think of it. This kind of mind was forged in the villages of Serbia. Just an interesting example.
Thank you, Father Stephen.
It seems to me that it comes down to whether we are seeking Paradise or utopia.
If we seek paradise, we will find it. It comes from picking up one’s cross, from staying ON one’s cross, as did the thief who found himself alongside Jesus, and taking Jesus seriously in our obedience.
If we seek utopia, escape from one world we’re not crazy about to develop a one better suited to our own ideas…all we will find is failure and death. (Just look at the utopias of Nazism and Communism.)
The Benedict Option becomes a different book, depending on the lenses through with it is read.
If I understand you correctly, that what is most needed is for Orthodox people to live near the Church, then we really are in tough shape in America. This requires a much deeper level of commitment and surrender than anyone I know has considered. Unfortunately, I think that the prospects of that happening on any great scale are minimal.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for your lengthy response.
When I first heard of the Benedict Option a couple years ago I had a couple thoughts: first, that my local church where we were very involved, did not really function like a community for my family. I am thinking of the sense in which Bonhoeffer describes life together in his book, Life Together. But perhaps my family could function like that, holding to truth, living our lives around certain disciplines, functioning as a small community that gives refuge from the world outside. Except that I haven’t figured out how to DO this.
I live in the greater Phoenix area, and there is nowhere I know where people live so contrary to the natural world around us. We force the desert to give us what we want, when it doesn’t have it, we create it or ship it in at a high ecological cost. Economically, there is no ‘true’ local economy, as all businesses are mostly large, corporate entities. There are niche markets for small business food and household items, but small stores have died as their prices are too high. I love Amazon since I can usually find what I want (books…) without driving all over to these huge stores that never seem to have what I am looking for. I see that I am part of the problem! And my children are being raised as consumers more than I would like.
I am comforted by what Patty said in her comments about seeking paradise over utopia. Also in the idea that I can repent. My life is riddled with poor thinking, poor worship, sin, and lack. Yet there is hope. If the desert teaches me anything, it is that there is great beauty here if I only have eyes to see it, in the midst of dryness, thorns, extreme heat. God is merciful. He blesses me here with fragrant flowers despite my lack. My sorrows are not missed by Him.
I have to go do some dishes so my wife won’t have to.
Come Lord Jesus!
I’m a convert to Catholicism from reformed Christianity (live in Seattle area where Mars Hill was a big thing) and currently live in a small town about 45 minutes north of Seattle. It’s an old logging town, and though the old industry has moved on, it remains one of those places where you will always bump into the same people you see every day at the supermarket, pub, or coffee shop.
I’m pretty poor and live in an apartment with a flatmate who attends a Calvary Chapel about 12 minutes away. He’s one of my many close Protestant friends. Every week, dozens of us meet at someone’s house for a potluck dinner. 6-15 of us go out to a local pub every Wednesday night. About 30 of us are constantly connected in a “Google Hangout” (basically a chat room) where we make jokes, talk about our days, and plan activities. I’m constantly connected with these folks.
A few things strike me about this odd community I am immersed in:
First and foremost, I am the only Catholic among a large group of evangelicals (many of whom I’ve known long before my conversion). We talk and share and jokes and eat together, but I do not commune with them around the Lord’s table, nor they with me.
Second, I have found absolutely NO such community amongst Catholics. I’m 29 and can hardly find a single person my age in our entire parish. Where there is an ever-growing population of young adults in evangelical churches (including the one I grew up in), I find very little presence within the catholic communities. As far as EO is concerned, I’d have to drive all the way to another city to find a Liturgy, and a lot of these parishes seem like the kind you set up temporarily in a shared space.
Third, I feel a great pain being with this community. I feel estranged, and though clearly we commune in some sense, we do not in others. After all, are they part of the “church”? Am I? Are you? What constitutes “the church” when there are different communions, all with different evidence and their own holy men and women, claiming they are the church that Christ has founded, to the exclusion (or inclusion!) of others?
Fourth, I’m intrigued by the idea of “digital communities”. Whether it be a blog like this, a forum, or a community chat room like I have with these friends, we have found a way to share in contemplation regardless of a certain kind of physical proximity. In particular, the “hangout” that I share with my friends is interesting because it serves as an extension of an already-meeting community instead of a replacement or facade (like Facebook or Reddit might). Can such digital communities serve as a bridge for those of us in a kind of America diaspora?
Fifth, and finally–and this is related to my third observation–regardless of being surrounded by so many friends and laughing faces, I am impossibly lonely. I could never again be a Protestant, but my soul often longs to simply attend their Church because I would finally be a part of their family (or vice versa). I’d finally know that my fate was entangled with theirs, that when I was hurting they would hurt, and when I was joyful they would be joyful. But this is impossible so long as we profess different creeds (or rather, so long as I believe a creed is a necessary and they don’t!).
Anyway, I am not making any kind of argument, simply sharing a vantage. My soul longs to be a part of a family that is heading in the same direction. It’s lonely out here.
It is for us to remember that we are not the creators of the culture into which we were born. Terrible decisions were made along the way and we have inherited their consequences. But that’s also the nature of sin. On the one hand, I think we must make the best of our parishes, neighborhoods and homes and pray for grace and mercy. For one thing, something I lay great store by, is that “Benedict” didn’t do anything over night. If the world is to last, then there is a long road ahead.
We must remember the stories of Benedict (and others), and the stories of what works best. With that we can at the very least pass on some wisdom to those after us. And we can make decisions that come to hand that might lend themselves to a stable, healthy land. We will not see the fruit of those efforts in our lives. But, we look for a different home, a different kingdom. This one matters, and we should take care to do as much for it as we can, for the sake of those who come after. But we have a home that waits for us.
I suspect heaven is more like the “Shire” than we know. It’s certain that everyone will know your name. And though it will be vast, it will always seem close and warm, for that’s what love is like. We should never, never despair.
You’re right. It is sobering. But, it’s good to know the truth and then get on with what bits of it we can. And we pray and do the good that God gives us.
Modernity and its many terrible contradictions is quite lonely. Hauerwas talks about it in the interview I referenced. The individualism that marks our culture will always produce loneliness. Enjoy your friends as best you can. Bear the suffering you feel and offer it in union with the sufferings of Christ for their sake. There is a kind of communion in that – among the sweetest there is. Ask God for the grace to do this well. If possible, ask God to give you a saint as a friend to help you in this task. Saints have a way of finding us. So, don’t be surprised after you ask to find a saint showing up in your life. I can’t tell you how you’ll know – but – God willing, you will.
Father Stephen, thank you for your kind words. Your responses to me and to others are quite comforting, reaching directly into my heart.
Also, I love the idea you have Eric of asking for a saint to help! It gets my imagination going.
May the Lord continue to bless you as you bless others through this blog.
I am rushing to respond before I get knocked too far down. Your insightful and open sharing is much appreciated. There are too many incredible comments made on this, or any blog for that matter, which go unnoticed. I want to say that while you feel alone, I am with you like so, so many others. It is with quite a bit of dismay and disappointment for me that a book such as this one comes with such a limited”sub-urban” perspective/solution.
Let me say that I have no other option but to immerse myself in local community however it may be. I am greatly inspired by the life and works of Mother Gravalia, who lived a life of immersion in India amongst Hindus. She found joy, love and incredible fulfillment through her choice of perspective and constant faith. She rarely got to celebrate the Liturgy and was often alone amongst people who had little to no commonality with her faith. But she loved everyone and they loved her–this was her constant liturgy.
I travel great distance to support and “lead” a small orhtodox mission that meets in a gracious and loving “evangelical” church. We are gifted with the Liturgy once a month, weather permitting. We have no “name” of our own. Just about everyone who attends travels farther than I to pray together. I work for an “evangelical” organization. My parents were “evangelical” missionaries.
Most of my friends are “evangelicals.” My work requires me to attend “evangelical” conferences.
I am immersed in an “evangelical” world. Reality! I am very pained and bruised by this. But I am also very blessed to be prayed for and loved by people who immerse themselves in me as “evangelicals” as I struggle to do the same, as an “orthodox.” None of us chose this situation or exchange. It just is and I am not so convinced that it should be “fixed.” I mean, who is going to fix it and by whom and for what cause? Certainly not by me. I think Mother Gravalia would agree that we don’t change anything, only ourselves through acceptance of others. It is a mission field both ways.
Anyway, this isn’t meant to be exhaustive, only encouraging. Thank You!
Please clarify a small point for me, I want to make sure I understand…when you told Eric he might want to ask for a saint to help him, did you mean a saint that has already gone home, as in Saint Francis of Assisi? Or someone still in the flesh, so to speak?
I live near Seattle and attend a parish on the Eastside.
I can tell you for SURE that if you live 45 minutes north of Seattle, you have three *wonderful* Orthodox parishes to choose from, and unless you are in a location I have not considered, you are within 30 minutes of at least 2 parishes. They. might (for now) be in temporary space, but they, like the ones with permanent locations, are seeking paradise. I personally know people in these parishes who have given … more than can be imagined to follow Christ, to take Him seriously and at His word. They have given their livelihoods, their friendships, their monetary success. But they don’t walk around wearing badges proclaiming these things. They have their struggles…but they stand together with others who struggle toward paradise.
If I can be of any help to you, please know that it is OK with me if Father Stephen gives you my email address. I don’t want to write it here, but it is OK if he passes it along.
Very interesting piece. I was reminded of the “Great Divorce” Father in your discussion of the effects of secularization and the hyper individualism that has created suburbia. I also tend to agree that we cannot create a “Christian” suburban community because it is unlawful to set bounds on who can buy or rent houses in our neighborhood.
I meant a saint in heaven.
It seems that not all desire for community is equal. Honestly, I recognize that often my desire for community is nothing more than blind consumerism that seeks out just another product (an entertainment). Much deeper lies a desire born out of a valid need to be a part of the community of God. As someone new to the Orthodox Church, how much of this valid desire should I expect to be met by learning how to commune with the Saints through prayer, within the liturgy, etc.? Can those traditions that relegate the Saints to the “second storey” fully understand the concept of communion that is needed for a Benedict Option?
Eric, maybe you can alternate weekly or monthly or even the seasons of the liturgical year between the Evangelical and liturgical churches.
Fr. Stephen, I was hoping you meant saints in heaven! As a Protestant this awakens my imagination a great deal and makes some prayers last week seem a little less silly. Yes, I prayed to a saint, expressing great thanksgiving I feel toward this particular one.
Very solid questions. I think Orthodox, for typical American converts, is a very slow sea-change. I was once told that it takes 10 years to assimilate a lot of key things. Of course, our consumer mentality is easily frustrated by the message that we cannot have everything immediately. It takes 10 years, not because we’re thick or slow, but because “knowing” in Orthodoxy is “noetic” and not merely rational. It’s almost like saying something “has to get into our bones” for us to truly know it. Many things I thought I knew earlier, I came to realize were mostly “notions” and not knowledge. It just takes time.
But everything is simply about our salvation. It is never about the mastery of Orthodoxy, simply learning how to live the life of repentance. Hauerwas’ observation about community being grounded in “need,” is so spot on. That is probably the slowest lesson. When, for example, we frequently say, “Through the prayers of our holy fathers, of Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and save us!” it is a constant reminder that we are not saving ourselves. I am being saved, not saving.
And importantly – everything, everything, everything – is about communion. The Christian faith is about being restored to communion with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Learning to live as a person in communion rather than as an individual is coming to our senses and understanding the truth of our existence.
Sounds like you’re not far from Granite Falls. We visited my wife’s sister and family there last summer. They are evangelical. On a Sunday, we drove about 12 miles to Arlington and attended liturgy in an Orthodox church there. You may have visited it as well. I believe it was at one time a Protestant structure. At least it is permanent. The priest was very welcoming. If you have not, you may want to visit. So many of us have a commute. We have 3 Orthodox churches in the area, but the closest is 30 miles. Father Stephen, yes, a wonderful idea about praying for a Saint to befriend and aid Eric.
I encountered this quote from Cardinal Newman today, and I believe it strikes at what Fr. Freeman is saying. We simply need to be the Church.
“Christianity has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new trial now. … Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence and peace; to stand still and to see the salvation of God.”
I am also Catholic and remember the same thing about my 20’s (also in western Washington)- hard to find other young Catholics in my parish & felt like I was the only young single person there. I am in my 50’s now, so sadly it seems like things haven’t changed much.
Your homegrown community sounds wonderful in many ways, and who knows? Perhaps some of the others will come to join you at your church.
I find it interesting that Dreher’s book is being somewhat savaged in an Orthodox FB group (“Orthodox Hipsters”); the comments here are far more insightful and have greater depth. One woman there told me she likes the compartmentalization of her faith; that it essentially doesn’t belong in some areas of her life! Lord, have mercy.
I fear for the Church not because of the society around it, but because of the will of the people in it. We all too often want to recast Orthodoxy into our own image and our image is that of consumption and individuality. I pray constantly for humility and that I can love others. I fail in all these things far too often.
I know Dreher personally, on a certain level, and he is a close friend to several of my own friends (which is how I met him). So, I read his work as part of a larger conversation with an ear that wants to be sympathetic and not just argumentative. I know what he’s driving at. Some of the Facebook groups are just lousy. For one, there’s no real moderation of comments, etc. I have a strong presence on Facebook, largely at the urging of my publisher. Mostly, I’ve been trying to moderate my own stuff there…trying to avoid its many temptations. God give us grace!
Being physically close to people and interacting frequently does not necessarily promote the linked intimacy of communion. I dare say that I have a greater level of initmacy with many here than with many I know and am around in the flesh. That is one reason I like the idea of a get together for participants in this blog.
Communion comes only through Jesus Christ and Him crucified. There is a way to seek real communion, be in that communion and not be physically close. Many Orthodox saints have done so and continue to do so. Seek God then the ones you are with will be an integral part of your salvation whether they know it or not.
There is a “kind” of communion in conversations, particularly over time, but I would not want to raise it too high. We are incarnate beings and nothing substitutes for physical presence. There is, however, a communion that takes place even when we are not intentional about it. Proximity is one element of that communion. There is, among my street strangers, a kind of communion. When a large tree fell across the road and blocked the street for a day – there was a commonality and mutuality that we shared. There are other examples as well.
Hauerwas statement that communities are created in “need” is true. We neighbors needed each other. The blog is important to me, but I have no illusions that it pales when compared to my parish. I might indeed have a broader and deeper “impact” online than at my parish (my choir director honestly asked me earlier this year, “Fr. Stephen, why do all those people want to hear you speak?” referring to my travels and speaking engagements). It brought a smile to my face and reminded me, that the most important thing that I do is hear confessions and make intercession at the altar.
There is a casual convenience of the blog. We’re at our computers and it’s a couple of buttons away. We’ve become unnaturally disconnected from our environment – streets, shops, etc. When we’re on the streets, we’re in cars, a highly individualizing way of travel.
These are not “moral” decisions, in the sense that we could do much that is different. Our neighborhoods, roads, shops, etc., are already designed and laid out for us. They are, however, anti-sacraments. They serve to isolate us, not to integrate us. It’s just part of the landscape we have to struggle with. At least we’re not having to hide the fact that we’re Christians, etc. But it’s very counter-productive of virtue. Of course, difficult times can make stronger Christians…only it usually makes fewer of them first.
“..It usually makes fewer of them first” Yes.
I understand all of what you say and agree.
I was in a commune like group for several years prior to the Church. Physically close, a structured life of prayer and fasting with a sacramental approach if not much reality. Intimate community was no easier there. Insufficient grace perhaps because the theology was deeply defective and there was spiritual abuse too. Gained many things but received many scars as well.
My experience has been that even when I say I want community and even when I really do, my sinfulness truncates the actual development and participation in it. The common responses being either “my way or the highway” or a passive-agressive retreat. That is where the existential need comes in. That is also what makes intentional efforts when a felt need is absent so prone to fail.
I would say that it is the fact that you carry all of us up into that altar that allows many good things to happen.
In America, it’s sort of feast or famine. Either you’re in a commune or something, or you’re a suburbanite. I actually have something in mind akin to the normalcy of a European village. That’s the context of St. Benedict. The integrated life was the normal life. Not intense, but enmeshed in the liturgical cycle and the normalcy of people’s lives. It’s not much of an American possibility. We’re like a colony on Mars. Not a lot we can do about the reduced gravity and the length of the year.
We are very good at making people go crazy.
Father Stephen, Sometimes you stumble upon things on the Internet that are very uplifting. I saw a title, Children of the Tundra, a video made in Russia. They showed the native people in Siberia, looked a lot like Inuits. They were mostly nomadic, raising reindeer. The video had one segment on a single mother who had lost her only child. She was in a small village and said she was attempting to keep traditional ways. After the loss of her child she took in 25 orphan children to raise. There was an Orthodox church within walking distance from her house. One very poignant scene pictured her and the 25 children in the church, worshipping together. They were seen crossing themselves. What a wonderful example of Christian love in Siberia’s frozen tundra. We lived in Mexico about 35+ years ago. Village life was very much centered around the church and the liturgical calendar, possibly much like the European villages you alluded to. However, with the ubiquitous Internet and TV I’m sure this communal, very traditional life, has mostly disappeared by now.
Father, you might be interested in this website: https://granolashotgun.com/
It has a unique take on suburbia and its discontents, I think
Interesting site, James. Thanks for sharing!
Thank you for sharing that blog site. Incredible perspective. I was immediately struck by the article titled “Big Block Jesus.” Its like a Disney Universe where everything is imagined and ficticious–even the “cash.” It is amazing to me that so many people believe that they are actually borrowing “other people’s money” when in reality there is nothing to be “borrowed.” The fallacy of the whole suburban/modern consumer dream is that all of it is entirely fiction and make-believe wealth utterly dependent on its’ participants funding their own loans through interest. The tragedy comes when it crashes and all this development becomes empty parking lots and trashed houses scooped up, cleaned out and the game starts all over again. And it will happen…it has happened and is happening over and over again. And somehow, with all this in the background, we are to “participate” and find it appropriate for “virtue.” But I probably am missing the point as usual.
Ah…I digress once again. Back to the Cross and Death and humility….
I recently heard someone say something to the effect of
‘if you go to a church where everyone’s life seems perfect you should find another church’
He was speaking from a protestant context but it is relevant about the kind of fellowship that is needed in a parish.
Our Priest traveled over 1,000 miles doing house blessings for parish members in Northern Va, Maryland and also deeper into Va earlier this year. People in our parish are so spread out. But over the past year our Church has started using a social media platform for parishes called The City. I mention this because it has allowed people to have a bit more ‘old time’ genuine fellowship. People who have an unexpected serious illness have been able to make it known and then a meal delivery schedule quickly emerges among members willing and able to help by dropping off food. This has happened several times now and it is so good to see.
I do also wonder about negative impacts of technology on motherhood. I think mothers now may experience a type of lonliness not previously experienced, being lonely while in the presence of an infant. I can’t quite describe it but I experienced a bit of it in the past and I really don’t know if it fits the historical experience of parenting. I think it is part of a cultural forgetfulness of children, a movement away from goodness in my own heart. Occasionally I see glimpses of it in the face of others.
There is so much time spent in cars in this area and it is a place of temptation for anger. Yet it speaks to our interdependence and people don’t seem to see it. One mistake changing lanes and a fender bender on the beltway cascades into thousands of people with 30 minute delays trying to drive to work or, worse, the the sliver of time they were going to spend with family that evening gone.
My childhood was in the 50’s and early 60’s. I lived in a suburban neighborhood that was largely Air Force personnel. Most women did not work outside the home. There were lots and lots of children (we were the baby boom). There was a lot of visiting from house to house, women having coffee (as I recall). It was a fairly ideal time in my memory. I can still name all of the people who were in the houses on my street – some 55 years later. At age 10, the Air Base closed and the neighborhood became a ghost-town and quickly became a slum as housing became rental property. I think the disruption in my life has stayed with me, in one way or another, for my lifetime. It was like something out of Dickens, only in an American suburb.
I recall that it was not unusual for a next-door neighbor lady to pop her head in our house at bedtime, asking my mom to come listen out for her kids while she went to the base to pick up her husband. Or the deeply connected sense we all had during the many alerts that surrounded various Cold War moments (Cuban Missile Crisis) etc. When I watched Leave It To Beaver on televisions (and other similar programs) the people were more affluent than we were, but their world seemed like my world. Those who disparage the 50’s shows as make-believe were not alive back then. It wasn’t. Life was actually like that. We walked to school (yes it was a mile away with a large hill on the way back).
I might add that it was quite unusual for a family to have more than one car. Automobile trips were much less haphazard and spur of the moment. It was a bit of a big deal.
I appreciate the comments between Father Stephen and Michael. I think we all know that nothing can replace face to face interaction.
On a personal note, these very days I am experiencing what seems like the final destruction of any semblance of unity that remained in my family. Cousins and their families over many years are now strangers. The only two I had contact with (by phone. Face to face is gone.), one of them, my sister, simply does not return my calls or contacts. I have no idea why, specifically, except that it’s part and parcel of what has become of life here in this world. The other one is my brother…and even that relationship is crumbling. All I can say is that the phone calls leave me depressed and confused. (note: I am equally responsible for the disunity…I left home years ago, my choice, to “get away” and broke any meaningful contact) I took Father Stephen’s advice and sat in silence (tears) in front of the icons. I have one of our Mother, “The Softner of Evil Hearts”…She blesses and touches my heart…and today, one day at a time, am able to accept these things, sorrowfully.
So, although this blog is, per Father, “a casual convenience”, it offers a communion for me, albeit casual. I thank God for a few “true” friends who live across the country. I long for a local true friend, but don’t know if I can reciprocate and be a true friend in return. I am so used to “going it alone”. It has become a form of self protection. Not very healthy. I also have taken Father’s advice he gave to Eric and prayed for God to send a saint.
Anyway…thanks to all. I’m going to go and check out the granola website!
Father…just noticed you post that’s above mine….yep, that’s it…sure resonates with me!
Long before I was a Christian, even in high school, the disintegrating effects of suburban culture were apparent to me. I was heavily influenced in high school by trips to the proximity of Chicago’s urban environment (an easy train ride from my hometown), and summer trips to visit my grandparents Washington, D.C. This was before my generation had started really reviving the urban cores, which is now such an obvious trend it is barely remarked upon.
In the last year, my wife and I moved our family to what I hope is our permanent home. We moved about 200 miles, and when we were looking at neighborhoods to move to, influenced by my views on suburbanism, I set a rule that the house had to fall within a mile of a grocery store, a library, and an Orthodox church. We were blessed to find a wonderful neighborhood that meets all of those criteria, and it’s almost luxurious how easy it is to get to services.
But we are the exceptions. There are only three families besides ours that live within walking distance (and we’re right at a mile, so it’s a long walk for the kids, especially in winter). There are many people who drive past other Orthodox churches to come to our parish, and I have a very good friend who lives within walking distance of now two parishes (one mission just moved into the neighborhood this year), and yet commutes almost 10 miles to the parish that he was chrismated in.
On the one hand, as an American, this all makes sense to me. Before we moved here, I thought about what I would do if it turned out the parish near our new home (I didn’t visit before we moved, trusting in the Lord not to let such a good-hearted goal backfire…) was sparsely attended or dying. I certainly considered going to another parish in the worst case. And the people who travel to go to the parish they first became Orthodox is also understandable. In my own life, I live 400 miles away from my hometown, and have no immediate family within 100 miles.
But as Fr. Stephen demonstrates, these are disintegrating tendencies. I am finding it hard to express why this is so, and I think that’s a sign that suburban consumerism is our worldview. I doubt very much that St. Benedict or St. Basil or really any other great saint would struggle to condemn these choices, to say nothing of the consumerism in which we live. A Christian worldview starts with the individual, and there’s no way to square a 20-mile commute to church in a neighborhood you otherwise don’t step foot in with the sort of personal immediacy the Gospel demands of us.
I’ve read Dreher’s book, and I do think he makes some good points, but ultimately, I don’t think he takes his arguments to their conclusion. One of those is the need to have close-knit geographically proximate communities. Almost all of his examples, and even the example of his own life, reflect this: the Tipi Loschi, the Clear Creek community, the Eighth Day bookstore and community (I don’t think he mentions this, but it is intimately tied into the Antiochian Cathedral in Wichita), the anecdotes from Leah Libresco, his own decision to move to Baton Rouge following the closure of his ROCOR mission, all demonstrate a commitment to close communities, a need echoed here in Fr. Stephen’s criticique.
Very touching post just above. Thank you for sharing. I am greatly moved. Fr. Aldea also has a meaningful post in his podcast “Through a Monk’s Eyes” about just standing silently and waiting in prayer.
I have found great comfort and a gentle softening somehow in the movie “The Island.” It is an icon to me and has “saved” me many times. There are virtues in it that are beyond words and for that reason I know they are the real thing. Just writing about it brings a mist to my eyes. Its beauty!
You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wz-vegualMg
Blessings in this season of Mercy! (And Father please forgive my bumbling abstractions.)
In ‘The Benedict Option’ book, Rod Dreher spends several pages talking about the benefit of living in geographical proximity to your community (pages 129-134). So I don’t think you can rightfully say that Rod does not have this on his mind. I suspect what you are saying (and what I think Fr. Stephen is saying in his article here) is that this one point in Rod’s book is of paramount importance, and if there were only one thing you could do (out of his list of many), that would be the thing.
I very much agree about the value of moving closer to your parish. Making that happen is not easy or something many can practically do in the short term. I think the rest of Rod’s book gives a great brainstorm on other things you can do living in the reality of the ‘diasporan’ suburbs.
Thank you for your kind words and blessing. I will make it a point to re-visit Fr. Aldea’s site. The gentleness in his voice is so very calming. And I will certainly watch “The Island”, especially as you liken it to an icon, that words can’t describe. It doesn’t surprise me that it is a Russian film. Our iconic films do not compare.
BTW subdeacon….I actually welcome your “bumbling abstractions”! Sometimes I miss the point but they always cause me to think.
Stan, et al
I think it’s probably very unhelpful of me to point out the importance of something most can do nothing about. There is much that has created our modern way of life that troubles me, and that I think are contrary to what is proper and natural for human beings. Yet, life goes on. Human beings can be marvelously adaptable. Troubling for me is that it’s easier to adapt beliefs and worldview than it is things like lifestyle.
American suburban Orthodoxy creates a very “thin” Orthodoxy, but we have a very thin form of many things. Our culture is “thick” in certain aspects (consumerism, individualism, etc.). I wonder if I could gather a people together and design the sort of place that is actually conducive to proper human existence – if they brought their technology with them – we would still behave as we do now.
First, I don’t think it is the most important thing at all. Honestly, and Fr. Stephen please forgive this brief tangent, I think the most important thing is liturgy, which Rod Dreher discusses (and which permeates his book even when he’s not discussing it per se). Everything grows out of faithful attendance at the Divine Liturgy; I won’t try to fake an ecumenalism that I don’t believe in.
But I do think that living close to one’s parish, and not trying to choose which parish that is (as we urban Orthodox often have the luxury of), and becoming a part of the community in which that parish is physically situationed, all of that both comes out of faithful attendance at the liturgical cycle and is itself a prophylactic against the vagaries of the suburban disintegration.
I have only lived by and attended my parish for a little more than a year, so I have at best “notions” (to reference Fr. Stephen’s comment earlier) about how these things relate.
Well said, Matth; I believe we are in agreement 🙂
I have been thinking about the very issue of the “thinness” to quote you Father of our entire culture. To quickly summarize part of my family came to the New World between 1620 to 1630. A group moved from the Massachusetts Bay colony around 1635 and settle an area in the upper northwest corner of Connecticut. They created a town (Goshen) and the extended family resided there as a farming community until there land was taken to make a reservoir in the 1880’s. Most had to go elsewhere for work but they remained tied to Goshen and all retired there. The entire community was an extended family and they tended to one another’s needs.
Then came the 20th Century, the Great Depression and WW II. Both drew people away who never returned and our extended family is now thinly spread all over the world. The last member of my family that lived full time in Goshen ws my Great Grandmother who died in the od family homestead in 1952. By the 1950’s most family neighborhoods had disappeared and nuclear families were left on their own in a mobile society and the divorce rate climbed as there was no larger family to help hold things together and the hyper individualism and the philosophic consequences of the Enlightenment had no further resistance to overcome and the effects flowered.
I agree we need to reverse this and we need to form community and I cannot think of a better community to form than one centered on Orthodoxy in the local parish. Two things stand in our way. 1) The scarcity of parishes that can be “local” without a long commute and our own culture and what it teaches us and bombards us with. Saint Paul says it best in that we need a renewing of our minds.
Father Green Bank, W. VA has no cell phones, no Wi-Fi no radio because it is home to a very sensitive radio telescope. Nothing but land lines and basic TV.
I think American Orthodoxy needs to solve its jurisdiction problem before we can ever hope to have a true parish system. The expectation–the implicit teaching, even–where I live (greater Washington, DC) is that we make a consumerist choice about where we “attend church” based on any number of parameters that aren’t proximity. Frankly, clergy often establish this expectation. We were spit out of our local ethnic parish after a clergy transition and now drive 35 miles away, crossing paths, no doubt, with brothers and sisters in faith coming here because they feel more at home here. It’s very sad.
Father, you say “I wonder if I could gather a people together and design the sort of place that is actually conducive to proper human existence – if they brought their technology with them – we would still behave as we do now.” Now that’s a good question. It would be a very long transition. People would need the kind of resolve as a monk entering a monastery, forsaking everything and all. Behavior doesn’t change overnight. In the end, how many would be there? No, as you say, life goes on and we do adapt.
I was tending some long-running processes this afternoon, and before I knew it, I’d watched all of The Island. That’s an incredible movie. In a way, it reminds me of Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice; at the end of the film, we’re left wondering about the reality we’ve just witnessed. I can’t think of any films out of the Western world that ask such interesting questions about faith and reality. I really love the parallel exorcisms in The Island. What a wonderful surprise to have on a Friday afternoon!
That sounds horrible. I can’t imagine being forced out of a parish, although I can imagine an ethnic priest trying it. I’ve “sampled” ethnic parishes – my first experience of Orthodoxy was Greek, and I grew up near New Gracanica – and they have always felt uncompromisingly ethnic, and I’ve felt not exactly unwelcomed so much as insignificant.
Despite those troubles you have experienced, we should all be glad that there is no unified Orthodoxy in America, or at least that there hasn’t been to this point. The problems of jurisdiction have preserved Orthodoxy in America in ways we cannot possibly understand today, just as the persecutions of the 20th century protected the church from much of the modernist project that wreaked havoc in Western Christianity.
Erika, the jurisdictional problem cannot be “solved”. Down through the years every human effort made in that direction has failed. We will come together in God’s time. Now, I suspect He allows it due to the hardness of our hearts. Yet…
Certainly Orthodox of every jurisdiction are probably here on the blog and the differences are neither mentioned nor noticed. I can walk into any Orthodox parish and likely feel at home. I am Antiochian but my brother is Patriarchal Bulgarian (Old Calendar).
I have many friends in the OCA a few in ROCOR, Serbia and the GOA. Since my home parish is a cathedral there have been visiting clerics from the countries of Georgia, Serbia, Kenya, Romania and Argentina as well as Syria. Priests serve across jurisdictional boundaries and even transfer when necessary.
I have a priest friend in Indianapolis who transfered from the Bulgarian Archdiocese because the GOA parish there split into two parishes and the GOA had no one to send. He speaks no Greek. He filled in temporarily and it was a match so with the blessings of all the bishops involved it was made permanent.
I have worshiped in parishes other than my own OCA, GOA, Patriarchal Bulgarian, Serbian and never felt out of place. There is a Western Rite parish of my own Archdiocese in my town and I have been thinking of going there for a visit.
My Antiochian son when he was 15 was blessed to serve as an altar boy in a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy being celebrated my His Grace Bishop Joseph of the Bulgarian Archdiocese. Since, coming from a cathedral parish, my son had actually served more Hierarchial Divine Liturgies than anyone else in the altar except the Bishop, all of the others including the priests looked to him on how to do some of the liturgical processes. Seems pretty unified to me especially in the Cup of salvation.
It is only a problem if we make it one. For the moment I thank God and know that somehow it will work for the salvation of us all. Frankly while there are problems those problems would not go away if we there was administrative unity and such unity would likely create other problems. I think the quest for such unity is a bit of a red herring.
I know who my Priest, Bishop, Metropolitan and Patriarch are. I honor and work to obey them praying for the mercy of Christ who is our head regardless of ethnicity or jurisdiction.
Somehow everywhere I go He is there, the Liturgy is essentially the same even if I don’t understand the language or the tones and rythmn of the service are different.
23,000 Protestant sects and counting, Rome looks unified but they actually have ethnic divisions too, not to mention divisions of practice that run just as deep as ours. The fragmentation of our time is everywhere. I’d say that, consideing
Considering, we do pretty well. We can always do better.
Erika, I too experienced the grief of a dysfunctional priest an an unwelcoming parish. It is hell. But, my family and I moved across town- further away same Bishop. We prayed,repented and forgave but there are still scars. Unfortunately spiritual abuse and sinful actions would happen if we were more unified.
I thank God for my parish now and for the one I left. May God heal your soul.
Thank you for recommending ‘The Island.’ I just finished it. Beautiful. It will be with me for a long time.
I am mindful of the various ways each of us , uniquely, must find paths to reconcile things which are hard to reconcile: proximity to far-flung churches being one. In Austin, very few could afford to live near the downtown church. Land has been purchased for an additional campus closer to where most people are able to live…But, it will be awhile. Meanwhile, it occurs to me that the 36 minutes it takes for us to arrive at church is probably not that different, in minutes, than it would have taken many people to walk to church in less automated days. The advantage for us in traveling the insane interstate is that the possibility of near-death experiences ( or the real thing) is truly ever before us. Mindfulness of our death is not a bad thing(I tell myself)! God is everywhere present and fills all things–even this. Lord have mercy.
I’m sorry you experienced similar pain, but thank God you’ve also experienced so many positive experiences of unity as well! I have, too. For instance, my experience of the ethnic parish in town under the priest who baptized me was just as you describe in your many examples. There were mostly folks from one background, but all were welcome (including my non-O spouse), and many converts of all backgrounds were being brought into the faith. Prior to the clergy transition, my husband, children, and I felt warmly folded into the family of the parish, which had, as any family has, a distinctive character, with gifts and flaws.
By “solving the jurisdiction problem” I did not mean to imply that we eradicate difference, ethnic cultures, traditions, etc., or that there are not beautiful examples of true unity among Orthodox of all backgrounds! Not at all. I am so sorry if it came across that way.
I just meant that if we want a true parish system based on proximity and not based on consumer choice, then my local parish needs to be my parish–according to me, the clergy, and the other parishioners–simply because of where I live and my baptism. Your local parish would be your parish for the same reasons.
Forgive me if I shifted the conversation away from “Benedict Option” topics to jurisdiction issues on the whole–I can see that my wording could seem more sweeping than I intended it to be. I can appreciate that the preservation of a living Orthodoxy that is less culturally mutated toward the “modern project” in America is a gift, as Matth implies (although there’s something about all those options that seems very modern and American to me). I would certainly never deny that there are benefits to the current situation, or that God in his providence is working through this reality for our salvation. Nor was my point that jurisdictions are an insurmountable barrier to unity in Christ.
However, I maintain that having multiple jurisdictions implies a consumerist choice–as three Eucharists per Sunday at an Episcopal church does. And when a parish website can say things like “Our mission is to serve the [adjective] Orthodox Christians in the surrounding counties,” it means the priest considers his flock to be those with a particular background, not those in a particular geographic area–which directly undermines a parish system. That’s all I meant by looping the problem (and despite the points made above, I still personally think the situation qualifies as a kind of problem) of multiple, overlapping jurisdictions into the conversation about localism.
May we all meet face to face one day in our true home!
Yours in Christ,
Erika, glad you clarified. I see your point. I grew up in a Catholic neighborhood. Just about a mile away was a RC parish and school K-8. Two RC high schools in town. One on the east side, one on the west known for a Catholic curriculum with nuns and priests the primary teachers. But that broke down in my life time. Now the RC’s I know no longer go to the nearest parish they go to the one that has a priest they like or the “programs” they like and there are many fewer RC K-8 schools. The RC high schools are distinguished for their sports teams not their academics. They adopted Common Core and most of the teachers are secular “professionals”.
My local bishop has a vision of building an Orthodox community here in Wichita centered around the Cathedral. There are many people who live close ( but it is an expensive neighborhood), we have an Orthodox classical school with a monk as headmaster who has post-graduate training in classical education. K-5 this year. We have a fledgling monastery, St. Silouan’s. There are many other things that we do. Yet we have so few people. Many live more than 20 minutes away some more than an hour.
The ordering of our lives around liturgical time as a community nearly impossible.
The illusion of choice reigns. The fragmentation is real. There is no village.
I have to say I am loving this conversation. I check my email often for additional responses.
My family and I attended Vespers last night and had dinner with a couple who left life long commitments to reformed churches for Orthodoxy. They were wonderful in sharing their story and answering all our questions. Which, of course, leads to more questions!
I want to thank all of you here for your kindness. You make Orthodoxy something I want to explore and understand. I do not know where we will end up in this next year, but I think you have all given me a beautiful picture of Orthodoxy and what to look for as we continue our quest. Blessings on all of you.
You are describing the current trend in consumerism Christianity that goes hand in hand with our consumption disease in general. When I was still a Protestant Pastor my church was bragging on itself for its attendance and growth , planning a huge building program. I was suspicious and I decided to compare the Church Directory that cam out every year. I discovered that most people came and went in a year and only a core group (who were the founders) stayed.
I often ran into those who left and the story was always the same. They had grown weary of our Senior Pastor’s preaching and went looking for a new church with more “WOW” factor in the sermon.
God’s blessings in you and your family’s journey!
This conversation is very interesting to me. Gerri’s comment about the time it takes to drive to their parish being something akin to the time it took someone to walk to theirs in past times is quite insightful.
I am in Tulsa and, when I originally began to “look into” Orthodoxy, I went to the closest parish I knew of at the time. I visited for a while but internal issues at the parish resulted in the Priest retiring early due to health issues and I relocated to my current parish, quite a bit farther away. There was a third option, near the local university, that was much closer but I never attended liturgy there. It never occurred to me that I “shopped” parishes; I simply visited and took part in another when the first parish became unavailable. However, I have little doubt that, if I had not enjoyed attending for some reason, I would have kept looking. I am fortunate that my current parish has been a home to me from day 1 (in fact, I recently had a conversation concerning this with one of the women I know who essentially made it thus as soon as I stepped in the door).
Michael, I did not realize that you are in Wichita! I am planning a road trip to 8th Day Book after Pascha and would love to get together over lunch if you have time. Blessings to all!
If you don’t mind me asking, at what parish did you attend Vespers on Sat night?
We attended St. John the Evangelist in Tempe, AZ. They belong to the OCA, I believe.
Oh very nice. You’re correct, OCA.
Fr. Andre there seems to me to be a wonderful Priest. My wife and I were there a few weeks back for the Sunday night pan-Orthodox Vespers service.
God bless you and your family on your journey!
I’ve only spoken to Fr. Andre once, but he exudes kindness in his bearing.
This is quite a journey we are on! I do hope to go back in a couple weeks.
Just a note on digital communities. I believe God grants grace. Fr. Stephen’s blog has been that to a huge number of people. Nicole’s example of getting meals to people quickly through electronic media is certainly a good thing. My experience is that connection through bandwidth can only strengthen and supplement face-to-face relationships (at its best), not substitute for them.
Concerning the impossibility of changing the suburban structures around us, I agree with Fr. Stephen that while these things are impossible for us, it is well within our power to do things in our own life that lean toward communion: keep a rule of prayer and a stable life liturgy in order to keep a clear head and ready heart, look people in the eye, be ready to give a smile or a listening ear, make more and more decisions based on sacrificing our lives for the other rather than looking for any kind of success, practice love over self-preservation and justification.
Being those who are “thick” with individualism, we approach every problem from the 30,000 ft view and ask what can possibly be done about our designed-for-doom society, when in fact any chance of success we ourselves have of influencing it lies in doing the small things we can on a day-to-day basis without hoping for said success.
Drewster, so true! Great reminder in your last paragraph–thanks!
You’re welcome, Karen.
And thanks to James Morgan for the link to Granola Shotgun. The posts “Big Box Jesus”, “The Shape of Things to Come” and “The Ghost of Mamie Eisenhower” are definitely both enlightening as well as seemingly pertinent to Fr. Stephen’s post here. One of the items of key interest for me is the author’s hope/brainstorm that suburban homesteading might eventually become a reality as times get tougher and regulations relax.
I have been thinking about these kinds of issues for many years (I run a micronation, among other things), but don’t really follow the various trends in popular Orthodoxy so I am a little behind the curve when it comes to Rod Dreher and the like and fairly ambivalent towards the idea “The Benedict Option” as I’ve heard it described. Anyways, I wonder if the point about proximity couldn’t be expanded to a ternary plot of necessity, proximity, and effort. Necessity would have the strongest pull, proximity a more moderate effect, and effort the least [but not no] effect. Necessity includes things like family, but can also be changed by the other two axes (with increasing difficulty); for example, when one converts to Orthodoxy, this very dramatically changes the real and/or perceived necessities of life for the convert. Proximity is a huge factor, as noted, but I think it can be overridden by necessity quite easily: when we’re having a medical emergency, we don’t usually call the neighbor, but the ambulance. Likewise, even effort can affect it, and it has more of an effect on proximity than on necessity: so-called “artificial” communities, whether facilitated digitally (e.g., this blog) or through modern transportation (e.g., a capoeira or aikido classes/organizations), change our proximity—we can’t look at it as a static variable, especially in our age. Finally, effort, as you noted, is the most malleable and tends to falter in the face of necessity and proximity. But it still is a real factor in our communities and lives and most certainly can modify or even overcome (to varying degrees, but not as much as we moderns would like to believe or in the way we would like to believe, as if it were about merely thinking ourselves into a different situation) the other forces.
Applied to modern life, the suburbs force a lot of necessities on us: we are usually fenced in on top of being locked in on top of being isolated in one of many unneeded rooms in an inexplicably-large dwelling. Jobs are not just tied to physical place and ancestry, but tax incentives and corporate whims and so on that can easily (and frequently do) change. We practically have to use money for everyday purchases, get our food from a store (and in turn, likely from a foreign county, state, or country, for better or worse), and use some kind of mechanical transit to get anywhere. Proximity is short-circuited to a large degree because of these necessities: since we already live in such a diversified, long-distance culture, it is almost impossible not to do the same thing with our communities and travel to one that suits our passions. And effort is not absent from the matrix, either, because it has an outsized effect (from the consumeristic, pro-passion culture’s necessities which magnify it) on proximity, especially, but also because of the little sub-necessities which we place ourselves in, which are forms of emotional and spiritual debt and bondage. In this way, the model closely aligns with and predicts the observations of modern life’s “virtues” and how we both are trained in them from birth and yet constantly create them for ourselves—yep, we’re not wholly innocent but rather complicit in it; it is, as you say, “a moral choice”. I also want to emphasize that we shouldn’t look at these things (such as proximity) in purely physical terms: we are not merely physical in nature and I think it would be a distortion (though I don’t think it is being suggested emphatically) to focus solely on physical location as the be-all end-all. And I am not saying all this to disagree with anything so much as to expand upon it a little more—I think this necessity/proximity/effort triangle is a more helpful [to me] expansion and synthesis of many of the concepts in the post and comments.
But rather than take this model and apply it to parish life or try to hammer out a solution to it (which would be yet another one of my typical projects involving hours of thought and prayer in my quiet office, my tabbed text editor (Notepad++), and maybe even paper and pencil), I just have some thoughts about the endeavor as a whole (apart from the trying to fix people/society/history trap). I suppose this will also be an expansion of what was already said more than any sort of disagreement (unless I am misunderstanding the post), particularly that “The outcome of history is the work of God, not of the Church. It is the task of the Church simply to be the Church.”.
First, is “the parish” a reasonable goal or model? I am not sure that it is, as far as we understand it. It, too is a product of a particular time and place. As far as I have read, early Christianity (both pre and post-Constantine) was a very urban affair. Sure, there were some places like Cappadocia that figure in history a lot that were more village-like, but the majority of the Christian population was city-bound. And the bishop is supposed to be the head of the local community, not the priest—this is another distortion of parish life. Further, one of the most invoked models of parish life—Russia—had many of its own issues. Most of the saints we read about, even from their more overtly “spiritual” times, were not simple parishioners but rather fled those very parishes we long for, becoming monks [i.e., cenobites], hermits, pilgrims, fools-for-Christ, and so on. I won’t dig much further into this line of questioning, but suffice to say that trying to achieve an idealized “parish” can be as much of a temptation and “program” as anything else and is suspect in my mind.
Second, is monasticism or a semi-monastic community the goal? I think this may be more a popular misunderstanding of Dreher’s thesis than his actual argument, but it, too, is an interesting question. After all, wasn’t the big boom in monasticism caused *precisely* by the “Christian civilization” that we’re worried about losing and/or trying to create? It wasn’t as if things were great in the cities and a bunch of people decided to just run off into the desert. Instead, as far as I have read, the monastics were in many ways not trying to “do better” or some such thing but trying to preserve the barest likeness of Christian life when such a life became next to impossible in the city. So, here again, proximity and even a Christian civilization, in some of the most historically-favorable times we can look back at, does not seem to guarantee (or even support) a normal Christian life. And monasticism, though it may very well end up saving civilization, only seems to do so some of the time, or partially, and only as a very tangential and potential side effect of trying to save one’s own soul.
That brings me back to the quote about being The Church. I think that is the starting place. As much as I think living next to a church *could* be of benefit, I don’t think such proximity trumps necessity (e.g., our culturally-enforced “necessity”). In my own life, I once lived 2 blocks from my parish for about a year; I could walk there (though usually drove, for various reasons, like hauling food or books or the weather or something). Later, I lived about an hour and a half from the same parish. I was at about as many services when I moved as when I lived next door. Yeah, it took effort to work around the proximity issue, but what didn’t change—and what overrode that proximity—was the realization of my necessity to be an Orthodox Christian and live that life. So, to sum it up, I think that has to be there first. Yeah, proximity helps, a lot. Yeah, effort helps, too (though it is easily diverted). But if we can live out the Orthodox necessity (which doesn’t seem to depend on the culture—and indeed often seems to produce saints that flee eve the most “Christian” culture or village), the other two axes will naturally fall into place. Starting from our age and culture, I don’t know what that will end up looking like. It won’t look like suburbia, for sure, but I am not convinced it will end up being hyper-local, either, especially in a merely physical, materialistic way—if I would have to disagree it would be here because I think that oversimplifies things too much; as noted, I did the hyper-local thing for a while (even buying very local and rooming with a guy who is now an Orthodox monk) and, in my very limited experiment, it did not have as much of an effect as going to the services, saying the prayers morning and evening, fasting, reading, trying to reorient myself internally, and so on. But I know that whatever it looks like, the necessity of being Orthodox has to come first or else we’re just doing some kind of pretend village, pretend culture, or—worst of all—pretend Orthodoxy. And that will never end well; indeed, it may very well describe the kind of thinking that helped get us into our current, secularized mess.
“Virtue, well presented in both MacIntyre and Hauerwas’ work, is acquired through practice, or, more precisely, through practices. Hauerwas uses the example of brick-laying.”
One Day in the Life if Ivan Denisovich
David Waite – Thank you for bringing this wonderful blog post to my attention. I have spent the past hour and a half reading all of the comments and “communing” with everyone here. I can relate to so much of what has been said in this conversation. I personally feel that proximity to a church is a huge issue, at least for me. When I moved further away from my parish church 5 years after being baptized, I ultimate fell away from Christ and His Church. I spent 7 years “lost” but was not really aware of just how lost I had become. When my life finally fell apart (Again! Yes, I’m a slow learner…), I was losing my living situation and no idea what I was going to do. I woke up one morning and heard a voice tell me very clearly, “You need to go back to Saint Seraphim Church.” I knew immediately that this message was directly from Saint Seraphim himself (who originally brought me to the Church). I did not question it. Not even for a second. I threw everything in storage, and packed myself and my German Shepherd Dog into my van and drove from Mesa, Arizona where I had been living back to Santa Rosa, California where my home parish was located. I lived in my van with my dog for almost two years, then lived as a guest at a nearby monastery for another year, and now I am living with and looking after an elderly parishioner who lives only 3 miles from our church. It has been a difficult journey, but it was the best decision I have ever made in my entire life. I probably could have saved myself a lot of suffering if I had never moved away from my church in the first place, but alas! I firmly believe that living close to my church, and being able to attend as many services as possible, is extremely important for my own personal salvation. I was baptized almost 15 years ago, but I feel like I am just now starting to understand what it means to be and Orthodox Christian and live a life in and for Christ.
I also don’t recall (though surely I did) reading this essay and the comments. Like Joseph Barabbas Theophorus put it in his own way, how are we to *be* Orthodox in our modern setting? I agree with you Father, that (taken from your comments below the essay)
“….Orthodoxy presumes a village…. Either you’re in a commune or something, or you’re a suburbanite. I actually have something in mind akin to the normalcy of a European village. That’s the context of St. Benedict…”
Several things come to mind. Does Orthodoxy exist in America (say outside of certain monasteries and the rare parish that is actually circumstantially a village/parish in the classic sense)? How does the liturgical and sacramental life transcend the lack of a village – in what way is it Orthodoxy when the village is non-existent?
I think for many of us, our Orthodoxy in America is yet another “ism”, another two story secular construct. How does the normative liturgical life differ – in what way does it stand apart from its presupposition of a village, a culture of local “near the house” life, such that in can “be” the Church?
Now doubt, our Orthodoxy has a mitigated, truncated reality in the modern world – particularly the American modern world. At least, that is true on a fairly obvious level. Nevertheless, Christ was incarnate, and did the whole historical work of our salvation in a non-Orthodox context. It is always the case that good is greater than evil. Can the substance of Orthodoxy be accessed in the modern world? Absolutely. We are Baptized into it. None of us knows “what time it is.” This makes it impossible to judge anything about our present time. If we’re looking at the 2nd century, we would not see an Orthodox setting – we would see scattered communities with lots of problems and great dangers and threats – both physically and intellectually. If we were looking at the 2nd century through the lens of Providence, we would see God firmly establishing the Church despite everything.
What is Orthodoxy doing in America? I do not know, but I do know that it’s not doing what it did 50 years ago. Something has changed. It’s demographics are shifting dramatically. What I am fairly certain of is that we are at an early time of this changed life. How it plays out is a matter of Providence.
What will the work of leavening be?
On Sundays, even in suburban churches, a small village gathers. I was in Thessaloniki in 2017. One Sunday we went to a small Church (St. Nicholas Orphanos). It was packed. After Church, the people gathered in the courtyard and stayed for a long time. It looked ever so much like our “coffee hours” here. A lady said to me, with laughter, “we are a small village!”
One problem of the Benedict Option is its tendency (citing Benedict) to ignore a lot of other Church history in other places. We should think more about parishes. At what time and places in history have parishes (isolated and surrounded by the non-Orthodox) nevertheless managed to survive and become a dominant part of the culture? When we read Alasdair MacIntyre (much less Rod Dreher) we would do well to have Peter Brown’s various works on early Church history in the other hand. It’s so complex.
Mostly, we must remember, “Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.”
These are difficult times, but all we can do is what we can do. So I try do what I can do and then leave the rest to God, But even that is so very hard to do. I pray that it is enough.