North Broad Street is a fascinating place. Once a bustling industrial center surrounded by factories, railyards and the houses of those who worked in those places, much of North Broad Street became a run-down thoroughfare filled with payday loan lenders and dilapidated storefronts.
In recent years, there have been changes for the better, however. Developers from out of town have begun to build apartments for millennials who prefer to live in the city but do not want to pay Center City prices. Crime is down and investment is up, though gentrification, as always, brings its own mixed bag of growth and challenges.
In the center of all this – hidden in plain sight, you might say – is a Carmelite monastery. How many changes that edifice has seen in the neighborhood over the years! And yet, to walk in, as I did a few weeks after ordination, is to walk – not back in time, exactly – but into a world without time.
To step into the Carmel is to enter a place where our pedestrian sense of time and our workaday commercial exchanges seem to be far away. The monastery is untouched, it seems, by both the previous decline of the neighborhood and today’s finance-driven re-investment.
That is a good thing. We need places like that. Many of us – most of us – have vocations which are largely active in nature. We cannot help but engage in the hustle and bustle of life in the world, addressing concerns and solving problems. We should not apologize for any of this: in fact, we should boldly engage the world as Catholics, seeking to sanctify it through our actions. Nevertheless, places like the Carmelite Monastery, Trappist monasteries and other contemplative communities are essential – not just for the living out of their vocations, but for us who are active as well.
Rod Dreher has caused quite a stir in the Catholic world in the wake of his book, “The Benedict Option.” It seems everyone has an opinion on it – and not always favorable, either. Pope Francis and some of his closest aids seem to allude to Dreher’s work on occasion in a slightly critical manner. This has surely helped Dreher’s sales figures. Particularly interesting is the fact that he isn’t even Catholic anymore: he became Greek Orthodox after the sexual abuse scandal drove him from Catholicism, which is where he originally landed after the conversion he recounts in the book “How Dante Saved My Life.”
The upshot of Dreher’s thinking seems to be this: in places where Christianity was once a cultural axis point (like the United States), there is an ongoing shift away from traditional values. If religious communities do not insulate themselves from these cultural tectonic shifts, then they will be eroded into oblivion. Only robust communities grounded in tradition and able to count on each other will survive the “polite persecution” which is already here in some ways.
If this is indeed Dreher’s thinking, then I certainly agree with some points. My caveat has more to do with the tone which he and others seem to employ. Some who admire Rod Dreher seem to have in mind a kind of post-apocalyptic future in which everyone will need to learn survival skills in order to maintain life in the vast wilderness. Others see a coming technological breakdown which will require people to live close together after the Internet is taken over by pirates and gas becomes incredibly expensive. I’ve heard several arguments like this in recent months.
This hyperventilating and alarmism derives, I think, from an awareness of the major cultural shifts taking place. And this is beyond dispute. Many are worried that the Church in the West will be much smaller and politically irrelevant. And that may happen too.
But perhaps that isn’t something to be alarmed about. Instead, perhaps this is exactly how God will rebuild the shattered cultures of the West. The Carmelite Monastery should remind us that “the Church” need not have financial or political clout. Instead, the Church needs only faith, hope and love for her divine founder. When the sisters gather for Mass – many of them younger than 40 – would we dare to claim that the Church is not truly present there?
Indeed, Dreher’s Benedict Option still lives. It never went anywhere! As Catholics, we must re-introduce ourselves to this wing of the Church’s life, one which is often on the peripheries of our mind, and yet exists truly at the very center of the beating heart of the Church.
To ignore the contemplative communities that already exist would naturally cause a great deal of anxiety – such as I have seen in some of Dreher’s work. It is not activism or hand-wringing, but contemplation of the vision of God which is our final end, our ultimate happiness. Our Church suffers – and so do we – when we forget about contemplation now.
In these summer months, we can all enter into a “monasticism of the heart,” to use Father George Aschenbrenner’s wonderful phraseology. We do this not by ignoring the responsibilities of daily life, but in first grounding ourselves in God’s love through prayer. That interior joy can persist through all of the ups and downs of life. And maybe we can make a point to visit these contemplative communities more frequently. They can open our eyes to the real Benedict Option, which is simply to joyfully respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit as best we can discern them in our times.
Father Eric J. Banecker is parochial vicar at St. Pius X Parish in Broomall.
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