When former atheist Leah Libresco became Catholic in 2012, she built her spiritual life from the ground up. In the process, she is making her mark in the Catholic-sphere as a sought-after speaker and writer.
Her two books chronicle after-the-fact experiences. Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer chronicled her conversion.
Her second book, Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name, published last year by Ignatius Press, employs The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher to describe the task of rebuilding Christian communities to combat the plague of isolation. Libresco’s book is a “how-to” and a “why-not,” with inspiring ideas for Catholic fellowship, such as how to feed and pray with 30 people in a studio apartment — she has first-hand experience, as she lives in New York City with her husband, Alexi Sargeant.
Libresco spoke recently with the Register about faith and fellowship for modern times.
Why did you write this book?
My book is focused on the practical and narrowed to the short term: What can you do over the next two weeks to two months? I wanted to write a book that’s relevant to everyone who wants to deepen the community where they are. You don’t have to have bought a home or know you’ll stay where you live now in order to care for others (and benefit from this book).
Was there something missing in your own life that led to this?
I converted from atheism to Catholicism, so I had to learn everything from scratch. My Catholic friends gave me many gifts by answering my questions, praying with me (so I could see how it was done!), and telling me stories about their favorite saints. Everyone pitched in to help me get my sea legs as a new member of the Church. But it’s not only converts who can wind up feeling adrift. When folks graduate from college, change jobs or move, they can wind up losing the experience of shared prayer and Christian community. I wanted to share with others what had helped me love God.
What is the goal of building the “Benedict Option”?
I really like the way Ross Douthat described the Benedict Option: “an invitation to sort of [a] religious ratchet, in which people start from wherever they are and then take one step toward a greater rigor and coherence in the way they marry faith and life.”
Is this a 24/7 way of life?
Sort of. I think the 24/7 aspect of it is readiness — being willing to ask, “Should I do this?” of God and expecting the answer might be Yes. We don’t have people over every night, (and I think it would be a bad idea if we did!), but in addition to coming up with ideas of our own, my husband and I want to be interruptible by the Holy Spirit, so we can be responsive to the needs of our friends and other folks in our community.
Why do we need to be fed spiritually outside of Mass?
Mass ends with Ite, missa est — we are sent out to be fruitful. I don’t want Sunday morning to become just my standing appointment with God. Sunday Mass (and any daily Mass) is a time of returning to the source of our faith and our strength: to ask God to prepare me for everything else he might ask of me. One reason I place an emphasis on praying in public (on a subway commute, etc.) is so that all those places can feel like a place where prayer is possible — to remove the temptation to feel like I can only pray at church or in my bedroom. Those aren’t the only places God is listening!
How do you bring the Benedict Option into your work and social life?
Sometimes, my husband and I host events that are centered on our faith (we had a night of Marian prayers and hymns for the feast of the Immaculate Conception). Other times, we have a more secular event (we did a reading of Twelfth Night for Twelfth Night), but we tell folks they can come 30 minutes early if they’d like to pray the Evening Office (or, in that specific case, do the Epiphany blessing of the door) with us.
How does employing the Benedict Option work for you as a hostess? You have hosted 30 people for dinner, I understand.
When I have big groups over, I make whatever compromises required to make hosting that size group imaginable. So, to start with, definitely paper plates. With larger groups, I’m most likely to make a big pasta, where I can toss everything together in my 16-quart stockpot. I read over recipes to make sure they can scale up (one-pot recipes are good for this).
Currently, I live in a studio apartment with my husband in New York City. We keep folding chairs in a closet, but folks also just end up on the floor when we have a bigger group. One of the blessings of being a laywoman doing this on my own is that my hospitality can be “scruffy” without reflecting on anyone but me. I’m trusting that getting people to read, pray, sing, etc. together is blessing enough, and that the people I’m inviting over won’t mind about tablecloths.
How has this experience brought joy and a deeper faith into your life?
Often, when I try to see my friends more deeply, to ask how they love God and experience his love, I wind up knowing and loving them more. I think we always feel more tenderly toward anyone when we see … and hear them speak from the depths of … love.
One particularly nice event was an All Saints’ picnic we hosted, where everyone told stories about their favorite saints. I learned everyone’s confirmation saints and why they’d chosen them, as well as other saints who they’d needed as grown-ups.
On a separate topic, why did you add your signature in August to the “Open Letter From Young Catholics” addressed to the Church hierarchy?
I signed it because I do not feel like our bishops are doing enough to root out and atone for abuse. There are times when their responses feel more like a corporate PR approach, intended to minimize discussion and blame, rather than an attempt to mourn with those who are mourning, bring hidden things to light, and bind up the wounds in the Body of Christ. In contrast, I was very grateful to Bishop [Robert] Reed for offering a day and night of public penance in reparation for the sins of clergy.
What kinds of reactions are you getting in terms of others taking up your call to fellowship in a greater degree?
Some friends have made bigger changes (hosting a once-a-week potluck — open to all comers), while others have simply said “Yes” to one idea they’re not sure they would have otherwise taken on.
My copy editor invited people over right after she finished working on the book; one friend of mine was planning to pray a Rosary at a protest and realized she could invite other women from her Bible study.
A couple of folks suggest going to museums with a friend to use religious art as a focus for prayer. I’m going to try that one myself!
Patti Armstrong writes
from North Dakota.
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