Benedictine Dreams (And Some Strange Ideas about Counter-Culture)

bby Leanne Ogasawara

IMG_9796I admit, the only reason I picked the book up off the shelf was because of the photograph of Mont Saint-Michel on the cover.

Ah, Mont Saint-Michel. We had just returned from the legendary floating island, and I had found myself utterly obsessed by the place. A fairy castle rising up out of the mist and waters of the tidal estuary in northern France, the abbey of Mont Saint Michel is sometimes associated with the ancient Breton myth of the submerged cathedral lying underneath the sea. The myth of the sunken cathedral was the inspiration for Debussy's famous piano prelude, La Cathédrale Engloutie. Debussy often frequented Mont Saint Michel, and while the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel never sinks beneath the sea, it does become inaccessible as it is surrounded by waters twice daily. In days past, completely cut off at high tide by the strongest tidal forces in Europe; those strong currents rush in at incredible speed, "like that of a galloping horse," said Victor Hugo.

Even today, the setting is indescribable. There is a short-story by Guy de Maupassant that I love because it so perfectly captures the magical and magnetic quality that Mont Saint-Michel holds on the imagination; especially on that of the pilgrim; for indeed, it has been a major place of Christian pilgrimage for over a thousand years.

The following morning at dawn I went toward it across the sands, my eyes fastened on this, gigantic jewel, as big as a mountain, cut like a cameo, and as dainty as lace. The nearer I approached the greater my admiration grew, for nothing in the world could be more wonderful or more perfect.

Seeing it for the first time last week, I simply could not believe my eyes. We had arrived as the abbey bells were ringing loudly in our ears and the army of day-trippers was pouring out in an endless tide back toward the parking lots to return to their cars and tour buses.

If you stay on the island overnight, I had read, you will have the place much to yourself after 7pm.

On our first evening walking the ramparts, we watched the tidal waters rushing in, washing away all trace of the mudflats below. Despite the serious dangers involved in crossing over the sands to the island, these mudflats became known to medieval pilgrims as "the path to paradise." But it was dangerous–then and now. On the day we arrived, we witnessed the 94th helicopter rescue of the year so far. It is the treacherous nature of these tides that gave the island its most famous nickname: "Saint Michael in peril of the Sea." One could easily imagine the feeling of the medieval pilgrims trying to make it past those powerful waters. And it's not just the ocean; for Mont Saint Michel is also infamous for having deadly quicksand– shown vividly in the Bayeux Tapestry, where Harold, who had sworn allegiance to Duke William, is shown saving some of William's soldiers from sinking to their death ( "hic Harold Dux trahebat eos de arena").

The abbey was, in fact, founded not long after the Battle of Hastings. Henry Adams in his wonderful book, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, remarked that one would be hard-pressed to find a significant work of architecture as old as Mont Saint Michel in France today.

Guy de Maupassant in his story, plays around with the proposition that people imagine God in ways that are fundamentally reflections of the kind of people they are.

A skeptical genius has said: "God made man in his image and man has returned the compliment." This saying is an eternal truth, and it would be very curious to write the history of the local divinity of every continent as well as the history of the patron saints in each one of our provinces.

IMG_9742Countless images of God reflecting countless images of those people who worship them. It makes sense, doesn't it?

So, what can be said of the people who created Mont Saint-Michel?

Fanciful is the first word that comes to mind. Fanciful to build a fairy palace on a slab of granite in the middle of a tidal estuary. And obstinate in the face of that granite rock out of which they carved out the abbey that became known as the "wonder of the western world." The men who created the Mont Saint Michel must also have been much taken up with notions of warfare and the armies of God; for the Mount is both dream palace and fortress. Not long into its history, the abbey was handed over to the Benedictines and became a kind of embodiment of the monastic life down through time.

A fortress standing apart from the world…

On our last day, we decided to visit the abbey as soon as they "opened for business." And I do mean business. After waiting in a long line to pay for our tickets and collect our audio tour headphones, we passed some monks leaving down the same staircase we had taken up to enter the abbey passing through the x-ray security and past the gift shop. My son asked me about the monks later. No longer a Benedictine abbey, there are still a dozen or so monks of a different order who live there and continue performing the liturgy in what is an unbroken chain back in time–straight back to the church's early history when the monastic day was divided into strictly adhered "times" for prayer, study, work, and sleep.

My son wondered, "don't all the tourists bother them terribly?"

I said, it was like being in parallel universes. The monks stayed further below ground in subterranean chapels where they prayed and lived; while we tourists had become the great consumers of the site above ground. I mentioned how, despite sharing the same physical space, we were in what amounted to being in different worlds– with totally different conceptions of time and "being." My son, being a teenager, rolled his eyes and quickly became bored of this conversation –but in thinking about it later, I realized that it is for precisely this resistance to the practical, material world which perhaps drew Rod Dreher to the Benedictines. [And this is the book in question for this post].

I really do not want to advertise the book in question in any way. Luckily, the Benedict Option is not a book I imagine a lot of 3Quarks readers being interested in in the first place–but if you do find yourself interested, I want to suggest you keep walking right on by this one. Some readers might have seen the wonderful review of the book in the New Yorker last May, which described Dreher's project of a proposed complete withdraw from secular mass-consumer society to see Christians living in counter-cultural communes, where neighborliness, hospitality and something beyond life as production/consumption reigns.

Ironically, you need to read the reviews being written by religious studies scholars or Catholic believers to really understand what is so incredibly problematic about this book. I will just echo the reviews linked just above that the book plays loosely with history; is incredibly sloppy in its arguments; and most worrisome of all, the author is fixated on same-sex marriages in a way that first struck me as offensive and ended up making me feel more and more uncomfortable. Spiritual pornography indeed, it is safe to say Dreher is not a fan of gay marriage or the LGBT movement. And sadly, like many religious bigots we know, Dreher seems to conflate theology with cultural values and go down that same old, well-worn path that has given so many conservative religious thinkers such a bad name by seeking to harness religion to propagate conservative family values. We see this in Wahabism and in nationalistic Hinduisim-and we certainly see it in certain Christian traditions in the US.

Given that the author relies so heavily on the work of philosophers Charles Taylor and Alastair MacIntyer (where Dreher borrows the phrase, the Benedict Option); as well as lesser known but equally beloved (by me) author and thinker James K.A Smith, I had such high hopes for his book. Charles Taylor, in fact, is my favorite living philosopher. So, I bought Dreher's book as soon as it came out. Also, too, as anyone who knows me can attest, I am very sympathetic to his longing for something beyond the material, everyday practical world. I miss the neighborliness and shared cultural activities of Japan so much. Nothing could have prepared me for the isolation and relentless focus on consumerism that I have experienced in moving back to the US. So, I agree with Dreher that our current state of mass consumerism with a focus on personal satisfaction is killing us. It is killing the planet for sure –but this model of endless growth, personal optimization and "consumerism as citizenship" is simply not viable. Not for the planet and maybe not even for those living the high life. In fact, just last week one of my associates here in these very pages wrote a great piece about how we are "optimizing ourselves into oblivion." I completely agree –and this is pure Heidegger. For Heidegger pointed this out 50 years ago and philosophers continue to unpack this idea that we are living in a technological understanding of being, whereby everything is a resource to be used and consumed and that includes our very selves…

IMG_9576 2Speaking of Heidegger, the most important guru of my life, the late, great Hubert Dreyfus (RIP, Sensei), in discussing what Heidegger called the technological understanding of being, suggested that getting clear on the underlying ontological paradigm that governs our understanding of being is probably the single most important task facing us today; ie, our post-modern understanding of self boils down to Resources. Not only things, but people (even our very selves) are viewed as resources to be used, bought, sold or bartered. Expressions of this understanding of being could include a striving to live lives that utilize our capabilities to the utmost; self-help, self-improvement, being the best you can be, etc. This is neither bad nor good… and people manifest this to differing degrees, though I do think modern people (myself included) have this desire to "get the most out of life" and "to develop" as people and individuals. All of these concepts, which were apparently absent from the ancient or medieval ontologies, which as Dreher is quick to point out and I agree with, people tended to not see "the self" as the bottom line. Dreher is probably correct that the decline of the extended family and neighborliness; as well as an overwhelming focus on individual self optimization is not leading to the most wholesome ends.

We know there is a mass extinction going on. We know the earth is heating up and environments are being destroyed. We know industrial meat production is so very cruel. We know over-population is dangerous. We know this and yet somehow we keep thinking the problem is that the wrong party is in the white house or the corporations are evil. Those are not the problems. Those are symptoms of the problem. And while it would be ideal for the government to step up and start solving these issues, in the US, at least, as long as we are a country where the only bottom line seems to be quarterly performance (maximizing of profits) and this model of endless consumption, nothing will change unless we all do. Several years ago, I participated in a conference on the topic of cities in Shanghai where we discussed how cities are the more viable level to look at in terms of change. Portland was brought up as an example of a place where people decide to work together to evoke change on the local level. I think the Big Island in Hawaii is another place where there is a counter-culture. You just don't see the relentless consumption and producer/consumer mentality there, where neighbors and families seem to loom larger and people are so much more laid back. New cars and new electronic devises every few years and big box high quantity consumption, industrial farming is killing us. And I for one, think trying to opt out is the best option.

With this idea of parallel worlds and counter cultural activities, as a kind of experiment, I have become interested in something called the sabbath movement. You have probably heard of the slow food movement–but have you heard of the sabbath movement? As a kid, my notions of the sabbath were the jokes my dad used to tell about how we couldn't do anything fun because it was the sabbath. But in fact, that American notion was a Puritan corruption of what the sabbath really was supposed to be–which is a day of play and love. A kind of feast day. It was a day set aside to step out of society-mandated roles (in our case, that of producer/ consumer) and some people think it is a helpful way to be mindful about why we do what we do. Basically, one day a week, a person is called to do anything but consume or produce–and instead, to have a day devoted to other matters. I bet at first it will be hard to imagine there is anything else! But by avoiding all corporate entertainment (so corrosive and this includes spectator politics), and consumption; and with the earth in mind avoiding driving, fast food (industrial food)– as well as work (producing), the idea is one can get back to being human again, beyond the producer consumer model. The bottom line is you are supposed to unplug–be in nature, step up for others, have slow meals with loved ones, light candles, listen to music (or find silence), drink wine (for example), eat bread (for example), avoid all commerce and corporate media and entertainment, and embrace being slow! Join the sloth club movement? We know that everyone can reduce their carbon imprint by 20% easily. The union of concerned scientists has a great book on how to do it and really it is something anyone can achieve. But the mindfulness required to make the internal changes that will enable us to step away from this current model of mass consumerism and relentless optimization that is killing our planet requires time to cultivate our imagination in different ways of being in the world. Stepping away fully one day a week from consumerism –and aiming at what Dreher calls a re-sacramentalizing of our lives, through shared activities that are both participatory (not spectator) and are other-oriented rather is more challenging that it at first sounds.

In Europe, you still see many shops closed on Sundays with families getting together for long, shared meals, walks and other slow activities. Animals still graze freely on the sides of the roads. Corporations, corporate media and entertainment and politics are extremely market-driven. We know that. But it's not just that.

To do things that are ends in themselves is wonderful. Like a kiss. And ah, to indulge in a delicious fantasy. To be cut off from the world, protected from the onslaught of modernity, quietly filling the days in reading and contemplation, watching the tide and the moon and the sheep, making a life small in scale and impact but with the crazy dream of living, finally truly living in a boundless sacred time and sacred space. I would brave tides, walk through quicksand, and scale Medieval walls to make that pilgrimage! For me, it's a lot harder than it sounds!

Sabbath as Resistance

Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives

Sabbath: Ancient Practice

Abraham Joshua Heschel's classic The Sabbath

Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living

Guy de Maupassant's Legend of Mont Saint Michel