Essay / Culture

Thoughts on the “Benedict Option” – A Lament

For years Rod Dreher (senior editor at The American Conservative) has been writing about his “Benedict Option.” Now his book of the same title has finally appeared. To be honest, I have not been convinced by his articles addressing the Benedict Option and his book fails to convince me too. James K. A. Smith published a trenchant critique almost immediately and so did Alan Jacobs (there are, of course, a host of other critical reactions to Dreher) and I mostly agree with both of them from a theological point of view. Dreher paints with brush strokes that are too broad (too metaphysical and absolutist, says Jacobs), too alarmist (“fundamentalism without the rapture,” writes Smith) and in a spirit that seems to ignore or deny the catholicity of the Christian Church by a “repackaging of the historic disciplines and formative practices of the church retroactively [that] makes newcomers and outsiders mistake the Great Tradition with the narrowness of the Benedict Option” (Smith). Everything about Dreher’s proposal sounds too doomsday-ish, too idiosyncratic, too parachurch-y and, well, too cynical. But what I really lament is that another Christian author has managed to misrepresent monasticism, again.

Many Evangelical Christians, I imagine, will buy The Benedict Option, read it fervently, agree with it whole-heartedly and find ways to make it immediately programmatic, because Evangelicals are great at programs. (Like Dreher I too am quite cynical about much of what passes for good Christian practice these days.) It will not be long before a group of students at the Torrey Honors Institute (full disclosure: THI is mentioned by Dreher on p. 155) reveal that after graduation they are moving to Topeka to start a “Benedict Option” community. And in this way, the Benedict Option sounds suspiciously like another recent “trend” that co-opted monastic terminology – the so-called New Monasticism. However, the new monastics want to relocate “to the abandoned places of Empire” whereas Dreher wants to get the hell out of dodge altogether. Interestingly, for one group monastic history suggests flocking to the cities in order to help those who are hurting whereas for Dreher monasticism provides the recipe for running to the hills in order to rebuild for another day. I guess that’s the difference between a Franciscan-inspired version of religious history and a Carthusian vision of monasticism. Neither, though, is really Benedictine.

First off, I would suggest that Dreher is more inspired by Alasdair MacIntyre’s (in)famous quote (“We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict”) than he is by the actual Rule of Benedict. (If MacIntyre had had the foresight to trademark that quotation he would have never needed to work again!) In the case of both authors it is not Benedict per se whom they are thinking about directly (or it doesn’t appear to be) but rather Gregory the Great’s (d. 604) depiction of Benedict in his Life of St. Benedict, which is one book in his larger Dialogues. Basically, Gregory’s Dialogues are for one purpose: to promote the lives and miracles of a number of Italian saints. In the end, it is hagiography, and hagiography is notoriously difficult to trust because its very purpose is to exalt and “divinize,” if you will, its subjects. Facts are secondary to the greater end of promoting holiness. And this is just as true for Benedict as it is for the other holy men and women discussed by Gregory.

The moment of Benedict’s biography that Dreher latches onto (though he does not say so himself) comes from the Prologue:

[Benedict] was born in the province of Nursia, of honorable parentage, and brought up at Rome in the study of humanity. As much as he saw many by reason of such learning fall to dissolute and lewd life, he drew back his foot, which he had as it were now set forth into the world, lest, entering too far in acquaintance with it, he likewise might have fallen into that dangerous and godless gulf. Therefore, giving over his book, and forsaking his father’s house and wealth, with a resolute mind only to serve God, he sought for some place, where he might attain to the desire of his holy purpose. In this way he departed, instructed with learned ignorance, and furnished with unlearned wisdom.

Notice, nowhere in this passage is there any comment about the fall of the Roman Empire or, with it, an entire culture. Notice that Gregory did not say that Rome was bankrupt and pagan to the point of abandonment and that is why Benedict fled. Instead, Gregory says that Benedict saw that his course of studies may end in him adopting a “dissolute and lewd life”, falling into “that dangerous and godless gulf.” In today’s parlance we might say that Benedict, a promising honors student from a good, rural family, went to the big city to get an education and met a bunch of frat boys and sorority girls whose chose lewdness over the library and godlessness over grades. Benedict, already feeling a pull towards religious life it appears, decided to leave the big city and all its worldliness behind and move to a place “where he might attain to the desire of his holy purpose.” And what was that purpose? To save civilization? No. To preserve the Christian faith from paganism? No. To create an enclave of Christian families homeschooling and buying and selling goods to one another? No. His “holy purpose” was, with a resolute mind, “only to serve God.” The real Benedict Option is the Biblical Option: serve God only; or, in more monastic terms, serve God single-mindedly (for single-mindedness is the root meaning of the Greek word monos from which we derive our English word “monk”). Simply put: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37).

The real Benedict Option, if there is one, is simple and straightforward and has been around, well, since the time of Benedict – become a Benedictine monk (or nun, though the word “monk” is now used of both men and women) and live your life in a monastery under the Rule of Benedict. And in a perfect, unfallen world this would be an option for all Christians, because there would be no Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Protestant distinctions. Becoming a Benedictine monk, just like being a dentist or a dental hygienist, is not a job, but a vocation; one that has been open to all Christians since the mid-sixth century. (Actually, becoming a monk has been an option since the first century for Benedictinism is not the only form of monastic life nor is the Rule of Benedict the first or only monastic rule.) Yet, Dreher seems to miss the point that in the end he is really only advocating for a kind of faithful Christian living. Some of Dreher’s recommendations might be good for some Christians at some times in some places but they are certainly not prescriptive for all Christians even if “the West” is collapsing and becoming more and more hostile to the Christian faith. We are to be “in” the world but not “of” it.

What is most to be lamented about The Benedict Option (in the opinion of this monastic scholar and theologian) is that it actually doesn’t raise the tenor of faithful Christian living so much as trivialize the monastic vocation. Like the New Monasticism, the Benedict Option is a caricature of historic Christian monasticism, which still exists and is still an option for all Christians who are called to such a life. Some Christians are called to singleness outside the monastery, some are called to married life and some are called to be monks. If you are called to be a monk, then go live in a monastery, whether it is a Benedictine one or a Cistercian one or a Carthusian one, etc. For those called to live outside the monasteries it is probably time, given the radical changes in our culture noted by Dreher, to revisit (again) where our priorities lie and to discern anew, in the midst of our vocations and Christian commitments, what may need to stay or change in our life. For not only is the church always in need of reform (ecclesia semper reformanda est) but so are her members (“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed” [Rom. 12:2]). But isn’t this always the case? Shouldn’t we always be discerning (with help from family, friends, our church community and/or a spiritual director/confessor) what is good for us at any given time? In the words of the Apostle Paul we must “Consider [our] calling, brothers and sisters” (1 Cor. 1:26). For some that calling will be to marriage or singleness in the world but for others it will be to the monastery. And for those called to the monastery, that will be the true Benedict Option. Like the monks, the rest of us will need to be content with the Biblical Option: love of God (and neighbor) single-mindedly in the world.

NB: Dreher makes a number of factual errors about monasticism in The Benedict Option, which should be corrected:

1) “These people would find new ways to live in community, he said, just as Saint Benedict, the sixth-century father of Western monasticism, responded to the collapse of Roman civilization by founding a monastic order.” (p. 2) – Benedict did not found a monastic order. His rule was meant, originally, to govern his own community at Monte Cassino (and perhaps a few other communities that he founded). The concept of an “Order of St. Benedict” is, at best, a medieval invention but more clearly a modern invention. Benedict never once refers to what he is doing as an “order.”

2) “Saint Anthony of Egypt (ca. 251–356) is believed to have been the first hermit.” (p. 14) – This is a historiographical trope that is simply false. The Life of Anthony by Athanasius of Alexandria (d. 373) itself says that “all who wished to give heed to themselves practiced ‘the discipline’ [Athanasius’ term for monasticism] in solitude near their own village. Now there was then in the next village an old man who had lived the life of a hermit from his youth up. Antony, after he had seen this man, imitated him in piety.” That is, Anthony put himself under the tutelage of a hermit, therefore he cannot be the “first hermit.”

3) “And this is why contemplation takes priority.” (p. 58) – In monastic history and theology contemplation does not take priority over as much as it follows action. Contemplation and action go hand and hand in monastic history, including Benedictine history. Dreher seems to say as much later in the book when he talks about what work is for (pp. 176ff.).

4) “Benedictine monks have a lot of time with God. Seven times each day….” (p. 58) – The Rule of Benedict called for not seven but eight times of prayer a day but this is rarely practiced in most Benedictine abbeys today. Dreher, by focusing exclusively on the Benedictine life practiced in Norcia, Italy, misunderstands the Benedictine ethos in toto. Even my Benedictine friends talk about the uniqueness of Norcia, and not always in positive terms.

5) “The monks live mostly cloistered lives–that is, they stay behind their monastery’s walls and limit their contact with the outside world.” (p. 72) – Again, this not true of Benedictine monasticism today but neither was it true of historical Benedictinism in general. Even Benedict envisions that monks will leave the monastery (he gives instructions on how they are to behave outside the monastery precinct) and he knew that “the outside world” would come into the monastery (hence his rules about how to entertain guests). At best, this statement romanticizes monasticism because it does not reflect the reality of Benedictine history.

Share this essay [social_share/]