For some, the idea of imitating the knight of faith will seem too easy — after all, you can do it while living in a middle-class neighborhood in Copenhagen — but for the wiser it will seem too hard. Many monks and nuns say that they retreat to the monastic life because their faith is too weak to flourish in the saeculum. And if such a retreat, in any of its forms, is not as attractive to Christians as it once was, it may be because we have more protections than our ancestors did from an experience of utter exposure.
Some of our protections are material, some political, some psychological, but in any case the world has seen, over the past few centuries, a move from the “porous self” to the “buffered self.” These are terms coined by the philosopher Charles Taylor. “The porous self is vulnerable,” he writes, “to spirits, demons, cosmic forces””and, I would add, to unpredictable natural forces and political authorities who know little or nothing of the rule of law. “And along with this go certain fears that can grip it in certain circumstances. The buffered self has been taken out of the world of this kind of fear.”
The practices of the ancient Church were forged in eras of the porous self and were responsive to its fears and vulnerabilities. Can they be nearly as meaningful to us, surrounded by our protective buffers, as they were to our ancestors? Does their evident power suggest to us that we have paid too high a price for our buffers, that we may need to be more exposed? The self that can pursue the via illuminativa — that can be illuminated by God — may open itself to the demonic as well as the divine. The disciplines and practices of our Christian ancestors are not toys or tools; they are the hope of life to those who are perishing. This is what Alasdair MacIntyre had in mind when he said that, here among the ruins of our old civilization, what we may be waiting for is a new St. Benedict: someone who can articulate a whole way of life and call us to it.
The turn to the Christian past is indeed welcome, but it may demand more of us than we are prepared to give. In contemplating the witness and practices of our ancestors, we may discover that we’d rather remain within our buffers — if we can. But can we? Current electronic technologies, from blogs to texting to online banking to customer-specific Google ads, may be drawing us into a new age of porousness, with new exposures, new vulnerabilities. And in such a new age the hard-earned wisdom of our distant ancestors in the faith may be not just a set of interesting ideas and recommendations but an indispensable source of hope. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
Do-It-Yourself Tradition. An article I wrote a few years ago that I think may be relevant to the questions surrounding the Benedict Option.