It was the feast of St. Mary, Mother of the Church, so writer Leah Libresco and some friends decided to have a traditional procession through their neighborhood, while praying the Rosary out loud.
"I live in New York City, where this was still not the weirdest thing that anyone would see that day," said Libresco, speaking earlier this winter at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C.
The procession received some puzzled looks along Broadway, near Lincoln Center. Their images of St. Mary sure didn't match the vision of womanhood seen in advertisements they passed.
This wasn't a public statement. All these New Yorkers were doing was celebrating the feast together, creating a face-to-face community with faith, food and fellowship. There's more to life than sitting at home, firing tweets and text messages at the world.
Long ago, Libresco explained, ascetic monks called "stylites" believed they should spend their lives fasting and praying while living atop pillars. This kind of solitude, obviously, was not for the average believer.
Today, many Americans have become "accidental stylites," she said. They are isolated from one another by jammed schedules, job demands and all those digital devices that were supposed to aid communication.
"A lot of folks wind up living hermetic lives, living their faith alone -- nakedly before God -- without the assistance of a monastic superior, or a community or anything else," she said. While monks carefully choose lives of solitude, that path would be "a terrible idea for the rest of us."
Once known as a popular atheist blogger, Libresco began exploring spiritual disciplines after converting to Catholicism in 2012. Her new book is called "Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name." The title is a reference to journalist Rod Dreher's bestseller "The Benedict Option," which challenged modern believers to build local support networks -- involving education, the arts, even small businesses -- in an increasingly post-Christian America. Dreher (a friend of mine for 20 years) wrote the foreword for Libresco's book.
Building on Dreher's manifesto, Libresco wants to encourage Christian hospitality in settings more intense than young-adult gatherings offering shallow chitchat over wine and cheese.
"My goal, always, in building the Benedict Option, is not to turn away from the world," she wrote. "Feeling the need for the thicker community of the Benedict Option … isn't the same as rejecting the world or fearing it. … A claustrophobic feeling can creep into your spiritual life when you practice it alone."
While living in Washington, D.C., then in New York, Libresco started asking a question -- to herself and to friends -- that seemed embarrassingly simple: "What are the perfectly good things that I do alone that I could do with other people?"
Shared interests emerged. Soon, she began hosting gatherings dedicated to singing hymns, cooking, evening prayers, good books and debates about topics of mutual interest. Some events were private, while others took place out in the open -- like an All Saints Day picnic in a public park.
There were challenges. Some people could meet late at night. Some couples needed to meet earlier, with early bedtimes for children. Some people faced struggles with issues -- such as alcoholism, grief or depression -- best discussed in small groups. Other gatherings could be thrown wide open to newcomers.
Some "Benedict Option" groups resemble activities that, in previous generations, were linked to religious congregations at the heart of historic neighborhoods or small towns, said Libresco, during an interview in a New York coffee shop. For example, circles of women once gathered to sew, knit or make quilts -- while quietly discussing the challenges in their lives.
Today, it's hard to find community when so many people are making job-related moves. It's hard to build friendships deeper than Facebook, she said, when so many young adults are forced to abandon their support networks and start over.
"It's hard to make promises to people, or even take vows to support your godchildren, when you're moving all the time," said Libresco.
"The key is that anything is better than loneliness. You can end up with your faith being like a secret and there's no way to share it with others. … The key is for people to get together and take action. Just do something -- together."