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The Columba Option

Early in 1996—with the advent of the first abbot, vowed brother, vowed sister, and oblate—the Order of St. Columba came into existence. It was formed with the purpose of discovering how to live as a Colony of Heaven. Today, borrowing a popular phrase, that manner of living may be called the Columba Option. This turn of phrase is appropriate as this endeavor is similar in form and purpose to the more familiar Benedict Option. There are, however, enough important differences setting the Columba Option apart to view it in a different light. Not the least difference is the foundational goal, for the ultimate purpose of the Columba Option is the transformation of the individual from the inherent image of God into the grace-provided likeness of God. This fundamental principle comes from seriously embracing St. Irenaeus’ adage: “The glory of God is a human fully alive, and the life of a human is the vision of God.”

The world has changed, and to the inattentive eye, it has done so very quickly.  To the observant, the world has been changing quietly for quite some time. The vital question presented by this change is not “how do we stop the change” but “how do we adapt to it.” The answer to this question addresses not only us individually but addresses the life of the Church as a whole.  What now is the Church’s position throughout this period in history? 

A key response to Western culture’s secular shift will be the Church shedding its embrace as societal leader. This identity has resulted in the Church becoming just one component—even though significant—in a broad culture. As the Church sheds this character it may once again pick up its true identity as a Colony of Heaven. Christians may come together in a new (but fundamentally old) manner. Rob Dreher recently coined the term the “Benedict Option.” His is a form of this new—but ancient—approach. It falls short, though, of the fullness of what is meant by being a Colony of Heaven. In many ways the Benedict Option is a continuation, enlargement, and reimagining of the house church movement, and this is its potential weak point. This movement still embodies the conceptions of Christian life and Church life that have been dominant within Christendom, only now without the centralized authority and established campuses. These communities are often conceptualized as “arks” with new Noahs carrying the Church over the flood of this new paganism, awaiting the time when more rational minds will prevail. Today we do not need an ark filled with Christian virtues and teaching, but an invigoration of heaven’s presence.


However necessary some form of ark, or lifeboat, may seem (and there is good in this) the hope of maintaining vestiges of Christendom is still an attempt to right a sinking ship. The world has shifted dramatically in almost every venue of our cultural and social lives. It has occurred in technology; in governmental structures and politics;  in law; in cultural mores; and most significantly for our discussion, in the role of Christianity within society. Merely observing those practicing the faith tells the tale. A Pew Research Center poll showed that by 2020 only 64 percent of people in the United States identified as Christian, whereas in 1990 that percentage was 90 percent, and the downward trend is predicted to continue. The world around us has changed. Christianity can no longer be viewed or practiced in the same manner. In the words of Malcolm Muggeridge’s prophetic 1980’s book, we have reached The End of Christendom.

For decades many Christian leaders closed their eyes to this reality, closed their eyes in a form of denial, looking back to a Golden Age of the Church; hoping that if they just held on long enough that age would return. But the age of the dominance of denominational structures influencing society is passing, and in many places has already passed. We must embrace the reality that the ways of the past will not return soon—if ever.  This leaves us recalling the wisdom of the proverb, “If you are not growing you are dying.” If we are not looking forward we are failing in our task. Christendom is passing, but at the same time the power of Christianity is deepening. The church as we have known it may lose its influence; no longer will the societal church dominate the secular landscape, but at the same moment the life of the Spirit is growing, quietly dominating the spiritual landscape.  

An aspect of this growth is the Columba Option. Now is the time for a new reformation of Christianity as life in a Colony of Heaven.  It is the new reformation to an older way of life.  It is a new embracing of an old way, just as Jesus has stated: “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

The Columba Option has nothing to do with Christendom. In the style of the Celtic monks of old the emphasis is on the vision of God.  This is an ancient style established during the early days of Christianity, in the deserts and forests of the East as well as the West. The encouraging concept of the Benedict Option is creating communities in which the virtuous Christian life can flourish in the rising “dark age” of a dominantly secular society. The living of Christian virtues and the embracing of a true Christian philosophy of life, are the tools as well as outcomes of seeking the vision of God. They are the means to the end, but the end is becoming more and more the likeness of God.  When this happens, lives are transformed in the world.

This was the concept of the hermit who went to a desert (disert) or island. Transform your life into what God originally intended and other people may change. It is this understanding that addresses the oft-voiced concern that giving priority to the seemingly mystical ignores the needs of those in the world.  Those who are being transformed that walk amongst us are the ones that bring transformation to the world. Otherwise, it may merely be the blind leading the blind. Those who are being transformed, carrying their gifts—however these gifts may have been distributed by the Holy Spirit—are the ones that truly evangelize; bring healing to the ill; food to the needy; and justice to those caught in a disordered world.

The Benedict Option is a grand beginning, but the end is in the Columba Option, in which we find men and women striving to be fully alive, living out the call of God to bring Him glory. For, the “glory of God is human fully alive, and the life of a human is the vision of God.”

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