St. Benedict Revisited

I feel compelled to return to the hot topic of the “Benedict option.” I wrote about this earlier just as Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians In A Post-Christian Nation, burst onto the scene. This is the book, you may recall, that David Brooks called “already the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” A whole host of respected writers have since weighed in, perhaps the best, amazingly, from The New Yorker, a fair, thoughtful article by Joshua Rothman. With all this attention, needless to say, you get the feeling something big is going on here. Dreher has his finger on a lively pulse.

This whole notion about Benedict goes back to Alasdair MacIntyre’s important book After Virtue, first published in 1981. MacIntyre was an early voice arguing that our “language of morality” suffers “grave disorder” in our day. We share now a language fragmented almost beyond repair. In the end, “there seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture.” Principles become a “mask for expressions of personal preference.” Whatever, as we say, you’ve got your opinion, I’ve got mine. It becomes, as both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI have preached, a “tyranny of relativism.”

And so we wait, as MacIntyre famously says, “not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

But what in the world could the sixth-century Benedict have to say to us? Rod Dreher sets out to answer just that question. We suffer through a crisis over how to define any sort of truth; we search in vain for moral guidance and clear patterns of behavior; we have lost confidence in any kind authority to point us toward belief; we mourn the loss of genuine community. This is our state of affairs—and these are precisely the issues St. Benedict faced in the sixth century.

This was a time when the Roman Empire came to an ugly close. The solution for Benedict was to create ways, places, spaces where he could invite God’s loving presence into the community. He chose to build monasteries, first at Monte Cassino just south of Rome, eventually all over the European landscape. These were to be communities, he taught, that were orderly, places built around prayer, good work that was balanced by quiet contemplation, life together that was shaped by love and respect and self-sacrifice. It was partially out of such communities that the history of the Western world took on a much different shape than those dark times seemed to suggest.

Because of the severe pressures of secularization in our own age of unbelief, Christians, Dreher argues energetically, will need to step back, regroup, even withdraw for a time, in order to discover again who we are and how we shall live in such a time as this. We will need to concentrate on much smaller circles, our homes, our churches, our neighborhoods. We will need to build new communities, where believers may gather to live out what we believe, gather to worship and pray, gather in grace-filled service to one another and to a hurting world.

I agree with all of this. But Dreher in the end lets me down. His voice becomes too shrill for my liking. This is not the way I read St. Benedict. His book is uneven, quiet at times, blasting out at others. I am glad that Joshua Rothman lets us in on a secret: Dreher now regrets “the occasionally ‘shrill’ tone of his book.” On visiting one of the Bruderhof settlements in upstate New York, Dreher says “I’m truly trying to shake people out of their complacency about church, but to visit the Bruderhof is to go to a place of quiet and contemplation and kindness. I wish I’d been able to capture more of that.” And I agree. That’s what I was looking for too.

I come away feeling Dreher’s The Benedict Option doesn’t take things far enough. But there’s a baby in the bathwater. I am inspired that St. Benedict and his followers—monastics, mystics, contemplatives through the centuries—just may offer a new model for us. But we can’t lapse back into the vicious battles that characterize public engagement of our day. There is wisdom here for a whole new way of living, but it must begin by becoming different people first. We have to start with prayer as those ancient monks did. We have to enter into holy silence on a daily basis. We need to share whatever gifts we have so that others may thrive. We need to build communities of love and trust and grace. Perhaps then we may become equipped to engage our confused world in radically different ways.

This was Benedict’s vision. This is a vision I share. Hats off to Dreher for provocatively pointing us in these fresh directions. Maybe out of this great tradition of Benedict, we have a model that can help us start over, back off, regroup–so that we might track a new path for ourselves, our families, our world.