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.