St. Benedict and the Benedict Option for Today

If it wasn’t clear before that the culture of the West is opposed to the Gospel and the teachings of the Catholic Church, the recent decision to legalize “gay marriage” in the United States made it quite apparent. The decision was decades in the making and cannot solely be blamed on the homosexual agenda. It goes back to contraception and no fault divorce, both of which have eroded marriage in profound ways over the decades. For Catholics, much of it is due to dissent from Humanae Vitae by clergy and laity, as well as an abandonment of moral teaching. The question for Catholics today is: Where do we go from here? The reason we need to ask this question is because there is little doubt that we will be pushed to the fringes in the coming decades. Our moral understanding and focus on Christ means that we are in opposition to the world. Christ told us:

“I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword…” Matthew 10:34

The world has always been in opposition to the Good News. The world crucified God. The Church has been set against the world since her founding by Our Lord, and that was no different during the life of St. Benedict whose feast day we celebrate on Saturday, July 11.

St. Benedict is most widely known for his rule and as the “Father of Western Monasticism”. He lived circa 480-560 and his influence on the world was great. Even though his rule was not the first, it was the most widely used in the west for centuries. St. Benedict’s rule was comprised of several rules which could be applied to a variety of monasteries and locations. His rule’s primary emphasis was on: moderation, the integration of prayer and work, and the socialization of the monastic life.

Once monasticism was introduced to the west by St. Athanasius, it spread quickly. By the time St. Benedict composed his rule, monasteries were in Africa, France, and even Ireland. Monasticism preserved much of Europe during the Dark Ages when there was much tumult and chaos. It was through monasticism that manuscripts were preserved, as well as art, architecture, and music were developed. It was here that culture survived and lived for many years. St. Benedict could not have known how great of an impact his rule would be on the west. Blessed John Henry Newman said of him:

“St. Benedict found the world, physical and social, in ruins, and his mission was to restore it in the way not of science, but of nature, not as if setting about to do it, not professing to do it by any set time, or by any rare specific, or by any series of strokes, but so quietly, patiently, gradually, that often till the work was done, it was not known to be doing…Silent men were observed about the country, or discovered in the forest, digging, clearing and building; and other silent men, not seen, were sitting in the cold cloister, tiring their eyes and keeping their attention on the stretch, while they painfully copied and recopied the manuscripts which they could have saved. There was no one who contended or cried out, or drew attention to what was going on, but by degrees, the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, and abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning and a city.”

St. Benedict found himself in a world of decay and difficulty. The Roman Empire had collapsed and Barbarians were wreaking havoc throughout Europe. In response, he chose to establish small cultural centers that would profoundly impact the culture when the Zeitgeist proved to be receptive. He did not know the exact changes it would bring at the time, but slowly and deliberately, by living holy lives, the culture was changed. How devastating was the collapse of the Roman Empire? Rod Dreher points out:

Rome’s collapse meant staggering loss. People forgot how to read, how to farm, how to govern themselves, how to build houses, how to trade, and even what it had once meant to be a human being. Behind monastery walls, though, in their chapels, scriptoriums, and refectories, Benedict’s monks built lives of peace, order, and learning and spread their network throughout Western Europe.

Today

It is here that we shift to today. Once again the Church is looking at a culture in a state of decay, moral confusion, and nihilism. The West is falling into ruin once more. The societies of Europe and North America have largely abandoned Christianity in favor of secularism and now we live in a post-Christian age. As Catholics, how can we look to St. Benedict as a guide in such times? The answer is what is called the Benedict Option, which has come into usage through the work of Alisdair MacIntyre and Rod Dreher.

According to Columbia University professor, Russell Hittinge, St. Benedict taught the world of the Dark Ages: “How to live life as a whole. Not a life of worldly success so much as one of human success.” This is where our call as Catholics now lies. People have given themselves over to this age and to the pursuit of worldly success and pleasures, in doing so, they have forgotten what it means to be fully human. The culture has become so confused that even matters of nature are no longer accepted as truth. Alisdair MacIntyre paints a grim picture of the culture in his book After Virtue. Rod Dreher summarizes MacIntyre’s view:

“For MacIntyre, we too are living through a Fall of Rome-like catastrophe, one that is concealed by our liberty and prosperity. In his influential 1981 book After Virtue, MacIntyre argued that the Enlightenment’s failure to replace an expiring Christianity caused Western civilization to lose its moral coherence. Like the early medievals, we too have been cut off from our roots, and a shadow of cultural amnesia is falling across the land. The Great Forgetting is taking a particular toll on American Christianity, which is losing its young in dramatic numbers. Those who remain within churches often succumb to a potent form of feel-good relativism that sociologists have called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which is dissolving historic Christian moral and theological orthodoxy.”

MacIntyre insists that we are now called to build, “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained”. How is this accomplished?

Close-knit Christian Communities

We must abandon the wrong-headed rugged individualism of our age. This is especially true for Americans. The call to radical individualism and self-determination is diametrically opposed to the Gospel and the communion we enter into upon our Baptism. The Mystical Body of Christ is an organism in which we are all intimately connected with the head, who is Christ Himself. As the culture begins to more aggressively attack the Church, we need to come together in close-knit communities all focused on the same goal in Christ. Does this sound familiar?

Most of us cannot become monks. We are members of the laity and we have to provide for our families, but that does not mean that we cannot live in a quasi-communal state where we can help one another. This communal state will vary depending on the area you live and the infrastructure in place. This will become essential when people lose jobs for their faith or struggle to make ends meet. This is the call to live in authentic Christian love and community, not as separate people who just happen to come to Mass together each Sunday. Priests and laity need to be involved. In fact, priests will need to take a direct role as spiritual leaders of these communities. Yes, priest are already stretched thin, but as the Church moves to the fringes, the unfortunate by-product will be more people falling away from the Faith. The Church will get smaller for a time.

Many of the people who have already begun living the Benedict Option live in close proximity to their church or even a monastery where they can pray, attend the Liturgy, and live where a religious community is established.  Some become Oblates or Lay members, but many do not. Lay Orders are no guarantee of this community either. There must be an intentional establishment and way of life within these communities. A life that is devoted to prayer, work, humility, evangelization, and holiness in a community, rather than solely as individuals or families.

What is certain is that people will need to band together in ways they have never considered before in our lifetime. We will need to focus our days on prayer, virtue, and work as we go out into the world. Rod Dreher admits when he coined the Benedict Option through the influence of Alisdair MacIntyre’s work that he did not have a clear definition. What is obvious, however, is that we Christians need to live holy lives in community as we take the onslaught that will grow in momentum over the coming decades. We must be willing to sacrifice and take care of one another as we live and serve Christ.

Holiness

In my mind, the Benedict Option is essentially a call to holiness. It is a call to deep prayer, virtue, regular reception of the Sacraments, and self-sacrifice in a community setting. That is what St. Benedict was asking of his monks and that is just as true today for monks or members of the laity. Holiness is what the Church is calling us to and we can no longer do it in isolation. Close-knit Christian communities are nothing new and find their greatest model in the Early Church. We need to learn to live together, faults and all that we may serve Christ in hard times; that we may become holy and perfect as Our Heavenly Father is perfect. In fact, communal life can help us greatly on the path to holiness. Holiness is the whole point of the Christian life.

So, whether it is Rod Dreher’s suggestion or another, it is time for us to come together as Christians and live The Way, instead of in isolation and mediocrity. We will need one another in the coming decades. It will be through our witness and striving for holiness that others will be evangelized. The Benedict Option cannot be seen as an abandonment of the Church’s mission to bring the world to Christ. The most powerful witness is a person fully alive who is living a saintly life. St. Benedict, ora pro nobis.

“The age of casual Catholicism is over, the age of heroic Catholicism has begun. We can no longer be Catholics by accident, but instead be Catholics by conviction.” 

Fr. Terence Henry, TOR, president of Franciscan University.

image: Nancy Bauer / Shutterstock.com 

By

Constance T. Hull is a wife, mother, homeschooler, and a graduate student theologian with an emphasis in philosophy.  Her desire is to live the wonder so passionately preached in the works of G.K. Chesterton and to share that with her daughter and others. While you can frequently find her head inside of a great work of theology or philosophy, she considers her husband and daughter to be her greatest teachers. She is passionate about beauty, working towards holiness, the Sacraments, and all things Catholic. She is also published at The Federalist, Public Discourse, and blogs frequently at Swimming the Depths (www.swimmingthedepths.com).

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  • Jeremy

    Great article! I completely agree in the need for Catholics to adopt some sort of community that may also include third order status or oblature. I am a benedicine oblate and try to live the rule while in the world. It has really helped keep me on track. I know some church teachings discourages seclusion as a community to safeguard holiness etc. But, one the other hand not being connected with your parish and faith community is like spiritual suicide. I also recently discovered the Catholic land movement, which encourages more self sufficiency on a plot of land within a catholic community.

    Pax,
    Thetripletiara@blogspot.com

  • chestertonrules

    What do we do about our leftist pope? He is embracing the world in ways that don’t seem consistent with our faith.

  • Constance

    I will have to look up the Catholic land movement. I am not familiar with that movement. Yes, we cannot cut ourselves off from the world. Christifideles Laici makes it quite clear that the laity has an obligation to evangelize the world by virtue of our vocation in secular life. If we have strong communities to rely on, then it is much easier to go out into a world that is hostile to Christ and His Church. We must find the balance between Christian community and evangelization. Many people misunderstand this option because they assume it means walling ourselves off from the world. No, it means finding ways to live together when we are pushed to the fringes once more, while also trying to bring the world to Christ. Thank you for reading. God bless.

  • Ben

    Thanks so much for your article! I am working on a Master’s degree in Theology, too. My thesis, which I am in the midst of researching, is on John Paul II’s vision of the family as Domestic Church. Your article about the Benedict Option really sparks my spiritual imagination. My feeling is that Christian families, built around a husband and wife who really take their call to holiness seriously, form a little church community all their own. There is an amazing power in that alone, since it is deeply rooted in the sacrament of marriage. The next step is allowing families to form a network of prayer and mutual support amongst themselves. Usually, this is supposed to happen within the normal structure of parish life. However, it might need to happen at a wider level somehow; maybe even on the virtual level using new communication technology. Either way, I just want to say that rereading John Paul’s writings on the family has opened my eyes to the amazing plans God has for Christian families in this age when we are seeing a collapse in traditional Christian culture. It seems to me that families living out their vocation in the world can preserve Christian life and culture the way the Benedictine monasteries did through the middle ages. Please know that I’m praying for your family, and for all Christian families!

  • Don Syriac

    Acts, 2: 42-47 predates the Benedict Option by a little bit. Individualism and an Ayn Rand style of Capitalism have never been sacred in Christianity. Ironically what are “Sins” in the modern world are the “Virtues” of Christianity: Community and Socialism. “Love one another…,” “Father that they may be one, even as you and I are one.” “If someone demands your cloak, give him your tunic as well.”

  • tunnelvision

    The Church has been set against the world since her founding by Our Lord, and that was no different during the life of St. Benedict whose feast day we celebrate on Saturday, June 11.
    Correction: St. Benedict’s feast day is July 11th

  • BillinJax

    The Church is a community of the faithful who accept God in the Blessed Trinity.

    This one and only God is Love. Love does not need to invent, it simply creates. Loves does not have to intrude into our lives, it invites humbly asking us to dwell within it. Love does not make demands on us but begs our dependency on it. Love does not seek to over power our thoughts but to overshadow our hearts that we might think clearly. Love, the God of Christians, does not conquer by brute force to make us captives under its law and will but rather has offered us true freedom by supplying a description of itself and a path to its nature in what we call the Ten Commandments…….. of Love.

  • BillinJax

    “Who is going to save our Church? Not our bishops, not our priests and
    religious. It is up to you, the people. You have the minds, the eyes, the ears
    to save the Church. Your mission is to see that your priests act like priests,
    your bishops, like bishops, and your religious act like religious.”

    —-Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, before the Knights of Columbus,
    June 1972

  • BillinJax

    To all my Catholic brothers and sisters….
    We must understand the reality that in our age today the major media
    outlets are overwhelmingly owned and operated by those who have little or no
    respect for the morality and doctrines which are the foundations for
    Judeo-Christian values except for the opportunity to hide behind these tenants
    to espouse hatred of them. We can not deny that mankind’s relationship cycle
    with our God which we know historically has been a repetition over and over of
    denial-sin-suffering-repentance-forgiveness-redemption is now fully engaged
    world wide in the denial and sinful stages again. An era of peace and abundance
    seems always to be the one thing which inflates man’s ego or confuses his
    conscience to the point he thinks he can do without God’s providence and
    guidance in his life. The suffering required and the forgiveness we need to
    seek for what we have allowed to happen is now at hand. It is only the duration
    that is to be determined. Over the past several decades the public servants we
    have collectively put in office who promised and promoted programs to serve our
    carnal desires for promiscuity and dependence on others to supply us with what
    we were unable or unwilling to provide for ourselves were given full reign to
    become an elitist ruling class able to circumvent the laws of our peoples
    republic and worse trample the Judea-Christian values that are the foundation
    of our nation.

    The Church of Jesus
    Christ is the living dynamic expression of God’s
    mercy and love for humanity. It is not buildings or books or bank accounts.
    These are all helpful aids to the growth and maturity of families but all that
    is really necessary for God’s people, the Church¸ to survive and serve its
    mission is to cling fast to the Truth of Jesus Christ and his message. We have
    his promise and our trust in the Holy Spirit he has sent to us to forever abide
    as the blessed children of God regardless of who is seated on the Chair of St.
    Peter. No single manner of man and his idea of what is right or wrong has the
    power to destroy or corrupt what God has set apart for himself. But when we see
    a Pope who openly shows great respect and honor to our Blessed Mother and has
    dedicated his mission to her that is all I need to know our ship and journey of
    faith is in good hands.

  • sez

    Careful now. The Church has condemned Socialism – see CCC 2425 – but has always urged us to foster social justice, which is a completely different thing.

    Consider: “give him your cloak, and your tunic as well” is voluntary. Socialism takes from the Haves and gives to the Have-Nots – involuntarily. See the difference? It’s not about the results, but about our love for each other.

    We are to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, but charity is not Caesar’s.

  • sez

    We don’t have a leftist pope. If you think we do, then you need to get your info from better sources. Besides catholicexchange.com, may I also recommend catholicculture.org, EWTN.com, and Catholic Answers (catholic.com)? From these, you can get a fair and faithful perspective on news from a Catholic viewpoint.

  • Constance

    Yep! Typo, thanks for the catch!

  • Constance

    Your thesis sounds awesome! Are you using Familiaris Consortio and Theology of the Body as some of your reference points?

  • Meline Ngo

    We as laity have the obligation in our society to contibute and evangalize those who are still lost, are lost or haven’t heard the word of God. We have to guard them especially if you are among those who are blessed ones and already knows the truth, spread His words. Because if we will let these people continue to say and extend their words – remember “a repeated lie and when always heard and nobody opposes, it becomes the truth”.

  • Windsong

    Proverbs: Nothing new under the sun. This is sin and the consequences but God will use everything for good because God is good. What we are seeing now is what will purify us if we love God. This crisis is a gift. It will cause us to choose whom we will follow and where we will spend Eternity. This will cause the good to be perfected and call the wayward back to God or be lost forever of their own freewill.

  • chestertonrules

    He is a sincere and good man, but unfortunately, he is also a leftist. Read his address from Bolivia if you doubt this.

  • Rob B.

    Can any one point me in the direction of a source for the quotation from Blessed Cardinal Newman that Ms. Hull cites? I’d really like to see it in context.

    Thanks in advance!

  • Constance

    I pulled it from the book The Catholic Church Through the Ages: A History by Fr. John Vidmar, O.P. His footnotes have the original source as Newman’s Historical Studies II.

  • Rob B.

    Thank you Ms. Hull! I teach the Middle Ages to high school sophomores as well as college students and this quotation will help them understand exactly what the Rule of St. Benedict meant.

  • IrishBoss

    So being a hermit is out?

  • noelfitz

    I agree with Ms Hull. Newman’s quote is from his Historical Sketches, ii, 4.
    Today at mass the priest said there are some points about Benedict that attract him.
    1. If you want to pray, pray; do not theorize or think about it. Do it.
    2. Do everything well, if purifying a chalice or sweeping a floor, do it well out of respect for the work, God and self.
    3. Do not bellyache about your faults or those of others.
    Benedict is one of the patrons of Europe, and his moderation and good sense are always needed.
    Is his principal lesson summed up in “to work is to pray” (laborare est orare)?

  • noelfitz

    This is really a brilliant article and has initiated a lively discussion.

    I read in the comment by Sez that the Church has condemned socialism. The Church has equally condemned capitalism. In quoting the CCC to show the Church has condemned socialism it is important to be accurate.

    2425 The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modem times with “communism” or “socialism.” She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of “capitalism,” individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor

  • Rob B.

    Another admirable thing about the Rule is its practicality. One can see Benedict composing this over a long period of time dealing with the ins and outs of everyday life. For instance, when writing about the amount of wine monks should have, he says that other sources say that they shouldn’t drink wine at all, but that he found it impossible to convince his monks of this (remember, he was dealing with Italians 🙂 ).

  • Rob B.

    Benedict himself believed that one should only become an anchorite (that is, a hermit) after living in a monastic community for a long time.

  • mw006

    What we need ( if it already doesn’t exist ) is a dedicated online site, a clearinghouse of ideas and practical examples of Christians pioneering the Benedict Option in today’s western world. What are its components, how is authentic community being achieved, what is being done to help our kids meet faithful Catholic marriage partners, how are those risking or losing their jobs and financial stability being supported?

  • sez

    You mean where he preached against the “tyranny of mammon”? That isn’t leftist. That’s Catholic. Start reading the Catechism around #2401. See also Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus.

  • chestertonrules

    No, I mean his attacks on capitalism and his wholesale acceptance of AGW, which is a leftist movement.

    He seems to be against growth even though this will help the poor.

  • Constance

    That is an excellent idea! Rod Dreher writes frequently about the Benedict Option over at The American Conservative and I have seen articles at Crisis Magazine. Take a look at some of those articles and see if they help give you ideas. I believe Dreher is working on a book at the moment about this option. Thanks for reading!

  • Constance

    Noel, You point to a great misunderstanding amongst Catholics in the West. They assume that the individualistic philosophies and “free-markets” of our economies are completely in line with Church teaching. The last few popes have railed against increasingly more selfish and sinful uses of people through capitalistic societies. The rugged individualism most especially lived in the U.S. is diametrically opposed to the Christian understanding. When we become members of the Mystical Body through Baptism we enter into a communion with one another with Christ as our head. We are in fact our brother’s keeper. I think this is one of the reasons Americans especially are upset about what Pope Francis often preaches. He is reminding us that our materialistic ways are sinful and we have an obligation to the poor. Our riches are gifts that God has given us to use as good stewards. We must have enough to live on and things for leisure, but we should always be thinking of the poor in our excess. That is a sign of our love for God and our neighbor. No matter the economic system, the minute it becomes utilitarian it has become gravely sinful. That is why the Church has condemned pure capitalism, as well as socialism. Both use people as means to an end.

  • noelfitz

    Constance,

    Thank you so much for your courteous and sound reply to me. I think we share the same views. I appreciate very much that you took the time to reply to me in such detail.

    Congratulation again on your brilliant article that has elicited such a vigorous and healthy debate.

    It is interesting to note that in today’s Irish Times I read a Reuters report, under the heading Pope urges unity in Paraguay visit:

    “On his trip, Pope Francis has used two speeches to excoriate unbridled capitalism and uphold the rights of the poor”.

  • sez

    I think you may not have actually read Laudato Si.

    He attacked “unfettered materialism”. And the Catechism and the encyclicals I mentioned likewise warn against a worship of mammon. That is not the same thing as being a leftist. He isn’t “against growth”, but he opposes immoral means of enriching the wealthy at the expense of the poor. How is this even controversial??

    And he did NOT give “wholesale acceptance of AGW”. He merely pointed out what many scientist think about it:

    “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.” – LS 31

    Note the difference: It is a fact that many scientists believe in AGW. That fact is true, whether AGW is true or not. He even points to volcanic activity and solar cycles as other causes.

    And the main point is 100% old-fashioned Catholicism: we are to be good stewards, and not forget the poor.

  • chestertonrules

    He goes far beyond advocating good stewardship, your selective quotes aren’t representative.

    If we truly want to help the poor we need to advocate free market capitalism, which is the most effective method is raising people out of poverty.

    If he wants to write about AGW he needs to consult all sources of data. The Vatican blocked alternate views from their discussions. He completely ignored the 10s of thousands of scientists with alternate views.

    The opinions of the leftist scientists he has exclusively consulted will lead to more misery and poverty by reducing the amount of affordable energy and reducing economic opportunity for billions of people.

  • Jeremy

    Although i agree that the laymen should criticize our prelates appropriately, I am leery of the “power to the people” approach to change; It wreaks of democracy and revolution. Both of which can go hand in hand. Ultimate authority comes from above not below.

    Thetripletiara@blogspot.com

  • BillinJax

    I am sorry if the words of Bishop Sheen have disturbed you Jeremy.
    He may have just been blowing Holy Smoke again. Which makes one wonder why Cardinals and Arch Bishops are fighting over his dead body.

  • Jeremy

    thanks for looking out for my feelings or maybe it was sardonicism -hard to tell online. However, i am not a clericlist and even our most respected patrons can be read critically -especially the American ones. Again, i reiterate and agree with the importance of lay criticism and accountability, but our power is limited to influence only; otherwise, it would progresses to revolution, a conclusion of disobedience. Please dont take my critique of the quote as an affront. God Bless

  • sez

    You claim that he goes “far beyond” the quotes I gave, but you didn’t bother to supply any evidence of that.

    “If he wants to write about AGW…” – Well, that’s the thing: he didn’t. People who say “Laudato Si is about global warming” either haven’t read it, or have read it with a very specific agenda in mind. (IOWs: they haven’t honestly read it.) The same can be said about anyone who claims Pope Francis is a leftist.

    Here’s a short piece about the background/influence behind Pope Francis and his very Catholic (non-Leftist) concern for our common home:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea/2015/07/laudato-si-and-romano-guardini.html

  • sez
  • Siwash

    “Thomist wanna-be”?

    Me, too! 🙂

  • chestertonrules

    I saw that. It is encouraging. Millions around the world are dispirited by the pope’s apparent lack of understanding regarding economics. I hope he truly listens. His current path will not help the poor.

  • chestertonrules

    Wholesale acceptance;

    Climate change “represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day,” the pope says in the letter, known as an encyclical. Titled “Laudato Si’,”

    Here’s a detailed summary of the pope’s leftist positions and associates:

    http://thefederalist.com/2015/01/26/pope-francis-is-a-leftist-and-must-be-called-out/

  • chestertonrules

    Her opinion was based on leaked information and previous statements from the pope. Her assessment was dead on.

    There is nothing wrong about criticizing the pope regarding political opinions.

    The pope is being applauded by leftists.

    Why?

  • sez

    Because, like you, they see the Church through a political lens, rather than seeing the world through a Catholic lens.

  • chestertonrules

    That’s funny, because they sure didn’t applaud Pope Benedict or JPII. I wonder why.

  • sez

    Don’t you see why???? You (and they) are seeing things through a political lens, while all three Popes have been (surprise!) Catholics. (I know. It’s shocking.)

    The media told us that JPII and BPXVI were too conservative, so Leftists dutifully hated those Popes. The media is now telling us that Pope Francis is a wonderful socialist, so he is applauded.

    See how that works? That is viewing the Popes through a political lens. Putting politics first. You’ve bought it. And you’re pushing others to buy it, too. I’m trying to get you to take off your politics-colored glasses, and see the Church’s teachings as the standard by which political issues should be judged, rather than the other way around.

    The media claims what it will, but all the while, we’ve had 3 wonderful, Catholic Popes who ignore what the Leftists and Rightists are saying, listening to the Holy Spirit, so they can walk in the way of the Lord.

    Be a Catholic, first, and you’ll see more clearly.

  • chestertonrules

    You are ignoring reality. It is Pope Francis who has made this political. He has made his leftist views prominent in his papacy.

    He is diminishing the credibility of the papacy by taking sides politically.

  • sez
  • chestertonrules

    There is nothing leftist about being for a clean environment.

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