A Progressive Vision of the Benedict Option: Part 6, The Limits of Liturgy and Becoming a Franciscan Community

I love liturgy as much as the next person, but liturgy is way, way overrated.

On Christmas eve when Jana and I were home visiting my family in PA we drove down to the Catholic cathedral for the midnight mass. I'm not Catholic, but again, I love liturgy and the liturgical calender. So I really look forward to Christmas eve liturgical services. These experiences are important to me.

As Jana and I were listening to the pre-service readings and music before the mass started a family entered and sat in front of us. They were very, very dressed up and you could tell that this was a part of their Catholic family Christmas eve ritual. Dress up, go out to a late night dinner and then go to mass.

As the family settled into the pews you could tell they were a bit tipsy from dinner or after-dinner drinks. And once the mass started they ignored the proceedings and whispered among themselves.

I'm not judging the family. I mentally check out of worship services all the time. I bring up this Christmas eve experience just to make a simple point: liturgy is over-rated when it comes to spiritual formation.

A lot of evangelicals find liturgy exotic and mysterious and therefore filled with spiritual potency. There is nothing more irritating than talking with an evangelical who has just discovered liturgy. Liturgy is the solution for what ails everything in the church! Liturgy is the answer to everything! Especially spiritual formation.

It's all total hogwash.

If you've spent any time at all in liturgical communities you know those communities aren't creating committed followers of Jesus any better than non-liturgical communities. In fact, if you look at the rates of the religiously-unaffiliated and where they are originating from, many of these liturgical traditions are struggling more than their non-liturgical evangelical counterparts.

Again, let me be very clear. I love liturgy and liturgy plays a central part in my own spiritual formation. There's a reason Jana and I were at that Christmas eve mass. Everyday I say Morning and Evening prayers with either the Book of Common Prayer or the Liturgy of the Hours.

But you only get out of liturgy what you put into it. You can go to Christmas eve mass tipsy and bored. Or you can go to mass expectant and full-hearted. It's a Chicken and Egg problem. You get out of liturgy what you put into it. Which implies that liturgy, as a spiritual formation tool, assumes some prior, extra-liturgical spiritual formation.

You have to care about liturgy to get anything from it. But that leaves open the question, where shall that caring come from?

I'm being hard on liturgy because I think an overly nostalgic and optimistic view of liturgy infects a lot of the Ben Op discussions. James Smith's book Desiring the Kingdom is a huge hit among Ben Op proponents. Desiring the Kingdom is a great book, one of the best I've read in the last ten years.

But one of my criticisms of Desiring the Kingdom is its overly optimistic vision of liturgy as a tool of spiritual formation. The impression of you get from Desiring the Kingdom is that liturgy has this profound ability to shape and direct your disordered desires. No doubt liturgy does do this. It does it for me. But again, that's because I have desires that I carry into the liturgy. And it's those extra-liturgical and pre-liturgical desires--those aching, expectant desires to seek the kingdom of God as I attend a Christmas eve mass--which are decisive.

It's like that joke about psychologists changing a light bulb. How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one. But the light bulb really has to want to change.    

Liturgy is like that. Can liturgy help you desire the kingdom? Yes it can. But you have to desire the kingdom first if liturgy to be of any help.

So what we need, in addition to liturgical practices that help us desire the kingdom, are practices that help us become the kingdom.

In sum, I think the Ben Op has to be a pincer movement. On the one hand, as I described in my last post, we need liturgy to practice "sabbath a resistance." We need liturgy to help sustain our desiring the kingdom, especially in the face of the social shaming we will face as we opt out of the American way of life to live into the foolishness of the cross.

The second part of the pincer movement is creating a community that practices and incarnates the kingdom of God in their midst. The kingdom of God practiced intentionally, intimately, and locally.

Obviously, there is going to be some debate among Christians of various stripes about what practicing the kingdom of God should look like. As I argued it in Part 2 of this series, progressive Christians will reject a Pharisee-oriented Ben Op, an expression of the kingdom that focuses on monitoring orthodoxy and enforcing moral codes. As we've discussed, progressive proponents of the Ben Op will practice the kingdom through radical hospitality and the works of mercy (Matthew 25). Progressive exemplars here are the Catholic Workers, the new monastic movement, and Jean Vanier's L'arche communities.

In sum, a progressive Ben Op isn't just a liturgical community, a progressive vision of the Ben Op will be a Franciscan community.

We're all familiar with how Saint Francis opted out. How Francis stripped himself naked and renounced his family's wealth to live in poverty. That's part one of the pincer movement. But the second noteworthy thing Francis and his followers did, the second part of the Ben Op pincer movement I want to draw our attention to, is how Francis and the early Franciscans were known for their care of lepers, living among and caring for that ostracized, unclean and marginalized community.

When the Franciscans lived with leper colonies they were doing more than liturgically desiring the kingdom, they were becoming the kingdom.

And it's this second part of the Ben Op--the Franciscan impulse to embrace leper colonies--that keeps the Ben Op looking like Jesus, keeps the Ben Op outward-looking and oriented toward hospitality, helps the Ben Op incarnate Jesus' embrace of the unclean in table fellowship.

It's this Franciscan impulse that moves the Ben Op community away from lighting candles and incense in churches to washing the feet in the world. It's this Franciscan impulse that grounds the life of the Ben Op community in Matthew 25 and practicing of the works of mercy.

And again, it's this Franciscan impulse--caring for the "lepers"--that characterizes the progressive Ben Op communities we've pointed to: the Catholic Workers, the new monastic movement, and Jean Vanier's L'arche communities. Each of these communities illustrate both parts of the progressive Ben Op pincer movement, a Franciscan lifestyle of caring for and living for others along with being a richly liturgical community to sustain spiritual vibrancy and identity as we walk an ignoble, foolish path in the world as a community of the Cross.

So that's the heart of the progressive vision of Benedict Option. A progressive Ben Op is a liturgical, Franciscan community. And by liturgical I mean a community that practices sabbath as resistance, opting out of the American Dream to create the space and margin in our lives necessary to live as Franciscan communities, communities that exist to wash the feet of the "least of these" in our local contexts.

And yet, all this raises the million dollar question. How are we going to pull this off? The complaint will come: the local church is filled with families and busy people with mortgages and day jobs! You're not going to get bourgeois American Christians to adopt Catholic Worker and new monastic lifestyles!

You're totally correct. It's very, very hard to detox from the American Dream. So let me conclude these posts with some practical suggestions. Franciscan baby steps for bourgeois American Christians.

Again, the impulse of the Franciscan community is to be an outward-looking community committed to a lifestyle of hospitality.

And if you make a study of some of the great modern practitioners of Christian hospitality, people like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa, they tell us that they were followers of the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux.

As I've gone around telling churches about the Little Way I've framed the heart of the Little Way as a practice of hospitality. Here's how I recently described the Little Way:
When you hear the Little Way described it's often described as a practice of self-mortification, of putting up with people when they frustrate and irritate us.

But that's not how I see it. For my part, as I teach the Little Way, I see it as a practice of approaching people, moving toward people in love. As I explain it, the Little Way is a practice of welcome, embrace and hospitality.

For example, in the Story of a Soul an overriding theme in Thérèse's descriptions of the Little way is that of approaching others with small expressions of warmth, welcome and kindness. Thérèse describes how the Sisters in her convent were variously popular or shunned. And having noted these distinctions--the socially rich versus the socially poor--Thérèse goes on to describe how the practice of the Little Way is a practice of hospitality, of welcoming the Sisters who were shunned and marginalized
The Little Way of hospitality is welcoming others, especially the most marginalized persons, with small acts of kindness and inclusion. As Thérèse wrote, "a word, an amiable smile, often suffice to make a sad soul bloom."

Small things, yes, but hugely difficult to do. Imagine how your life would change if you started daily and intentionally seeking out the most difficult to love people in your life to welcome them with a bit of warmth and kindness. Think, even, of how you might practice the Little Way on social media with hard to love people!

The Little Way may be little but, in the words of Dorothy Day, it is a harsh and dreadful discipline.

And here is the critical point: the Little Way is a discipline of hospitality that anyone can do, anywhere and at anytime. Day job or not.

So that's the first Franciscan baby step. Progressive Ben Ops will be communities that will place the practice the Little Way at the center of their lives, individually and collectively. Thérèse of Lisieux will become the patron saint of Ben Op spiritual formation.

And I think Rod might agree with me about that.

Beyond the Little Way, another Franciscan baby step is simply to take a cue from St. Francis.

Share life with a leper colony.

And by a leper colony I mean find people in your local community who have been abandoned by the American Dream. Look around your city and adopt a place and community that has been abandoned by empire, a place where people are lost and lonely. Here are some ideas:
  • A prison or jail
  • A poor school
  • A housing development
  • A city mission
  • A hospital
  • A local laundromat
  • A neighborhood or zip code
  • An assisted-living facility
  • A state school
  • A senior-citizen home
  • A local non-profit serving a marginalized group (e.g., refugees, domestic abuse victims, the homeless)
The list can be expanded and expanded. But the goal in each instance isn't to create a program or ministry to "save" or "rescue" or even "help." The goal, to take a cue from Samuel Wells (PDF), is simply to be there, to accompany, to share life there. To be sure, you will likely serve, help and work for people in all of these locations. But like the Franciscans and their leper colonies, the goal is simply for the church to share life in an abandoned nook of empire.

No one in the church has to sell their home or quit their job or live in voluntary poverty. But there will have to be some opting out of the American Dream, some sabbath as resistance, if we are to make margin in our lives to share life with others. Being with others mostly means simply showing up. Everyday. So the members of the church have to make margin for it. Sharing life in a leper colony, being with others in an abandoned outpost of the American Dream, isn't a program or ministry. It's a lifestyle the church takes on as her core identity.   

You'll know you're heading in the right direction when there is absolutely no budget for this endeavor. When all you do as church is just show up for people. What William Stringfellow calls the sacrament of mere presence and Jean Vanier calls accompaniment.  Being with those abandoned by the American Dream. You know you're on the right track when the entire church is able to say, to a person, we live there. Everyday we are there--in that school, in that jail, in that cancer ward, in that mission, in that assisted-living facility, in that apartment complex--we are there, as a church, everyday.

We, all of us, our children and our elders, our clergy and our laity, our CEOs and our janitors, in one way or another, all of us, are there, everyday.

Being with. Sharing our life together.

Do this and God will do the rest.

For in that leper colony, in that abandoned wasteland of empire, we will find our church, our Christ, our God and our salvation.

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