Legend has it that a group of the first Dominican monks spent an afternoon begging in the streets of Rome with little more to proclaim of their efforts than a single loaf of bread. In an act of sacrificial humility, the monks would ultimately pass their acquisition on to a needier beggar and return to their monastery empty-handed. Upon learning of their efforts, Saint Dominic assured his band of followers that the Lord would provide.
At dinner, as though appearing from the ether, two angelic gentlemen with baskets of bread passed out a loaf to each faithful monk while Dominic signaled towards the refectory’s wine casks, which were miraculously full in preparation of a feast. Given the themes of community, the brotherhood of man, and gathering for a banquet, this anecdote seems ideal to set the stage for Leah Libresco’s book, Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name.
If the reader finds himself perplexed with a Dominican-inspired introduction to Libresco’s practical guide for breathing life into the idea proposed by Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, then let us hope it does intrigue. Within the first three pages of the book, by framing her experiences with the Dominicans of Washington D.C., Libresco manages to put to rest a common—if not shortsighted—criticism that plagued Dreher’s original work.
The complaint attributed too much emphasis on the letter of the Benedict Order with too little on its spirit. By short-circuiting the connection between monastic withdrawal and Dreher’s call for creating “thick” Christian communities, Building the Benedict Option skillfully overcomes needless debate over misunderstood visions of disengagement, through leaning in on the engaging nature of the Dominican Order.
Feeding Our Sheep
From there, the book could otherwise be titled A Christian Primer for Feeding the Masses or A Spiritual Guide for Poetry and Meatballs. I do not mean this as an attempt to disparage the work. If we are to take our Christian life seriously, we must reestablish the centrality of the communal gathering. As Dreher notes in the foreword, “It shouldn’t be the case that people have to relearn what it means to be Christians in community, but we do.”
Libresco offers a part memoir, part practical guide, and part story of hope for galvanizing community that the agents of “liquid modernity” have incrementally laid waste. Its effects have been pernicious, though increasingly visible with the rise of western populism, little habits of community that even 20 years ago would be taken for granted have become frequently uncommon.
A recent experience of this nature involved my wife and I preparing and delivering a casserole for a grieving mother and grandson who had lost their beloved to a longtime illness. Scheduling our delivery for late in the evening to ensure the proper time to prepare, we found the family patiently waiting past dinner time for the meal. They were clearly not living on previously delivered casseroles and other loving creations. This theme penetrates the book.
At the most basic level, it is offering a reprise of the same blueprint for every great culture and religion preceding the past about 60 years. Families dine together, which grows into neighborhoods, and in turn strengthen the bonds of community from the bottom up. This model is the life force of the Christian way, a banquet in which Christ calls us to “Do this in memory of me (Luke 22:19).” Yet, in such a short time we have forgotten this basic though necessary element of meaningful living.
But why then write about an explicit Christian community? Is it not enough to galvanize communities wholesale? For one, common moral ends are necessary for a thriving Benedict Option. To develop tight-knit relationships with neighbors who share your vision of human flourishing is to be held accountable to others for the way you live.
Libresco draws from the Catholic blogger Eve Tushnet to coin the phrase “self-abboting” as something to be avoided. This is to exist on a type of Spiritual Island bereft of guidance from your peers, let alone the clergy, and relying on the self to navigate the opaque waters of one’s interior life. Such efforts to build up and lean in on a group of faithful Christians will likely seem odd, and possibly countercultural, at first but only due to the hostility from the outside towards any lifestyle that questions the primacy of the individual. The common goals of the moral life will also set the stage for the most important reason to create a “thick” Christian community.
To form bonds among Christian brothers and sisters is to open one’s environment up as a mini-chapel, a place of worship, to embrace our vocation as children of God. If suggesting simple recipes and finding excuses to host a get-together is one constant theme of the book, then the other is finding, spontaneous if not scheduled, opportunities for group prayer.
As Pope Benedict XVI reflects in his encyclical, Spe Salvi, “Today as in the past, this is what being baptized, becoming Christians, is all about: It is not just an act of socialization within the community, not simply a welcome into the church.” We must be living our individual vocations as the Body of Christ by gathering as a means to offer guidance and support to other members of our inherited community. This is what it means to be Christian, to understand we were created for one another as a means to live out our universal mission in the worship of God.
Now that we have the “whys” covered, the “hows” is what is most useful about Libresco’s book. Upon reading Dreher’s original work, I had often felt engaged and empowered regarding where I should direct my energy, but left alone when trying to determine my first steps.
Building the Benedict Option can nearly be described as the follow-up troubleshooting guide. Libresco emphasizes finding activities that you enjoy, to structure your community. She loves cooking and the Divine Office, but she also leaves room for board games, poetry reading, and creative endeavors paired with any conceivable type of group prayer.
Finding excuses for gathering is undoubtedly a paint by numbers affair, but where her guidance proves second to none is in walking through her own successes and failures. I have found her suggestion of practical tools to organize gatherings beneficial. For instance, she touts the effectiveness of the Doodle calendar app for better organization, and also recommends creating essay reading groups rather than wholesale book clubs as a means for greater participation. Readers are receiving the advice of a seasoned veteran.
The Christian story is a communal affair as the legend of Saint Dominic epitomizes. This does not suggest a type of monastic withdrawal, but that we gather our strength to share the gospel in community. This is why Christ often described himself as a bridegroom and the whole church as his bride, and it is why Paul envisions each individual as parts to a body. The agents of “liquid modernity” have largely rendered us as disembodied individuals, whether this can be laid at the feet of the technological revolution or the wholesale embrace of post-modernism, atomization has become a tragic fact of life.
Building the Benedict Option might have read as a rather obvious screed to prior generations, but it seems today as exactly the sort of advice necessary to those of us who are ready to push back against our lonely inheritance. An accessible volume for any reader, Libresco’s endeavor manages to pair Martha Stewart with Catherine of Siena and offers an excellent reflection on how to live as a sign of contradiction in an increasingly unstable civilization.