I’ve heard so many people characterize the Benedict Option as: “We can’t just retreat, give up, or bury our heads in the sand.” Many people have equated the Benedict Option with disengagement and withdraw.

Here is the real basis of the Benedict Option:

  • Given the profound crisis of culture (which has affected the Church as well), we cannot look to mainstream institutions for our future.
  • Rather, we need to form intentional communities that more fully embody our Christian faith and in which we are willing to face the consequences of going against the stream.
  • It is from such institutions that real cultural change will occur.

Thus, the Benedict Option is all about being active and engaging the problems of society. It recognizes, however, that solutions will begin locally, in the relationships that we can influence. Rebuilding will begin there. Do we really think that our political, educational, and economic institutions will provide a secure future for the practice of our Christian faith?

The other main objection consists of: “why Benedict?” There has been such a multiplicity of “options,” encompassing all the major saints and religious founders. There is truth to all such proposals as each saint gives us a unique insight on our mission. The sheer multiplicity of these options indicates that we have to blaze new trails as the saints did through their own unique witness. Multiplying options, however, also overlooks the unique witness of St. Benedict for our time.

Here are a few reasons why St. Benedict provides a model suited to our own particular challenges:

  • Benedict lived in a time of cultural decline and even collapse. This is why Alasdair MacIntyre spoke of the need for “another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict” (After Virtue). Benedict did indeed withdraw from society, but in doing so he laid the spiritual conditions for cultural renewal. As MacIntyre elaborated in reference to our time: “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.” St. Benedict, more than other spiritual figures, truly provides a model in such a process or rebuilding.
  • I believe the most urgent task for our time is to shore up family life. St. Benedict taught a family-based spiritual vision. As a father, I’ve found inspiration in Benedict’s guidelines for the abbot, the spiritual father of the monastery, to whom is entrusted the care of the monks as spiritual children. He exhorts them to shepherd them with patience and compassion, being firm without harshness, and also to guide them to spiritual maturity.
  • St. Benedict created a culture in miniature within the monastery.  Pope Benedict points to the irony that monks who withdrew from the world, nevertheless found themselves at the center of the newly constructed culture of the Middle Ages (see his Paris lecture to UNESCO). Although Pope Benedict pointed to the search for God as the center of this culture, he also noted how this vision included “a culture of work” St. Benedict taught that “when they live by the labor of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks” (Rule, ch. 48). And: “The monastery should, if possible, be so constructed that within it all necessities, such as water, mill and garden are contained, and the various crafts are practiced” (ch. 66).
  • In the modern world, Aidan Nichols pointed out that we no longer have a culture undergirding and supporting a life of prayer. Nichols argued that a distinct form of prayer is needed in response to a secular culture, which, in part, should be characterized by “the complete coincidence of life and prayer” (Christendom Awake, 208). The monks once again provide a unique example of this. Comparing monks to angels, Pope Benedict said at Heiligenkreuze: “Their very life is worship.” We have to form a daily rhythm of prayer, allowing it shape how we order our life, rather than squeezing prayer into the rat race.
  • Hospitality demonstrates how intentional communities should not become insular. The focus of the monastery may not be on the outside world, but it is open to the world when it comes to visit: “Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ” (ch. 53). Like the monastery, Pope John Paul II in his “Letter to Families” points to the family as a sovereign institution that exists not only for its own sake but for the good of society. Building strong families and communities will provide a refuge not only for Christians, but also for those lost at sea, providing a calm harbor in which they can encounter sanity and goodness.

I recommend actually reading Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, before forming opinions about it. The strength of the book comes from its description of the Benedictine ideal, primarily through the lens of the monks of Norcia, and from providing other concrete examples such as the Tipi Loschi lay community, also of Italy. The book certainly has its limits. It is a reflection, which should begin a conversation, and—even more that—a process of discernment. We all need to find our own particular way to respond to the crisis of our time. St. Benedict certainly provides an important, and we might even say crucial, witness on how to build a Christian culture, centered on what Pope Benedict described as quaerere Deum, the search for God.
Not everyone may be called to follow the Benedictine Option, but at least don’t misunderstand it.

04 18 2017
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  • Joshua Karabinos

    Brilliant take. Dr. Staudt clearly understands the option better than the books author, and I appreciate the call to understand what the "Benedict Option" actually means.
    Thanks!

  • Adam DeVille

    Some of us have indeed read and understood it only too well, as here: http://easternchristianbooks.blogspot.com/2017/03/reading-dreher-with-schmemann-and.html?m=1

    • R. Jared Staudt

      Thank you for posting. That is an example of the kind of robust discussion that is helpful!

  • Howard

    However much it might make marketing sense to appropriate the name of St. Benedict, Rod Dreher has not earned the right to a similar level of deference. The more I've read from Dreher, the more "the Benedict Option" seems to be about selling his book and stoking his ego.

    • Andy, Bad Person

      Ad hominem.

      • Howard

        Here's the thing: There are hundreds of books that I know would be beneficial to read, but I do not have time to read them all. There are only two good reasons to read a book: either it is written by an author you have found good in the past, or it comes recommended by people whose opinions you value. I have in fact sampled quite a bit of Dreher's writing, and although he occasionally has some good insights, he is more often, in the sample I have seen from his writings at The American Conservative, arrogant and petulant. I have given him the opportunity to prove that he gives wise advice, but he proved the contrary. This leaves his book with nothing to recommend itself but the name of a saint in the title, but a book's title is an even poorer criterion for judging a book than its cover.

        Maybe you still consider this an ad hominem attack. If so, have you read the Unibomber manifesto? If not, why not? The fact that the unibomber was an evil, crazy man is after all an ad hominem fallacy; it does not rigorously prove that his manifesto is not beautiful and uplifting. Sure, you may have absolutely no reason to suspect that it would be, but don't let that stop you!

      • etomaria

        I've had this argument before (re Trump and saying I wouldn't want him as a president because of how his personal life had shown him to be) but couldn't clearly elaborate why someone having behaved sketchily in the past meant I didn't care to risk a vote or time on them suddenly doing better in the future (this was way before Trump was nominated). Sort of ad hominem, but also not at all. You HAVE to judge using SOME criteria.

      • Howard

        It is not really a fallacious argument to say that because the Unibomber is a crazy, evil man, reading his manifesto is unlikely to be spiritually profitable. Nor is it a fallacious argument to say that because of Trumps failed marriages and scandalous treatment of women, he will not be able to provide the leadership America really needs right now. It is no fallacy to say that Dreher has a marketing gimmick but scant evidence of key wisdom behind the gimmick. The fact that someone gets his feathers ruffled does not actually make something an ad hominem fallacy.

        Let me give an example that IS a fallacy and one that IS NOT a fallacy.

        • Trump says we have too much illegal immigration.
        • Trump has not been faithful in his marriages.
        • Therefore, we do not have too much illegal immigration.

        That was clearly a fallacy -- in fact, the genetic fallacy. Most genuine fallacies created by ad hominem attacks are examples of the genetic fallacy.

        • A man who does not take his vows to his wife seriously cannot be trusted to take his oath to the country seriously.
        • Trump has not taken his vows to his wives seriously.
        • Therefore, Trump cannot be trusted to take his oath to the country seriously.

        That is NOT a fallacious argument, even though it speaks unflatteringly about Trump and will anger his supporters. Most of his supporters will claim that the major premise is untrue, a few might claim that the minor premise is untrue, but if both the major premise and the minor premise are true, there is no doubt that the conclusion is true.

      • etomaria

        Got it. I had the oversimplified understanding that an ad hominem was dismissing anyone on the basis of something they'd done that was not the issue at hand.

      • Howard

        That's pretty much it. Sometimes people talk about an ad hominem attack which may be more of a distraction than a fallacy, and of course any kind of attack should be avoided when possible. "The issue at hand" may actually have something to do with personal history or established character, in which case bringing up the history or character should not be off limits. Specifically, one time where that applies is when each of us has to determine what makes it past his attention filter.

  • Yan

    Haven't read it, but I have read lots of Dreher's articles about it. It doesn't make sense.

    There are already a gazillion Christian colleges out there trying to create a Christian community. We've been doing that for decades. Nothing new to see here in what Dreher is offering. However, there is something new in the timing of the offering which makes it particularly inapt. To wit:

    How can a Christian college prevent the transgenderization of its bathrooms? How can a Christian community prevent bakers from going to jail when they refuse to make a cake for a gay wedding? How can a Christian company avoid funding artificial contraception if it offers health insurance? How can a Christian community prevent a clerk from being forced to issue gay marriage licenses?

    What the Ben Op proponents, including Dreher, don't seem to understand is that NOTHING IN THE LAW PREVENTED ST. BENEDICT FROM DOING WHAT HE WANTED TO DO.

    We are now at a new stage in Christian history in the West. It is a recapitulation of an old stage, but it is new in the West. We are in a stage in which the state is beginning to persecute us and in which the state intends to prevent us from living the Christian life we believe we are morally bound to live. Being in a community of like-minded people does nothing whatsoever to change that reality and can't affect that reality. That's why the Ben Op makes no sense.

    Those who say the Ben Op is equivalent to hiding one's head in the sand miss the point. We are coming to the place where we will need to hide not just our heads, but our bodies as well, from the power of the state to destroy us. Perpetua, not Benedict, is the saint we should be looking to in order to model our Christian lives.

  • R Blanchette

    This is the first accurate description of Dreher's book that I have read in the media. It's not about withdrawal at all. It's about building communities within the culture.

    I agree with Shane Bryne about the problem of government. They will be the real danger to such communities. That's why Dreher talks about strengthening local and state laws that protect religious freedom. Still, it will be an uphill battle we are likely to lose. I think Michael O'Brien's Children of the Last Days series of novels provide a prescient glimpse into our future. I hope it won't be that bleak but we can already see the beginnings of the coming persecution.

    Dreher's book may prove to be overly optimistic in the long run. The Bible is pretty clear that things will get really ugly as the end approaches. I think too many Christians today, particularly in the U.S., think that this cannot happen here. I'm sure the Jews were thinking the same thing in 1930s Germany.

    My recommendation would be to read Esolen, Chaput, and Dreher as a trilogy. The books are complimentary in their description of the problem. Only Dreher's provides a concrete plan of action. Is it the right one? Only time will tell.

  • Shane Bryne

    The ultimate problem with the so callee Benedict Option, however it's understood, is that unlike in the time of Benedict it is not possible to live out one's personal or family faith, individually or in some larger community, without the government coming in and forcing you to live their way or else.

    Of COURSE we should work to build and strengthen communities of faith and models of family life which begin to promote some types of change from within, but that's ALWAYS been the case even in times of widespread religious cultural acceptance. At the end of the day all of the real problems that are germaine to our time and which ideas like this Benedict Option are proposed as responses to are problems of families and communities being compelled by law or force to violate our conscience and to disregard our faith, and in this day and age no amount of building from within or trying to step aside from the mainstream world helps with that.

    • Yan

      Precisely.

  • eddiestardust

    Stop pushing it!

    • Cris Kramschuster

      Why? Is it too threatening to the alt-left?