For the first time in a few weeks, I have found a subject that strikes me as being of interest. There was the Semaine du Golfe when I was totally off-line. The only electricity I was using was a rechargeable lantern, a transistor radio for the news and some music on France Musique, my camera, mobile phone and VHF radio – all with low voltage batteries. Other than that, my life was dinghy cruising in the raw and meeting others on the basis of our common interest. Strangely, the conversation mostly was not about boats. I occasionally “came out” about being a priest, but not with a view to getting a person into a church – but rather share life with them.
Perhaps I have become of the same radical ways as the French worker priests of the 1940’s or Fr Guy Gilbert. Christianity is lived at several levels: contemplative, seeking to transform humanity to make empathy replace competition and seeing other people as lower elements of a food chain. There is also the vocation of some to bang the drum of a number of symbolic issues such as the family and sexual morality as a way to influence secular politics as a sine qua non to the notion of Christian witness. The latter way is shared between American traditionalist Roman Catholics, converts to Eastern Orthodoxy and fundamentalist Protestants – and with the tiny minority in France of monarchists, legitimists, Le Pen supporters and intégristes.
Could it be that the drum-banging against legal abortion and same-sex “marriage” is no longer conducive to Christian witness? There will always be fanatics and right-wing radicals, which is a fact of life. Thought is emerging about introducing a rift between Christianity and the ideology. Politics turn me off, since between conservative capitalism and state socialism, it is all about money, who exploits who.
I discovered The Benedict Option: Why the religious right is considering an all-out withdrawal from politics through Facebook, and more particularly one of our priests in America. I’m not American, so it is difficult to discern the meaning behind the words used in the title. Firstly, I wondered if it was something based on an idea promoted by Pope Benedict XVI, though it wasn’t without accident that Cardinal Ratzinger chose that name (Benedict XIV, Benedict XV or St Benedict of Nursia). My other question is knowing whether the “Christian Right” is an organisation, a movement or a tendency among certain individuals who express themselves through speech and writing. The Americans love putting names to things, even when the concept is not yet defined and mature. The article needs to be read.
The central concept seems to be one of abandoning attempts to work with secular politics and moving towards a more contemplative notion of Christian life and witness. Putting it in simple terms, you can’t stop people from doing what they want, even if sinful, but they cannot be influenced or constrained if they don’t have the faith we have. They will do what they want – we can’t stop them – but we can try to teach through example. Some can have big families, if they can afford them. Others would adopt a more contemplative life as monks or ordinary people living a marginal and “simple” life in communities (the reality of intentional communities is often fraught with problems of the cult guru or internal conflict management). The theme especially rings true to my own feelings and ideas. The kind of Christian ideal I tried to live between about 1982 to the early 1990’s, namely French traditionalist Roman Catholicism, profoundly alienated me – as did the emerging Parisian bourgeois Catholicism of the 1980’s. Does that leave me without any political ideas?
No, but I have no confidence in the existing system in the western world. Elsewhere on this earth, people are also governed by the principle that wealth and might are right. I find conservatism based on the same power struggle as state socialism. Human society cannot work at the mega-level of nations, states and anonymous bureaucracies. We seem to be going towards a kind of world socialism or private capitalism – and it spells dystopia. I am naturally pessimistic, but I have hope that something will crack and bring humanity to live at a more realistic and human level – and old Romantic dream.
The problem for me is not homosexual “marriage” (marriage being a Sacrament uniting a man and a woman) or even abortion (which is more serious since it involves the destruction of human life). The problem is one of a world becoming a “machine” that feeds on human “food”, that takes away humanity and the sublime of the human person. However, if that is the way the world is going to go, we can’t stop it any more than we can halt a hurricane or a tornado.
Since the French Revolution, churches and Christian people have tried to influence the political system with a “brick-by-brick” approach. This is certainly why easily identifiable issues are targeted, like the homosexual agenda, human life and the family. The world becomes less and less Christian. Why not let it go? It seems a selfish idea to live in a world like Nazi Germany and dig ourselves into a hole. Eventually, we would be found and sent to a concentration camp, and our only witness would be offering our lives in the gas chambers and cremation ovens.
Christianity began in the catacombs, divided internally as well as persecuted from the outside (Jewish establishment, Roman Empire, etc.). Much is said about the Constantinian Church, that as power and money were given to the clerical structures, and the Church became like the Temple of Jerusalem between the end of the Second Exile to the time of Christ, Christianity became less a matter of personal gnosis and transfiguration but of domination of the world in the name of moral principles.
I see America sliding towards the pessimistic realism of us Europeans. Maybe things are on the horizon to resist the drift towards world socialism. I have always been interested in the idea of micro-societies based on monastic concepts adapted for lay people and secular (married) priests. Benedictine monasticism of the sixth century resumed earlier monastic ideals and rules of life to produce something that would be a viable alternative to the crumbling of mainstream society leaving a “dark age”. Parallels between the fall of the Roman Empire and our own times are nothing new.
… local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages…
Are there any such communities other than monasteries? There are the various charismatic communities like Le Chemin Neuf in France and any number of intentional communities whose members may be religious but the foundations of which are above all practical. They are certainly a little more “realistic” than many of the hippie communes of the 1960’s. There is the scouting community of Riaumont in northern France that does wonders with young people. None of them can get any degree of independence from the state, the bureaucracy, the increasing number of regulations and above all taxation. It becomes increasingly difficult to live off the grid, especially for organised communities – often labelled as cults to discredit them. Some communities are indeed totalitarian sects intended to enslave rather than liberate their adepts!
The ideal is wonderful, but what about the reality? What exists here and now? It seems about as elusive as western rite Orthodoxy! My immediate thought is that anyone wanting to go that way must sacrifice living in the western world. Go where? South America is largely corrupt and welcomes those with huge amounts of money. Like in our own world, you don’t get ought for now’t. Increasing amounts of the world are going under the jackboot of jihadist Islam. In the far east, we just cannot assimilate their culture. That would seem to leave small and remote islands. But, the warning is the famous book by William Golding, The Lord of the Flies. We are fallen humans, and we can sink very low. No amount of regulation can prevent that, and the Christian ideal can be a shallow veneer indeed!
I will keep my eyes open and watch for the emergence of new communities. If they exist, we know about them. A lot of thought will have to go into it and a lot of baggage will have to be left behind. It is my own dream, realised only very partially by living out in the country – but I am not farming but still doing things that maintain my dependence on the “system”. Alternative living is just as fraught with problems as living in a mainstream society that allows or compels its citizens to sin.
The article doesn’t go deep enough into the history and practical aspects of alternative living. It is easier for individuals to go and live in boats (since the sea is generally less regulated than the land), but all the consequences have to be considered. Doing away with money is a non-starter because we still need to buy things from those with the ability to make them. Where is the line drawn? Solitude usually leads to mental illness and deterioration.
I have read scenarios about what people would do after something on the scale of an economic crash, a pandemic or a world war. Most could not survive because we don’t have the skills people had only a hundred years ago. Most of the preppers are going to be in for a big surprise. You can live on a boat for a week, with money and the possibility of buying food and drinking water. Otherwise, life goers downhill very quickly. You don’t survive by buying “prepper” kits but through being able to withstand the “hard” life. Military training is an asset… If something like that happens, most of us will die from starvation, being killed by predatory gangs or from disease. The fall of society will be no picnic!
If this is the basis of the survival of Christianity, then little hope remains. Perhaps we just have to live in the system but as an invisible contemplative leaven. That also for most will be a dream, just as difficult as living the “hard” life. It will be a question of asceticism, not panem et circenses. That is the sort of asceticism we will have to live ourselves and not impose on others.