The Benedict Option isn’t what you think it is.
Adorning the cover of Rod Dreher’s much-discussed new book is what appears to be an ancient monastery, clutching a mountaintop. Below is a blue lake, cropped by scraps of land. A mist broods over it. Rising above the mist, the monastery seems aloft, almost cloud-borne, the spire of its chapel stretching towards heaven. Surely this is what the Benedict Option is all about? Retreating from the wasteland of worldliness and bunkering down to brew beer, grow beards, and await the apocalypse.
Except it isn’t. To be sure, Dreher devotes much ink to intentional communities, such as an actual Benedictine monastery in Norcia and the Allelulia Community in Georgia. And he does advocate a degree of separation. Pull your kids out of public schools, he suggests. Leave work if necessary.
But the big surprise of Dreher’s new book is that he does not make the radical call to withdraw from society. Instead, he argues for a more radical option: living faithfully amidst a decaying world. In a sense, that takes far greater courage and moral stamina. Temptation is easy to avoid in the stony walls of a remote monastery. Not so much in a large modern city, or any place with television or Internet access.
Dreher’s aim is to apply Benedictine principles to modern life. But there is another ready-made ancient model for holding fast to the faith amidst a decadent society: St. Augustine.
Augustine is so familiar to us that he needs to be rediscovered in order to appreciate the particular relevance he has for us today. In terms of his writings, Augustine bequeathed more than 50 books to us, a torrent of five million words that far exceeds his widely recognizable classics—The Confessions and City of God. His oeuvre includes three commentaries on Genesis, a highly technical treatise on music, and a third magnum opus, De Trinitate, which is hardly known beyond the small cadre of patristic scholars and other specialists who’ve read it.
Likewise, it seems like everything that one could possibly need to know about his life is in the Confessions, in which Augustine bares his soul to us—along with his innermost thoughts and deepest sins. He recounts his dramatic garden conversion. He describes in moving detail how he mourned his mother. He even recalls a toothache.
Yet there are some key details Augustine glosses over—like the two years he spent as the founder of an informal monastery in his hometown of Thagaste, in North Africa.
In fact, even before his conversion, he was drawn to the extreme asceticism of St. Antony and his desert monks. In 384, Augustine moved from Rome to Milan to take a new post teaching rhetoric. In terms of his intellectual and spiritual journey, he was moving from Manichaeism to Neoplatonism, which tempered his once hostile attitudes to the body. Neoplatonists did not demonize the body. Instead, they counseled against indulging in its pleasures in order that one might ascend to an internal vision of the invisible beauty of the intellect. Augustine found a kindred spirit in St. Ambrose, whose sermons touched on many of these themes.
Augustine was battling lust mightily at the time—and losing badly. He had left his longtime mistress in order to prepare for a marriage arranged by his mother Monica. But Augustine could not endure the pre-marital celibacy that was expected of him. So he found another mistress.
It was in the midst of this angst that Augustine learned about Egyptian monasticism, from Pontitianus, a friend of one of his companions. In the Confessions, Augustine recalls his reaction in a conversation with his friend, Alypius:
Within the house of my spirit the violent conflict raged on, the quarrel with my soul that I had so powerfully provoked in our secret dwelling, my heart, and at the height of it I rushed to Alypius with my mental anguish plain upon my face. “What is happening to us?” I exclaimed. “What does this mean? What did you make of it? The untaught are rising up and taking heaven by storm, while we with all our dreary teachings are still groveling in this world of flesh and blood! Are we ashamed to follow, just because they have taken the lead, yet not ashamed of lacking the courage even to follow?” (Book 8, Chapter 8).
Augustine would soon have his famous garden conversion, in 386. Two years later, he returned to Thagaste, his native city in North Africa (modern-day Souk Ahras in Algeria). It was there that he formed a sort of informal monastic community. Writes biographer Henry Chadwick,
Thagaste offered withdrawal from the tumult to a philosophical contemplation, “the (outward and inward) tranquility to enable the soul to become divine” (deificari in otio, [Epistolae] 10. 2), with regular hours of prayer and silence and shared psalmody. Augustine never speaks of the house as a monastery nor of monks; they are “brothers.”
When Augustine later wrote Of the Works of Monks, he could opine on the subject as someone who had pretty much been one. Augustine’s early experience with monasticism, however, came to an end during a chance visit to Hippo, where he was ordained a priest nearly under duress. True, he ran his episcopal residence like a monastery, but the days of serenely contemplating spiritual truth far removed from the trials of contemporary society were over.
Aside from his personal struggle with sin, Augustine had had good reason to exit from ancient Roman society. Remember, this is a society in which abortion, pederasty, and slavery were accepted norms. Orgies were an institutionalized practice of the religious cult of Bacchus. Bribery to obtain office was routine and expected. The noble republic had long ago withered away, leaving the government in the hands of emperors, many famous for their despotism and decadence.
Augustine was under no illusion as to what Rome was. In the City of God, he calls it Babylon. The City of God may be best known for its thesis that there are fundamentally two types of ‘cities’ or communities in this world: one of the world, the city of man, and one in this world but not of it. Apparently, in the current political climate, the thesis needs emphatic restating and elaboration. (Archbishop Charles Chaput, for one, has done this recently in a 2016 speech and his new book.)
Augustine did not call for a great exodus from Babylon. Nor did he think the city of God should take over the city of man. He did not call for conquest but co-existence:
Miserable, therefore, is the people which is alienated from God. Yet even this people has a peace of its own which is not to be lightly esteemed, though, indeed, it shall not in the end enjoy it, because it makes no good use of it before the end. But it is our interest that it enjoy this peace meanwhile in this life; for as long as the two cities are commingled, we also enjoy the peace of Babylon (City of God, Book 19, Chapter 26).
From the Old Testament, Augustine’s model was not Ezra—who built Jerusalem into an isolated, fortified city after the return from exile—but Jeremiah, whom, he says ordered the exile-bound Israelites “to go obediently to Babylonia” and “serve their God” (see Jeremiah 29:28).
The idea of Christendom was almost entirely foreign to Augustine. True, he does once use the term, Christianum imperium, in Rebuke and Grace. And he acknowledges the potential good that could come from having Christian emperors, according to Chadwick. Individual Christians should serve as soldiers, taxpayers and tax collectors, judges and kings, Augustine says. But he certainly does not envision the Church ordering and directing the affairs of secular government in the way that it would during the Middle Ages. As Chadwick summarizes it,
Augustine is out to reassure, anxious to limit the Church’s common ground with the secular world so as to leave the institutions of society as free of clerical intervention as possible. The overlap is a deeply shared interest in peace, whether in defence against the barbarians on the frontier or against threats of civil war. Otherwise let the secular world happily get on with its work without interference from the Church.
Does this not sound like the Church in America today? Doesn’t Augustine’s plea for peace anticipate the contemporary push for religious freedom? (Dreher, who agrees that this should be the main political goal of Christians in a secular society, accepts the ‘Augustine Option’ as the social and political counterpart to his more spiritualized version of the Benedict Option.)
The City of God was written in response to the sacking of the Eternal City by the Visigoths in 410. Augustine strikes a masterful balance in explaining the relationship of Christians to the secular state: on the one hand, they were dutiful civic servants who could hardly be blamed for weakness of Rome. On the other hand, their ultimate loyalty was to another city. Christians should not try to save the empire.
Augustine was almost agnostic on the fate of Rome. “For who knows the will of God concerning this matter?” he writes.
Contrast the apocalyptic fervor fueling the support of some Christians, especially evangelicals, for Donald Trump. Eric Metaxas, a biographer of Dietrich Boenhoffer, the Lutheran pastor who opposed Hitler, hailed the megalomaniac reality television star as America’s last chance. “We are just not going to have the numbers. It’s that desperate,” Metaxas told Christian Today.
Likewise, Jerry Falwell, Jr., recently described Trump not as a compromise candidate, not as a lesser of two evils, but a “dream candidate” for evangelicals. At an event on the eve of his inauguration, televangelist James Robison venerated Trump as a soon-to-be “father to a fatherless nation.” And Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson declared that evangelicals had been waiting for this moment since Roe v. Wade, according to a TIME account of the event.
Augustine refused to interpret the impending demise of Rome in dire apocalyptic terms. He argued against identifying the barbarians outside of the empire as the Gog and Magog of Revelation. Instead, he believed that God had a plan for the barbarians as well and urged their conversion, according to Chadwick.
Near the end of his life, the barbarian incursions had become commonplace enough that Augustine addressed a letter to other bishops counseling them on when to flee and when to stay behind. The latter option, he says, is a profound form of martyrdom:
For the man who, having it in his power to escape from the violence of the enemy, chooses not to flee from it, lest in so doing he should abandon the ministry of Christ, without which men can neither become Christians nor live as such, assuredly finds a greater reward of his love, than the man who, fleeing not for his brethren’s sake but for his own, is seized by persecutors, and, refusing to deny Christ, suffers martyrdom.
If he wasn’t already when the letter was composed, Augustine would soon find himself in such a situation. In 430, he died battling a fever as Hippo lay under an 18-month siege by the Vandals. According to his contemporary biographer, Possidius, Augustine spent his final days bedridden, weeping and praying over the penitential Psalms of David as he breathed his last. As Christians ponder how best to live out the faith in our times, we would do well to contemplate this image of a great saint and powerful bishop, standing fast at his post, deep in Scripture and prayer as the barbarians swarmed the gates of his city.
Editor’s note: Pictured on the cover of The Benedict Option and above is Mont Saint Michel in France.