Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name. by Leah Libresco. Published in 2018. 163 pages. Foreword by Rod Dreher.
File this one under, “What a misleading title!”
This book, inspired by Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, offers ideas and strategies for building Benedict Option style communities on a small scale so that fellow believers can forge lasting and meaningful relationships of support in a world where Christian values are increasingly coming under assault or being discarded.
Overall, I really like this book. The spirit of community and fellowship this author taps into through her ideas and recounting of her experiences and struggles to build intentional community are a breath of fresh air. Nevertheless, I found the title misleading because what she describes and suggests falls far short of the proposition offered in The Benedict Option. In fact, I find that her prescriptions are more achievable, realistic avenues to community support than you’ll find in the original book, and here’s why.
The Benedict Option (BenOp, as it is referred to by those most familiar), is built on the idea of Christian families of like faith and values withdrawing from the dominant culture, building separate communities, and hunkering down to wait out the inevitable collapse of our current cultural and political house of cards. Those believers who remain when the dust settles will, theoretically, be able to rebuild on the foundation of a sane culture and a pure, robust faith.
At least, that was my initial understanding of BenOp, before I read and reviewed the book. The Benedict Option book provided a much less strict version of my original understanding, but it was still based on the idea of Christians’ near full withdrawal from the dominant culutre. It was more understanding of current reality, as well as our commitment to the Great Commission, but Christians were certainly called to be on the outside looking in as much as possible.
Building the Benedict Option, on the other hand, is more about building the kind of intentional community that provides believers a respite from the madness and a touchpoint with other Christians to pray, discuss matters of faith, and offer spiritual and emotional support. At no point does her book intimate that Christians should be completely withdrawn in a way that keeps them out of the loop of the world around them.
Libresco draws heavily on the idea of the beguines, Christian lay orders which existed in the 13-16th centuries. Although beguines were controversial at the time of their existence because the non-monastic orders were comprised solely of women, Libresco believes there is much we can learn from the model as we attempt to build intentional Christian communities. The basis of her idea is that we can start small gatherings of the faithful and watch our communities grow from there:
If you want to start creating community, look for examples around you to imitate, or even co-opt. If free pizza attracted people in college, maybe it will keep working now that you’re all (ostensibly) adults? If beguines shared their lives and had home-based trades, maybe you should take up…weaving. Or Etsy crafting. Or whatever it is the twenty-first-century equivalent that lets people be home and ready to welcome each other during the day. Branching out from what is already working or what you know has worked in the past isn’t a bad way to begin, but if you stop there, a lot will be occluded from your view.
From there she encourages Christians to go beyond things like books clubs or other types of events that have been done before, and to think more along the lines of events that can meet a real need that people across a wide life spectrum may have. It’s a great idea, and she does a great job laying out her case and examples. However, as I said earlier, this is not exactly BenOp in its purest form. Not as I understood it.
According to the parameters put forth in this book, our family has been steeped in BenOp activity for at least a decade, and especially so over the past three years. We have been cultivating deep friendships with other families, spending time in one another’s homes, celebrating and mourning together, and generally have a pretty tight social bubble even though our cadre of families attends different churches on Sunday. Which leads me to ask the question I’ve never quite been able to get a clear handle on, not even from its originator’s writings: What exactly IS the Benedict Option?
This book doesn’t answer that question, but it does do a good job of encouraging Christians to think more deeply about how much we need each other, even in our convenient, individualistic, atomized culture.
3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars
Leah Libresco, who authors this book, is Roman Catholic and the flavor of Catholicism is strong throughout the book. Rod Dreher, who wrote the forward for this book and the book which inspired it, is Orthodox. These are perspectives you should keep in mind as you read the book.