Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Benedict Opt-Out

Actually, the real term is "The Benedict Option"; it does not refer to our retired Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, but rather to St. Benedict of Nursia, who in the collapse of the Roman Empire fathered a way of living that kept Christian civilization alive: the monastic order. Oddly enough, like Benedict XVI, it is a kind of retirement, an abdication of sorts from the world stage--but not because of frailty, but because the world has become a place where the majority, 'though having ears, cannot hear and though having eyes, cannot see.'

The monastic life has always been, ever since, the heart-muscle of the Church--through the sacrifice of a name, of that individualism which is the building of 'mine'; through a turn towards complete sacrifice and a new order built on prayer and simple work, the monks become a kind of power-house of grace for the rest of the Church. In fact, though yet sinners, they are like the witnesses of heaven who, though apart from us in a sense, pray for the rest of us who must walk through the world with the dust of it on our faces. 

The Benedict Option is a new idea blowing around Catholic circles in the wake of Obergefell. Undergirding it seems to be the growing conviction among Catholics that we've lost influence in the culture to the extent that we are now facing a cultural tsunami that threatens to drown us all. Driving it is the memory, long distant, of other Catholics, separated from us by 1500 years, who had the same conviction (hard to miss German barbarians in the streets) and withdrew themselves, not primarily to abandon a dying civilization, but to re-plant the seed in safe soil, so that one day it could grow again into the mustard tree, sheltering many creatures in its branches.

A caveat, or two, though: I'm not talking about a political option of withdrawal; in fact, I think our political system is too large, too corporate-funded, too a-lot-of-stuff to have any hope of changing things on a large scale, so starting over, in a sense, in small communities and fighting for rights where we can makes sense (whilst knowing that the trash compactor will most likely get to Luke and Leia and Han eventually). I am talking more about a new locus of identity, an attitude, I sense among Catholics.

This time round, though, it is less like Benedict and perhaps more like the Maccabees--lay people, not monks, who are thinking to build walls around what is true, good, and beautiful, in order to preserve these transcendentals along with themselves and their children. You will see this--perhaps it is already happening--in small educational institutions which create a community of learning and faith, communities without hope of any largesse or approval stamp from the culture at large; you will see it in small church communities centered around a liturgy that 'brings beauty flowing into the realm of the senses.'

 In fact, many of these marginalized communities have existed already for more than thirty or forty years; what seems new now is that instead of talk about 'the new evangelization' or a movement out to 're-claim the culture,' the discussion in some of these communities seems now to be also, or more, about withdraw-ization, or an intensified focus on the elements of the monastic life--prayer, contemplation, beautiful liturgy, hierarchical authority which disperses truth, an ordered way of life that has retreated away from a disordered world. 

This, to me, is an attractive option. I am a Watcher, after all, an observer--and I've begun to feel as if I am watching the world, our culture, turn into a hallucinogenic version of 1984: indeed, war is peace and black is white, but instead of straightforward flip-flops ('war is peace') as a means to political control, it is clownish, celebratory warpings of natural law and nature as a means to soul-control. Creating fortresses sounds attractive, because I am frightened--the mask of sanitary individualism and creative moral license is coming off, and the maggot-ridden face of each is becoming more and more clear. 

We live not in a culture oppressed by a party's lies; we live in a culture in love with the ability to lie to itself. "Abortion is about me and my body" is just one; "Happiness is what makes me feel satiated" is another; "Tolerance is supporting whatever you want, Caitlyn." Joseph Pieper could say, "I told you so" because indeed, we are seeing abuse of language as abuse of power--but at a level that is somehow different, much more fundamental than anything I've experienced in reading history or culture-watching prior. 

Thomas Dubay, S.M., in his book on beauty, says the following:

"Moral depravity explains why men cast aside 'perfectly plain' evidences. They reject these eloquent testimonies to the divine Artist because by their 'impiety' and 'depravity' they 'keep truth imprisoned in their own wickedness'...even the ordinary works of grace and divine providence cannot be grasped by worldly people; to them it is all foolishness."

And, Urs Von Balthasar:

" It is not the object's [something true, good, beautiful--my sic] invisibility which creates uncertainty and finally results in a failure to see on the part of the subject. It is, rather the prior judgement [my emphasis] we make that the thing in question cannot be what it claims to be which is responsible. The true scandal is the arrogant attitude that opposes one's subjective opinion to the objective evidence."

And Henri de Lubac:

"Everybody has his filter which he takes about with him, through which from the indefinite mass of facts, he gathers in those suited to conform to his prejudices...Rare, very rare are those who check their filter."

These three quotes seem to sum up the underlying, frightening, rather new fact--that on almost a global scale, people are in love with the lie to themselves, with their own pet conception of the universe and the moral life--and if their conceptions of the good are challenged, they suddenly become like predatory beasts who will eat another alive and relish in the prospect, killing the weakest among us with party-hats on. 

Perhaps neo-monastic life is the thing to do. 

But a doubt lingers in my mind--in my heart, I do not think that at least I, for one, am called to this. I also, but less certainly, wonder deep inside whether or not 'Benedict 2.0" will be possible, or allowed by God this time around. 

Perhaps there need to be small places of refuge and some are called to build these. The problem for myself, and for, I think, a laity-monastic movement, is that we laity are called to be salt and light in a fundamentally different way from monks and nuns. Salt does not do any good for the food when it is clumped together in a mass; rather it becomes poison; light hid is rather meaningless. I think that the laity are meant to be small particles of light or salt which, as the food rots and the world darkens, become more and more important. 

Yet, what about a culture that likes rotten food and darkness? Should the salt refuse to be shaken out on it? Should the light retreat? This is one possibility--God may want this, and I may be wrong. But Jesus never congratulated the disciples for hiding out in Jerusalem; He came to them, pitied them, and gave them power to sacrifice themselves, power to rise above fear. Most of them died at the hands of a culture, out in that culture, that 'kept truth imprisoned in its own wickedness.' 

I remember a bishop, in 1999, said to a group of middle school students, "Your generation will be martyrs." Those students are now in their twenties. Another bishop said, "I will die in my bed. My successor will die in jail. His successor will die a martyr's death." In those years, I kept those words but yet could not see the form this would take; now I can see the form, the context laid: in just fifteen years. 

I want my children to learn courage and how to hang on to the faith in the face of darkness. I want them to be soldiers, because I think they will need this; a monastic-retreat or a fortress-community in its best form can give an important, essential element--a definition of the faith itself--but that is not enough. That alone can create people who see the world like a jumping fish sees the far-distant shore. We also need to teach our children what they will face, how to live with courage, and how to die, and most importantly, how to love those lost in the culture. They need to know that to live in this world means a kind of death if they believe that truth, goodness, and beauty are transcendentals, found outside themselves, and are absolutes, alongside a motivation to walk alongside 'those people' and be challenged by them to love better, with more personal understanding. I don't want my children to become hot-house creatures who cannot survive in the desert of this world, who have nothing to offer, who have taken the life-boats off the Titanic and are rowing away, insensitive to those crying out in the frozen water.

The other doubt I have about the Benedict Option is the fact that every human being has the light and dark within them--as de Lubac said, "Rare, very rare are those who check their filters"; as Von Balthasar said, "The true scandal is the arrogant attitude that opposes one's subjective opinion to the objective evidence." Are we really such simpletons to think that arrogance and subjective opinion-worship only exist outside Christian communities? Do we think that the proper liturgy and correct Thomism will save us, without fail, and without reference to our pride or lack of love, from the lie to ourselves, from the desire to see the universe made in our own image? Is being thoroughly educated in the right ideas and having the best of culture enough to create a true refuge rather than a self-satisfied, Pharisaical outfit?

Von Balthasar says, in Glory of the Lord, "Love--indeed, love that partakes in God's love--is the warrant of objective knowledge in the realm of trinitarian revelation." Charity, that selfless love that lays down its life for the other, is the writ or authorization of truth. The eyes that can see are those that are eyes of love. And--God so loved the world--He loved us while we were yet sinners. Are we called to do the same? To follow in His footsteps? To love in action the gay person who crosses our path, to know him or her? How do we do this if we live in retreat-centers?

Where does the love of God take us? Where is it calling us? This is the framing device we should look at for any option we choose. 

For myself, I see both the value in a place of refuge and in staying on the city streets with those I love, though they may wish to kill me. For me, both have already, and have been, for many years, a personal experience, a reality. I live in a kind of refuge, a small Catholic educational community, and I am blessed by it as have been my children, but I also live on the culture-street with those I have known and loved, and I cannot forget them or un-see them. The place of refuge though, I think must be places where the filters are regularly checked, and the image of a laity retreating into monastic mode makes me a little wary that perhaps it will be rather a place to grow immensely thick filters, where it becomes 'those homosexuals' or 'those depraved people' and the blindness, and the darkness, will be worse than what is outside, because it is built on the very things that should be open to being crucified. 

Who can save a person from a lie that calls itself truth, beauty and goodness, and is eerily close to the real thing? I wonder if God is rather calling us to prepare martyrs who can love better and with less fear than ourselves, calling those of us who grew up before the gloves came off. 

Monday, July 06, 2015


The ships at Aulis lie like beached, dying seals,
blackened hulls heaving in heat-waves,
tar the smell of rotting flesh, slicing through
the wafts of salt, nutty shore reeds, and baked marble.

Men scream, chant, bellow, their faces
in the night by torchlight living choral masks;
Agamemnon paces full-armored,
his helm-mask overlayed by a single sheet of gold:
a pantomine of gods, frozen in the expression
of a lion looking up from his kill.

The kings of a thousand men planted in a circle,
tortured by, married to a golden god-doll
shimmering in the haze above the sea;
Helen in Priam's Troy made them thirst beyond
all water, their inner law enslaved to the huntress.

Iphigenia travels towards Aulis in a marriage train, deceived;
she is to be married to the knife, to the dream of chasing a harlot;
she is to lose her maidenhead to the lust of an army
and a pantheon of demons destroying their toy-men
in a game of balance.

Hellas, are you Agamemnon, lusting to be Troy?
Hellas, are you the people screaming in the torchlight outside the megaron?
Hellas, are you Iphigenia, scapegoat?
Hellas, what have you done?

Have you left your early morning olive trees,
your marbled hillsides,
the simple cries of crickets,
the careful meditation of smoothing white cheese,
the joy and leisure of hearth and philosophy
to chase Helen, to die at Troy,
to placate the irrational, faceless, cruel gods?
Have you forgot those gods are cruel,
those gods of gold are the gods without law are the gods
smelling with delight the odors of the funeral games,
the games that are playing now on screens everywhere?

I see Agamemnon in his armor, a blue suit;
I see the kings of a thousand circled around him;
I see the people screaming, bellowing in the torchlight
outside the Zappion and the Parliament;
I see the gods of finance softly speaking about sacrifice.

And I see, her, Iphigenia, throat sliced open,
in the faces of the old, the simple, the poor,
and the children who have lost their patrimony:
their cathedrals of beauty, their shards of pottery for voting,
their innocence and joy.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Diagram in the Dust

St. Augustine confessed, "Scarce
understanding came even with many learned masters not merely lecturing,
but making many diagrams in the dust."

Only four hundred years after Christ,
this drawing diagrams in the dust must
have been custom:
if modeling, mashals, exhortations, lessons
did not sink in, did not convert overtly,
then the master kneeling
in a last resort to draw a picture, meaning
that truly the truth had escaped,
bounced off
a blindness, an ignorance too rooted to be easily uprooted.

What diagrammed drawing
the stones
the Pharisees fade in shame?

For the Jews, words were signs, multi-leveled,
not these banalized, horizontal, shallow things
floating in unreal space, lighter and more meaningless
than clouds shaping and re-shaping with the wind;
the word
could have been both word
and diagram,
a perfect Euclidean sphere-word
bearing eternal perfection,
a real child of the

The One in the flesh leapt
the myths, histories, laws, schools, masters:
He made a diagram in the dust;
perhaps something so simple,
that all not united with it faded into mere chaos.

Being Himself in the flesh drawing a diagram
for a bit of marred flesh
as only the artist can judge the painting before the paint,
as only the writer knows
the character before the story was written.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Wedding Story...or Don't Judge a Book by It's Cover

On December 27, 1964, 50 years ago, it was snowing heavy and 40 degrees below zero in Spokane; the Winter Festival Queen of Whitworth College and the poor boy from Olympia, WA, were getting married in Spokane. It was the worst winter in decades, and not many could get out, or in; it would be a wedding in the bleak midwinter, indeed, but immediate family got there.

The groom, unbeknownst to the bride, suddenly came down with the flu the day of the ceremony, the ultimate trick provided by his best man. Making his way through everyone wrapped in silk and tulle, he willed himself to the front of the church to wait for his Snow Queen.

She came, a lovely, petite woman in a simple, heavy satin gown. She wondered why he wasn't looking at her, and then realized he was "as white as a sheet." The college roommates in the back of the church thought in scorn, "He's awfully emotional."

The bride's father was the minister, and when he realized that the groom wasn't well, immediately got them to kneel down and the ceremony continued. The minister then realized that kneeling wasn't going to stop what was just going to happen, and held out his shoe so the groom could throw up in it. The guys in the back thought, "Okay. That's out of bounds...he's way too emotional."

Meanwhile, the groom's brother, standing on the steps leading to the altar, suddenly went white and fell like a tree, hitting his head with a sound like a cannon going off; happily, a non-fatal, glancing blow. The mother of these two young men stood up and started screaming, the ambulance came, and the bride quietly asked her father, "Should we just do this another time?"

"No, no," said the intrepid father, "let's just get through this."

No one in the audience knew the extent of the groom's damage until the new couple, "Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Wrye" was announced and the couple turned around. Then, a collective gasp.

The reception was full of gentle pity and quiet exits, and the honeymoon was spent playing Yahtzee  with the groom's new in-laws.

How has the marriage been spent?

1. A move to Afghanistan to serve as missionaries three years later, with a child on the way. Courage or rashness? Answer: Both.

2. Another move to Afghanistan after a long furlough, with two daughters. Adventure or madness? Both.

3. A move to Greece in 1974 (smart).

4. Back to California.

5. A doctorate.

6. Another move to Russia, during the fall of the Soviet Union. Exciting.

7. Denmark. Cute.

8. United Nations International School NYC, for 11 years. Cool.

9. Retirement. Doing it well.

What's in between the lines? Their marriage ceremony was, in a way, the cover to a very different book, one of adventure and of mostly blessed health; but in a deeper way, it is emblematic of the values and virtues they have passed on, most effectively, by modeling, by living.

My father has always seen my mother as a queen, and my mother has always believed enough in my father to continue walking down the aisle, through sickness and health, for better and for worse.

Their health was spent in simple and sincere service, all over the world; they helped, together, re-order and put onto good foundations, a number of schools, my father a fair, just, humble leader and my mother a strict but inspiring teacher to countless elementary students. They used each gift they had to the greatest extent they felt prudent and charitable.

Their times of sickness showed their deep love for each other. When my mother had a brain tumor removed, I had to take my father in charge and make him eat, and stop him from buying her a Steinway (a bribe to stay with him?). I held him as he wept at the thought of her death. My mother told me once, "We have a commitment to commitment, because we know this honors God. This gets us through the bleak times." This is the foundation from which a great love was built.

Their adventures have been many: they have seen so much in a life together--coups in Afghanistan, the beauties of Greece, the struggle of politics, the crash and deep beauties of Russia, and 9-11 in New York, when dust-covered parents ran straight from the Financial District, forty blocks, to the school to be with their children, my father out front to comfort them and quell the panic.

But the real adventures have been, I think, the small hours in the darkness, when the sorrows and stresses were too deep to speak about, the regrets, when they had to watch each other be crucified in the way it happens through out life; they have tried to face failures and sorrow together, as a team, and never turn on each other in suffering, standing below each other's crosses faithfully. They pick each other up and consult with each other on the way of God, the way of Christ, of charity, of Christ's Mother, as best they can with their imperfections.

They get sick, have baggage, drive each other crazy sometimes. Their fights are long, silent, symbolic, gentle, almost courteous battles that usually end up as jokes, like the time in Denmark when the husband wanted the kitchen shade up, and the wife wanted it down. One knew when one or the other was home based on the position of the shade. The husband wanted the light, and the wife didn't want to see the guy across the courtyard taking a shower behind a full-length window. Sometimes I just wanted a good old Italian fight, instead of English reserve, but mostly I appreciated not being put in the middle, ever.

I've learned lots of things from them about which I said to myself, "I think I'll do that differently." It is also the privilege of my children to learn valuable lessons in the negative from me, and yet still try to love me. As my parents have got older together, they've become more open, more honest with themselves.

They love to laugh and they love to help. If one could pick one word for them, it is 'service.' I have learned about this, about humility, about honoring the good, and loving yet what is not perfect from them; mostly, though, I have learned about perseverance.

They are not famous and many dreams, expectations of theirs have been truncated by life.  But the dream, the accomplishment of a successful marriage has been theirs, through 'commitment to commitment and honoring God.' They know that the dream wedding is one in which two people intent on virtue unite in love and friendship, not one which meets the outside expectations, one which reflects what Cicero says in De Amici, paraphrased: "Only two people intent upon virtue can be friends or have true unity."

Thus, they have loved each other through disappointment (beginning on the wedding day), danger, adventure, sickness, unexpected joy, which they have received as gifts and not as rights. Their love has been made deeper and more precious because they have not tried to grasp 'happy' but instead gained it through the practice of virtue. They have not hunted for beauty, but have become beautiful through humility, the humility that comes from trusting God in the humiliations of life. I have often thought that God has taken especial care to send them the trials that would answer their real dreams, the dream of the soul that wants to please Our Lord, that values truth and honesty above success.

I, their second daughter, know that I am watching them slow down, almost imperceptibly, like a slowing snowstorm, and become more and more restful and quiet. Because the loss of either or both of them will be like the roof is gone from my world (how will I be virtuous, constant, without them? How will I reach their standard for my own children?) I am beginning to give them back to God now, in the small goodbyes after summers at Orcas and Christmases in Lander; I make sure I remember to thank Him from Whom they came, and from Whom came I, through them.

I know now, as I didn't when my grandparents had their 50th, what a glorious accomplishment this is and I cannot do it justice. I was a young, rash, mostly unvirtuous thing then, and am now much more humbled and beat up, with wrinkles of my own that I appreciate, and able now to appreciate their accomplishment, an accomplishment not worldly, but more akin to Christ's own example of simplicity, holy obedience, humility.

One cannot do justice in words, or anything simply worldly, to the gift of parents who were able, through their desire to serve God, stay married and do it with grace.

Saturday, November 15, 2014


One day, in the deepening dark and cold of the year,
I stood stiff, like a deer alert, in the wind and the twirling leaves,
bits of death and change that battered me and settled on my back, unwanted.

One day, in the deepening dark and cold of the year,
I stood broken, and soft, like a bird, in the wind and the twirling leaves,
bits of death and change dancing in a pattern, settling on me in a mosaic, providence.

photo credit: Marylynne Wrye

Thursday, September 25, 2014


Like a leaf still green
falling to the ground unseen,
you, my sweet, unfinished,

Like water, fresh and sweet
rising away, lost in the heat,
you, my child, never held,

Like a note full and mellow
swept from the strings of a cello,
you, my Ellie, untouched,
live on.

Monday, August 18, 2014


I sit with you, alone, in a dark, mercilessly exact-angled room.
There are no windows, no doors; I know,
because I have felt every square inch with fevered swipes.
I know all the pock-marks in the walls and the undulations of the floor.
I sit now, cross-legged; I have remembered to stop
searching for that tempting hole,
the one that is, in truth, only big enough for a rat to squeeze through
and would require me to shrink.

You, Lord, are Other, and I feel no comfort.
But because You are sitting, I feel you have invited me
to sit.
So, I have stopped running in circles and the silence
of the room, Your silence, fills me up.
You don't tell me what is the purpose of this entrapment,
this prison of pain,
but You are here, too, You have been there
and this has to be enough.