Hospitable on Purpose

Review: 'Building the Benedict Option' by Leah Libresco

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• January 5, 2019 5:00 am


New Year's resolutions come in two kinds. Some resolve to sweep away the practices and habits of a prior way of life to produce a fresh start, a blank foundation on which to build a new and freer self. Others resolve to stay a given course, renewing an older dedication to do much as had been done before, but with greater deliberation and reinvigorated intention, seeking independence from what has hampered the effort. To make a joke, perhaps history and assonance allow us to call the first a French resolution, and the second American. Of course, many Americans are inclined to the former view of things.

But for the resolutionary reader of the religious and latter inclination, last summer's Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name, by Catholic writer Leah Libresco, is a welcome encouragement. Sometimes a little push and a prayer is all you need to do better.

In a homespun and conversational way, Libresco tries to help those who, though deracinated yuppies, resonate with Rod Dreher's "Benedict Option." That's his call, unpacked by blog posts and Dreher's latest book, to live intentionally in communities built around shared religious commitment, as interdependent within and independent without as feasible. By sharing her story, what has worked for her and her friends in their search for ordered piety in the secular world, Libresco wants to help cosmopolitan Christians find practical steps toward cultivating the now-and-not-yet, this-world otherworldliness of the gospels.

As Christians, we run toward not away. We are in the same position as Saint Peter when he said to Christ, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (Jn 6:68). We are called to run headlong toward God, which means that when we appear to be running away from anything else, it's because that thing is not also moving toward God.

This emphasis complicates the idea of the Benedict Option as just a program for western Christians' possibly strategic retreat before an encroaching and antagonistic social order. It threatens to drift into the space of simply good Christian practice, for all Christians in all places. But while riding that line, Libresco still outlines something distinctly Benedictine, with emphasis on ora et labora—prayer and work—in a community by design.

For Christians living the anonymous lives of metropolitan functionaries, who are not about to build a village compound or neighborhood commune, Libresco argues that the greatest means of giving and receiving the renewal and discipline needed to run this life's race is found in hospitality: "[O]ffering and receiving hospitality can help us, just as monastic rules do. It gives us concrete ways to build up certain virtues and helps us to find vivid examples to learn from." Like Patriarch Abraham setting forth in the wilderness bread and water, meat and milk for the three messengers of God, or the good Samaritan who took pity on the man left half-dead by robbers, moments of hospitality create thin places for the divine to break into the mundane and for humans to go hand in hand to greet it. If we are ready.

And this is the real reminder of Building the Benedict Option—hospitality, community, a life of running headlong toward God, takes being ready. That means doing things, practical things, with your hands and your feet and your calendar and your money. It feels nice to stay in the safe realm of personal devotional readings and spiritual conversations after church, much earnest nodding in both. It is maybe a little uncomfortable to ask your guests to not just say grace but pray compline with you at your next dinner party, or to commit to seeing the friends who make you best every week, even when there is always something else fun going on. But the lesson of Mary and Martha is not that no one should ever be in the kitchen but that serving is for Christ. We are not Marys at the feet of Jesus when we drift about alone from church to theology lecture to party, always at something put together by others. Rather, we are Marthas distracted by the things of this world, too intimidated by the cooking to see the face of the Lord, welcomed in our home, in the face of our neighbor.

Resolve then to nurture the virtues of hospitality, the patience, love, and faithfulness that come from doing hospitality. As Libresco assures her readers time and again, it doesn't have to be complicated. Just ask how you can create a space that is first welcoming, and then intentional. What structures of community, orders of life, can you build so that you better hear the words of eternal life, and can invite others to hear them, too? With prayer and work, doing that can be revolutionary.

Published under: Book reviews