“Benedict Option” is a fertile expression that could refer to several things worth discussing. Saint Benedict had one version of what it means, Rod Dreher has another, and commentators have presented still more.
For Benedict himself it meant turning away from worldly ties so he could follow Christ and grow closer to God. As a secondary matter it meant establishing a rule whereby those who wanted to do likewise could live together productively.
He didn’t originate those ideas. In the Bible God repeatedly calls people out of established ways of life to something separate and higher. He called Abraham out of Ur and Moses out of Egypt, much as Jesus called disciples to leave home, family, and possessions to follow him.
It was the latter call that Benedict wanted to follow. Especially in the East, there had long been groups and solitaries pursuing, in a more or less organized fashion, a secluded life of prayer, abstinence, and penitence. Benedict wanted to follow in their footsteps, and his famous Rule for doing so in community developed previous schemes of monastic life into a system that has proved enduringly useful.
Such efforts are part of all higher religions. An ideal of life based on a direct relationship to ultimate reality will always sit awkwardly with the actual system of life that grows up in everyday society. We can’t expect Alexandria, Rome, New York, or Ashtabula to be Christian in more than a very faltering way, and cities are notoriously full of distractions.
Many people despair of making spiritual progress in such settings, so they separate themselves, leaving home, property, and human connections, to focus on the one necessary thing. The effort has sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed, but overall it’s been enormously fruitful.
People today are inclined to view leaving the world to save one’s soul as self-centered. That vision is too utilitarian and narrow. Souls matter, loving God comes first, there’s a lot we have to do to get there, how we’re oriented is what’s most important about us, and we can’t live other people’s lives for them. Each chooses his own way, and if yours solves your problems others will notice and some may find it useful to follow it as well.
What could be more helpful than making a better way of life a reality for others by living it? And what’s stopping them from choosing it as well? Many people have difficulties and obligations that put Benedict’s way out of reach, especially at some points in their lives, but many don’t. And even for those who can’t or don’t follow it, its existence fills out their understanding of what life can be, and that can change their world in subtle but powerful ways.
Even by the most practical standards, Benedict benefited the world immensely. He made monasteries more stable and functional, improving the lives of monks and giving a chaotic world examples of ordered and productive community. And the monasteries that followed his rule were charitable and civilizing influences in the country around them and throughout Europe. Put it all together, and what man of action ever did more to improve the world than he did?
Such considerations, of course, leave out the benefits to the world of prayer and contemplation by monks or by anyone. If people don’t take such things seriously it will be harder, although not impossible, for them to see the value of Benedict’s way of life. But others can speak of them better than I, and space is limited, so I will not discuss them here.
It seems clear though that something like monasticism is necessary to Christianity, just as pure science concerned only with truth is necessary to applied science and technology. Its sharpness of focus points it in a particularly striking way toward the realities that should always guide the Church, and that kind of reminder is very helpful to those involved in secular life.
The need is especially great when life in the world is either too hard or too soft. When worldly life is brutal and disordered, and the Church is persecuted, she needs a place where she can catch her breath, collect her thoughts, and remember her ultimate goal. And when it’s easy and prosperous, so that believers grow worldly and mediocre, and the institutional Church grows ever more compromised by her relation to the governing powers, she needs to have examples of heroic dedication to her fundamental vision.
Today we in the West have something of both problems. Intellectually, and at the level of informal human relationships, life grows disordered, inhuman, and anti-Christian. But physically life is soft for most people, certainly by historical standards, with endless opportunities for distraction, and powerful forces within the Church support assimilation to secular society.
So there is reason to expect—to the extent such things can be predicted—a revival of monasticism. There’s a need for it, and at some point people will hear the need and answer the call. There may be signs of such a development already, although as with all beginnings there is also skepticism as to its value and how best to proceed.
However, most current discussion relates less to Benedict’s own choices than to a “Benedict Option” understood in a figurative sense, as a way of life that allows ordinary occupations, family life, and other everyday activities and connections to go forward while holding mainstream secular life at enough of a distance to maintain Christian habits and understandings.
There’s a need for something of the sort. Social life today is run more and more on technological principles oriented toward economic and utilitarian ends. Work, education, entertainment, and care of the young, sick, aged, and unfortunate are increasingly handled through commercial and bureaucratic institutions rather than traditional family, religious, and communal arrangements. The result is that people become more loosely connected to each other and their traditions. That effect is heightened by the ease of travel and all-pervasiveness of electronic communications, which bathe us in propaganda and commercial pop culture and weaken our connection to our actual surroundings.
Such changes make religious and cultural standards and traditions irrelevant to the publicly recognized basis on which life is carried on, the technocratic principles now thought to promote efficiency, rationality, choice, and justice. The result is that the former come to seem oppressive, disruptive, and incomprehensible. Institutional culture and religion absorb the all-pervasive secular outlook and turn against themselves. Diversity, equality, and choice become sacred principles, so every community has to dissolve into every other and into the choices of individuals. The meaning of America, the West, and (for many people) Christianity thus become their own abolition.
Without tradition and culture life becomes stupid and brutal, so no intelligent Christian or indeed intelligent and well-disposed person can live with such tendencies forever. But tradition and culture are always particular, tied to particular community, and dependent on boundaries that define and guard them. So to carry on a Christian life in an un-Christian and even anti-Christian society, Christians must form their own communities with a certain degree of separateness. That is part of what it means, as a practical matter, to say the Church is necessary to what we are as Christians.
That kind of separation has existed before. The early Christians carried on a way of life different enough and superior enough to that led by others to conquer the Roman world. But the mainstream was less intrusive then. The Roman games and doings of temple prostitutes weren’t livestreamed into every home. Education and employment weren’t organized into vast centrally-regulated hierarchies, and didn’t insist on the celebration of every conceivable religion, way of life, and purported family form as the equivalent of every other.
So what to do under actual conditions today? A big question, and space is short, so it will have to be explored on another occasion.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared May 2, 2017 on Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. Pictured above is a statue of St. Benedict in St. Peter’s Basilica.