Catholic traditionalism in general, and the Benedict Option in particular, are simply not adequate for living the life of Faith in today’s world and enabling others to do the same, for it is not the proper response to how things actually are and will be quite soon. To help us see how things really are, or at least, to present a view of our situation for which the Benedict Option may not even be an option, let alone the long-term solution to our problems, I would like to present three philosophers: Taylor, Girard, and Guardini, who look at three aspects of our world: Taylor, the existential, Girard, the political, and Guardini, the spiritual. Taylor will teach us that modernity is inescapable, Girard that our politics is in the final stages of the apocalypse, and Guardini that intimate union with God Himself—with nothing in between—is no longer an option, but an absolute obligation and necessity.
Kozinski points out that philosopher Charles Taylor says that it is futile to try to avoid modernity:
If this is the existential milieu we find ourselves in, and if it is indeed inescapable, then any Benedict Option community must reckon with this, and thus not attempt, whatever else it attempts, to escape this mode of consciousness, for such would be futile. No matter how monastic and centered-on-God our practices and our community is, we simply cannot go back to the naïve theistic consciousness of the medieval man. We are inevitably going to feel the pull of other worldviews and social imaginaries, and we simply have to accept the deep pluralism of our age, even if it is a pluralism that cloaks a homogeneous and stultifying immanentism, materialism, liberalism, and individualism. In other words, what Taylor is telling us is that the Benedict Option is impossible, if what is meant by it is a return to a medieval consciousness and immunization from modernity through small-scale, communal participation in traditional religious, cultural, and familial practices.
Well, once again, I wonder if a critic has read the book. I make it pretty clear that we can’t escape modernity, for reasons Taylor says. I describe our situation “not as a problem to be solved, but a reality to be lived with.” Here (from The Benedict Option) is my description of what Charles Taylor described as the “pillars” of the medieval imagination:
- The world and everything in it is part of a harmonious whole ordered by God and filled with meaning—and all things are signs pointing to God.
- Society is grounded in that higher reality.
- The world is charged with spiritual force.
Contemporary Catholicism and Orthodoxy still hold to these beliefs (I’m not sure to what extent Protestantism does; I’m pretty sure the third is not true of Protestantism, but I could be wrong). But it is undeniably true that all of us today live in the modern age, where none of these things are believed by all. In fact, I doubt your average Christian of any kind affirms all of these pillars, or even knows what they mean. The world has become “disenchanted” in modernity. It’s not that the three pillars are untrue, but that they have ceased to be part of our common experience. Practically speaking, one has to work to keep one’s eyes on the truth of those statements. The way modern life is organized obscures these truths, when it doesn’t deny them outright.
According to Taylor, the key difference between our time and the Middle Ages is that we know that it is possible not to believe in God, in Christianity, or in anything. This was scarcely possible for medievals. This is why Kozinski rightly says the Ben Op can never be a total escape from modernity. We cannot un-know what we know.
Kozinski then turns to the theories of René Girard, especially Girard’s teaching that mankind is hurtling towards an apocalypse. It may not be the Apocalypse (though it might; Girard was a believing Catholic), but it is nevertheless an orgy of violence, coming upon us because in modernity, we have cast off all restraints that would have held us back. Girard’s view is more anthropological than religious, and it is hard to explain simply. In this 2009 essay in First Things, Girard discusses the basics of his theory of apocalypse. He points out that ours is the first civilization in history that has to live with the knowledge that it has the power to destroy itself.
Needless to say, if Girard is correct, while we can protect ourselves from the spiritual contagion of scapegoating by unwavering obedience to and identification with the Divine Scapegoat, the apocalyptic political violence Girard foresees will not be forestalled by Benedict Option communities, and we will not ultimately be protected from it wherever we go.
Well, yes. I don’t present the Benedict Option as some earthly version of the Rapture, whereby the faithful will be spared the violence coming from the breakup of our civilization. I can’t say it often enough: the Ben Op is not escapist. Rather, it is a strategy for enduring hard times — even very hard times — upon us now, and increasing with each passing year of the advance of post-Christianity. The best we can hope for is to ride this out, even if it takes centuries. I certainly don’t want to have to suffer, or to have my children, or their descendants, suffer. But if suffering must come, I want them to meet it bravely, as true Christians. I believe, with Girard, that we must not comfort ourselves with false optimism or escapism, for “to seek to comfort is always to contribute to the worst.” For the Christian, death is not the worst thing. Losing one’s soul is. That is what the Benedict Option seeks to prevent.
Finally, Kozinski turns to Guardini:
Guardini described a world in the 1950s similar to the one Dreher describes now, one of a neo-pagan totalitarianism that is no longer tolerating any threats to its secularist, atheistic, and humanist dogmas, one in which Christians and other theists are called to brook no compromise and live out their Faith all the more integrally and heroically. But Guardini’s prescription for action is something at once more bracing and consoling than Dreher’s. Nothing but the “free union of the human person with the Absolute through unconditional freedom will enable the faithful to stand firm—God—centered—even though placeless and unprotected.” He goes on: “Loneliness in faith will be terrible. Love will disappear from the face of the public world, but the more precious will be that love that flows from one lonely person to another, involving a courage of the heart born from the immediacy of the love of God as it was made known in Christ. . . . Perhaps love will achieve an intimacy and harmony never known to this day.”
In short, Guardini sees no real possibility for “safe” havens of Christian culture, and even if we could create them, they have the real potential of stunting our spiritual growth. God is calling theists to a higher level than mere orthodoxy and orthopraxy, indeed, a heroic and mystical level, of Faith, obedience, and trust—unshakable, naked, intimate, experienced union with God, communicating this supernatural reality wherever we go and to everyone we meet. Like Christ, we will have nowhere to lay our heads.
Kozinski posits this vision — radical mysticism — against the Benedict Option. This is a false juxtaposition, one he could have only made from either not reading the book, or reading it in a facile way — that is, as an escape plan. It’s not that. I agree with Guardini (as interpreted by Kozinski) that we Christian believers are being called by the times to radical trust and obedience, and that this will only be possible in the face of post-Christian modernity by believers who are deeply rooted in prayer, Scripture, and practices — individual, familial, and communal — that sediment the reality of our faith into our bones.
It’s like this. In the medieval age, and for some time beyond it, the social structures in Western culture acted as an external framework bolstering Christian belief. It was easier to believe in Christianity because nearly everything in society made that belief incarnate. It’s not to say, obviously, that life was an Eden. Every age has been a sinful one. The point is, belief was supported by social structures, much as flying buttresses support the high walls of Gothic cathedrals.
Those external structures are gone now. There is nothing to buffer us from unbelief. We have to rely on our internal strength — that is, on our faith as individuals, and in our small communities. If the Christian life is a walk on a footbridge crossing the abyss, our ancestors were able to make that walk steadied by the unshakableness of the bridge, and by strong railings on either side to keep them from falling off. Today, the decayed bridge sways in the winds of a coming storm, and there are no handrails. We have to train to develop the internal strength and sense of balance to keep from falling off. We cannot wish the old bridge back, nor can we avoid the walk. The Benedict Option is about the spiritual training we all need to devote ourselves to for the sake of making that walk — and making it together — in very difficult times.
Put another way, the Benedict Option is about practices that make the metaphysical truths perceived by all Christians in the first millennium of the Church, and just beyond, visible through the fog of modernity. As I write in the book:
“Monastic life is very plain,” [Father Cassian Folsom] continued. “People from the outside perhaps have a romantic vision, perhaps what they see on television, of monks sort of floating around the cloister. There is that, and that’s attractive, but basically, monks get up in the morning, they pray, they do their work, they pray some more. They eat, they pray, they do some more work, they pray some more, and then they go to bed. It’s rather plain, just like most people. The genius of Saint Benedict is to find the presence of God in everyday life.”
People who are anxious, confused, and looking for answers are quick to search for solutions in the pages of books or on the Internet, looking for that “killer app” that will make everything right again. The Rule tells us: No, it’s not like that. You can achieve the peace and order you seek only by making a place within your heart and within your daily life for the grace of God to take root. Divine grace is freely given, but God will not force us to receive it. It takes constant effort on our part to get out of God’s way and let His grace heal us and change us. To this end, what we think does not matter as much as what we do—and how faithfully we do it.
A man who wants to get in shape and has read the best bodybuilding books will get nowhere unless he applies that knowledge in eating healthy food and working out daily. That takes sustained willpower. In time, if he’s faithful to the practices necessary to achieve his goal, the man will start to love eating well and exercising so much that he is not pushed toward doing so by willpower but rather drawn to it by love. He will have trained his heart to desire the good.
So too with the spiritual life. Right belief (orthodoxy) is essential, but holding the correct doctrines in your mind does you little good if your heart—the seat of the will—remains unconverted. That requires putting those right beliefs into action through right practice (orthopraxy), which over time achieves the goal Paul set for Timothy when he commanded him to “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7).
Thought it quotes Scripture in nearly every one of its short chapters, the Rule is not the Gospel. It is a proven strategy for living the Gospel in an intensely Christian way. It is an instruction manual for how to form one’s life around the service of Jesus Christ, within a strong community. It is not a collection of theological maxims but a manual of practices through which believers can structure their lives around prayer, the Word of God, and the ever-deepening awareness that, as the saint says, “the divine presence is everywhere, and that ‘the eyes of the Lord are looking on the good and evil in every place’ (Proverbs 15:3).”
The Rule is for monastics, obviously, but its teachings are plain enough to be adapted by lay Christians for their own use. It provides a guide to serious and sustained Christian living in a fashion that reorders us interiorly, bringing together what is scattered within our own hearts and orienting it to prayer. If applied effectively, it disciplines the life we share with others, breaking down barriers that keep the love of God from passing amongus, and makes us more resilient without hardening our hearts.
We are not trying to repeal seven hundred years of history, as if that were possible. Nor are we trying to save the West. We are only trying to build a Christian way of life that stands as an island of sanctity and stability amid the high tide of liquid modernity. We are not looking to create heaven on earth; we are simply looking for a way to be strong in faith through a time of great testing. The Rule, with its vision of an ordered life centered around Christ and the practices it prescribes to deepen our conversion, can help us achieve that goal.
Read Kozinski’s entire essay. There’s a lot of good stuff to contemplate there. He is right that all Christians have to become mystics in post-Christian modernity, in the sense that we will only be able to endure this trial if we are people of prayer, people who have formed their imaginations with a strong sense of the unseen order all around us. Nothing else will do. The Benedict Option is a strategy, based on ancient Christian monastic practice, for helping ordinary believers in the world do just that: by structuring our entire lives around deeper communion with God.
If Prof. Kozinski (or anybody else) has a better strategy, I’d love to hear it, because I have children, and therefore skin in this game. I’m not kidding.
UPDATE: Please be patient with my posting and comment-approving today. I am suffering from a relapse of chronic mononucleosis, and having to sleep at inopportune moments. A lot. Plus, brain fog. More than the usual. Thanks.