Much has been written in the last couple of years concerning the “Benedict Option.” People have found inspiration in it as well as a great deal to criticize about both the movement and Rod Dreher’s book. The historicity and theology of the book are questionable. The dire picture painted is difficult not to dismiss when every Orthodox Church echoes with Christ is Risen from the dead, by death trampling down death. However, what is perhaps needed is not another criticism or debate about the “Benedict Option.” Instead, the time has come to explore another “Option.” This Option is rooted in the Gospel and found in the 2nd-century letter to Diognetus as well as the novels of Dostoyevsky. In contemporary times, it has been incarnated by a diversity of people that include Mother Maria Skobtsova and St. Porphyrios. This is the Kavasilas Option.
St. Nicholas Kavasilas lived during the 14th century in the twilight of what has become known as the Byzantine Empire. The empire was besieged on the outside by the Muslims to the East and the Latins to the West. Within the empire were turmoil, civil wars, and uprisings. Religious controversies touched nearly every aspect of society. Nicholas was in the middle of it all. He was a scientist and theologian. He was a close friend to St. Gregory Palamas and was an advisor to emperors. He counted among his friends both Hesychasts and humanists. St. Nicholas wrote about the Liturgy and the Mysteries while contemporary scholarship is all but certain he remained a layman his entire life. Far from removing himself from society, there does not seem to be any area of society and culture with which he was not fully engaged.
The Kavasilas Option begins with the Liturgy. St. Nicholas was quite clear in saying that everything needed is given in the Liturgy; a person can add nothing to what Christ has given in the sacred Mysteries. At the same time, it is necessary and depends on the person to preserve what has been given. St. Nicholas believed that this was done by reflecting on Christ and meditating upon the Law of the Spirit which is love. Olivier Clement puts it quite succinctly when he writes that Kavasilas “recommends brief meditations to those living in his day, reminders in a way to remember, within the time it takes to put one foot in front of the other, that God exists and that He loves us” (Three Prayers, 32). Here there is no self-exile or removal from society. St. Nicholas teaches that these meditations can be done by all and in every place: “The general may remain in command, the farmer may till the soil… one need not betake oneself to a remote spot, nor eat unaccustomed food, nor even dress differently… It is possible for one who stays at home and loses none of his possessions to constantly be engaged in the Law of the Spirit [Love]” (Life in Christ, 173-174).
At first glance this might seem a bit simple if not naïve. Go to Liturgy and throughout the week reflect on Christ’s love? St. Nicholas distilling a thousand years of ascetic praxis explained that every action comes from desire and that desire begins with reflection. Christ’s love is reflected on and this turns into desire to be with Christ which leads to actions pleasing to Him. People will act not out of fear of punishment or desire for reward but out of love for Christ.
It is important to remember that these reflections and meditations on Christ throughout the days and weeks can never be independent from the Eucharistic gathering. It is the Ecclesial experience of Christ in the shared meal that is remembered in the midst of the world and daily life and in a very real sense is brought into the world through this remembrance. The Eucharist is never independent of the world because it is carried into the world, relationships, politics, and encounters with culture. In fact St. Nicholas writes that the bread and wine offered in the Liturgy are themselves the fruit of human labor, culture, and are products of daily life.
The Kavasilas option is the “Eucharisteite in all circumstances” of St. Paul’s 1st letter to the Thessalonians (5:18). From this remembering and reflecting, born of these meditations on Christ’s manic love and the experience of the liturgy a eucharisticizing of the world takes place. This is spoken of beautifully by Olivier Clement: “There is a particular way of washing, a way of dressing, of being nourished—whether through food or beauty—a way of welcoming one’s neighbor that is Eucharistic. It seems to me that there is also a Eucharistic way of fulfilling our dull, tiresome and repetitive daily tasks” (Three Prayers, 29).
What is the Kavasilas Option in the end? It is to be truly human. “It was for the new man [Christ] that human nature was created at the beginning…Our reason we have received in order that we may know Christ, our desire in order that we might hasten to Him. We have memory in order that we may carry Him in us” (Life in Christ, 190). The great wonder of Kavasilas’ teaching is that when people live as they were created to live they become, “as a people of gods surrounding God” (Life in Christ, 166). Because Christ:
Gives them birth, growth, and nourishment; he is life and breath. By means of Himself He forms an eye for them and, in addition, gives them light and enables them to see Himself. He is the one who feeds and is Himself the food… Indeed, He is the One who enables us to walk, He Himself is the way, and in addition He is the lodging on the way and its destination… (Life in Christ, 47).
Fr. Micah Hirschy is priest at Holy Trinity Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Birmingham, Alabama.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.