Most cities built before 1945 were founded at the scale of what today we might call a town or even a village. Some rose around some sacred site or along some pre-existing sacred path; some for purposes of protection or territorial conquest; others primarily to facilitate the production, distribution, and exchange of material goods; and others simply for human pleasure in extraordinary natural conditions. Regardless of origins, over time and of necessity most cities will come to have each of these dimensions—sacred, political, commercial, recreational. Pre-modern cities typically did all these things simultaneously; but, for complicated historical reasons, modern human beings forgot how to do this after about 1950.
The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) is an organization that seeks to recover this lost knowledge. Its first poster-child in this recovery is Seaside, Florida. In its thirty years of existence, Seaside’s foremost successes have been environmental, formal, and economic. That is to say: Seaside is a good place by virtue of how it occupies its landscape, the beauty and quality of construction of its public spaces and buildings, and its mix of uses within pedestrian proximity of each other. All these together in turn have created Seaside’s spectacular economic value. These successes are clear.
Less clear is Seaside’s moral order and its relationship to sacred order. Seaside’s makers appear mindful of sacred order, acknowledged explicitly in two ways. Scott Merrill’s neo-American-Carpenter-Gothic Seaside Chapel (“non-denominational”) and bell tower—a finely crafted Protestant-cum-Modernist sacred building, abstract but true to type—terminates Seaside’s main north-south axis and fronts a public green; and there are plans for a cemetery just east of the Chapel, which when realized will do much to make Seaside’s grounding in sacred order more visible. But Seaside still is not a day-to-day town, rather a resort town populated by a handful of permanent residents and many tourists. It remains at best a project that aspires to the fullness of urban culture and place.
Nevertheless, understood rightly, Seaside is a work of love that—because God is love—partakes of and participates in sacred order. Seaside is a work of love by its founders, by the architects of its town plan and buildings, by the craftsmen and women who built it, by the residents who live there, by the tourists who visit, and (not least) by the absentee owners who love it as a financial investment—love it so much, in fact, that they now oppose Seaside’s original plan to connect its streets to adjacent settlements, for fear of lowering Seaside’s property values. And therein lies the story of Seaside and love’s declension.
The ambivalence in this relationship between love, beauty, and the economic value that love creates inheres in the relationship itself. Moreover, this ambivalence is rooted in the sacred, and can only be resolved by the sacred. Biblical religion is the wellspring of the modern Western idea that a good society tends to the needs of the poor, widowed, and orphaned, but a tension between wealth and blessedness is a recurring theme of biblical religion. The story of the rich young man in Matthew’s Gospel is a paradigmatic characterization of this tension.
Promoting and balancing justice and generosity, and discouraging greed and envy, is a task for every generation, emanating outward from families to free associations to various levels of religious and political authority; but it’s essential to good urbanism. So here’s an idea for Seaside founder Robert Davis, or for anyone at Seaside who would have the town be exemplary not only for its formal order, beauty, and wealth, but also for its justice and generosity: Designate a parcel of land for a community of Benedictine monks to establish a monastery in Seaside.
What would bringing Benedictines to Seaside accomplish? The main achievement would be a permanent worshipping community in Seaside, the effect of which would be to animate Seaside’s currently understated acknowledgement of the sacred order within which Seaside exists. This is because the most appropriate human acknowledgement of and response to the sacred is to worship, especially to offer as gifts things in and by which we ask the sacred to be present among us: prayers, song, bread and wine, acts of justice and charity, church buildings, cities—and sometimes, consecrated religious life. But why Benedictines? After all, there are many disciplined worshipping communities besides these Catholic Christian ones, and holy men and women of many historic religious traditions can no doubt be recognized as such.
Benedictines suggest themselves for Seaside by virtue of their history, i.e., how they testify to the love of God for all and how they draw others closer to God by the example of their lives. Moreover, they do this in a disciplined way with deep resonance even for moderns, according to their ancient Rule that in ordering their lives in imitation of Christ simultaneously reaches back to embrace living Judaism, and forward to embrace not only the reforming ambitions of Protestant Christians but the yearnings for peace and justice of all men and women of good will.
How are the lives of Benedictines ordered? And what makes them particularly suited both to participate in the civilizing mission and to address the spiritual poverty of wealthy Seaside?
• Benedictines seek holiness by disciplined attention to prayer and work (ora et labora). Dedication to the divine office and its seven daily periods of prayer is their most powerful witness to the reality of sacred order. Manual labor is engaged both as a spiritual discipline and to ensure that their community will be economically self-sufficient.
• Benedictines are productive, but at the same time embrace voluntary poverty. This has several happy consequences. It means that Benedictines create wealth. It means that their monastery doesn’t beg, rather gives. It means that they model for rich and poor alike that (and how) one can live a life of dignified and generous poverty.
• Life in the monastery is ordered around a church, a cloister garden, a refectory, a library, the monks’ cells, and ancillary buildings related to their manual labor. Historically, Benedictines make good buildings: beautiful for the glory of God, durable because Benedictines intend to be around for the duration. Benedictines thus model the virtues of a good built environment, both for its own sake and for the purposes that good buildings and spaces serve.
• Benedictines have two historic charisms or vocational duties, both of potential long-term benefit to Seaside. One is educational. Benedictines have always embraced the life of the mind in service to their religious vocation; and if Seaside seeks educators for its children, teaching is a role Benedictines have always undertaken. The second is hospitality. Benedict’s Rule requires monks to welcome strangers as if welcoming Christ, and monasteries have always provided simple and inexpensive lodging. Seaside is already a pilgrimage destination of sorts, an expensive one. Benedictines might make Seaside even more of a pilgrimage destination, albeit for different reasons; and would provide Seaside with more of that elusive “diversity” of clean and comfortable overnight accommodations.
• Finally, Benedictines vow poverty, obedience to their abbot, and stability of life—which means, practically, that a monk will live the rest of his life in the monastery unless moved by his abbot. The pedagogical value of stability of life should not be underestimated by persons seeking to recover good urban culture. Postmodern nomadic culture can consume good urbanism but shows only the faintest evidence of ability to produce good urbanism. The Benedictine embrace of life in a place cuts against the grain of modern life, but is yet another important lesson for would-be urbanists.
“In his holy flirtation with the world,” wrote Presbyterian author Frederick Buechner, “God occasionally drops a handkerchief. Those handkerchiefs are called saints.” Most Benedictines are not saints, though they aspire to be and to bear witness to sacred presence. The many virtues Benedictines cultivate and model, not least piety, are urban virtues—of which Seaside remains in need if it is to be the exemplary urban place it aspires to be.
Philip Bess is a professor and the director of graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture. This essay is adapted from a chapter in the forthcoming book Visions of Seaside, edited by Dhiru Thadani.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.