St. Benedict the Creative

Note: the following is a rumination taken from an email exchange, so it’s kinda sketchy. But I thought it contained a worthwhile insight to share.

Someone wrote me recently with some pointed questions about the progress of the radical cultural revolutions (or as my emailer worded it, the “re-valuation of values”) that seem to have come to full-term, and are, as he put it, “giving birth to a brave new world where truth is a commodity, love is increasingly self-absorbed, meaning is shallow and life is cheap.” His question was: “How does the Church effectively respond to this?” A monumental question.

The simple answer we concocted: By being herself.

Pope Emeritus Benedict proposed throughout his pontificate the power of “creative minorities” to effect long-term transformation in societies, and argued that the Second Vatican Council’s call for the Church to return to a radical fidelity and holiness among all its members will likely mean, in the context of equally radical secularization, a smaller Church. Creative minorities are small sub-groups within a larger society, made up of an intentional community of deeply invested people who share a common vision and mission, who pro-actively and creatively engage with the larger culture in order to offer a transformative “leavening” influence that is measured not in 5-year plans, but in centuries. This is essentially how Benedict interprets the explosive development of the early Church’s influence within the hostile Roman empire. The early Church was intentional, tightly networked, inspiring, engaging and creative — it was a church of martyrs that was rendered intensely intentional by the high cost of membership, inspiring by means of a lofty ethic of mercy and justice, engaging by means of an impassioned quest for making the living Truth known, and creative by adapting the one Gospel to the many and diverse cultures that made up the Empire. Like the early Church, ours, to make a like difference must show itself to be smitten with the Spirit-filled energy of the re-creating Gospel whose proclamation still echoes even now with the fiery voices of the original apostolic age.

This creative minority, for Benedict, will offer a compelling witness by their bold fidelity to the beauty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, by their fierce commitment to the demands of justice and mercy, by their life of community, and will retain their clear identity in Christ even as they openly and joyfully dialogue with any and all who wish to seek with them the truth in love.

Benedict’s vision is reminiscent of the last lines in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, where MacIntyre looks in hope for a new St. Benedict, the 6th century Father of that wildly successful “creative minority” of Christians called monks. Here are those lines:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the more misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age … and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. … A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman [empire] and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that [empire]. What they set themselves to achieve – often not recognizing fully what they were doing – was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. … This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers, they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are not waiting for Godot, but for another – and doubtless very different – St. Benedict.

Why wait? Let’s be ourselves now.

11 comments on “St. Benedict the Creative

  1. […] Someone wrote me recently with some pointed questions about the progress of the radical cultural revolutions (or as my emailer worded it, the “re-valuation of values”) …read more […]

  2. Anthony says:

    This exact concept — the creative minority — was brought up in a talk for our community group, which is a part of Sword of the Spirit, and I’m pretty sure it underlies a lot of what is happening these days with these new movements, which are primarily lead by the lay faithful. It’s a fascinating phenomenon, where consecrated religious are the “third order” members, as opposed to the primary group.

    We also toss around the term “trans-generational reality” with regards to the fact that we may not see the direct benefits of the community group we’ve started, but rather our children or their children will be the ones to see it come to pass.

    So I’m definitely feeling the above. Thanks for sharing, Tom!

    PS: Vis a vis a new St Benedict, I would point to Steve Clark; who is an unassuming, unsung hero of the church. In a 2009 post from the SOS website, where they announced the end of his term as president, they refer to him as “a father of the charismatic renewal and a founder of the Sword of the Spirit”. It goes on to say that “Steve has worked tirelessly for more than 40 years in laying the foundation for the covenant communities movement which began in the late 1960s. He was instrumental in establishing the first covenant community in 1970 and in establishing the Sword of the Spirit in 1982, an international community of communities, which currently number 75 communities worldwide. Steve is also the founder of the Servants of the Word, a missionary brotherhood of men living single for the Lord in the Sword of the Spirit. Steve Clark’s book, Building Christian Communities, Strategy for Renewing the Church, written in 1972, gave the principles for building renewal communities. The Sword of the Spirit today is a living testimony to Steve’s labors and skills in laying a foundation that has weathered many storms and challenges.”

    • As ever, your interventions are substantive and fascinating! I am teaching a course this semester on the post-Conciliar vision for a distinctive ‘lay spirituality’ and have a week to spend on lay movements, so this is also timely for me. Blessings on your beautiful family!

      • Anthony says:

        Thanks, Tom! I’m glad it’s helpful. I would also give a shout-out to Communion and Liberation while you’re at it. It’s very different from SOS, but also “lay-first”, albeit started by a priest, Fr Giussani (who, now that I’m reading that book, I recognize as a genius of “practical theology”).

      • Excellent point — Communion and Liberation is very popular and has a worldwide reach that the recent Popes have embraced. I rec this book for anyone interested in a deeper look at the phenomenon of ecclesial movements (lay and otherwise): Ecclesial Movements and Communities: Origins, Significance and Issues by Brendan Leahy

  3. Mary says:

    I am very interested in your course topic. I was part of SOS for many years and am fascinated that it’s still going strong. I have a problem with the role of authority in these communities and the tone of triumphalism. My third concern is that these communities become “my life” as one person quoted me the other day. Locally it’s difficult to see members engaged in their parish as the time committments for small groups and community wide gatherings and service make additional service to the parish and surrounding community difficult. Any thoughts?

    • Mary, I will get you thoughts as soon as I am able. Thanks for raising these questions!

    • Anthony says:

      Hey Mary. Just a few quick thoughts here from the perspective of someone who’s very new to community life.

      1) For myself and others, I think the main attraction is doing something that’s very intentional. It’s easy to coast through life not seeking Christ and slowly drifting away. This gives us a good framework for keeping each other accountable.

      2) Our leadership is composed of people who are my peers with maybe a few years more exposure to some of the communities in MN. Their role and how they work with the group is evolving. So I can’t speak to your particular experience here.

      3) I can definitely see this happening, which is where I think Pope Francis’ continual exhortation to not be a church closed in on itself is very timely and true. I’ve also heard this from Jean Barbara, the current president of SOS, who was sharing words from the recent leadership meeting. We need to go out (“a community of disciples on mission”) and be involved in more than just our own initiatives (to borrow a CL term).

  4. DZSJ-AMDG says:

    Searching for a new Saint Benedict implies that we look to the old one as well to help us refine the lens of what we are looking for. I am super-excited to ponder this as I have a great love for Benedictine spirituality. The practice of regular, liturgical prayer is a deep font of wisdom for both practical theology and for becoming a creative (read: life-giving and Spirit-led) community of believers in the world. The simple and consistent return to the Word is this creative community’s lifeline in a world that is often hostile or challenging.
    St. Benedict on living in the world: “Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else. Place your hope in God alone” RB 4:20-21, 41

    • That’s an excellent point, DZSJ, that the idea of “looking back to look forward” by retrieving our rich heritage of spiritual wellsprings, charismatic founders and classical literature. And Benedict is well suited to heal our cultural divine between ora and labora, and between self and community. Thank you!

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