The Benedict Option – Let’s Get It Right

The Benedict Option – Let’s Get It Right
By Dcn. Peter Trahan

If you haven’t heard of the Benedict Option (you will) or even (especially) if you have heard of it, it really needs explaining for it to be a real option. In December 2013 Rod Dreher, a writer for The American Conservative magazine wrote an essay entitled Benedict Option: A medieval model inspires Christian communities today. Since then there has been a “fluttering” of responses, both for it and against it, mostly against it, and all from “our side,” and all more or less presenting an inaccurate perspective of what it is. The Benedict Option is meant to be a response to the “world gone wild.” (More on the response later.) Or to put it more bluntly, normal human society’s response to the Left’s[1] (attempted) takeover of western culture.

The idea comes from a closing line from Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue, written in 1981 and a perennial mainstay on moral philosophy bookshelves (now in its Third Edition 2007.) There is no space here to give due praise to MacIntyre’s book, but the closing line, as it were, is our (or Dreher’s) jumping off point. The line, after the volume’s comparative journey through moral history, highlighting the faults of modern and ancient moral philosophy where virtue was misrepresented or left out, concludes that in our dilemma we are now “waiting for another [St.] Benedict.” The point, our jumping off point, is that St. Benedict retreated (as in a spiritual retreat, not as defeated) from the world to be closer to God, to pray for the world. Monasticism is misunderstood in the same way that now The Benedict Option is being misunderstood, but I suppose I’m getting ahead of myself.

In Mr. Dreher’s essay, he makes two adjacent quotes that give us the thesis of The Benedict Option. Quoting Russell Hittinger[2] who “summed up [St.] Benedict’s lesson to the Dark Ages like this: ‘How to live life as a whole: Not a life of worldly success so much as one of human success.’” Following that with, MacIntyre who says the monks are relevant to our time “because they show that it is possible to construct ‘new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained’ in a Dark Age – including, perhaps, an age like our own.” Knowing what is meant by this combined foundational premise and how it pushes us off into an inchoate movement, I also know that “as is” and perhaps out of context, it can leave a misleading (some say “absurd”) notion of exodus into undeveloped (rural) territory to build “new communities.” (envision here settlers of the American West “popping up” store front towns along the westward movement trail.) This is not what Dreher meant, but this is what is being taken up in the “fluttering” of rhetoric, as I said, some for it, some against it, both, for the most part unaware of the true viability of The Benedict Option as it applies to our times and our cultural crisis.

The general argument against The Benedict Option is twofold. Either it is said to be absurd to consider an isolationist position, and particularly absurd as an “exodus” from the world; and on the other hand it is seen as being proposed as an alternative to the aggressive rhetorical confrontation of faith and culture in the public square. To first dispel this argument, as I alluded to above, is to say that no one is promoting this option as an “exodus” nor isolationist concept of its viability. Secondly, it is not being promoted as an abandonment of the public square rhetoric that is necessary to confront the overturning of objective moral judgment in favor of relative morality. On this point there is, however, a consensus that on various moral fronts we, the proponents of objective truth, have lost these battles. If not a consensus obvious legislative facts from Roe vs. Wade to the most recent Supreme Court decision on redefining marriage. Consensus or not, there is a valid basis for the proposition that the natural law argument was a losing argument even as it is valid and true in its basis. The reason it was a losing argument was that it was misunderstood by our opponents on the one hand, and simply deny as relevant to “modern” society on the other. It is a valid and possibly the only argument, but it in its raw form it is a philosophical argument being used in a cultural setting. This brief writing is not the place nor is it my purpose to go into natural law, but it is worth noting the cultural response to it, which was best exposed in an article in Crisis Magazine entitled The Left vs. Human Nature. The response to the natural law argument is basically “that doesn’t apply to me.” In the Crisis Magazine article the quote is that “gender is a social construct,” that every person has a “right” to choose what gender they want to be. We have basically been in a “dodge ball match.” With every angle of natural law argument “thrown” at them, they simply step out of the way with irrational statements.

Hence enter the Benedict Option. Having lost these cultural battles does not mean we have lost the cultural war. In this context the B-Option is not a retreat from defeat, not even a protectionist concept. It, along with new forms of argument in the public square, is a new offensive. The “sputtering” of rhetoric for and against it notwithstanding, certain excerpts prior to its formal naming and since, might give us some insight into its viability. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in the 2013 Erasmus Address on the Judeo-Christian population being Creative Minorities in the world, quotes Jerimiah (29) and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger from a 2004 lecture on Christian Roots. Jeremiah writing to the Israelites in exile to Babylon advises them to “Build house to dwell in, plant gardens, and eat their fruit. . . There you must increase in number, . . . Promote the welfare of the city, . . . pray for it to the Lord, for upon its welfare depends your own.” From Ratzinger, “Christian believers should look on themselves as a creative minority, and help [society] reclaim what is best in its heritage, and to, therefore, place itself at the service of humanity.” Most recently, without referring to the B-Option, George Weigel writing for the Ethics and Public Policy Center – The Church and the New Normal, says that “an alternative cultural foundation . . . and a new cadre of citizen-leaders, capable of articulating the moral truths on which the American democratic experiment rests, [has] to be raised up – and the prime candidate for doing all that [is] the Catholic Church. . . So the Church must learn, fast, how to play good defense, defending the right of our people and our institutions to be themselves. The long-term answer to the New Normal . . . is the re-conversion of the United States to right reason, moral truth, and a biblical way of seeing the world.”

These quotes together, and even Weigel’s alone, express both movements of our side of the cultural front. The assertive voice speaking into the public square must continue, albeit with new forms of rhetoric articulating objective truth in a more cohesive way; and the passive defense of “our people to be themselves.” Hence, in the latter, we can posit the Benedict Option. As Fr. Dwight says in writing about the B-Option, maybe it “is time to hunker down.” It just may be time for us, in conjunction with our rhetorical warriors, to gather ourselves and our children around and within the ramparts of truth. To properly articulate the truth of what it means to be human to our children, both shielding them and arming them with truth. The Benedict Option  is all about getting back to the basic unit of human society which is the family. To spend time together, to live and play together and in the midst of family life have conversations about the truth and how society, the New Normal, is rejecting the truth. The two movements overlap when we and our children go forth from our fortresses and speak truth in our conversation with the world. Be it at recess, on college campuses, over a cup of coffee or in the workplace. The New Normal will be there speaking its un-truth, its denial of human nature, and it will be easy to engage. Easy because it will be open and asserting itself, but difficult because it will take courage to step into the conversations to speak truth to our respective circles of humanity.

The Benedict Option therefore, if we get it right, is not a withdrawal in an isolationist way, but a withdrawal to regroup and refortify. To engage ourselves so that we can engage the world. It is a parallel movement that flows into the high level rhetoric that must continue at all levels. First and foremost however, is our children. In refortification, at home, in our parishes, and neighborhoods, we must put our arms around them, tell them the world has it wrong even as we tell them we they are destined to go out into the world. It is not a coincidence that this begins to sound a lot like the words and teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not a coincidence that it was the Catholic monastic movement in the Dark Ages that refortified Western Civilization. Jesus tells us, “In the world you will have trouble, but have courage I have conquered the world” (cf. John 16:33.) And at the same time he tells us to “go [into the world] and make disciples” (cf. Matt 28:19.) Before it was the Benedict Option, it was the Jesus Option.

When Pilate asked to age old question “What is truth?” He was speaking face to face with Truth Himself. The world continues to ask that same question, in particular face to face with the Church, the one who has been given the mission of Truth. When arrogance speaks to truth, the first response should be silence, as Jesus was silent in response to Pilate’s question. But from that silence emerges a new front, a new articulation, “a new cadre of citizen-leaders capable of articulating moral truths,” as Mr. Weigel says, “. . . and the prime candidate for this is the Catholic Church.” But first a moment of silence as we gather our young behind our ramparts, comfort them with the blanket of truth. Then from this silence we must send out our warriors, even from our households, our passive men, women, and children, to show the world what it means to be human by showing them what it means to be Christian. This is the Benedict Option and if we get it right the tide will turn and culture will be renewed.  In closing Let us pray . . .

O God, who through the grace of adoption
chose us to be children of light, grant, we pray,
that we may not be wrapped in the darkness of error
but always be seen to stand in the bright light of truth.

Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.

(Collect from the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

[1] In this short piece (or a long piece for that matter) I will not waste time on semantics (left, right, liberal, conservative, our-side, their-side.) The time wasted would be to try to defend or define one or another of these terms or accept the word-people’s explanation that each of these terms can mean something different to different people and in different context. I get that, but there is no question in my mind that you, the one reading this article, know exactly what I mean and will have no trouble with my terms. Now let’s get on with the heart of the matter.

[2] From “a recent Thomas Merton Lecture at Columbia University.