Tag Archives: Monasticism

The vows we make | A response to Rod Dreher

A Facebook friend and former parishioner shared, at my request, some of what he’s been reading about the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision regarding same-sex marriage.

One of those was Rod Dreher’s June 26 article “Orthodox Christians Must Now Learn to Live as Exiles in Our Own Country” in TIME magazine.

Here are my thoughts in response to Dreher’s five main points.

A culturally post-Christian nation

We have to accept that we really are living in a culturally post-Christian nation. The fundamental norms Christians have long been able to depend on no longer exist.

I could not agree more with Dreher on this point.

However, I see this as a good thing. Our dependence is to be on God alone, not on “the fundamental norms [we] have long been able to depend on.”

Orthodox Christians and other social conservatives

It is hard to overstate the significance of the Obergefell decision — and the seriousness of the challenges it presents to orthodox Christians and other social conservatives … LGBT activists and their fellow travelers really will be coming after social conservatives.

Dreher suggests an equivalency between orthodox Christians and social conservatives that I believe is false.

Certainly, the Episcopal Church to which I belong has long understood that people of various political persuasions belong together as practicing Christians.

We’ve also seen in recent news regarding the environment encyclicals and statements by both Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew — bastions of orthodox Christianity — that could by no means be called “socially conservative” in the sense Dreher uses.

In the second part of this paragraph, Dreher also suggests that “the next goal of activists will be a long-term campaign to remove tax-exempt status from dissenting religious institutions.”

Here again, as a Christian (and a non-stipendiary ordained deacon) I must say that I read this as a positive development.

It may be good for Christians no longer to belong to institutions that enjoy the benefits of a special status beyond what others receive — that’s what tax exemption is.

Instead of depending on our institutions or on “fundamental norms” that others in American society don’t enjoy, perhaps we should focus on practicing our faith in the middle of lives that are just like everyone else’s.

The institution of marriage

Third, the Court majority wrote that gays and lesbians do not want to change the institution of marriage, but rather want to benefit from it. This is hard to believe, given more recent writing from gay activists like Dan Savage expressing a desire to loosen the strictures of monogamy in all marriages.

Here Dreher makes a non sequitur between those who want to be married and those who “desire to loosen the strictures of monogamy.”

The Obergefell ruling is about those who want to be married.

Those who don’t want to be married (or don’t want to be monogamous) still don’t have to be married (or respect their spouses). The decision doesn’t change that.

The individualism at the heart of American culture

In his final argument, Dreher gets tangled up again.

[T]he Obergefell decision did not come from nowhere. It is the logical result of the Sexual Revolution, which valorized erotic liberty. It has been widely and correctly observed that heterosexuals began to devalue marriage long before same-sex marriage became an issue. The individualism at the heart of contemporary American culture is at the core of Obergefell — and at the core of modern American life.

Dreher correctly draws a line between the Sexual Revolution and the time when “heterosexuals began to devalue marriage.”

But to suggest that Obergefell is the logical result of the Sexual Revolution just doesn’t make any sense, and it’s another non sequitur.

Obergefell is about those who value marriage, those who have waited for years to have their faithfulness legally recognized, not those who “valorize erotic liberty.”

If Christians, for our part, want to combat “the individualism at the heart of contemporary American culture” we ought to encourage everyone to be married or to participate in intentional community.

The Benedict Option

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Dreher concludes his article by describing what he calls “the Benedict Option,” a shorthand reference to Christians retreating from the Roman Empire into monasteries following the example of Benedict of Nursia (d. 547).

He asks the question:

How do we take the Benedict Option, and build resilient communities within our condition of internal exile, and under increasingly hostile conditions?

And here at the end, you won’t be surprised that we answer the question differently.

In The Episcopal Church we already have a Benedict Option, and it’s called the Book of Common Prayer (or BCP).

The Book of Common Prayer, historically influenced by Benedictine worship, outlines a pattern of daily, weekly, seasonal, and occasional prayer that “builds resilient communities.”

It’s portable and can be carried out of our communities and into our lives in exile. The daily prayers are even available on an iPhone app. Everyone can participate in the Benedict Option.

See my other blog about the Daily Office for reflections about using the prayer book in just this way as I go about my work and ministry.

But here’s my biggest concern with Dreher’s version of the Benedict Option: When conditions are “increasingly hostile,” as he suggests, we ought all the more to open the doors of our resilient communities to all guests.

Benedict himself wrote in his Rule that “all guests are to be welcomed as Christ” (Ch. 53).

The vows we make

I have often taught that the vows a couple makes in the marriage ceremony are very much like the vows made by someone entering a monastic community.

Even though monastics traditionally make vows of stability, obedience, and conversion of life, the essential vow is the first one: to stay put in one community until death.

Benedict has harsh words for monks who continually go from place to place, looking for novelty.

Similarly, a couple being married promises to stay together “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death” (BCP 427). The essential vow is to stay put “until we are parted by death.”

For most heterosexual Christians, the way we experience the spiritual benefit of making and keeping vows is through marriage.

The more of us who can practice this spirituality, making room in our lives for another person and making our homes into “havens of blessing and peace” (BCP 431), the better.

Isn’t it great that, at least in the Obergefell decision, the Supreme Court has expanded the number of people in America who can now make those promises in the context of marriage?

We can’t always count on American society to mirror the best practices of Christianity (and I agree with Dreher that we shouldn’t expect it), but in this case I’m glad to see it.

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Singing, fasting, praying, and working

Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote this about Antony, who lived as a monk in the Egyptian desert and created a rule for monks in the third century:

Antony was like a physician given by God to Egypt. For who met him grieving and did not go away rejoicing? Who came full of anger and was not turned to kindness? … What monk who had grown slack was not strengthened by coming to him? Who came troubled by doubts and failed to gain peace of mind?

How can you give joy to others? Turn their anger to kindness? Strengthen those who are growing slack? Give people around you peace of mind?

What habits of singing, fasting, praying, and working would help you to be that kind of person? What people would help you to live that kind of life?

O God, by your Holy Spirit you enabled your servant Antony to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil: Give us grace, with pure hearts, to follow you, the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Run without stumbling

Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP 235)

To run without stumbling … what a beautiful picture. It’s a lovely vision that doesn’t bear too much resemblance to reality, though. Our prayer book life is built around a different picture of what progress in the spiritual life looks like.

The story goes that a visitor approached the abbot one day and asked, “What do you monks do in the monastery?”

“We fall down,” he said. “And we get up again.”

Falling down and getting up is the monastic rhythm, and in our prayer book we can feel that same pulse beating. The Daily Office is built around the monastic hours of prayer and the ancient habit of Christians to begin and end the day in prayer.

Morning and evening we rise to pray, and we fall on our knees to confess our failings. Our voices rise in praise and in song, and our hearts sink when we recognize how we fall short again and again.

If it were up to us, we probably wouldn’t run at all — but it’s not up to us.

This week’s collect begins with the words “Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service.”

God’s gift, God’s mercy, is to lift me from the frustration of my stumbling efforts and “set me upon the rock that is higher than I” (Psalm 61:2).

That Rock is Christ, and in him we are able to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” and, as Paul says, to “lift your dropping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed” (Hebrews 12:1, 12-13).

As another wise sage has put it,

Don’t lose your confidence if you slip
Be grateful for a pleasant trip
And pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again