While I generally enjoy my work, there are certainly aspects that are unpleasantly challenging. But making Sunday visitations is not one of them. Sunday is the highlight of my week, every week. The privilege of sharing in Word and Sacrament with the baptized faithful of the diocese is, of course, a singular joy in its own right. But what happens afterward in the parish hall is also an important part of the picture. Because the Bishop’s visit is always a special occasion in each place, there’s often a potluck, or at least a “fancy” coffee hour. (I’ve recently joked that I should write some sort of Yelp-like review after each one and incite some friendly competition … but they’re all so good, that I don’t think I’ll go down that road!) Introvert that I am, I nonetheless enjoy experiencing the social side of parish life, seeing how what happens in the nave and sanctuary shows up in the room next door or downstairs … hopefully en route to showing up in the neighborhood (either literal or metaphorical) in which that Eucharistic Community is incarnate. The coffee hour is sometimes referred to as the “eighth sacrament” … in jest, of course. Yet, there is an element of truth here, because, while it may not be a formally-recognized sacrament, it is at least an important sign, because it stands as a proxy for the entire communal life of that congregation, that community. And community is the nexus between liturgy and mission. The Eucharist resources community life, and community life resources mission.
You may know that I have a keen interest in what I believe to be a watershed transition that we are in the midst of as members of western civilization. After a millennium and a half of enjoying a privileged relationship with civil society, Christianity has been cut loose. The Christian narrative about the nature of reality and the meaning of life, which funded western culture for so long that the two seemed inseparable, has lost its franchise. That contract was put out to bid, and society chose not to renew it. We can debate about why and how this has happened, but we can’t escape that fact that it has, in fact, happened. The culture wars are over, and traditional Christianity has lost.
So … how shall we then live? The American Christian (Eastern Orthodox) writer and editor Rod Dreher (b. 1967) has put forward a notion–one that has gotten a good bit of traction over the last several months–that he calls the Benedict Option. This is named for St Benedict of Nursia, the early sixth century founder of the monastic movement that bears his name (and which, a thousand years later, was a primary shaper of the Anglican liturgical and spiritual ethos). When, in the couple of centuries following its legalization in the Roman Empire, Christianity evolved into something much wider much but also much shallower, there was an impetus for those who desired to continue to take Christian discipleship with great seriousness to form intentional communities–monasteries, convents–where they could hold one another accountable to the radical demands of the gospel in a way that was virtually impossible to do “in the world.” They look for ways to be discernibly not of the world. But they all, in varying degrees and way, found a path to remaining in the world, engaged in the evangelical imperative of witness and service. By many accounts, the monastic movement is held responsible for holding European civilization together through some very trying times.
The latter-day Benedict Option will, in most cases, not demand a re-flowering of monasticism in its traditional forms. But it does invite a very focused and certainly uncomfortable, if not painful, departure from business as usual for American Christians, for Episcopalians, for the faithful in Christ Jesus in the one church of the Diocese of Springfield. It involves adding some figurative steroids to the coffee we serve after Mass on Sundays. It calls us to lay hold aggressively of our baptismal identity, and to recognize that the font, at which we were sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever, has left a deeper mark on us than even the genes we inherited from our parents and which we share with our siblings and cousins. Water, in this case, actually is thicker than blood.
There are a number of ways this could turn out to “look.” I know of a parish in suburban Chicago that many years ago consciously declared itself to be a “Benedictine community.” They have a shared Rule of Life, and rather stricter-than-usual criteria for full membership. That’s one template; there are no doubt many others. What I’m suggesting is that there’s an additional element that we need to add into the mix as we engage the task of discerning and strategizing for mission in each Eucharistic Community and each geographic Parish. Baptized Christians cannot be sent on apostolic mission unless they are first well-formed disciples. But disciples are formed in community. (It is argued by some that, if our parish community life were all that it should be, we wouldn’t even need to worry about mission and evangelization, because the world would be beating a path to our door. But that’s another discussion.) It happens on many fronts: Bible studies, outreach projects, prayer groups, book studies, and many others. How is it happening in your Eucharistic Community? How is it happening for you?