When people ask me if the Benedict Option is a call to hospitality or to hunker down, I tell them it’s both, at different times. As one friend of mine said in a Bible study:
If fishing is a metaphor for the Church’s work (“I will make you fishers of men”), it’s noteworthy that we see the Apostles not only “casting a net” (Matt. 4:18) but also “mending their nets” (4:21). If casting represents preaching, spreading the gospel, suffering martyrdom, etc., what does mending represent? In any case, it alerts us to the fact that spreading the gospel is going to be rough: There will be damages.
We gather together in small groups, focused on our faith, in order to remind ourselves of our baptismal promises and turn to God more ardently in prayer. Then, strengthened by His grace, we turn outward, ready to offer what we receive. In my own BenOp practice, that has meant hosting open events that anyone I know can come to (including religiously-tinged events that might prompt questions and further conversation), but also some closed events just for fellow Christians.
Those latter events sometimes cause problems. When I announced I would host monthly dinners for Christian friends to enjoy each other’s company, eat, and pray night office, one of my baptized-but-non-believing friends was hurt I was planning an exclusive gathering. She was friends with a lot of the people I planned to invite. Why couldn’t she come, too? She was perfectly willing to put up with the prayer, so couldn’t we tolerate her in return?
The prayer was the point, I tried to explain. I wanted a few Christian-specific gatherings so that prayer could be possible at any moment, without fear of giving offense or excluding others. Restricting the guest list allowed me to make a space where we didn’t have to translate our conversation into secular terms. God was our lingua franca, and after a week of work in a pluralistic world, it was a relief to have somewhere to speak our native tongue.
I still think these respites provide important refreshment to our faith. They remind us of what we are tempted to forget, just like the renewal of our baptismal promises at Easter. But offering a place of rest comes with risks other than just offending those who are excluded.
After a Christian from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church attacked and killed Jews in a San Diego synagogue, others at his parish were quick to clarify that their pastor didn’t lend fuel to the shooter’s fire. But Matthew Loftus asked a good follow-up question to pastors and parishioners. It isn’t enough to not preach hate, he said. The real question is: “If people steeped in racial hatred attended my church, what would they have heard in the last five years that challenged such an attitude?”
Any sort of retreat will also attract people who are tempted to hate the part of the world they are withdrawing from. Any group gathering in a BenOp spirit should expect to attract people at varying levels of weariness, anger, fear, and despair. Even a legitimate righteous anger can curdle into contempt or despair. To truly mend nets requires us to be aware of these temptations in ourselves and in our friends, and to seek to sin no more.
Feeling excluded or alone can lead Christians to adopt as fellow travelers provocateurs who may scandalize the secular world, but not because they preach the faith that is “foolishness to the gentiles.” Such grifting agitators are not seeking space to speak the truth, but to revel in division. They may lead people moved by real political concerns to view their opponents as permanent enemies, not our divided brothers whom we are called to pray for and convert into allies. They may lead people who already feel isolated to seek consolation by grounding their identity in race, not Christ. Conveniently, they forget that the most vicious and violent suppression of Christians falls on non-white Christians in China, Southeast Asia, and outside the West. A Benedict Option strengthening persecuted Christians shouldn’t be primarily white or Western.
The enemies of our enemies are not our friends. Wallowing in fear and giving in to contempt will eventually lead us to despair. Hatred for God’s people cannot coexist alongside love for him and trust in his love for us. It will destroy us, and may spill over into violence visited upon others. When our lives are shaped by fear, we cut ourselves off from the full glory of creation. In No Name in the Street, James Baldwin describes the prison that the fearful create for themselves, even when they achieve worldly success:
Force does not work the way its advocates seem to think it does. It does not, for example, reveal to the victim the strength of his adversary. On the contrary, it reveals the weakness, even the panic of his adversary, and this revelation invests the victim with patience. […] The victor can never be the victor: on the contrary, all his energies, his entire life, are bound up in a terror he cannot articulate, a mystery he cannot read, a battle he cannot win—he has simply become the prisoner of the people he thought to cow, chain, or murder into submission.
Christians taking up the BenOp project need to be ready to recognize this kind of fear and to seek deliverance from it. Seeking the perfect love that casts out fear might involve praying the St. Michael prayer for deliverance from temptations. It might involve reading authors outside the pattern of your present concerns (that's why two friends and I had a Baldwin bookclub). It might involve setting up a prayer schedule to pray for whomever you feel frightened or threatened by. In order to pray for the people the Devil wants us to see as enemies, we need to see them as people.
Baldwin writes that the deficiencies in William Faulkner’s writings on race stem from a narrowness of vision: “Faulkner could see Negroes only as they related to him, not as they related to each other.” Christians can make this mistake with race, nationality, and political divisions. We see others only as they relate to us, and not as they are in their fullness.
Our homes must be field hospitals for those sickened by the present plague of fear and disgust with others. Our refuges will never be places of purity—they will be full of sinners. Gathering together shouldn’t be a way of seeking ease, but of finding relief from the external pressures and distractions of the world to be able to ask to be cleansed. It takes preparation and courage to offer Isaiah’s prayer—“I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips”—and to truly desire the Lord’s abundant, but terrifying healing that comes to us like a burning coal.
Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option.
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