My Reaction to the Benedict Option
- My family was part of something like an ICC, and I was talking about a refinement of the idea, a “monastery for families,” at least 12 years ago. Most of the people I know have some kind of experience with this idea. My point? Well… the book is a nice bit of marketing, to say the least. I guess overall I would have to say (with what I intend to be a wry yet sympathetic shrug) that Orthodoxy could hardly take root in the United States of America without going through such a very American phenomenon as an ICC phase. (ICC = Intentional Christian Community.)
- My decision to convert to the Orthodox Church involved several right turns. The first was the right turn from the idea of the “ark” that was to be an intentional community, to the true “ark” that is the Church. In becoming Orthodox, I began to find the idea of an ICC redundant. Apparently for Rod Dreher, his conversion had the opposite effect. Interesting, no? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I came from Protestantism, which is practically a club for ICC-ers, and he comes from Catholicism, which had an actual Benedict. I’ll leave someone else to tease that apart, though.
- You’d have to really, deeply analyze all the failures. I’ve heard of endless ICC’s ending badly, but I’ve never heard of one ending well. (They all claim to be getting on well until they end.) And countless reviewers and commentators online are saying the same thing. How can anyone ignore that? And hey – what about the Amish, whose women live practically like Muslims?
- Does anyone worry that this plan is trying to make the Church take the place of the family? The Church is irreplaceable in its own right – but it is marriage and the family that generates society and community. It does this through familial love. Where is the patience and future-preference (the live culture in the kimchi) supposed to come from without the natural juices of parental, grand-parental, and great-grandparental nurturing, and the reverential devotion of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who have materially benefited from their elders’ care? In short, can any community – even an ICC – be based purely on spiritual concerns? Or does it need to staked by a very natural human concern for trans-generation prosperity? Isn’t this why Benedict formed a monastery of celibate men instead of a monastery for families?
- My own experience in a sort-of ICC was like this: I grew up in a very tight-knit country church, a small congregation that was a community, and increasingly an economy, unto itself. As a youngster, I loved this church. All my heart strings twined themselves around its customs and people, and I formed my identity around it. Later, I found out that my parents were sacrificing themselves in some unbearable ways in order to keep us in good standing there. When they finally left, I lost my identity. And my friends. At 35 years old, I still walk around with a sense of grief and alienation. I’ve come to realize that the people around me are just like me in basic ways – a quite startling revelation and one that has provided me with a great deal of consolation. But the people around me are not anything like me in any of the ways that allow for social intercourse. Meanwhile, in the last 23 years, nearly everyone we knew in that church either left in turn, or turned out to be a pervert or criminal, or went full-on atheist. Hardly any of the children remain in the community, although many of them remain Christians of some sort. ICC’s burn you out spiritually because the steps you take to become part of them are not determined by the particular – and often peculiar – grace you’ve been given, but by a rule or program of action. In the Church, everyone does what the Holy Spirit gifts them to do. In an ICC, that’s never good enough. Or rather, it’s assumed that the Holy Spirit has gifted you to do whatever the program needs you to do to institutionally survive.
- Lots of people try to explain why ICC’s turn out the way they do, but my final and primary insight is this: ICC’s work too powerfully for their founders to handle. They create an enormous divide between generations. The adults who found the community will never truly feel at home in it – remaining in the role of inventor and innovator (social engineer, really) throughout their lives. Once the community is up and running, the founders have strained themselves creating drastic changes in their lives for their children’s sakes, and continue to do so out of the feeling that it’s never enough – unaware of the explosive differences that already exist between them and their children; unaware of the potential the next generation has to take the next step organically and naturally without the machinations and pressure of the first; unaware that the continuing pressure from the first generation on the second is unneeded and therefore humiliating and damaging; unaware that to the child growing up in the community, every little change ends up being a major pillar of their character in adulthood, like compound interest. The first generation is intentional, but they invariably fail to recognize that to the younger generation, it’s all real in a way the elders will never understand. The elders are naturalized, but the children are natives. The youngsters would have culture shock if they could see into their parents’ minds – and vice verse. As a result, the elders are completely ill-equipped to nurture the little aliens they have raised, and enormous trauma results. The real germ of human culture is the parent-child bond. When this is not understood and allowed for, when it is violated or taken advantage of for the sake of a program, cultivation cannot take permanent hold. Therefore, the arrival of these traumatized men-without-a-country at an age of self-determination invariably heralds the end of the community or its nearly total turnover in membership and subsequent reinvention. This has nothing to do with spiritual failure. It is a fact of human nature.
- Much like food is better when processed in slow, traditional ways, culture has to be steeped, chopped, fermented, or slow-cooked in ways it has worked before – and only then it will be bearable. As most of us know, the long-cut usually proves shorter in the end. When we learn to spend three days making kimchi, our cabbage prevents cancer and saves hundreds of thousands in medical fees. However, I am of the opinion that anyone who grew up in our everyday contemporary American culture would be incapable of taking the slow food way of building a new culture, tradition, and community. Even when we convert to slow food ways of cooking and eating, we approach the conversion itself – its mechanics, its psychology, and its practices – in a fast-food manner. In short, I don’t believe any ICC could be successfully passed from one generation to the next and become permanent and beneficial unless the following realistic measures were taken. A: Be, or find, an actual saint. If no Benedicts want the job, it’s a wrong job. B: Get some economists, anthropologists, and other experts on board. If it’s a community it is by definition more than a spiritual institution. C: Respect the power and the grace. Plan to arrive in ten generations where you want to arrive tomorrow. Give each generation one small task. Keep the inter-generational connections at least 90% intact for each generation. If you don’t believe you can get people 150 years after your death to still be following your rule of life and your plan for getting there, you’re no Benedict anyhow and the whole thing’s a joke.
- Clearly, this is never going to happen. Meanwhile, Christian parents everywhere are slugging along doing what they can to improve on what they were given by their own parents, trying to love their kids as much as possible, and hoping that their children will take the best of what they gave them and refine it just a little bit more. Bravo, Christian parents.
- My guess is there’s generally a reason for why people are the way they are and for why the situation is the way it is. People should practice the fine art of shrugging a little more often.