Leah Libresco, a former atheist, became Catholic and wanted “social spaces . . . where it seems natural to talk about [her] faith without worrying that it will be a prelude to an argument about apologetics or a kind of anti-evangelization if I ended up talking about it wrong.” That kind of “breathing room” for sharing the Gospel may be needed now more than ever. In Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, Libresco saw a call to the kind of community and fellowship that she was longing for and that she has been trying to live.
Of it, she writes: “The Benedict Option is a way to mend nets and to prepare to cast them out again. Trying to thicken my community and open my home gives me the chance to live my faith more openly and more truthfully.” Libresco has written a guidebook for trying to live out Rod Dreher’s thesis, called Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name, and she talks about it here.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why do you love the Benedict Option so much?
Leah Libresco: The Benedict Option isn’t anything new or revolutionary. It’s an invitation to pray, weep, rejoice, and eat with others. I like it because it’s part of what we are made for. It only sounds unusual because so many folks find that our lives, our work, our neighborhoods have left little space for this basic part of what it is to be human. So, the Benedict Option is a project of restoration — establishing new habits and connections to help us love each other.
Lopez: Do you find that the Benedict Option is misunderstood much of the time?
Libresco: I think the primary misunderstanding is that it’s a retreat rather than a retrenchment. We’re called to be channels of grace, and that means making sure that the channel is open at both ends — we have to be deeply rooted in God and present among his people, so He can use us. But it begins with being rooted in God — as Rod says, “You can’t give what you don’t have.”
Lopez: What’s so crucial about hospitality?
Libresco: Hospitality lets us offer at least two of the corporal works of mercy: sheltering others and feeding them. But what I particularly love about hospitality is that it’s apocalyptic, in the sense of “unveiling.” When I invite people into my home, I make myself more vulnerable to them, lose some of my ability to be a buffered self. My guests look over my bookshelf (more intimate than my medicine cabinet) and are witnesses to every snag in my hosting. They put themselves my hands, relying on me to care for them, rather than both of us outsourcing that work to someone paid to pick up after us in a coffee shop (it’s much more frightening to clog a toilet in a friend’s home than a restaurant). We must reveal more of ourselves, but that means we have the chance to more fully love each other.
Lopez: What are “accidental stylites,” and why do you say they are everywhere today?
Libresco: The stylites were a particular kind of hermit who cloistered themselves to focus utterly on God by living on raised platforms. But this wasn’t a kind of life to embark on casually. To live austerely with God requires practice. A lot of people, especially twenty-something Christians right out of college, find themselves living as accidental stylites. Disconnected from community, we can struggle to hear God, and we don’t have other folks to help us.
Lopez: What’s a BenOp community, and how is it related to the Holy Spirit and Pentecost?
Libresco: A BenOp community could be two friends who go on rosary walks together or a larger group that meets semi-regularly for prayer and swapping childcare on a rota. It can take a lot of different forms, and part of my focus in the book is helping readers discern their particular needs (and those of the people around them). A BenOp community will change as the needs of the people within it change, so it’s important to stay attentive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and be ready to let our own plans go.
Lopez: Is being part of this type of community a possibility for everyone?
Libresco: Absolutely! I love Ross Douthat’s description of the Benedict Option as a ratchet “in which people start from wherever they are and then take one step toward a greater rigor and coherence in the way they marry faith and life.” What that looks like in different lives could be anything from doing a dinner party and novena kickoff for a beloved saint, beginning a habit of going to Adoration with a friend, or simply praying the rosary visibly on your subway commute.
Lopez: How important was it to you to make this book practical?
Libresco: Practicality was my primary aim — and, in order to achieve it, I kept the scope of the book narrow. I’m writing about ways you can build thicker community in the next two weeks to two months. So the practical tips I’m covering tend to be about how to handle having more guests than chairs, how to check if a recipe can scale up for a crowd, and how to schedule an event while avoiding an aggravating email chain as everyone describes their availability.
Lopez: Do Catholics in a particular way owe Rod Dreher, now Orthodox, a great debt of thanks?
Libresco: Lord, the number of people I owe great debts of thanks! I’m grateful to Rod for galvanizing people about this idea. I’m grateful to the Anglican church for being the place where my husband (now Catholic) developed his habits of love and prayer. Lord willing, if we reach Heaven, we’ll all be surprised by how many people, living and dead, aware and unaware, were God’s agents for our salvation.
Lopez: You signed an open letter about the scandals we’re only beginning to learn about in the Catholic Church hierarchy. That’s a challenge to a lot of people’s faith. That adds to hurt that already exists. That will get worse before it gets better. Why are you joyfully Catholic in the midst of this? Would you do your conversion from atheism all over again?
Libresco: I knew about the Cadaver Synod (and, of course, the earlier abuse crisis) before I was Catholic — I didn’t come in with the expectation that all the people in Christ’s church were holy. Gomer was not the only harlot to stand in for the unfaithfulness of God’s people. This is all only so encouraging, I’m afraid, but I think one thing to hold onto is that when we recognize these abuses as horrific, the strength of our response also invites us to recognize the holiness of what has been profaned. A priest’s abuse of seminarians carries an additional evil, in addition to the grave evil of sexual abuse and the profanation of authority (that would also apply when any boss or supervisor used his power to entrap his advisees). The priest also sins as a husband to the Church, dishonoring his vows of chastity. He sins as a father, who wounds his children when he was ordained specifically to heal them through the Eucharist and in the confessional. Hold on to your horror, and remember you are angry because holy things are profaned (the child of God treated as a plaything, the sacraments, etc.). Then run to adore those holy things, as well as to admonish those who profaned them.
Lopez: You write in the book, “My first date with the man I would eventually marry was a trip to [the Dominican House of Studies priory] to celebrate the Vigil of All Saints.” What was it about the Dominicans generosity that has helped you live generously yourself?
Libresco: A great deal of the Dominicans’ generosity was inviting people into what they already did. One summer, I got to pray Evening Office at their priory most Fridays, since my work hours allowed it. Their door was always open. The Dominicans (and all habited religious orders) also are walking invitations (as Catherine Addington writes in her essay “Hypervisible Church”). They stand out, so people who need someone to talk to about God run to them (as I did).
Lopez: Do you really pray the rosary on the subway for all the world to see?
Libresco: I do, but I had to work myself up to it a bit! (And I have to not elbow my way onto the subway if people are going to spot me as a Christian once I get on.) In a city, I’m never the strangest thing anyone will see. I pray in public because I want to invite God into my life everywhere, and not confine Him to my parish and my bedroom.
Lopez: Why do you pray the Divine Office — and invite friends to join you? That’s a lot of praying.
Libresco: The Divine Office is one of the treasures of our tradition. It makes me feel joyful to know I’m never praying it alone — nuns, priests, and laypeople are always praying today’s readings, maybe even in the apartment below mine. It’s a chance to join the great chorus of praise (echoing that in Heaven) wherever you are. I like inviting friends to join me, because that’s how I began — when someone invited me into their prayer. And it’s easy to pick up as a beginner, as long as someone else moves all the ribbon placeholders.
Lopez: “I want to develop my readiness to be used by God, to be responsive to His promptings,” you write. Why? How?
Libresco: There’s a real limit to the ideas I come up with. I have a lot of ideas and a lot of energy, but they’re always marked by a narrowness — they’re what I come up with, they’re about what I feel like I can take on, often they’re about what I think I’m good at. When I listen to God, not just myself, I have a better chance to offer what is needed, not just what I think I’m good at providing. One way I try to do this is to leave unstructured time in events I’m otherwise tempted to run on a schedule — Holy Spirit time, where there’s room to breathe and be surprised.
Lopez: You write about your pen pal who is a religious sister, with the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne. You write back and forth about spiritual things and how God works in your lives. Should all religious people have this kind of habit? Is there something about the relationship and the writing that is essential? Even if we all can’t have a “nun” pen pal?
Libresco: I think it’s good to be prompted to reflect on what God is doing for us and asking of us. Of course, God can be that pen pal through a habit of doing a daily examen prayer, where you review your day. I think there’s a great gift in letting our life be pierced by someone in a very different vocation or charism. I like reading spiritual works that were written hundreds or even thousands of years ago to be shaken up by folks who don’t share whatever current error I’ve fallen into.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review.