Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is valuable for the conversations it has ignited, reviewer John D. O’Brien, S.J. writes. But its premise is flawed history and its pessimism ignores the rich possibilities of Christian faith, he says.
Observing the heat that Rod Dreher’s new book The Benedict Option has taken in recent weeks, one might be tempted to think that the author has missed the mark. Too pessimistic, too reductive, too ignorant of the Church’s call to be a light on the hilltop –these are charges that have been leveled, not without some merit, at the author. Yet the fact that his book has generated so much conversation is evidence he has hit a nerve in the Christian community, and for that reason it deserves close consideration.
Dreher has been writing for years about the need for Christians to engage The Benedict Option, a withdrawal from fighting the culture wars to focus on living in small, intentional faith communities. It’s a reference to the sixth-century father of Western monasticism, St. Benedict of Norcia. During the collapse of the Roman empire and of moral life, Benedict retreated to a cave in Subiaco – a hauntingly beautiful if under-visited place today. After three years, he emerged to found the monastic movement widely credited with keeping order and learning alive. The nucleus of many towns and cities of modern Europe can be traced to a Benedictine monastery.
Inspired by this, Dreher looks to the present-day Benedictine monastery in Norcia for inspiration. A prospering community of young, mainly American monks has returned to the simple rule of their founder in his birthplace. They exemplify the peace of an ordered life based upon prayer, work, asceticism, stability, community and hospitality, values we can all emulate. Dreher insists his option is not about withdrawal from the world, but about creating parallel structures, communal, economic and academic.
“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,” he writes.
What is it about contemporary life in America that causes Dreher to sound the keening bell for America as a Christian society? Above all, it’s the 2015 redefinition of marriage in the United States, and its subsequent cultural enforcement by big business. The former coalition between capitalist and conservative Christians has fragmented. The political fallout has coincided with a spiritual collapse. This has been spurred by a decadent popular culture and a cognitive disincarnation fostered by our rapid embrace of the digital world. Dreher quotes the best contemporary prophets, from Marshall McLuhan to recent best-selling analysts Nicholas Carr and Matthew Crawford, on the corrosive effects of technopoly.
He writes that, “Technology itself is a kind of liturgy that teaches us to frame our experiences in the world in certain ways and that, if we aren’t careful, profoundly distorts our relationship with God, to other people, and to the material world – and even our self-understanding.”
He paraphrases the late Neil Postman’s words that when children can access computers or smartphones and watch hardcore pornography, childhood is over.
Religion is not spared his critique. Dreher believes that the cultural revolution has infected the Church, “which no longer forms souls but caters to selves.” Christianity is “devoid of power and life” in most places. Even religious youth and young adults, far from practicing historic, biblical Christianity, believe de facto in a vague natural religion that he says is better termed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
It is clear Dreher is pessimistic about the prospects of a widespread renewal of Christianity.
“The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West,” he writes. “There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization.”
The dams have weakened beyond repair, and the floodwaters will soon overwhelm us.
Despite his ethos of jeremiad, Dreher makes many positive cases for the grassroots formation of faith communities, for the recovery of classical education, and for the perennial witness of love, friendship and the corporal works of mercy. Even the gentle monks of Norcia, welcoming guests and brewing their beer, have a remarkably vigorous outlook on evangelization.
One of the young monks says: “The best defense is offense. You defend by attacking. Let’s attack by expanding God’s kingdom – first in our hearts, then in our own families, and then in the world. Yes, you have to have borders, but our duty is not to let the borders stay there. We have to push outward, infinitely.”
It’s hard to see that as a mantra for withdrawal.
That the charism of St. Benedict is not just about shoring up the bastions, but has a fundamentally apostolic dimension, is echoed by my friend, Fr. Benedict Lefebvre, the prior of Westminster Abbey in Mission, B.C. Their founder did seek to flee the world in imitation of the desert fathers, he tells me, but it was not out of distress or disgust at the disintegration of civilization. Rather, it was out of an intense desire for personal union with God. Even in his early years as a hermit, St. Benedict did not remain hidden long, and as soon the local shepherds found him, he began teaching them the faith.
What Fr. Lefebvre finds dissatisfying about Dreher’s call for tactical withdrawal is that it seems oblivious to Pope Francis’s call to go to the peripheries.
“We need to be set apart from the bad influences of our culture but still to be immersed in steady dialogue with it,” he told me. “More than escape, we need discernment.”
For five years. I dedicated my life to directing an independent Catholic school with many of the same goals Dreher proposes: to promote the good, the true and the beautiful, to preserve the innocence of the young while preparing them for the realities of the world, the transmission of the Catholic intellectual tradition, and to create community that was strong in faith but not isolated from the wider culture.
The notion of cultural withdrawal, something Dreher seems to deny at some points but find irresistible at others, would have been utterly foreign to us. Located in the undulating hills near Peterborough, Ontario, our school delighted in hosting events for the entire civic community, from ceili dances to sacred music concerts, which were also brought into the shopping malls and nursing homes.
The school name, Our Lady of the Wayside, was the anglicized title of the Madonna della Strada, an ancient icon that the Jesuit founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, venerated on the streets of Rome, and later built a basilica to house: the great baroque church known as the Gesù. Thousands of Jesuits prayed before the Christ child in the arms of His mother, prior to setting out to bring the Gospel to the four corners of the earth. Our school instinctively identified with the missionary ethos of St. Ignatius as much as the garden sanctuary of St. Benedict.
Which brings us back to the original question concerning Dreher’s Benedict Option. The underlying ambiguity over what exactly this withdrawal/not-withdrawal might look like. It’s an ambiguity that goes back to Jesus’ own discourse: “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (John 17:16). What kind of sanctification will differentiate Christians from the world, while also preparing them to love that world, deeply, powerfully and transformatively?
John Paul Meenan has taught theology to undergraduates at small liberal arts college in Ontario since its founding in 2000. He has attempted to convey a balance between “retreat from” and “engagement with” to his students, mainly millennials, many of whom are highly involved in the public square today. For Meenan, it comes down to the question of sanctification.
“We are incarnate, social beings, so this retreat must take some sort of exterior form. All Catholics must take time to ‘enter their room’ and pray, dedicating moments in the day to God alone, forgetting the world for a time,” he said. “For some, following certain vocations, this will be more extreme: Carthusians often come to my mind, but also, of course, Benedictines. And there are those called to ‘shore up’ the treasures of our civilization, culture and tradition.”
But Meenan notes the other imperative: to be leaven for society, which the Second Vatican Council taught was the vocation of all Christians. True, there are many risks on this side of the call: the tendency to “activism”, a hyper-engagement in external activities to the neglect of the interior life, or a tendency to complaisance, of pleasing others just to get along, keep the peace, or gain whatever the world has on offer. The latter may be a particularly Canadian risk.
But if Meenan’s students, the graduates of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy in Barry’s Bay, Ontario, are any example, the opposing risks of activism or quietism can be overcome. Among the college’s more than 400 alumni are policy advisors to federal ministers, lawyers, teachers and professionals of all stripes. Their student life included spiritual preparation for life in secular society, from required courses in philosophy and theology to personalized spiritual direction and silent retreats.
In the end, there is no single formula other than the individual Christian’s openness and response to the still, small voice, and the personal evaluation of one’s vocation in life. Parents raising small children will have one kind of discernment to make; young single adults will have another. Those called to consecrate themselves as actual Benedictines or Jesuits will have another kind of discernment still. The core vision all Christians need to maintain is that we live in time and eternity. Even while they spoke of the “lateness of the hour”, the first apostles had no problem dedicating their lives to spreading the Gospel.
Dreher invokes St. Benedict as a model in the face of civilization collapse. But the founder of western monasticism was not primarily concerned about withdrawal as a tactical response to a crisis. One need only look to another Benedictine, the Anglo-Saxon monk, St. Boniface as evidence. He headed a mission that established Christianity in Germania and reformed the Frankish Church at a time of scandal and disorder. Who is to say the “new” St. Benedict that the world is waiting for would not resemble his irrepressible Benedictine confrere?
Finally, Dreher’s thesis that the Christian lights are going out all over the West might have benefitted from considering more carefully the important qualifier that Alasdair MacIntyre embedded in After Virtue, to which the Benedict Option pays homage.
MacIntyre prefaced his book with the caveat that: “It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages.”
While the challenges facing Christians in the West are serious, the bright lights are still many. There are new school movements, new immigrant churches, new writers, publishers, converts and local saints. Vocations to priesthood and consecrated life are ticking up. In addition to these positive signs, for Christians the cost is always reckoned, and the enterprise of witness begins ever anew. Christ is the same, and the Holy Ghost still broods over the bent world with warm breast and bright wings. We are not alone. And that should flood the Christian heart with renewed hope and boundless zeal.
John D. O’Brien recently finished a license in sacred theology from Regis College at the University of Toronto, and will be ordained to the priesthood in May of this year.
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