City of God: Are we doomed to retreat into the desert?

I was in a rather different state of mind from many commentators on the day “Laudato Si’” was promulgated, as I was nearing the end of a silent retreat at a very traditional Benedictine monastery—Our Lady of the Annunciation of Clear Creek (in Oklahoma). The monks are unusually self-sufficient, making much of their own food and furniture. They even have their own water supply, filtering and preserving rainwater from around the monastery. It is, however, the harmony between this and the other work of prayer and worship with which they are often occupied—what St. Benedict calls the opus Dei—that made the greatest impression.

The monks at Clear Creek spend much time in the chapel, chanting the psalter in Latin according to the old rite, with hearty Gregorian antiphons at the conventual Missa Sancta. I, as a priest, was celebrating my own “private” Mass each day, as the community follows the practice of having each priest quietly celebrate his own Mass and then participate in the sung Mass as a community afterward. As I fell into the routine, I noticed that each of the elements I was using had been hand made by the monks: the hosts, the wine, the vestments and even, to some extent, the chapel. It makes a very particular impression to be saying Mass and raising the chalice and paten with bread and wine made right there. In asking the Spirit to come and transform them into an acceptable offering, you are, quite literally, fulfilling the words of the eucharistic prayer, offering back to God de tuis donis ac datis (“from the gifts you have given”).

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Pope Francis’ encyclical has, maybe justly, been criticized for its wandering injection of commentary on contemporary environmental science and policy. Time will tell, ultimately, who is correct on that score. Sometimes he is also seen, correctly perhaps, as too particular in matters of technical expertise that are beyond his competence. But I think to focus on this is to miss the spirit and heart of the message of “Laudato Si’,” a message that calls us to recognize that we Christians are a spiritual priesthood. This was the beating pulse that I felt in the encyclical, reading it as I sat in the monastery library.

At the outset of the encyclical, the pope quoted Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, known as the “green patriarch” for his own exhortations on environmental issues. It is no secret that the key to understanding Bartholomew’s thought on the matter—and, I think, Pope Francis’—is the background of deeply classical spiritual insight on the harmony Christ came to restore between mankind and creation. It recalls the Theophany blessing of waters in the Eastern liturgical tradition, wherein the priest immerses a crucifix in the water of local rivers or lakes, a blessing that symbolizes the fact that all water on our planet carries within it the irreversible change wrought in the universe by the entry into time of the Word of God. Original sin has broken our relationship not only with God and human beings but with the whole cosmos. And only the God-man can restore it to what the Father envisioned that it could be. One need only think of St. Jerome and his lion, St. Seraphim of Sarov and the animals near his hermitage and St. Francis of Assisi with all his menagerie. This insight was common, too, not only to Pope Francis and the ecumenical patriarch but also to St. Bonaventure, whom the text quotes (No. 66).

The monks I was staying with impressed on me a similar lesson; they sustain the spirit of the liturgy throughout their meals. Before, prayer for benefactors; during the meal, a chanted reading from Scripture and pious reading; and after, more prayers for the world. The entire pathway of daily life is sprinkled with prayer and elevated into a continuous liturgy. One can see why the monastic life is often called a “school of the Lord.” Instead of teaching a bifurcated Christian life—with ordinary, weak believers on the one hand and those strong enough to take up the spiritual life on the other—monasticism makes clear that Christianity is not a private affair that might be relegated to a segment of our lives. Christianity preaches a universe where no particle of dust has gone untouched by the Incarnation; there is no real possibility of a world “without God.”

Faith in the Real World

Of course, this seems wildly contrary to everything postmodernism seems to teach us. Pope Francis notes, citing the German thinker Romano Guardini, that technology and modern relativism, even if not explicitly manifest in a moral code, have led to a world often content to do without the divine (No. 203-4). This presents a great difficulty in living our faith in this same world (in a post-Roe v. Wade and now post-Obergefell v. Hodges America), as many practicing Christians have found. Is our society so fragmented as to be unable to be salvaged? Are we doomed to retreat into the desert and search for God as a scattered (but ostensibly faithful) remnant or as those advocating small countercultural communities (the so-called Benedict option) of upright moral practice that become witnesses to the sin of the City of Man? This is the siren song of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, calling forth a new St. Benedict—someone who will, perhaps like the Essenes, raise up an unadulterated priesthood to the Lord in the wilderness. One day, at the Messiah’s coming, they can return to cleanse the defiled temple of the modern world.

The greatest fruit of “Laudato Si’”is its response to this. Its diagnosis is simple, profound and direct: Secularism is not the creation of a world lacking the divine creator but of one in rebellion. The City of Man might be built around a forum where lies a Nietzschean mausoleum to the “God” we killed, but it inevitably conducts all the transactions of the marketplace in its shadow. Secularism cannot escape its consciousness of God and vainly tries to fill the void. Francis focuses on this as the root of current environmental crises.

Without the Incarnation, the world itself loses its significance and meaning as anything otherthan a vast resource pool to be pillaged for human gain. To this the pope links the rise of gender ideologies and attempts to redefine marriage, to disregard both the old and the unborn, to experiment genetically on our children and to allow exploitation in drugs and sex trafficking (No. 120-23). When the Übermensch arrives, what need is there for an external standard for his actions, whether from the universe of creation or even biology? Of course, the folly of this is apparent in that the relativist world Nietzsche built has begun to languish from its own internal contradictions.

The most important aspect of Pope Francis’ solution is that it is most decidedly not the aforementioned MacIntyre-Benedict option. For both Catholics and evangelicals struggling against the seemingly insurmountable tide of popular opinion that threatens to engulf all aspects of contemporary life, “Laudato Si’” offers a word of hope and a better path. “No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts” (No. 205). The final chapter gives a vision to this alternative to the Benedict option. Following a venerable tradition, we can call it the Dominic option.

The Benedictine monastery is the “school of the Lord” by showing us that Christian life makes a radical demand on our lives; but it was the Franciscan/Dominican inspiration in the Middle Ages to take traditional monastic contemplative living, to unite it to apostolic ministry in preaching and care of souls in cities and to found third orders—associations in which the ordinary lay faithful could associate themselves to a worldwide order through promises of conversion and the following of a rule of life. The priory then becomes not only a contemplative haven for the friars themselves but a hub for a “community of love” that extends into all ways and walks of life.

A Shared Spirituality

“Laudato Si’” underlines that the City of God is built in reappropriating the call of Christ to sanctify the world around us as the priests we have become through baptism, sometimes with very small, prayerful gestures of love and at other times even through international political action. This requires a unified, common spirituality that sees in each created thing, whether human or beast, a little reflection of the face of the triune God. We regulate our lives with the same spirit one might find in a contemplative monastery but within the heart of our broken contemporary world. It is this love that redeems and restores; it is the living love that “makes all things new” (Rv 21:5). The pope’s call is not to retreat but to do what we can from inside to build that city (No. 231) not by the dissolution of our faith but by banding together in modern third orders and associations that can rebuild the environment, both human and natural.

The confirmation of that reading of the papal encyclical comes in its final chapter. In a most telling gesture, Pope Francis suggests one of the least pragmatic activities as the key to restoring meaning in our modern world: rest on the Lord’s day and the eucharistic worship of the church (No. 236-7). The Benedictine monastery, with its own pulse of life, centers on the eucharistic Lord at its heart; the same is true of our Dominican priory. The monk is told by St. Benedict to regard every good of the monastery—down to pieces of cutlery—as if they were sacred vessels for the Mass. It is no accident that monasteries often are among the most environmentally friendly places and tend to generate very little waste. Catholics should do no less, whether this requires being careful about how they use energy in their home, or how they vote, or how they give money and time to the poor. If we can recover in our lives, in our care for the environment and in our care for one another that same love and care that St. Benedict spoke of, making our lives a participation in what we do at the altar, I think we will have grasped what Pope Francis’ vision for an antidote to secularism looks like.

The Dominic option should bring us together in eucharistic communities within the city, communities tied by definite practices and eucharistic communion, grounded in a deep and living doctrinal commitment to our faith, animated by a desire to transform our world and not to become isolated from it. It is no accident that Lord of the World, a novel beloved by Pope Francis, has the church founding a third order in the end times—the Order of Christ Crucified—whose goal is to combat the Antichrist with the Mass and the rosary.

My order’s founder, St. Dominic, spent his whole life accentuating the teaching “and God saw that it was good” against heresy that denied it, while likewise weeping at his daily Mass, “What will become of sinners?” Similarly, St. Francis of Assisi wrote, “Praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures” and, in the same breath, “show all reverence and all honor possible to the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom the things that are in heaven and the things that are on earth are pacified and reconciled to Almighty God.”

“Laudato Si’” is particularly fine in ending in that same praise to the triune God that St. Francis himself delighted in and whose little knight in the world we all might similarly aspire to be.

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