“Seeking his workman in a multitude of people, the Lord calls out to him and lifts his voice again: ‘Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?’” (Prologue of the Rule of St. Benedict, quoting Psalm 34:14-15).
The Benedict Option—what does it really mean? In my mind, it is quite simple: taking St. Benedict and his Rule as a model for the Christian life within the context of our culture.
The term Benedict Option was coined recently by Rod Dreher. He initially defined it in somewhat negative terms as “pioneering forms of dropping out of a barbaric mainstream culture that has grown hostile to our fundamental values.” It is not surprising to think of St. Benedict in this light, as he himself withdrew in disgust from late fifth century Rome in favor of a cave in Subiaco. However, Benedict did not stay in isolation long, and quickly became an Abbot, gathering large numbers of men to himself.
Dreher points to a “community of Catholic laity” growing around Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma as an example of the Benedict Option. It is important to note, however, that there is not a formal lay community there. People simply want to live near the monastery, many have become oblates and participate in the liturgical life of the monastery, and they live in friendship and fellowship with one another.
Dreher’s articulation of the Benedict Option has recently been criticized by John Goerke on Crisis. He fundamentally questions the legitimacy of the term in relation to lay people seeking to emulate monastic life:
The question is: Is this the Benedict Option? The answer is: no. First and foremost there is the obvious point. The members of Clear Creek and Eagle River are not monks. Their lack of organized prayer life betrays this fact…. If taking the Benedict Option means a strict imitation of Benedict’s move to the wilderness, then it is an option to be taken only by monks.
Goerke then concludes that we need to look at Benedict more deeply in order to emulate his life and Rule:
To find out what God wants, and to truly imitate St. Benedict, we must go to the substance and not the accidents of his life. The true Benedict Option is not a flight but a fight. It is a fight to be waged in the heart of every Catholic. It is a fight to undertake two strenuous tasks with humility and love: Ora et labora. Pray and work.
I think that Goerke’s argument is somewhat incongruous in that he claims that those who are striving to unite themselves to St. Benedict by associating with a monastery are not part of the Benedict option, but then argues that Benedict is nonetheless a model for us. Do we not need to soak in St. Benedict’s spirituality by learning from monks, precisely so that we can fight for Catholic culture?
Drehrer, in fact, says that Goerke has misunderstood him and explains the Benedict Option in more general terms:
When I talk about the Benedict Option, I don’t mean—or don’t mostly mean—a physical retreat to a quasi-monastic community, but rather an intentional and thoughtful retreat into narrativity, by which I mean a reclaiming of the church’s story, inculcating commitment to it within the lives of its members, in defiance of the narrative collapse around us. To achieve this, one must be aware of the conditions in which we live, and under which we are raising our children.
Nonetheless, this newer articulation does not clarify the Benedict Option. Rather, it somewhat makes it more elusive, as Drehrer himself admits: “People like to talk about the Benedict Option as a Christian response to our post-Christian culture, but nobody really knows what it means. I came up with the concept, and I’m not sure what it means.” Looking at the life of St. Benedict and his Rule, does it really need to be so confusing?
As a Benedictine oblate myself, I feel compelled to offer my own two cents about the relevancy of St. Benedict as a guide and model for our time. I would propose that the Benedict Option is something simple, which anyone can live, whether they have withdrawn to an enclave or not. There are a number of reasons why St. Benedict speaks so strongly to us today:
1. An Ordered Way of Life and Stability
The life of the monastery is completely directed and ordered toward the glory of God. Monks live a balanced life of prayer, work, and sleep (in pretty equal proportions). This is a model of the Christian life as every one of our actions should be religious in the sense that they are ordered directly to God, for his glory and our sanctification. The monks also live a life of stability, committed to one monastery and the Rule. This counters our lack of a grounded identity and models how the faith should shape and govern our lives, rooting us in a constant and firm practice.
2. The Centrality of the Liturgy
Benedictines live a life that is defined by the liturgy. It shapes and orders the day, week, and the year, and can even be said to be the reason for the life of the monastery. The monks traditionally pray the Divine Office eight times a day and seek to live a life of continual prayer. The prayer of the liturgy, and especially the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, is heightened by the practice of Gregorian Chant, which draws out and embodies the meaning of the prayer. We are certainly undergoing a crisis of liturgical prayer in our age and the Benedictines model for us how to pray the liturgy. As St. Benedict directed: “Prefer nothing to the work of God.”
3. Hospitality and Simplicity
St. Benedict notes that a monastery will always have guests. It is somewhat ironic that the monastery, in its withdraw from the world, becomes a magnet for visitors, who are served as Christ. The monastery is a place of charity and its exercise of hospitality helps to shape the world, as those who leave it do so changed. The family and home are also meant to be a source of service and charity, a place of welcoming, a refuge in the world. Though the layman cannot hold with Benedict that private property is an “evil practice” (though it is for monks!), the monastery also witnesses to the need to live simply and detached, which helps us to make better use of earthly things for the glory of God and the service of others.
Saint Benedict is the patron of Europe because his monasteries provided stability throughout the early Middle Ages, with monks performing basic catechesis, instructing peasants in farming techniques, forming libraries and schools, and providing potable beverages (such as beer). It is precisely by withdrawing from the world that the monks have the proper perspective to influence culture and to become a model for it. The monastery is meant to be as self-sufficient as possible, which witnesses to the need to return to the basic elements of culture, centered on the land a household economy, rather than being dependent on the Mass State.
5. Silence and contemplative prayer
Ultimately the Benedictine life, and the Christian life in general, is about union with God. The soul can be ordered toward God most fully only when it withdraws from the sounds, images, and concerns of the world in order to focus on the mysteries of the faith. Entering into silence enables the mind to contemplate freely and to enter into union with Christ without distraction. This kind of prayer can be seen in the practice of lectio divina, where one is led to contemplation through a dialogue with God through Sacred Scripture. We need to step back from the dominance of technology and media, which clouds our thoughts, making it hard to concentrate, to think deeply and clearly, and ultimately to pray. (See Nichola Carr, The Shallows, for more on this.)
6. Authority and Community
Following the Rule entails placing oneself under the authority of another, a spiritual father, the Abbot, and also what Benedict describes as mutual obedience within the monastic family. This point helps us to step out of the isolation of individualism, in which we can allow ourselves to be our own central point of reference. It is only in and through a shared life with others that we can reach perfection.
You may ask, are these points really relevant to our culture? Dreher’s initial articulation of the Benedict Option was inspired by the conclusion of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which argues that in our time of renewed barbarism we are waiting for a new St. Benedict. Someone else, however, has also suggested that Benedict should be a model for our time, none other than Pope Benedict XVI.
On April 1, 2005, one day before the death of Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger received the St. Benedict Award and spoke at Subiaco. He referred to the great witness of St. Benedict, which is still relevant to us today: “In this way Benedict, like Abraham, became the father of many nations. The recommendations to his monks presented at the end of his ‘Rule’ are guidelines that show us also the way that leads on high, beyond the crisis and the ruins.” Taking the name Benedict, only further highlighted the importance of St. Benedict for our age. As Pope, he explained this relevancy:
Benedict … offers useful guidelines not only for monks but for all who seek guidance on their journey toward God. For its moderation, humanity and sober discernment between the essential and the secondary in spiritual life, his Rule has retained its illuminating power even to today…. Today, in seeking true progress, let us also listen to the Rule of St Benedict as a guiding light on our journey. The great monk is still a true master at whose school we can learn to become proficient in true humanism.
It may be part of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s legacy to have pointed us toward Benedict as a model for the renewal of Christian life today. The Benedict Option is really quite simple: it is living the Christian life in a coherent, simple, and prayer centered way in the modern world.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from a fresco of St. Benedict painted by Fra Angelico at the San Marco monastery in Florence.