‘My focus is on the near term’: an interview with Leah Libresco on the Benedict Option

Statue of St Benedict in Einsiedeln, Switzerland (Photo: © Roland Fischer, Zürich)

Leah Libresco’s Building the Benedict Option explores how Christians can build communities and combat the isolating effect of modern life. Since writing the book, how is the author managing the “Ben Op”?

Leah assures me that she is still “doing a lot of the same things I’ve been doing since before I wrote the book: praying with friends when I see them; inviting people into my house, trying to use the liturgical calendar and the calendar of the saints as a prompt for gatherings.” She tells me she is happy to note that people who have read the book tell her “how they took one new step to invite others into prayer and fellowship”.

“One woman asked friends to go on a Rosary walk with her; another had a Bring Your Own Saint potluck dinner. Even my copy editor wound up telling me she had friends over!”

I point out that the gatherings she describes in the book involve her own age group. Would she consider linking them sometimes with parish events? Leah explains that her own events are narrow simply because of the limits in her own social circle. “I’ve lived in some awfully age-segregated cities” she says, adding that parish events “sometimes reinforce these separations”.

Nonetheless, she points out that one of the great things her parish in Washington DC did “was to offer an Adult Sunday School after our 9am Mass. Dominican friars taught the faith to anyone who wanted to come and it was one of the most varied Catholic groups I’ve belonged to”.

Would she widen her circle to include older people who are also searching for a way to live their faith more fully?

“I’d love to. I think a lot of the work is finding ways to have our paths cross at all. I think I’ve met more people who are 30 or 40 years older than me through Twitter than in person – simply because events and neighbourhoods can be so divided.”

Looking to the future, can she envisage her own “Ben Op” developing into a stable, long-term, geographic community such as the cluster of home-schooling families living in Steubenville, Ohio?

“Maybe!” she responds, “But that’s not so much my goal in this book. My focus is on the near term, such as events you could offer in the next two weeks to two months, so that folks who feel they can’t make a long-term commitment for now don’t think they just have to wait on the side lines until they can make that kind of promise.” She reflects, “We never lack for opportunities to love one another.”

I am curious to find out if Leah finds there is sometimes a tension between the social aspect of her gatherings and the spiritual aspect. She explains that “the main tension has come if I’m interested in adding prayer to an event that isn’t only for Christians.”

She expands: “What has worked best for me and my husband is telling everyone that they can come a little earlier if they want to, say, pray the Morning Office before a brunch, or do the Epiphany chalking on the door before our Twelfth Night reading of Twelfth Night. That way we are not trapping folks who don’t want to pray, if we did it in the middle of the gathering, or kicking all the non-Christians out, if we did it at the end.

Finally, I am interested in what Leah means by her stated purpose in the book, which is “To build up a thick community of Christians.” She responds thoughtfully, “I want us to be able to be generous and vulnerable with each other. To ask for prayer; to help babysitting; to go for a walk together during a lonely time – and I think all of these asks and responses come to us more easily when we have a history of persistent if weaker ties to draw upon.”