Leah Libresco is Rod Dreher’s “effervescent Benedict Option social entrepreneur.” A young, intellectual convert to Catholicism, she offered us her handbook for prayer in 2015’s Arriving at Amen and now offers a handbook for prayerful Christian community in Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name (Ignatius Press).
With a foreword written by Rod Dreher and a title referencing his influential 2017 book, Building endorses Dreher’s “Option” for Christian life in the increasingly secular West. Those who look to Building as a defense of the #BenOp or a further elucidation of its meaning may be disappointed. This is a work of practice, not theory. Others at Public Discourse have already commented on the Benedict Option’s theoretical underpinnings (see Nathaniel Peters, Paul R. DeHart, Nathan Pinkoski). I will focus on its practical aspects as envisioned by Libresco.
Building the Benedict Option is not about the retreat from mainstream culture and politics associated with Dreher’s thought. Instead, it focuses on the constructive portion of the Benedict Option: the building of thick, prayerful community. Those who are skeptical of the whole phenomenon of “optioning” should not be deterred from reading Libresco’s book; it is a practical, prayerful, and genuinely Christian guide to developing hospitality and community in our age of disconnection.
Preventing Our Own Stylitism
Part memoir, part guidebook, Building goes into great practical detail to show us how to avoid being “accidental Stylites”—Libresco’s term for the atomized denizens of modernity. Stylites were early Christians who followed the example of St. Simeon the Stylite, a fourth-century resident of Syria who climbed up a column and lived there for thirty-seven years. A sort of urban hermit, St. Simeon lived within visibility of his neighbors but was disconnected from them. While St. Simeon chose his column as a place where he’d finally be at peace to pray, Libresco rightly suggests that many Christians today unintentionally find themselves in this state of living among people but without community—something, she points out, that ancient abbots would only allow the strongest of monks to do. We have become accidental Stylites, she says, by being born into and giving birth to smaller families, by oversexualizing physical intimacy, by keeping our faith private, by having inadequate work-life boundaries, and by lacking stability.
As a practical solution to our unchosen Stylitism, Libresco proposes “Benedict Option gatherings.” Her vision for these gatherings is to build more casual, open places where social gathering is flavored by the ordering principle of prayer—for Libresco, exemplified by the church basement, where parishioners gather following mass. The church basement is a place where it’s easy to be Christian in a non-threatening manner, where it’s not weird to discuss something specifically religious in the normal mix of life’s chatter; it’s a place where you might find children darting around your legs as you ask a Dominican friar about his favorite saint over instant coffee.
Thinking Creatively About Hospitality
In eleven short chapters with titles such as “The Little Way of Hospitality” and “Home as a Center of Gravity,” Libresco provides advice on building events to meet the needs of your community, even when magnanimity might feel like a challenge due to your current state of life, whether that be due to a lack of material resources, or of time, or stability. She encourages especially her fellow millennials to take on commitments to others even if they are uncertain how long they will remain in the same place. Her overall directive is for us to consider what our present state of life gives us to offer to our communities.
For example, Libresco says that at one point she held a position that was not especially well-compensated but allowed her Fridays off. She realized she had a full free day of the week in which to prepare a meal for her friends and from that realization developed her first set of “Benedict Option” events: weekly Friday dinners. Libresco would prepare one simple pasta and vegetable-based dish for anyone who would reply, eschewing even a salad, as she found they were underappreciated. Upon arrival, all attendees would pray Evening Office together, then dinner would be served and enjoyed. Night Office would then be said as a group, and finally, dessert was served. This straightforward two-course meal, bookended by prayer, facilitated group fellowship on a massive scale. Because Libresco had a central apartment that was good for hosting, she made it known that she was willing to offer her space for friends to host their own events as well. Thinking creatively about her situation, Libresco found a way to offer hospitality to others. She encourages us to do the same.
Personalizing Hospitality to Build Others Up
In Building, Libresco offers practical advice for such interpersonal matters as keeping your group from becoming cliquish (or heretical) and dealing with conflict between group members (sometimes fraternal correction is necessary, but it is far preferable to exclusion). She takes the pressure off those who are intimidated by cooking by recommending recipes that “fail gracefully” and advocating the skillet cookie, which is just what it sounds like. She even has ideas for providing hospitality outside your home when that is your option. It seems that Libresco wants to remove all our possible excuses for neglecting to be hospitable, even if our excuse is the Devil himself. She writes, “Scones and tea may seem like silly weapons in spiritual warfare, but they can be potent. If you feel as if you’re being crushed when you try to offer them to others, it might be because you’re dangerous (in the best way).” Libresco believes that hospitality is “dangerous” because done well, it can fight back against the lies we believe about ourselves and others.
In chapter six, “Doing Together What You Do Alone,” Libresco discusses planning events to meet people’s needs that might seem outside the realm of typical social activity. She features a church that, instead of installing a coffee shop to facilitate discussions, created a community laundromat. “Wash This Way” provides their neighborhood with a clean, affordable, and communal space to do what otherwise has to be done, a principle that can be applied to other sorts of needs.
When many of her friends were going through the toil of applying for jobs, Libresco planned an “ora et labora” (prayer and work) dinner party. She provided her friends with an opportunity to work on their job applications in community, beginning with Evening Office and ending with Night Office. She explains the centrality of prayer to making this event effective: “Even if the point of the event was to get work done, I wanted to start with prayer, to give my friends a fighting chance of remembering God and that He loves us, before we were all reminded that employers didn’t.” Through this event, Libresco found a practical way to provide love to her friends who were executing a task that might otherwise feel daunting.
Libresco mentions that she wanted to host such a gathering because, previously, applying to (and being rejected from) jobs had led her to feel worthless. She encourages us to specifically combat such feelings of worthlessness in others through our events, even arguing that a central tenet of the Christian faith is to show people their true worth in this way. She writes:
As a Christian, I think that anything that makes people feel worthless is bad, not just because the people feel bad, or because it’s bad for their self-esteem, but because it’s a lie. As a Christian, I know that everyone is a child of God, intended for sainthood, someone for whom Christ willingly died on the cross. Making people feel worthless (unintentionally or not) is an anti-gospel. Attacking that lie is a way to proclaim the gospel and defy the devil.
She articulates that we need to work to build community because it provides the forum in which we can articulate each other’s true worth.
Building Genuine Communities
Building is not a take-down of capitalism, nor is it particularly political at all. Yet it does point out that an outsized proportion of our social interaction in our disconnected age is found through our employment. Because of this, those lacking employment can easily struggle to have adequate community.
In a society where thick forms of social connection outside the workplace have devolved, it is an ever-present temptation to equate the ultimate worth of persons with their economic output. The social gatherings Libresco wants us to create allow us to contribute to each other on a different scale and in a different economy. They encourage us to think about what we have to offer, particularly when it may seem little, for even Christ found that when he had a few loaves and fishes, they multiplied. Libresco recommends that as an introductory question in groups, we ask not, “What do you do?” but rather “What’s an interesting thing you’ve read lately?” Other such questions, aimed not at sizing others up but rather at getting them talking, could be brainstormed for your community.
Reading Libresco’s book, I was reminded of the advice an older friend once gave me: “wherever you go, build a family for yourself.” Families have fun times, but they also struggle and work together. When they pray together as well, their struggles become opportunities for grace. Yet far too many of us in the modern West are living without family and without community.
Libresco’s vision of the Benedict Option ultimately leads not to withdrawal but to building the community our society sorely needs, within and eventually outside Christian circles. This is not retreating so much as recreating the normal condition from which our society is in retreat: genuine, authentic human community. Fans of the Benedict Option and the Option-averse alike will benefit from reading Leah Libresco’s peppy, prayerful, practical handbook. They will not only appreciate the personal stories Libresco shares, but they will also come away with an understanding of how to build genuine communities through living a hospitable life.