“I know from the olive trees that some years we will have a big harvest, and other years we will take few,” he said. “The monks, when they brought agriculture to this place a thousand years ago, they taught our ancestors that there are times when we have to save seed. That’s why I think we have to walk on this road of Saint Benedict, in this Benedict Option. This is a season for saving the seed. If we don’t save the seed now, we won’t have a harvest in the years to come.”
The point, obviously, is that we are in a period of storing-up. As I keep saying, We cannot give what we do not have. Robert Wilken, the historian of the early church, says:
Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.
My sense is that a failure — willful or otherwise — on the part of conservative Christians to comprehend the depths of the current crisis has a lot to do with their knee-jerk rejection of The Benedict Option, especially if they haven’t read it. It sounds like it even affected Alasdair MacIntyre, if this account is correct. Excerpt:
MacIntyre heartily criticized this movement during the Q&A after his lecture on “Common Goods, Frequent Evils” on March 27. The central point, MacIntyre emphasized, was that St. Benedict “inadvertently created a new set” of ways of life, when all he intended to do was found a monastic order. The monastery symbiotically supported the “education and liturgy” of the local villagers who provided them with postulants, over decades and centuries “build[ing] up a local community [largely] independent of the feudal order.”
Hence, despite the youthful St. Benedict’s flee from Rome to become a hermit, his mature work was “not a withdrawal from society into isolation,” but rather a “creation of a new set of social institutions which evolved.” The new St. Benedict whom we await must offer a “new kind of engagement with the social order now, not any kind of withdrawal from it.”
The Benedict Option, as people who have actually read it know, makes it clear that St. Benedict’s historic work had sociological effects secondary to his seeking the face of God as a monk. St. Benedict did not go to the forest to Make Rome Great Again; he only went out there to pray and to seek God, and to figure out how to serve Him under the post-imperial conditions in which he found himself. This is how it will have to be with us too.
As I’ve said over and over — but apparently cannot say often enough — we in the laity are not called to total withdrawal from the world, but only withdrawal sufficient to make possible Wilken’s “rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.” As Bishop Barron writes in his piece, the danger we face is that we seek to be so “relevant” to the culture outside the church that we lose what makes us distinct. If the church (by which I mean the people of God, broadly) is to produce the kind of men and women who will be able to go out into the world and convert it, and work for its redemption under God, then it will have to do what Prof. Wilken says it must do.
So, when George Weigel writes, critically:
Yet proponents of the Benedict Option would do well to rethink several things. To begin with, this so-called “Ben-Op,” at least as imagined by some, misreads the history of the second half of the first millennium. Yes, the monasteries along the Atlantic littoral helped preserve the civilizational patrimony of the West when public order in Western Europe broke down and the Norsemen wrought havoc along the Atlantic seaboard and beyond. But Monte Cassino, the great motherhouse of St. Benedict’s reforming spiritual movement, was never completely cut off from the life around it, and over the centuries it helped educate thinkers of the civilization-forming caliber of Thomas Aquinas.
… he’s revealing that he hasn’t actually read the book, because in the book, I write about the kind of life that lay Christians are called to lead now requires strategic withdrawal for the sake of culturing ourselves in Christianity, so when we go out into the world — where most of us are called to live — we can represent Christ authentically in a world where the pressures to abandon the faith are very strong. As Prof. Wilken says, this culture is no longer neutral about Christianity; it is positively opposed to it. A Christian who lives as if these are normal times is going to get steamrolled.
The Catholic blogger Dr. Jared Staudt does a real service in this piece of his titled, “Stop Misunderstanding The Benedict Option”. Excerpt:
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?
Dr. Staudt goes on to explain why the particular model given to us by St. Benedict is well-suited to our time and place. He concludes:
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 [Benedict] Option, but at least don’t misunderstand it.
Read the whole thing. It’s a concise summary of the main thrust of the book. For Catholics who think everything is going pretty well with the next generation of the Catholic Church, allow the (Catholic) sociologist Christian Smith to disabuse you of that notion. Except for Mormons, and to some extent Evangelicals (but far fewer than you might imagine), no church in the broad Christian tradition is doing a good job of forming its youth into disciples.
At the J.D. Vance event the other night, someone said to me that he had read The Benedict Option twice, and though he doesn’t want to accept its conclusions (“I’m an optimist by temperament,” he said), he can’t find where my diagnosis is wrong. I’ve been thinking about that since I was in New Orleans. It is certainly true that some critics of the book dissent from it in good faith, but of course many do not. I am convinced that they refuse to see what’s in the book because if I’m right, then they will have to change their lives in ways that they don’t want to. Understand me clearly: I concede that I might be wrong! But if I am wrong, then show me where I am wrong; don’t satisfy yourself with endless griping about the book you think I have written, or by creating straw men that are easy to knock down.